Korea Field Report: The ESL Gold Rush Pans Out



Debt gets you places you want to go and then it gets you to South Korea. It’s a place many Americans don’t know too much about, but when you’re out of work and looking for jobs on Craigslist, all those TEACH ENGLISH IN SOUTH KOREA!!!! ads start to become more and more attractive. For those of us seduced by the promise of easy saving and travel opportunities, much of what is promised actually comes to fruition. Free rent. The opportunity to save money. As much or as little work as you want and ample time to travel Asia.

One caveat: the life here is addictive. I’m not the first of my friends to live in Korea for a year or two, then go back home to a stagnant job market where an internet job ad means you show up to a mass interview with 50 other college-educated, able-bodied, 20-somethings scribbling on applications in a back room. When you do get the job it’s bussing tables or bartending or driving a forklift for $10 an hour. After a year of watching your savings dwindle living a frugal lifestyle, you stick it out until the last $1,000 you have is the money you use for a flight back to Seoul, where upon arrival they hand your flight money back to you. In cash.

That’s not to say they’re just giving money away here. Or that everyone takes to Korea in the same way. In the past, the ESL teacher lifestyle called to a certain class of character. Misfits. Oddjobs. People that had their reasons for leaving their old lives behind. Some simply wanted to travel and experience other cultures, but they usually did that in a year or two and then went back to friends and family with bags full of souvenirs from India or Thailand. It’s the ones that stayed that were questionable. In the 20th century the English had an acronym for their citizens that left to live in China—FILTH—Failed In London, Try Hongkong. Filth might be a little strong to describe teachers here, but you can see what they were getting at.

On the upside, with the global economy as poor as it is, decent people aren’t finding work at home so the quality of expats is improving. Given that many jobs are passed on by friends and friends of friends, word of mouth about the easy living, the good wages, and overall quality of life continues to spread. So much so that jobs are actually, for the first time, becoming challenging to land and teachers here might not like me putting it out there that Korea is so easy. I would almost feel like a surfer telling a kook how to get to a secret break if Korea was still a secret. It’s not. The gold rush is almost over. There is still money to be made teaching, but schools are no longer hiring just any kid with a passport, a backpack, and a college degree. The schools know what it’s like in the countries we come from; they know how much debt we’re carrying and the difficult nature of the job market.

With no rent costs, starting pay of about $2,000 a month, and a low cost of living, once we pay off our debt, we have money to spend. We spend it on traveling and drinking, and we drink more than we travel. It’s a second life, another early 20s, extended youth. If you’ve just spent a few years out of college grinding it out in a city, living cheap, saving, worrying about money—to have money to spend is to have an active social life and less anxiety. Not only do the teachers have money, but they have time. No day-to-day family obligations. A manageable circle of friends. Intermittent homesickness.

Life abroad brings out the dilettante in us. We start learning guitar, practicing martial arts, holding poetry slams. We become semi-serious about photography. We write stories for free for magazines and newspapers staffed by people dabbling in editing—all of this activity eventually ending up on blogs in various forms.

To the country’s benefit or detriment, it’s hard to tell, along with all these dabblers here, these unknown artists, Korea has an almost non-existent drug culture. There are small pockets of the foreigner district in Seoul, Itaewon, and the neighboring communities where you can get hash and LSD and ecstasy and maybe, if you’re desperate, cocaine. But it’s spotty at best and getting caught means prison or deportation. Many Koreans drink alcohol to an almost hallucinogenic degree, but most don’t do drugs.

Keep in mind that every time I say “Koreans,” or “many Koreans” I’m generalizing and Koreans are indifferent to what foreigners (or waygookin, in Korean) think. Natives don’t read the expat WordPress or Blogger posts about pushy old woman on the Seoul subway, about the business men passed out on the front steps of banks on Friday nights, about the pervasive smell of garlic and kimchi in the air. The cultural quirks that a foreigner sees about Korea that he or she would like to correct—and newcomers are always finding things about this country to criticize—were here long before we came and will be here long after we’re gone.

Criticizing the culture affirms our identities as Americans, or Europeans, or wherever we’re from. And even the most hardened of expats at times long for their homeland. We might be missing out on a lot of what is going on back home, but through the internet we try to stay current. What we can’t get on torrent sites we stream. We stream college football games. We download TV shows as soon as they’re posted on Pirate Bay. Amazon ships here. Although there’s a persistent muttering about not having enough good live music—“good” usually means in English—once your appetite for entertainment changes you find a two-hour session at a private karaoke room (noraebang, in Korean), where you get to do all the singing, just as invigorating.

You find satisfaction in different forms. The same goes for your taste in food. The more you hang on to cravings for good Mexican or Indian or Lebanese the more dissatisfied you become. The food in Korea requires an adjustment period, but given time you start to like it. It’s healthy—most of the ingredients are fresh and grown, if not locally, then at least in this country, and this country is the size of Indiana. But it does take some getting used to. Sometimes the side dishes you see on the table look like something from Fear Factor. And not all of us are into adventure eating.

Koreans have certainly taken to American food. A few weeks ago, while teaching the letter “H,” I asked my kids “who likes hamburgers?” All the students raised their hands. Korea’s fate began intertwining with America’s in 1950, at the onset of the Korean War. The division and subsequent occupation of the South helped to allow the economic growth Korea experiences now. Today there are certain parallels of spirit to the American 1950s that are at once both charming and overly precious. Since the end of the war in 1953, the Korean economy, which was previously undeveloped, has grown to 12th in the world, and with that growth comes a national pride, a pride in appearances, in work, in the potential for this small, oft-invaded country. A country that for the most part has never been able to get the rest of the world to take it seriously. Even if today many of the TVs we watch and the phones we use are made here.

With that economic growth comes an ambitious push for respect from the international community. Enter the current obsession with English. The country views its citizens’ ability to speak the lingua franca as a mark of sophistication and class. To their mind, the more proficient at English you are the more opportunities you’ll have. English education has long been big business, with private schools and academies laxly regulated by the government. In a country as homogeneous as this one, trends take hold, usually originating in Seoul and then pulsating outward to every corner of the peninsula. English is a required subject starting in elementary school, and students hoping to enroll in top-shelf universities take standardized English tests as part of the admissions criteria. Korean mothers are infamous for their ruthlessness in pushing their children to get ahead of the neighbors in school, and English is no exception. Some children start learning English as early as two years old. People come up to me on the street to practice their English. Men at the gym offer to buy me dinner for the same reason.

But back to my mention about the 1950s in America compared to Korea today. When my parents visited me in 2007, they were struck by the sense of personal pride they witnessed. The citizens are well-dressed, clean, and orderly. Service at restaurants is quick and polite, even without a tipping system. My mother and father were both born in the early ‘50s and the people of Korea made an impression on them that would last at length. When I visited them in Nebraska six months after their visit they were still talking positively about the people, about how nice everyone looked, and how well they were treated. They are nostalgic for the ‘50s and they saw something similar here.