Korea, Where the Living is Easy

Amy with students

Amy loves to travel. When she was in college she left Seattle during the summers to work in the Alaskan fisheries. After graduation she was in the winter-summer, south-north hospitality circuit—restaurants and bars—to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, to Teton National Park, back to the Caribbean, back to the Tetons, to Key West, Florida for a winter and then a summer in Mt. Rainier. Her life in Korea began with a one-way ticket directly after she earned a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

We spoke on Skype while she was in Korea and I was in the Philippines. Thanks to Amy for the pictures.


Amy’s story

In August of 2007, I actually came to Korea without a job. Four or five days before I left a recruiter told me I wouldn’t be allowed into the country without a ticket out, so I bought a fully refundable one-way ticket back. When I arrived in Seoul, the public schools had already done their hiring, but I went down to the public school office anyway with my completed application, resume and TESOL certificate. They interviewed me on the spot and called the next day to offer me a job. That weekend I made a visa run to Japan. Training started on Monday. Everything fell into place.

In my TESOL program there was a Korean woman who explained a few things to me about Korean culture. For example, I was expected people to push on the subway, so when it happened my reaction was the opposite of most foreigners, who get annoyed. I giggled to myself because I knew it was going to happen. I felt like a resident already. Also, on the street people’s faces were very stern. In the States it was a lot more common to smile and say hi to strangers, whereas here it definitely was not. Every now and then I would find myself laughing and smiling at somebody, but then I would see they found it confusing. But lately I’ve noticed that more Koreans are smiling at me as a foreigner. They don’t seem to be quite as stoic as in the past. Another thing I noticed right away was little kids were running around on the street without adult supervision. On the subway little kids would be on their own, and there seemed to be nothing strange about it. I was just coming to realize just how safe this country is. Koreans say it’s less safe than before, but it’s still the safest country I’ve ever been in, which seems even stranger in a city of 14 million people.

Once I left a bag of Christmas presents on the subway and didn’t realize until I was halfway up my street. I called my Korean co-teacher, and she translated for the subway station officials. Not only did I get my packages back, they were brought to my local station. If you leave things, they just come back to you.

All the things I find frustrating are my own fault because I haven’t spent the time to learn the language. I just have to smile and put up with it. In a lot of places in Asia, because I have blond hair and blue eyes and am very western in my appearance, I get overcharged for things. So I have to be ready to walk away.

My job at the elementary school was my first kind of professional job. I had great co-teachers and a lot of support. It felt like a really good match for me. I was rated high among the native-speaker teachers in my district. After two years I wanted a break, so I traveled around Central America for five months. Then I was rehired and placed really far north in the country in Nowon, where I worked at an elementary school for two years. In 2011, I won the Seoul Teacher of the Year award, which was really cool because I was nominated by my co-teachers. I started a club with the kids that raised money for UNICEF.

When I was teaching the vocabulary of daily routines, I learned that Korean kids don’t have to make their beds or pack their lunches or do other things American moms expect their kids to do on their own. There are a lot more working parents in the United States although more Korean moms are now going to work than previously. They’re also incredibly involved in their children’s education. Some people would question whether or not it’s a good thing for kids to be in school for 12 hours a day. A lot of parents think the kids need more playtime, but pressure still demands that they not act on it. They just can’t afford to let their kids fall behind.

How much time the kids spend in school depends on whether they go to an international school or a public school, whether they go to hagwŏns or have [illegal] private tutoring. There are so many extras that education varies a lot. There is no one path. A kid who goes to an international school gets a different education than a kid who goes to public school plus five hours of hagwŏn a night. It all comes down to these high-stakes tests, the college entrance exams pretty much determine whether you’re going to be a cab driver or a professor. That’s too much pressure to put on a seventeen-year-old kid.

When teachers punish kids they do a lot of yelling and shaming while the kids look down at the floor. During my first year a teacher hit a student in my class with a pointer. He was an older teacher, and it was totally improper for me to tell him never to do that again, but it just came out of me as an instant reflex. I explained to him later, “In my classroom I would feel a lot more comfortable if we didn’t hit the kids.” He kind of laughed it off, but he didn’t do it again. [Hitting students is illegal, but according to current sources still continues, particularly among the older teachers. Or a teacher may smack the desk with a ruler. In respect for the teacher’s age.] Punishments tend to be old-fashioned ones like having to hold your arms up in the air for a long time. Sending disruptive students out of class doesn’t seem to be an option here.

Amy with the students

During the regular school year I taught third to sixth grade, then in after-school classes and in English camps and stuff I would teach first and second graders too. It was great. It was like being a rock star because I was really visible as the only foreigner, especially with blue eyes and blond hair. Kids would be screaming at the top of their lungs, “Amy Teacher! Hi, Amy Teacher!” It was always as if they were throwing love in your direction. My energy level was very high during the time I was working in elementary school. With little kids you have to have that energy in order to make it work. I found you also have to act like a clown most of the time, but I am a clown, so it was a perfect fit for my personality.

I went on to a university basically because I got more pay and more vacation time. I have four and a half months of vacation a year, which I love, and I’m paid full-time wages for what is actually a part-time job. The job itself was a new challenge, and I wanted the experience. Tourism English is really a fun subject to teach. I’m teaching flight attendants the customer service and travel skills that I’m already familiar with. They have classes like Image Making, Practical English, Cabin Crew English and Food and Beverage Service. They learn how to make their hair into a perfect bun, how to do a perfect bow and how to smile. My class is like a Business English class focused on tourism. It combines my customer service past with my love of travel. The kids get excited when I get excited, like a symbiotic relationship.

After I got my TESOL certificate, I decided to come here for a year or two. That was in 2007 right after that, in 2008 the housing bubble burst in the States and there weren’t many jobs to go back to. So I was pretty much stuck in East Asia, but it’s not a bad place to get stuck. I paid off all of my debts. I started and completed a master’s program at Troy University on the US Army post in Yongsan, and I paid cash for it in cash. This is an on-the-ground program from an American university, not an online program. I’ve been able to save up a little bit of money beyond that, and I have a job.

Amy with friends at a Buddhist temple

Yes, I came partially for economic reasons, but it was also a new travel experience. I’d traveled to Asia before on vacation, but I’d never lived in here. These days I think people do have different reasons for moving to Asia, or anywhere, really. The world economy has changed, such that people are making quite different decisions based on that. When I came I think the won was 915 won to the dollar, so I was able to pay off some debts pretty quickly. Then later it was 1500 won to the dollar. So I’ve seen both high and low. To be perfectly honest, I think the reason I’ve been here so long is that it’s easy for foreigners to stay. Your housing is provided for you. Living is easy. Food is cheap. Taxes are done for you. You have health insurance. You don’t really need to think about anything. There’s also pension money being put aside for me.

It’s funny because I wish I didn’t like my job. Then I could go home. But the job market at home is bad, and the whole economic climate is really crappy. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do here. I’ve thought of opening a business for Korean students there, but the practicalities of it all are tricky. It’s a big risk. But I really love my job here. I like my students and I like the other professor I work with. It’s a lot of fun, you know?