Taking The Next Step – A Teacher in South Korea Shares her Experiences of Moving Abroad

Uzma Ali with her class in South Korea

Uzma Ali with her class in South Korea

Guest Article by Uzma Ali, a Reach To Teach teacher in South Korea

When I made the decision to leave my comfortable, unfulfilling life to start teaching English in Korea, I was excited at the prospect of having an adventure half way across the world. However, when the moment came to say goodbye to ‘home’ I can honestly say I have never felt such fear. The urge to run indoors and make my excuses was immense and stepping onto the train to London, Heathrow was quite possibly the hardest thing I have ever had to do. “What in God’s name am I doing?” I thought. The only thing I remember about that train journey was breathing deeply and whispering to myself, “Be brave, be brave, be brave,” as I watched the landscape fly by.

Deciding to live in a different country – be it a few months, a year or even three years – is certainly not as easy as it may seem. Many people find the idea of living abroad enticing, but when push comes to shove and it’s time to make that final decision, the number of doubts that will go through your mind is unexpectedly high.

In the end I think I was able to take that step onto the plane to Korea, only by letting go of all those niggling thoughts and reminding myself of my reasons for making the decision to live abroad. I have felt a wealth of different emotions since moving to Korea and to put it down in a few words is a challenge in itself. But when I look back on the past six months I can only see it as a journey of excitement, adventure, unease, craving the familiar, weeping, self-confrontation and more often than not, complete and utter joy.

Living abroad is not always easy, and at times the only way to describe it is hard. I suppose only you can decide whether or not temporarily sacrificing your comfort zone is really worth it. I know that for me it definitely was. If I can offer any words of advice for anyone doubting whether they should take that step, they are, “Be brave, be brave, be brave!”

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8 Comments
  1. Very encouraging!

  2. I do agree with you on that one. One does have to be brave and let go of the fear of the unknown and just plunge into it. Our lives back home are so different and the clash in culture, especially work ethics can be hard to adjust to.

    I think the expat community in S.Korea is quite large, easy-going, and very welcoming. I found myself having a lot of fun and meeting a lot of good people from different parts of the world. I met people from Ireland (my boyfriend included), Scotland, the USA, Austrailia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Latin-America, Germany, and Malaysia. I also met a handful of South Koreans. A friend of mine also got involved in volunteer work, and would give her time to N. Korean immigrants that had problems adjusting to their enviroment or were at risk of being deported. She would teach them English, provide councilling, and editting services. So there are possiblities to meet a lot of people, make a lot of friends, see a lot of beautiful places within Korea and around it, as well as help others through volunteering or under the table tutoring.

    It isn’t always a positive experience, however; I didn’t get on well with my hogwon (english academy) because the director would often express her distrust of english employees and the teacher’s assistances would find it hard to speak to her. Eventually very little was said to her, and there was more of a top down work structure.

    There were a few safety issues as well. The group of us (English Teachers) were placed in a very low income housing sector. Our buildings were known as a very dodgy area by most Korean locals I came across. From the time I was there to the time I left, I had about 200,000 won stolen from my apartment, either by the locksmith who fixed my lock, the landlord or someone from the school accompanying the locksmith. Unfortunatly, the school never followed up on it and with the language barrier there isn’t much one can do.There was also two attempted sexual assualts on two english teachers ( which could’ve been prevented since one followed the other because the hogwon chose to ignore the issue and simply placed another women in the same apartment where the first assault took place and took no preventative measures to avoid any future happenings). The apartments were also infested with cockroaches (completely disgusting!) and really damp, tiny, and uncomfortable to live in. For the whole summer my building had no hot water, which meant showering in cold water, even though at some points during that stretch of summer, it was quite gruelling to shower in cold water because it was actually quite cold outdoors. Another problem I found was the medical insurance claiming process. Based on the knowledge I’ve gathered from people working in other hogwons, health insurance cards are given to each teacher and then the claim is issued by the hospital at the time of the appointment. The school isn’t involved in anyway. In contrast, the hogwon I worked for would ask for the receipt and an explanation of the medical reasons – because they then would have to call the insurance company and negotiate on the teacher’s behalf. In my case, whenever i went to the doctor i would pay for it myself and later never claim the medical costs to the insurance company because i felt it was too much trouble and I didn’t feel it was proper to have to provide private medical information to employers (besides they always expressed a dislike when someone tried to claim money from the health insurance company), which led me to believe that maybe they didn’t even have one. A lot of other dodgy tactics were used, throughout the year just to save money. Even though teacher’s really didn’t agree with it there really was nothing we could do about it. Eventually, when things were brought up, the director either cried to evoke sympathy or yelled at the top of her lungs and then cried. It was certainly not a professional manner to handle situations but it worked all the time.

    Very little respect was offered to female teacher’s in general. A hogwon I know of, apparently fired a women teacher because they felt more comfortable having men teaching the classes. My hogwon would prefer men m.c’s rather then women mc’s because they felt a man would provide a more professional and assertive image for the school. Teacher assistances’ often gave there male teachers more respect and more support, because they didn’t feel comfortable providing the same quality of assitancce to female teachers. In fact, these are all cultural clashes that one has to deal with. Or do we? In fact now that I look back at it, I don’t see how I stayed. I should’ve left during the first week when my director forced me out of my dodgey motel room and into an even dogdegier flat. But one big factor of quitting is money. I’d have to pay my own flight back and ask the director for a letter of release, since otherwise, I believe they have the right to blacklist teachers – either officially or just through informing their circle of friends – but who knows right, a lot of the tactics they pull usually work simply because we’re not informed and don’t speak the language. One of the problems I see, is that our goverments aren’t involved in the employment process. There is very little support that is given to teacher’s by their embassies in Korea and there is actually nothing they can do if there is/was a violation of human/workers rights or safety. This school would always take taxes off my paycheck, but wouldn’t provide the adequate tax papers at the end of the year. So I don’t even know if they kept the money for themselves or actually filed the taxes on my behalf. Since I am Canadian, I was also suppose to recieve 9% of my total gross pay at the end of the year, since that is what I contributed to the Korean Pension plan (4.5%) and Canadian pension plan (4.5%), but I never saw it, nor, did they give me back my rental deposit around $500, since they claimed cleaning fees and utililty fees. Yet I paid everything on time and cleaned the apartment myself, I left it cockroach free and sparkling clean. The new tenant even had a party in it as soon as I left. It looked fantastic (relatively speaking of course)! So all these schemes that have been pulled by the hogwon I worked with, either seriously put lives in danger, created an uncomfortable work environment, placed some expenses onto the teacher, or was just simply a matter of stealing money from employees. So why did I stay? S.Korea is truly a fantastic place to visit. There is a lot to do and a lot to see. The income is great and gives you the ability to save and travel around East Asia, something that in itself is an amazing thing to do. Making friends and attending festivals, tutoring on the side, and trying Korean cuisine, is something I truly enjoyed. If I can do it all again without the nonsense created by the adminstration of L.C.I Dobong-gu English Academy, I would, but right now I’ll stick to Europe where things run a bit smoother and life is swell.

    For those that are interested in trying the Korean experience, I suggest public schools since they don’t work you half as hard, there much more transparent with everything, they file taxes and return the pension contributed throughout the year. Everything is done by the books because its govenrment run, and teacher’s are employed as “teachers” and not just “staff” of a private business. You also get way way more days off. I actually met someone that had so much days off (payed for as well) that he was bored. Plus the exprience is much more fullfilling and realistic since the class sizes are bigger, lesson plans have to be planned and written by the teacher, and your given a workspace. But just remember to not take any bullshit, register with your embassy before heading there, and upon arrival register with the korean tax office, do you job well and keep smiling.

    • Hi G,

      I’m interested in going to S. Korea… I just read your post and am wondering if you applied through Reach To Teach? If so did you try contacting them to give them your complaints? Where they supportive?

      Thanks!

    • Dear Gabby,

      Thanks for sharing. I agree, the public school system in South Korea is excellent. We place close to two hundred teachers with the EPIK program each year, and the feedback that we have received from our teachers about the program has been overwhelmingly positive.

      It’s important to do your own research when you’re looking at private teaching institutes in any country. For the record, Reach To Teach doesn’t work with LCI.

      Thanks again for your comments and good advice!

    • Hi,
      Do you know of any good public schools in the Busan area? I am moving to Korea to teach ESL, but I’m trying to find out about the best schools and/or recruiting firms.
      Thank you!!
      Laura

  3. I liked the information that was shared. It helps give a better perception of what can happen. I’m hoping to go to Korea this summer when all the paperwork is completed. Thanks for your honest and straightforward approach. Greg

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