How to Enjoy Korean Life as an ESL Teacher

1. Everyday tips

-Find a balance between Korean friends/colleagues and your Western friends.

-Likewise, find a balance between embracing Korean food and culture, but also make time to enjoy familiar things (as much as is available, anyway).

-Take care of your health. It is easy enough to eat well in Korea, especially if you have a lot of rice and vegetables as your staple meals. Make time to exercise a few times a week, if you don’t already. And get enough sleep. It is easy to get worn out in Korea because of the amount of things going on all the time. This is especially true when you are starting out here, what with all the people you are meeting, new activities you are trying, meals you are attending and so on.

-Try not to get sucked in to the community of people who waste their time moaning about Korea. Many of these can be found on the forum at There are many good things that you can learn about Korean life by joining in on the forums on, but don’t fall into the temptation of wasting your time complaining about life here. Negativity breeds negativity. Stick to positive people and positive experiences. Make your time in Korea fantastic. It is in your hands.

2. What (South) Korea is:

-A fascinating mix of traditional and modern. One mountain I used to go hiking on had a man living in a cave on the mountain. He was a shamanist monk who mostly lived off the land, drinking and washing in streams, burning wood for heat and so on. This in the same country which leads the world in technology like Samsung Galaxy smartphones and 3D TVs. In Korea you can visit a centuries old Buddhist temple in the morning and go to a cat cafe in the afternoon.

-A democracy.

-A developed country. The 2013 United Nations Human Development Report ranked South Korea as the world’s 12th most developed country, ahead of countries such as Denmark,, Singapore, France, Italy, Finland, the U.K. and South Africa 1. However, you will occasionally see attitudes or behavior which make you think of a developing country. Remember the whole country was virtually destroyed by civil war 60 years ago, and the economy has grown six-fold since 1980 (and twelve-fold since 1970). That incredible speed of economic growth is so fast that certain attitudes and behavior have not caught up yet. But they are making progress.

3. What Korea isn’t:

-Korea isn’t a Western country. It contains many elements such as democracy, capitalism and Western style culture, but at its heart it is a Far Eastern country. It is fair to say that Korea is Westernized, but not Western.

-Korea isn’t a world-class vacation destination for Westerners. Korea has a lot of beautiful and fascinating places to visit, but in most Westerners’ eyes it isn’t top of the list for beaches, mountains, food, or architecture. Accept this and appreciate Korea for what it is- a fascinating, vibrant, friendly nation with a very good quality of life for Western English teachers.

-Korea isn’t Japan/China/Thailand/your country. However, look on the bright side. Korea is cheaper than Japan, and easier to save money in. Korean ESL salaries are on the whole better than in China or Thailand, in many cases more than double. It may not have the familiar comforts of home, but that is part of the challenge and reward of coming here. Many Korean ESL veterans try teaching in other countries and end up coming back to Korea because they miss the friendliness, ease of travel, comfortable working conditions, disposable income, trustworthy public school employers, and many other things.

4. Ten Challenges for Westerners in Korea

1.) Every Korean person will ask you if spicy food is OK (there is a myth in Korea that Western people are unable to eat anything spicier than a potato, despite our love for spicy food from India, Mexico etc.)

2.) When subway trains (and buses/elevators/lifts) stop, many people try to get on before the previous people have got off.

3.) Schedules are very flexible and liable to change at a moment’s notice compared to Western life. You will learn at very short notice that you have to teach a lesson with nothing prepared, go to a staff dinner in five minutes when you had planned to catch up on TV, go to the gym or call your parents, or submit lesson plans or some kind of essay by the end of the day without any prior notice.

4.) Things will also be cancelled at the drop of a hat, so be prepared for the Sports Day or hiking trip to be replaced with six lessons on a rainy Monday.

5.) To a certain extent, you will always be treated like a foreigner no matter how long you stay here or how integrated you become. This is hard for us to take as Westerners, due to the way we absorb people from other cultures into our countries. But look on the bright side- in many cases you will get away with doing a lot less difficult work than your Korean colleagues.

6.) Some Korean teachers and students will not value English, regardless of how good a teacher you are or how good your lessons are. But be encouraged- many students are very keen to learn English and a lot of teachers want to improve their English by talking to you.

7.) Older people will cut in line (queue-jump) at places like bus terminals. This is incredibly frustrating when you have 90 seconds to buy your ticket, go to the bathroom and board your bus, but it will happen and there is nothing you can do. Older people get away with much more in Korea than they would in Western countries, due to the Confucian traditions which put a lot of value on age.

8.) This is (still) a very homogenized country in terms of culture, race, architecture, language etc. In terms of race and culture it is changing as more and more foreign people and influences enter the country, but be prepared- this is no London or New York.

9.) Korean people of all ages may talk about their dislike for Japan, and this is currently most closely associated with Dokdo, a tiny group of islands over which both countries claim sovereignty (but historically they do belong to Korea). It can be very frustrating and tiresome for foreigners, especially those with a love for Japan, but view it in context. Korea has been regularly invaded and colonized by Japan over the centuries; the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture even to the extent that Korean people were made to speak Japanese and have Japanese names, and for most of the bad things Japan did to Korea, it has not only failed to apologize but also actively denies some events (such as the slavery of “comfort women”). This is as offensive to Koreans as Holocaust denial is to Western people. When you hear about Dokdo once a week, sympathize with Koreans and understand that it is about more than just the tiny islands. Love Japan, but understand why it is hard for Koreans to do so.

10.) Some days your school lunch will be a tray full of things you hate.

5. Ten Great Things About Teaching English in Korea

1.) You will have so many stories to tell, good and bad.

2.) Lots of opportunities to enjoy exercise and the outdoors. Koreans of all ages love exercise, whether it is hiking, volleyball, tennis, whatever.

3.) For a lot of things, especially services, Korea isfairly cheap by Western standards. Korean salaries tend to be lower than in Western countries, which means things like taxis, buses, restaurants, and even some medical or dental treatments are cheaper than back home.

4.) You can save a large chunk of your salary (so long as you don’t drink too much imported alcohol or go to too many expensive restaurants, clubs etc.)

5.) You appreciate certain things back home a lot more, plus you learn cultural elements that you wish were in your own country.

6.) Korea has low (but not no) crime. Violent crime is very low by Western standards.

7.) Fast internet and plenty of time to enjoy it.

8.) Koreans love sharing. You will get so many free snacks, rice cakes, beers, ice creams…

9.) Lots of great places to travel during vacation time, both in Korea and nearby countries like Japan, China, The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam…

10.) It looks impressive on your Resume/CV.

Reference: List of Countries by Human Development Index.

Related posts:

  1. The Main Differences Between Korean and Western Culture
  2. Teaching English in South Korea
  3. How to Learn Korean Effectively
  4. Why English is Hard for Korean People
  5. Beginner Season 1, Lesson 12: Countries in Asia Mind Map

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