Some brief tips on making the transition to teacher-expat life in Korea

Not long ago I heard from a reader named Zach, who was newly married and headed to Seoul to teach English with his wife. He asked me for advice on how to make the transition to expat-teacher life in Korea. Since it’s been 12 years now since I’ve lived in Korea, my advice to him was brief and itemized:

  1. Find a language institute that is well-liked, where the teachers are happy (you can check around about this).
  2. Enjoy the food — it’s some of the best in the world, in my opinion — and be gastronomically daring.
  3. Learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet, as soon as you can after arriving. It’s as simple as learning a secret code for each sound; you can easily pick up the alphabet in a week, and some people have learned it in an afternoon. Practice on street signs. Once you can read Hangul, it will be easier to get around, even if you don’t always know what the words refer to.
  4. Start learning the language by learning pleasantries and other traveler phrases (you may never be fluent — I’m not — but a familiarity with the language is helpful).
  5. Make Korean friends (of all ages). Make expat friends too.
  6. Don’t drink too much (always a danger in that country), but definitely don’t be shy to embrace social drinking as a way of socializing with students and friends alike.
  7. Exercise regularly (and find a place in the city where it’s not too smoggy or crowded for exercise).
  8. Korea can be a tough place to work sometimes, but stay positive, and don’t fall in with whiny expats.
  9. Power through the tough times. One way to do this is to read a lot — guidebooks and novels about Korea, as well as those classics (War and Peace, Moby Dick, etc) you’ve always been putting off.
  10. Take weekend trips to other parts of Korea.
  11. Take holiday trips to other parts of Asia.
  12. Keep a journal.

Can anyone with Korea-based (or general Asian) expat experience add more tips to this list?

Posted by | Comments (4)  | March 29, 2010
Category: Expat Life, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

4 Responses to “Some brief tips on making the transition to teacher-expat life in Korea”

  1. Griffin Stewart Says:

    I have been teaching in Korea for six months with my wife of 7 months and we are both loving it!! I would say one of the most helpful tips you gave was:
    “don’t fall in with whiny expats.”
    This is so true! I have been around some of them and they make Korea seem like a terrible place because they have nothing good to say about it, but if you hang out with those who love the country, you will more easily see the good things about the kins people and the great country.

  2. Kyle Says:

    Well, I would say there is some truth behind some of the whining, so don’t discount all of it. But, yes, too much of it will get you down.

    My wife and I have been in Korea for nearly a year, and while it hasn’t been a great experience, it hasn’t been bad, either. It is what it is.

    Rolf has some good advice that still holds true. In addition, I would add:

    1) Find a hobby and explore it. Paint, play music, read, write, whatever. You’ll just need something at the end of the day to look forward to.

    2) Don’t blow all of your cash. I know people who have been in Korea for 5 years and haven’t saved a dime, which is astounding considering the pay and the low cost of living.

    3) Your school is going to make or break your experience, so choose wisely. If you’re going to public schools, it’s kind of a crap shoot; who knows what you’ll get. In private academies, make sure you talk to a foreign teacher who is at the school now before making a decision.

    Above all, remember that you are an ambassador for your country. You will probably be asked to do things that you don’t want to do and be pushed to the limit of your patience. However, stay calm, think positively, and just be a good person. If you end up being that “bad foreigner”, Koreans will then think that all people from that country are bad. So, remember this and be respectful.

    Good luck and happy travels!

  3. Rebecca Travel-Writers-Exchange Says:

    It’s interesting that people would whine about being in Korea. What would make people teach there in the first place if they’re going to whine about it? Find another country to teach English or stay in the U.S. and teach English — God knows the kids can use all the help they can get.

    If you’re going to teach English in a foreign country, make sure you’re familiar with the country and culture. I agree that you could learn the language and make friends with the “natives” and expats. Keeping a journal is a great idea — you could turn it into a book!

  4. delia Says:

    I really love this list, and I think most of the items could be applied to any country–be adventurous, don’t hang around with whiners, stay healthy and busy. i think the hobby thing is particularly important–often the expectation is that when abroad in some new, exciting place, there will always be tons to do. that’s true, but especially when you’re going to be there for an extended period of time, it’s real life and not a packed vacation.