Who are you?
I’m Janice, a 37 year old Canadian. I have a BA in Communication Studies, and am working on my MA in Applied Linguistics. I’ve taught ESL in China, Korea and Thailand.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
In February, 2003 I left Canada to move to Daejeon, South Korea. It was 4 years since I’d graduated from university, and I was disappointed with my job prospects, and the looming spectre of my student loan. Several friends of mine were already living and working in South Korea, and they convinced me that I could pay off my student loans in 1 or 2 years, instead of the 10-12 years I was facing if I stayed at my current job in Canada.The desire for Asian food, adventure, and financial freedom won out, and I accepted a position to teach at a school where a friend was already teaching.
What challenges did you face during the move?
The move was actually quite easy. I had lived in China for a year before moving to Korea, so I my passport and suitcase were ready to go. It took some time to arrange the proper paperwork, so a flurry of e-mails and documents went back and forth. However, the school I was going to work at had hired many foreign English teachers in the past, so they knew what documents were necessary and helped walk me through the process. Once I arrived, the director of the school met us as the airport and arranged transportation to take me directly to my apartment. The move itself was pretty painless. It took me about 3 months to get used to most Korean food, and about 6 months before I actually started to like it, and a year to miss it when I went home during vacations.
How did you find somewhere to live?
Like many teaching positions in South Korea, my accommodation was provided by the school. I never had to make arrangements for my own place to live. However, I have had many friends who found their own places to live. Korea has a system called ‘key money’ which is a large deposit (think 1 year’s worth of rent, not just first and last month). This needs to be paid up front, and the landlord will either keep it and return it to you when you move out, or will charged you reduced monthly rent. It’s a bit of a headache, and can be expensive and risky, so I was happy to stick with the accommodation provided.
Are there many other expats in your area?
My first year, I lived with two other teachers in an upscale neighbourhood in Daejeon. Even though it was a small neighbourhood, there were several English schools in the area, and about 12 expats that got together often. Later, I moved to a University that was about 20 minutes outside the city of Daegu. About 25 expat teachers living on campus, and we got along well. I did have one friend working at the only English school in a small town, and there were no other expats nearby. In the cities, or at large universities, there are a lot of expats.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
It varied. My relationship with some people was great. I liked the Korean women I took pottery classes with, my Korean professors and co-workers were friendly and interesting to get to know, and I had some good friends that I enjoyed hanging out with, when they weren’t busy. (Koreans seem to be constantly busy!) So, the Koreans I knew personally, I liked. Strangers on the other hand (especially older women) could be pushy or abrasive. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry, and under immense pressure to succeed. It felt like some Koreans would seek to befriend expats simply as a means to practice their English, but this wasn’t always true.
What do you like about life where you are?
I lived just outside Daegu for most of my time in Korea. I loved that it was close enough to the city to drive in for shopping, theatre or a fancy dinner, but it was far enough away that there were a lot of places nearby to go hiking or cycling, away from the noise and traffic. It was also small enough that I got to know local shopkeepers and vendors. Being greeted by your bank teller on the street helps give you a sense of community. Korea is also pretty easy to get around, either by bus or by car. Big department stores like E-Mart often have a lot of English signage, and import items that are familiar to expats. I also liked the people I worked with, and the students I had. I also liked my apartment. It might sound like a little thing, but I love the heated floors in Korean apartments during the winter.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I think the two biggest things that eventually wore me down were the transient nature of the expat community, and the Korean education system. I was fortunate to make a few friends early on that stayed in Korea as long as I did, but apart from those few, it felt like I was constantly meeting new people, and getting to know them just in time to say goodbye. Eventually, it became more and more difficult to invest in getting to know new people. As for the Korean education system, it was hard to see students, even those still in elementary school, getting only a few hours of sleep. I’d see kids still in their school uniforms getting home at 11pm or midnight, having spent the hours after their regular school day bouncing from extra-curricular piano classes to English classes, to math classes, etc. Students were under tremendous pressure to succeed, and competition was fierce. Getting caught up in the ‘hurry hurry’ culture became exhausting after a few years.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
There are lots of job opportunities available. Don’t just take the first offer, or the one with the highest salary. Find something that suits your needs and personality. Be flexible, especially when you first arrive and are getting to know how things work. Make Korean friends that can help you understand why and how things are done. You might think a certain cultural practice seems crazy, but if you can talk it over with a Korean friend, understanding their perspective goes a long way to helping you understand that it’s not so crazy after all. And, most of all, surround yourself with positive people. During my first year, the expats I hung out with all hated their jobs, and most nights, our conversation revolved around trying to out-do each other with stories about how bad things were. It was terrible. The next year, I met people who like Korea, and their jobs. It made a world of difference.
What are your plans for the future?
I left Korea and moved to Thailand. I paid off my student loans in my first year, and was able to save and travel a lot after that. I saved enough to live and study in Thailand for a few years without working. Right now, I’m debt free, and writing a Master’s thesis in Applied Linguistics. While I was in Korea, many of my co-workers completed their Master’s degrees either in English MA programs in Korea, or through distance programs in Australia. I doubt I’ll move back to Korea, but it’s nice to know that living and working there is always a viable option. I had good relationships with my co-workers and employers, and there are certainly things I miss.