I can be a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to rollercoasters, but I went on despite the highs and lows and got off without any regrets. Going abroad to work in South Korea was definitely a memorable experience with a balance of positive and negative moments.
*I will start with the negative moments first because they never outweighed the good times and I will be completely honest about it because I feel people paint a very fantasized version of going abroad*
Prior to leaving, although the application process took a bit longer than expected, it was pretty straightforward! It was a stressful time, but from what I can recall it was the easy part of this whole program. The travelbud/gooverseas peeps were so supportive and helpful! The only thing that hurt was the cost of all the paperwork )':
I can only recall two rough times I had throughout the whole year, the rest of the bad were very minuscule to me. I originally had been placed in Daejeon, but a few days before my departure, I was relocated to Cheonju, which made things trickier for me because I had already done so much research about Daejeon. I wish that was handled better with enough time as well. The first night in SK was the most difficult. Many things could have been prevented if it wasn't for unpreparedness because 1) I was alone, 2) My Korean was still rough 3) I had no sim-card which meant no service and 4) I had no proper directions to get to my apartment. Although that was the case, the employees were very patient with me and some would direct me to my next location. There was also wi-fi practically everywhere and was able to contact my director and recruiters. I do want to say that on my way to my apt during one of my train transfers, there was staff helping people board while lifting their luggage; I don't know what happened for my case, but one of the helpers yanked me down the train steps and started angrily yelling at me. I still don't know why that happened, but it left me really shaken. At that moment I questioned whether I should have come to Korea because it was only the first night and it was already BAD. Glad I stuck it out in the end! (:
Regarding what work was like, it honestly still feels so surreal! A fever dream. My school was completely new, and by new, I mean everyone working for the school showed up on the first day only to see it was still sort of under construction. I find it funny because I didn't know what to expect and it sure would have never been that. The first month just consisted of cleaning, setting up equipment, and preparing for opening day. Since the school was new, all the higher-ups only focused on attracting parents so they can enroll their kids and as of result, none of us teachers had proper training. Me, my coworkers, and our co-teachers (Korean teachers) were teaching blindly, but the best that we could for our students. It was a very "here's the teaching materials, here's your schedule, figure it out on your own." We had no idea what any of the subjects we were teaching, let alone how they wanted us to approach it or what the goal was. For some reason, I thought that by being an English Teacher, it meant that I would be teaching English as an elective, but it was actually teaching all subjects in English. I wasn't aware that I had to be teaching 1st graders 5th grade level science. Luckily my 5-6 year olds new a bit of English, so teaching and communicating with them was never an issue. If there were times I didn't understand, my co-teacher would help out, so the assistance was great! The second most difficult time I had was when my director placed me with the youngest class for the new school term. They were 4 turning 5 year olds (international age) and they came in not knowing any English. I couldn't even teach and was frustrated because it felt more like daycare. The most important thing during that time wasn't for them to learn English, it was really about building connections with each one of them. Once they finally got used to the class routine and opened up, it made teaching a lot easier. Although teaching was the main point of this program, I realized the most significant thing about teaching was forming bonds with your students. Once you and your class form that bond, you can understand the strengths and weaknesses in yourself and your students better. This helped my actual teaching because I was able to focus on areas that needed more improvement while reinforcing the strengths. I got so attached that I still miss them now because I grew together with my students and witnessed their improvements.
To be completely honest, my school was very disorganized and mismanaged because of my director(s). The horrors you hear about hagwons felt like my school hit all the marks and ranked them all. Contracts were broken, pay was at risk, rumors spread, etc...There were so many lies and trouble caused by management + higher-ups which led many people to quit. My school didn't make a one-year mark and had about four different directors, three supervisors, and many co-teachers coming in and out. I kid you not, there was always a new problem each month, but Korea's work style is very fast-paced we just had to continue on like nothing. At one point, I became unphased that work didn't seem that bad anymore because I was alongside my then co-workers now friends. I think because it was a collective struggle, no one was going through all the mess alone, and that made things easier for all of us. Which now leads me to the good parts:
KOREA WAS SO MUCH FUN! Despite what I went through at my school, I am so thankful that I was placed there, especially at a school with more than one foreign teacher, and fortunate that I clicked with not only them but the Korean teachers as well. We took advantage of every weekend to explore and travel. I think if I was the only foreign teacher, Korea would feel a lot lonelier. Making friends can be tricky because some people already have their friend groups formed while others are struggling to find people they can vibe with. I used facebook, bumble bff, and travel bud's interactive teachers map to reach out to people. It's either a hit or miss, sometimes you hang out with a person once, and with others they instantly become family. There are many opportunities on facebook group pages offering meet-ups that can lead to potential friendships. At least for my experience, I'm grateful that my coworkers became my friends.
Getting the jist of traveling around was super easy! All it took was one try to understand it all (thanks to naver maps, kakaotaxi, ktx app, bus shuttle app, and papago) and the tickets were also cheap! Also if you get shy speaking or practicing your Korean, almost every shop and station had a kiosk machine which made it simple to buy tickets or food. Convenience stores were the best ever! Hungry at 3am? Trip to GS! and the best part was that they were everywhere. When it came to shopping, I had to resist wanting everything. It was all so appealing to the eye. I will warn anyone who's on the bigger side that it's a lot more difficult to shop because every clothing store seemed to only carry small sizes.... even the so-called "free size" would fit too small on me. There were some stores dedicated to bigger sizes, the only thing was that most of these were in Seoul (or any bigger city that wasn't Cheongju).
Everyone was so friendly and kind too, the locals would make sure to help you despite the language barrier. There was a day me and a friend were starving, but it seemed like all the restaurants were closed, until an ajusshi insisted on helping us find somewhere to eat to the point where he walked us to a food court (all communication done was through gestures and broken Korean). Or another time when I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled out. Since I grew close with the Korean teachers, they were always more than willing to set up important appointments for me. It was figuring out the location and building that I had to do. The orthodontist did his best to get his message across to me so I could understand my dental procedure. I did feel alone during this moment, but one of the dental assistants stayed with me throughout the whole process while reassuring me everything was going to be okay. Sometimes I would walk with friends and the locals will wave at us. Korea is very welcoming and open to anyone. I never once encountered any discrimination of any sort. Every person I met was super kind and accommodating.
One of the things I liked about Korea was the safety. Being a woman, there are moments I feel inferior, such as traveling alone, walking by men...I can't help but feel scared. In Korea, I never felt that way. I was placed in the outskirts of Cheongju which meant at night, it would get really dark, quiet, and empty.... my fear should have heightened but nope! I would go on 10pm walks and never once felt afraid. I could travel to a different city and feel confident on my own. I think because I had already traveled miles away from home on my own, there was nothing to be afraid of and everything I had to overcome was possible (does not mean I let my guard down). I always went out with friends, but one of my favorite memories was exploring Gyeongju on my own. I had one goal: See Bulguksa Temple. I didn't plan for anything else such as where I was going to eat, or what other sites to explore, nor did I arrange a timeline for that day. I really enjoyed that about Korea, it felt as if everything was accessible and convenient to do despite the spontaneity. It was relieving to know I didn't need to stress about any of that and could easily figure it out on the spot when the time came. I will also never forget bike riding in Ulsan OR running to the top of a mountain to get to the cable cars before they closed in Mokpo OR going to a free concert on a workday, but having to walk miles back home on a rainy day because there were no taxis available OR being exhausted in hot Jeju OR going to Gwanju just to see a penguin village OR laughing so much at work because of my friends and students OR getting covid from one of your students because your director didn't have anyone take safety protocols to prevent it OR photobooth hopping OR going ziplining with the school's team leader that quit because they're your friend now OR watching Doctor Strange at 1am in Daegu...and the list goes on!....but it only means that anything can happen!
I was only there for a year and I got to see almost all of Korea. All the good and the bad of it, but mostly good of course! I could still go on and on because this isn't even half of everything I experienced, it was a "short" summary of my time there. Overall living-wise, Korea was a great place to go to for this program. It was the first time I felt like I lived my life and it was such a great feeling. I grew more confident, independent, and adaptable. I would recommend this program to anyone willing to get out of their comfort zone and take a risk! It is life-changing for the better and would do it again in a heartbeat!
Response from TravelBud
WOW, reading the recount of YOUR personal experience, felt like the rollercoaster that it was but how much you have grown is so evident and I love that you are sharing that with future teachers here. Thank you so much for taking the time to dive into some details and anecdotes of your time. I remembered when you first signed up for the program, you were so unsure of yourself and taking this step but you were courageous and did it anyway. Now looking back at your time in Korea, you took on every challenge with bravery and flexibility.
When living abroad, a lot of contexts are often missing from certain experiences and interactions as you are experiencing it from an ex-pat perspective but you took on that immense challenge and pushed yourself to learn and absorb as much of the experience and took away the lessons from the challenges and held onto the positive memories. I am so glad I got to go along for the ride with you:)
I will email you about the comment and reference you made to your contract almost being broken and the risk of not being paid as we would like to investigate that further. We send a final email at the end of each contract, in which teachers are specifically asked, "Would you recommend future teachers to come teach at this school?” If the answer is NO, we ask them to please explain why and request a phone interview to discuss their feedback in more detail.
I am so happy that you ended your time in Korea on a high and that the in-country team was able to assist whenever you shared any feedback or concerns. A full year of living outside of your culture, and your norms, and a full year of growing into a stronger more confident you. You really made the most of exploring as well as putting your all into forming bonds with your students which inevitably makes you a better teacher. We look forward to seeing how you tackle your next adventure with the same courage and determination as you had during your time in South Korea. I have no doubt that you will carry all the lessons that your time in South Korea taught you with you as you take this next step. 🙂
All the best and keep sending us updates,