Teaching English in Korea: Living in Korea
Along with being a great place to explore, enjoy entertainment, and witness the footprints of history, Korea also features one of the world’s largest ESL markets.
There are a wide range of teaching jobs for native English speakers with TESOL/TESL certification in Korea. An advantage for North Americans is the fact that many Korean schools want their students to have Canadian or American accents, which means residents from North American nations are much more marketable to recruiters. An understanding of the English language is something that Koreans value, with most post-secondary institutions requiring a test of this skill before offering students admission into their programs. Contracts in Korea are nearly always for one year in duration with the possibility to extend.
Many English teachers are attracted to the idea of living in the Korean capital of Seoul, which is the second largest metropolis in the world and is filled with museums, technology and culture. However, anywhere in Korea would be worth travelling to for someone seriously considering a career in ESL. Typical English teacher starting salaries range from 2-2.2 million Korean Won monthly. With most schools paying for their teachers’ apartments, contributing to their healthcare premiums, offering severance packages, and covering airline tickets, many English teachers have found that Korea is a lucrative place with some mindful budgeting.
The good news is that most schools will cover their English teachers' apartment rental costs. Many ESL teachers are surprised by the size of an apartment and the included amenities once they move in. Living spaces provided to teachers in Korea are typically one-room single occupancy studio apartments, much smaller than North Americans may be used to. They usually do not include ovens, only stove-tops, though toaster ovens are cheap and easy to obtain.
Often a school will give teachers a choice between having their own private apartment or sharing a larger space with another English teacher; there are pros and cons to both situations. Sharing an apartment with someone else will allow you to make quick friendships with any roommate(s) and their network of friends. There are a lot of things to take into account for an English teacher setting foot on Korean soil for the first time, and having a roommate can help make this transition smoother.
Having a private apartment ensures that an English teacher has privacy and lots of quiet time to prepare lessons and mark assignments. Many English teachers prefer their own apartment. Single apartments are often smaller than the shared counterparts, however, and can be isolating, especially for someone who has just moved to Korea. English teachers may have the rent for their apartment covered by their school, but most will be responsible for paying the utility, phone, Internet, and other monthly household bills. Bills will rarely cost over 200,000 KRW for a teacher living a moderate lifestyle.
Many Koreans who call an apartment 'home' are not tenants but owners. Apartments are purchased because they are much more affordable than houses and they are close to conveniences such as grocery stores, entertainment, and other common destinations. Many larger private English schools own their own apartments or apartment buildings in which their teachers live.
There is such a high demand for English teachers in Korea that many schools will pay for their teachers' airline tickets up front, while others will reimburse the cost of the flight (usually within one month of arrival). If a contract is broken before its end date, or within the first six months of the contract, the teacher will often be required to pay the school back for whatever they received in compensation for the flight, and forfeit their return ticket home.
One benefit to teaching English in Korea is a top-notch health care system. The medical system in Korea is similar to most developed nations, and most schools will pay for half (or all) of their teachers' health care premiums. English teachers employed in Korea should be enrolled in a public national health insurance plan. Even without coverage, medical treatment in Korea is surprisingly inexpensive. Cosmetic procedures are a common example of inexpensive medical care. Prescription drugs also tend to be very inexpensive. Some teachers enjoy having the added protection of private medical insurance to cover anything not provided by the public Korean system.
'Mandatory retirement' is a common phrase in Korea. This policy allows businesses the ability to reject applications from candidates over 55 without penalty. It is still possible to work in Korea past the age of 55 if a school or business wants to hire you. The legal age of retirement is 62, and it becomes much more difficult to find employment past that age.
In addition to modifying the retirement age of Korean workers, the government also lessened the time of mandatory military service to get younger workers in the job market earlier. The rules concerning mandatory military service have loosened enough to allow many young Koreans an opportunity to get a good post-secondary education.
Technology and Advancement
The technology industry was one of the main elements that turned Korea from one of Asia's poorest nations to one of the world's wealthiest. This transformation, nicknamed the Miracle on the Han River, means advancements in technology are abounding across the country. Popular Korean companies like Hyundai, Kia, LG, and Samsung have products that are well-known by consumers around the world. Korea has also been working with the Russian Federal Space Agency to develop new space technologies.
English teachers from Canada have access to similar technologies in Korea. Modern conveniences such as high-speed Internet and cell phone service are very easy to obtain, even by foreigners. Cell phones work on the tops of mountains as well as in the deepest subway stations.
One of the main reasons many English teachers come to Korea is to sample Korean food, but sometimes it is hard to ignore a craving for food from back home. There are plenty of options for eating North American food in Korean cities. Many large grocery stores will also offer North American products, allowing English teachers to prepare their own familiar recipes at home.
Korea has many of the major North American fast food chains in its urban areas; McDonald's has been in the country since 1988. However, western restaurant chains have found that in order to be successful they must fuse their products with Korean cuisine. An example of this hybrid would be the bulgogi burger offered at Korean McDonald's restaurants. In addition to fast food, there are many independently-owned and operated restaurants that offer traditional North American foods like burgers, steak, ribs, Tex-Mex Chicken, etc. Eating at these restaurants is generally more expensive than eating in traditional Korean restaurants.
Many ESL teachers find taxis to be a quick and safe way to get around the city. As time passes, more and more drivers are able to speak English. When it comes to getting a taxi there are two methods: waiting at a taxi stand (found in larger cities), or hailing one on the street. If an ESL teacher is in a rush, they can use a phone and call for a taxi; however, rates are much higher this way.
When riding in a taxi, don't be surprised if the driver stops and picks up other people. Most cab companies in Korea have a shared cab system; the driver will pick up other customers travelling in the same direction. Calling for a 'mobom' (high-end taxi) could be an option if money is not a concern and one is looking to travel in style. These cars are more expensive than a normal taxi but offer much more comfort and speed. Often used for business, moboms are black with a yellow sign on the top of the car.
Some taxi drivers are excited to practice their English skills with native English teachers, while others may shy away from conversation. Don't be surprised if taxi drivers don't stop to pick up foreigners, as it is likely that their English ability is limited and they are saving both the driver and the passenger the difficulty of trying to communicate.
The train system in Korea is one of the world's finest. The railway is used for both commuting and for moving goods across the country and abroad. The railroad has changed since its beginnings at the end of the 19th century, as much of it needed repair after WWII and the Korean War. Over time, rail connections across the North Korean border have been severed, but the Korean rail system continued to grow into the modern enterprise it is today. Korea's railway system is maintained and managed by the state-owned company, Korean National Railroad (Korail).
ESL teachers can take advantage of routes that connect Seoul to other major Korean cities, running every 15 to 60 minutes. There are five types of long-distance travel trains in Korea:
- The Korea Train eXpress (KTX) - The pride of the Korean rail system with an estimated 100,000 passengers per day, the KTX is a commuting option for many. The high-speed train currently operates on two lines: the Gyeongbu Line (which connects Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, and Daegu) and the Honam Line (which connects Yongan, Gwangju, and Mokpo). The KTX travels at a speed of 300 km/hour, but is capable of reaching a speed of 350 km/hour.
- The Saemaul-ho – The Saemaul-ho train makes a lot of stops during its route, but makes up time with its increased speed between stations. A Saemaul-ho ticket will also ensure ESL teachers a seat which is much more comfortable than cheaper fares.
- The Mugunghwa-ho – The most popular way to travel the rails in Korea is by hopping on the Mugunghwa-ho. Designed to have a lot of standing room, this train does not make as many stops as the Tonggeun and offers reserved seating as an option.
- The Nooriro-ho – In 2009 the Nooriro-ho service began operating between Seoul and Sinchang. Almost identical to Mugunghwa, in that it offers ample standing room and is a very affordable option, the Nooriro trains cover shorter distances than Mugunghwa-ho.
- The Tonggeun – Translated as “Commuter” on timetables, this short run train pauses at all stops along a route. It serves an important function for many small, rural towns and new communities around Seoul, which otherwise lack good public transportation connections. There are no reserved seats on the Tonggeun. Train tickets for this train are the cheapest, but it is much slower than any other train.
The subway system in Korea is another important part of the Korean transit system. The first subway system was built in Seoul in 1974. Currently, there are six fully functioning subway systems operating in Korea. Commuters in Seoul, Incheon, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, and Daejeon can get around town via the underground train. A huge advantage for ESL teachers taking the subway is the fact that there are many English signs explaining each stop at subway stations. Even above ground, teachers use subway stops as helpful landmarks and often carry a subway map to get from place to place.
Most towns and cities in Korea have access to a bus transit service. Many English teachers find travelling by bus harder than by subway due to the language barrier. Buses are not known to have a lot of route information in English. There are two different types of buses to choose from when travelling in a Korean city:
- Shioe Bus- These buses are for smaller routes. Shioe buses make a lot of stops in a short amount of time so they move at a fairly slow pace.
- Gosok Bus - Travelling in a Gosok bus makes getting around the streets of a Korean town a much quicker process. These buses travel faster because they make fewer stops and seats are much more comfortable than a Shioe bus. A ticket to ride a Gosok bus is more expensive than its counterpart, but many English teachers are happy to shell out a couple extra Won.
The Koreans find buses to be a great way to not only travel around the city, but to commute longer distances. Bus services vary from region to region, but there are two major types of long-distance busing systems:
- Doshihyeong Bus - These buses are usually used to travel from a rural area to a city. There are a lot of stops on a Doshihyeong bus, so people in a rush should consider other transportation options. There are usually a few very uncomfortable seats on the bus where wheel wells take up legroom. Though it may not be luxurious, it's one of the cheapest ways to travel.
- Jwaseok Bus - English teachers looking to travel a long distance in a short amount of time and in comfort should consider riding on a Jwaseok bus. There are only a few stops on the Jwaseok bus and seats are very comfortable compared to its Doshihyeong counterpart. Ticket prices are more expensive, but this bus is a good way to ensure timely arrival to most destinations in Korea.
Other Modes of Transportation
Travelling by riding a bicycle is a popular way to get around Korean streets, but it is not as popular as in other Asian nations. The Korean Home Affairs Ministry estimates that one out of every seven people ride a bicycle as their primary form of transportation. Bike paths and bicycle racks on streets are common, making bike-riding a great transportation method; however, riders should be wary of automobiles when on the road, as they don't always follow traffic laws.
The '80s were a time of growth for Korea, evident by the massive upgrading of the Korean roadway system. During this decade, dirt-covered roads were paved over and massive freeways were built. ESL teachers interested in driving while living in Korea should be warned that Korean roads are known for being crowded and full of aggressive drivers.
Foreigners staying for a short period of time are able to use an international driver's licence, which can be purchased in one’s home country. Canadians who decide to get a Korean driver's licence will find the process to be much easier than in many other countries. Drivers can get their Canadian licences converted by submitting a passport, their current driver's licence, an Alien Registration Card (a passport with exits and entries into Korea will also work), three photos, and a fee. For more information about obtaining a Korean driver's licence, contact the Driver's License Agency. It is recommended that ESL teachers obtain an international driver’s licence before leaving their home country.
Like in most nations, displaying proper etiquette in Korea is an important element to career success and the ability to effectively communicate.
- Most Koreans will greet others with a handshake, but some may prefer the traditional bow. Follow the other person's lead and match your greeting to theirs.
- It is common to hear someone say "manasuh pangap seumnida" as they are greeting you. This Korean phrase translates into "Pleased to meet you".
- Superstition is an integral part of Korean culture. The number four is considered to be bad luck, while the number seven brings good luck. For example: when giving flowers, never give four flowers at a time - it would be better to offer seven.
- Men do not usually wear jewellery in Korea; however, it is acceptable to wear wedding bands and watches.
- Red signifies death; it is advised not to write someone's name or sign a card in red ink.
- When someone offers a long bow at the end of a meeting, it is a way to communicate that the meeting was successful.
- Korean business etiquette calls for the exchange of business cards early into a meeting. Again, follow the other person's lead. If they offer something using two hands, accept it with two hands.
- Much business is completed by making appointments and attending meetings; not keeping or going to one could be costly.
- The Koreans view a contract as a set of guidelines and starting points. It is important to be flexible when it comes to a Korean contract, and if the employer modifies an agreement, it is not a sign of disrespect. This is something of which every English teacher in Korea should be aware.
- When dining in someone's home, it is important to wait to be seated by the host.
- Always remove outdoor footwear before walking into any Korean residence. It is common for indoor footwear to be provided.
- Koreans are known for being upfront; this is not to be mistaken as rude.
- Send a hand-written thank you note to the host the day after attending a dinner party.
- During a meal the oldest guests and those highest in seniority are always served food first.
- It is common to bring a small gift when invited to someone's home. However, do not spend too much money because the person will feel they must spend the same amount on a future occasion.
- Try all the dishes offered and be sure to have an empty plate at the end of the meal. It is okay to turn away a second helping of food.
- When leaving a dinner party, the host of the evening will usually walk the guest to their car or to the sidewalk.
- When pouring yourself a drink, ensure others' glasses are full before filling your own. Drinks should be poured with two hands on the pitcher and received with two hands on the glass.
- Koreans avoid using their hands to eat, so chopsticks and a spoon must be used whenever possible.
- Never stab at food with chopsticks.
- Be sure that chopstick tips are never pointed in anyone's direction.
- Place the chopsticks down on the table every few bites, and also while speaking, but never lay chopsticks down to the left of a spoon.
- Never place chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl of rice or other food, as this is a sign of disrespect.
- When the meal is finished, leave chopsticks on top of the bowl horizontally; placing them on the chopstick holder indicates an unfinished meal.
North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Citizens of today’s Korea have seen their nation transform itself from the images of the Korean War to that of a thriving economic leader in Asia. In recent history the world has focused on the negative attention generated by North Korea, its leader, Kim Jong-un, and his father Kim Jong-il before him. Steps are being taken, however, to reunify both ends of the Korean Peninsula. There have been American soldiers stationed in Korea since the end of the Korean War, but the tensions have calmed down over recent years as both nations met in 2007 and signed an agreement that will allow for peace, open borders for transportation including rail, and joining elements of their separate economies.
Although it borrows some from Chinese, Japanese, and even English, the Korean language is truly Korea's own. There are even differences in the way Korean is spoken in South Korea compared to across the border in North Korea. The Korean language can be found around the world in China, Japan, the Philippines, as well as in Canada and the United States. Some examples of the Korean language can be found below:
- Thank you
- How much is that?
- What's your name?
Eee-ru-mee oh-toe-kay dwee-shim-nee-ka?
- Excuse me
- Have a good day
- My name is ________
- English teacher
- How do I get to _______?
_______-eo Otoke kamyun doipnikka?
Korean cuisine has elements of Buddhist, Chinese, and Japanese food, but possesses its own unique flavour, making it well-known around the world. Like many countries, the dishes in Korean cuisine vary from region to region, each area adding their own local ingredients to their dishes. Many of the recipes for popular Korean dishes also offer little direction, which allows for a lot of the creativity and diversity a single dish can obtain across the country.
Some historians believe that the first humans to prepare rice for food were in fact from the Korean Peninsula, debunking the traditional belief that the Chinese were the first to eat the grain. Many people around the world think Korean food is spicy due to the cultural reliance on seasonings such as peppers, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, mustard, and vinegar.
Citizens of Korea are surrounded by water, and this is made evident in many Korean dishes featuring a wide assortment of seafood. Koreans are also known for having a good mix of fresh produce, grains, and meats. Many dishes feature tofu, vegetables, rice, and noodles. A typical Korean diet consists of many meats including fish, pork, and chicken. Occasionally beef is eaten, though it is expensive and thus usually reserved for holidays. Some regions still have people also incorporating dog into their diet; nationally, it is not nearly as popular as other meats, and is often consumed on holidays only.
One thing that makes Korean food stand out from the cuisine of other nations is the amount of banchan (side dishes) served throughout the course of a meal. The banchans are usually meant to accompany plain steamed rice. This ensures that ESL teachers will experience a wide range of flavours, and enjoy the amount of time a good meal can last.
Some of Korea's more popular dishes include:
- Kimchi - Korea's most popular banchan. There is a wide variety of Kimchi in Korea, but all dishes are vegetables (usually cabbage) fermented with various spices, vegetables, and meats. Each region adds different ingredients to their kimchi and the food will often vary depending on the time of year in which it was prepared. Kimchi is eaten with every meal.
- Jajangmyeon - Jajangmyeon is so popular in Korea that many restaurants will deliver it right to their customers' doors. This dish consists of rice noodles served in a black bean sauce with various meats, vegetables, and spices mixed in.
- Patbingsu - In the summertime, it is hard to avoid eating patbingsu; on the other hand, no one should miss this Korean treat. Starting as a food sold by merchants on the street, patbingsu is now a huge business in Korea. The basic ingredients of a patbingsu are sweetened red beans with ice shavings. Every patbingsu maker has their own way of making this great treat by adding fruits, candy, grains, ice cream, and yogurt.
- Gimbap - Known mostly as a snack food, gimbap consists of white rice mixed with other ingredients rolled in dried seaweed. It is likely that gimbap from one city will taste completely different than that of another due to the openness of the recipe. There are many 'fast food' restaurants in Korea that serve gimbap as their staple food because it is quick to eat and prepare, very popular, and a variety of ingredients can be used to make it unique.
- Bulgogi - Literally translated as 'fire meat', bulgogi is a popular dish made by marinating thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts of beef in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper and various other ingredients. The beef is traditionally grilled with vegetables and served with lettuce and side dishes such as rice or glass noodle. Some fast food restaurants also serve bulgogi burgers, where the beef patty is marinated in bulgogi sauce. Other variations include dak (chicken) bulgogi and dwaeji (pork) bulgogi.
- Bibimbap - Served as a bowl of warm rice topped with seasoned and sauteed vegetables. Typical additions are egg and meat. This signature Korean dish, translated as "mixed meal" or "mixed rice", is often enjoyed in a hot stone pot as dolsot bibimbap. Diners mix the ingredients together before eating.
Koreans frequently endure debates and protests about whether or not eating dog meat is cruel, or if it is an acceptable part of Korean culture. While it is true that dog meat is still eaten in some areas of Korea, it is not as controversial as some North Americans may think. Traditionally popular during the summer months because it is believed to have a cooling effect on the body, some Koreans still believe that food which includes dog meat has medicinal purposes, especially concerning male fertility. Many dishes that traditionally featured dog have now been modernized to include chicken or other meats as substitutes.
The Korean government asked Koreans not to prepare dog meat during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2002 FIFA World Cup because they were afraid that this would injure the nation's animal rights activism and blossoming modernization. ESL teachers have no need to worry about eating dog. Due to the public outcry against it, the majority of Korean restaurants will not serve it and many never would, regardless of public resistance. It usually takes an effort to find restaurants that serve dog. Like in Canada, most dogs are simply household pets, not food.
The weather in Korea is temperate, meaning that there are four unique seasons in a year. Summer months are hot with high amounts of rain and winter months are cold. Spring and fall seasons are ideal for travelling and sightseeing, with the occasional light rain. There are some regional differences in weather, as Korea’s southern coastline has warmer temperatures in the winter compared to most of the nation, while mountainous areas tend to experience snow.
Natural Disasters in Korea
Korea is in a region of the globe that experiences a summer typhoon season. During the typhoon season, it is not uncommon to see flooding due to an increase in rainfall. Hurricanes occasionally make their way to the Korean Peninsula; however, ESL teachers should not let the Korean climate stop them from teaching English. Upon arriving in Korea, be sure to pay attention to local weather forecasts and take weather warnings seriously.
Korean holidays reflect the love Koreans have for a good time, being with loved ones, and remembering the nation's past. The country uses the traditional Korean calendar, which is lunisolar, as well as the Gregorian calendar to mark time. Koreans may not have as many national holidays as other nations, but some of their holidays last for three days at a time.
- January 1 - New Year's Day (Sinjeong) A holiday which celebrates the first day of the Gregorian calendar (paid holiday).
- First Day of the Lunar Year - Korean New Year (Seolnal) A three-day long celebration which many Koreans consider as one of the most important holidays in the country (paid holiday).
- March 1 - Independence Day (Samil Jeol) A remembrance day for Koreans to honour their ancestors which protested against Japanese rule (paid holiday).
- May 5th - Children's Day (Eorininal) Since 1975, the Koreans have joined many other nations around the world and celebrated the accomplishments of their children (not a paid holiday).
- Eighth Day of the Fourth Month of the Lunar Calendar - Buddha's Birthday (Bucheonim Oshinnal) Usually occurring in May, there are large celebrations in temples across Korea.
- June 6th - Memorial Day (Hyeonchung-il) Korean Memorial Day is a day of paying respect to the Korean soldiers who are currently part of the military and those whom have served in the past in the Korean War and World War II.
- July 17th - Constitution Day (Jeheonjeol) Marks the anniversary of Korea's constitution in 1948.
- August 15 - Liberation Day (Gwangbokjeol) A celebration to remember the end of the Japanese rule of Korea during the WWII era.
- 15th Day of the Eighth Month of the Lunar Calendar - Harvest Festival (Chuseok) Usually falling in September, this three-day holiday is celebrated to mark the tradition of giving thanks for a good harvest. ESL teachers should be aware that part of the Harvest Festival is travelling to one’s ancestral hometown. This means that careful planning is required if a teacher intends to travel during this holiday due to increased road and commuter traffic (paid holiday).
- October 3 - National Foundation Day (Gaecheonjeol) A day to celebrate the creation of Korea's first kingdom (then called Gojoseon) which occurred in 2333 BCE.
- December 25 - Christmas (Seongtanjeol) Since 1949, the Koreans have celebrated Christmas. Many Koreans are not Christian but they still give gifts and sing Christmas carols.