Since I was a UCLA transfer, I wasn’t quite ready to leave after only two years. So, after receiving generous financial aid, I modified my schedule to extend into an extra quarter. This allowed me to graduate in December 2008 instead of June 2008. Looking back, this was pretty silly but my student loan debt ended up being a meager $14,000 so I wasn’t majorly affected by my ill-informed decision.
Realizing I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I assumed an extra quarter of school would help me decide. However, skipping most of my classes in favor of day drinking did little to enlighten me. I started to come up on the end of my undergraduate experience realizing I had no idea what I wanted to do. My original plan was to go to law school and maybe do a joint MBA program. As my grades started to slip, I realized I probably wouldn’t get back into my top choice schools (UCLA, Cal, USC) for graduate school.
And although I was doing the bare minimum to graduate college, I was still burnt out by essays and tests. Additionally, the economy was going into a recession so all of the entry level jobs my friends were considering didn’t excite me all that much.
This is where moving to Asia came to mind. The more I read about teaching in Asia, the more I liked the idea. For several reasons I was turned off by China so I narrowed my choices to Japan and Korea.
A friend of mine had applied to the JET Program but she told me the interviews were intense and included teaching in front of a panel. Even though she was quite smart, she wasn’t the most patient person and didn’t get a job offer.
Meanwhile, an older fraternity brother (whom I had never met) was an English teacher living in Korea so some of the older brothers told me to reach out to him. He replied with a hilarious message, telling me how fun it was to teach, how he was saving lots of money, how the women were beautiful, and the drinking culture was amazing. I was beyond excited.
That week I applied for a handful of jobs in Korea and Japan. I was asked to send passport photos with my applications. I received an email later in the week from a Korean private school. They asked to schedule a phone interview which concluded with a job offer.
From there it was decided that I would be moving to Korea at the end of February 2009, as their school year started in March. There was no negotiation on my salary, I was given 2200 WON per month (about $1900 USD), a free studio apartment and a free flight. Upon completion of my one year contract I would receive a one-month bonus and a flight back home.
Welcome to Korea
I arrived at the Incheon airport on a Saturday evening. I was told a relative of the principal at my school would pick me up. There was a sign that said “Steven” so I got in the car with him. About 15-minutes into the drive to my new apartment we realized that I was the wrong Steven. I had an address and phone number printed out so my driver made a call and promptly turned the car around. After getting into the correct vehicle I was driven through Incheon and most of Seoul towards my new apartment.
Since it was Saturday night and I was well rested after taking an Ambien on the plane, I wanted to go out. I told my driver this and he called the head Korean teacher who called one of my colleagues, telling them to pick me up and take me out.
Around 10 pm, an American and a Canadian knocked on my door introducing themselves and telling me to get in a cab downstairs. We went to Itaewon and I felt like I was at the local college bar. It was extremely diverse, with Koreans being a minority. Most of the teachers I would be working with were out and we made warm introductions. I later found out this was the foreign district of Seoul, close to the military base. After a couple of hours, the night was a blur. I woke up in my bed on Sunday morning with no recollection of what happened but I was told I thoroughly embarrassed myself for the first of many times.
Welcome to Teaching
I had tutored 1-on-1 during college, mostly for beer money, but had never taught in an actual class. I naively assumed I would receive some training but I was wrong. Speaking English natively, having a college degree, and having no criminal record were the only real requirements to teach at my school. I was given a stack of books and a schedule in which to complete them by.
I had the same kindergarten class every morning and rotating elementary classes in the afternoons. I knew nothing about teaching and tried to become friends with the students. I was lucky to receive a class that already had one year of instruction so I could teach new words and grammar without having to start at the ABCs.
Instruction started at 9:30 am and end around 5:30 pm. I would arrive around 9:00 am and leave at 6:30 pm. I was given the last week of July and the last week of December off. For those of you who don’t teach, these are long days, even for an energetic 23-year-old.
The children were mostly cute and well behaved but I was exhausted by the end of the day. I came to realize that Koreans work extremely hard, usually staying until their bosses had left. I did my best to teach and have fun to which I mostly succeeded. I never thought I would get attached but I did shed a few tears when it was time to say goodbye to my kindergarten students at the end of the school year.
Quick Korean Lessons
- When I first moved to Korea I would go out on weekdays as well as the weekends. After coming to work with a hangover on a handful of occasions, I stopped this practice. Teaching a foreign language is tough enough at 100%. Even today, I never have more than two drinks on work nights.
- The American that took me out the first night had been teaching at my school for six years. He told me about his love for Korea and its people. He was also an early influence in my financial independence journey. Since rent was free and we could walk to work, he told me that he would try to save 50-75% of his paycheck. Also, we were only taxed at about 3.5%. I started saving half my check which funded my travels and paid off my student loans.
- I’d never studied a foreign language with any sort of seriousness before. Sure I took three years of Spanish, but that was just to check the box for college, not to actually learn anything. Even though Sally spoke fluent English, I still felt a desire to learn basic Korean. I started spending hours in coffee shops with flash cards. I would bother Koreans in the streets to practice my craft. The bar is low when it comes to Americans speaking Korean so many were impressed with my basic skills. The deep work I put into this skill has paid dividends, even today. I speak basic Korean with IT at my current company which has given me preferential treatment in the way of extra monitors and laptop batteries. Next time I live in Korea I won’t be teaching full time and plan to take formal classes to brush-up before further honing my skills.
- Make sure to develop thick skin and stop being constantly offended. There was lots drama at my school as Eastern and Western cultures are very different. Occasionally I would do something to offend without knowing and vice versa. Korean children would yell 외국인! (foreigner) at me while I waited for the subway. Students I met for the first time would rub my hairy (by Korean standards) forearm without permission while muttering 원숭이 (monkey) or 털 (hair, fur). I could spend my time upset about cultural differences or just laugh it off with a Korean joke.
- Koreans work hard. While I’m not going to claim to be an expert on their history, it is factual to say they used to be poverty stricken. The country is also between Japan and China, two powerhouses. Korea has little natural resources so they are forced to depend on human resources. They work long hours, never leaving before their bosses and often going out for drinks with them on weekdays. Students take many private lessons and teachers only take a couple weeks off per year. They are also insanely patriotic, with the average citizen happily taking a lower paying job at Hyundai or Samsung before working for Toyota or Apple. With their work ethic, it’s no wonder the Koreans that immigrate to the United States dominate the competition.
- Never look for love, let it find you. I was 23 when I met my wife. I was immature but ambitious. I moved to Korea in search of adventure, not a relationship. But this goes back to being open minded. If something wonderful comes to you, be open to it. Originally, I had planned to take the Trans-Mongolian Railway from China to Russia once my year of teaching ended. It’s a good thing I didn’t go.