Over two years ago I considered teaching abroad in either Korea or China, but I chickened out. After moving from Vancouver to Toronto the thought of packing my life into two suitcases and selling the rest just seemed too far-fetched, and having gone through the process of getting transcripts and copies of a degree notarized for a friend already teaching in Korea I just felt…too lazy. Now I feel incredibly stupid for not just getting it together and going. Now that I’m here there are a variety of reasons why I want to stay, and a variety of common misconceptions about moving to Korea I want to dispel.
1. Korea is “Asia-light” – Truth!
Living in Korea (at least in Busan) is a lot like living in Vancouver, Canada where I spent 5 years of my life finishing up my degree and working downtown. Throughout the week I spend my days working and my evenings at the gym. I usually pick up a Kimbap (Korean-style “sushi”) or Mandu (a tasty kimchi or meat-filled dumpling) on my way home. It’s cheaper than the subway sandwich or sushi I would get in Toronto, and during the week I tend to keep it simple so I can make the most of my weekends. Of course, from time to time I’ll head out throughout the week for a couple of socials or a night of trivia, but realistically I’m usually in bed at a pretty reasonable hour throughout the week. On weekends? I head out shopping, or to a club with friends, to a temple, or to the beach. Having the beach and the mountains so close is just like being in Vancouver, and I’m thrilled to be able to swim in April!
2. Too much paperwork – myth
Getting your documents together is a pain, but it’s not all that difficult. I had to get my fingerprints done through the RCMP (I’m Canadian) and a criminal background check. I also had to get copies of my degree notarized and several copies of my sealed transcripts sent. There were different sized passport photos to get, and a couple of trips to the consulate to make, but I had planned months in advance so while it was fairly time-consuming it wasn’t all that difficult. My best advise is to plan so that you’re not in a mad rush to get your paperwork together. I was working a full-time job that actually had me working really long hours at the time and I still managed to get it all together. Just start – once you’ve begun the process you will be invested and won’t turn back. You will need to get a health check up when you arrive in Korea and that will require more paperwork and more photos to get your ARC (Alien Registration Card – your key to multiple visits in and out of Korea).
3. Pack well – Truth!
This year winter fell right into summer (just as it seems to have in Toronto). Many websites specify that there are four distinct seasons, but so far I’ve gone through winter (no snow, but holy cow was it ever cold), to diving into the water at the beach to cool off (let’s be candid – the first time was in April and the water certainly wasn’t warm, but it was refreshing!). Koreans are pretty modest about their chest regions, so make sure to bring clothes you can layer as in the morning and at night it can be pretty cold but you’ll find yourself sweating up a storm midday. For the curvy girls and tall guys you WILL be able to shop in Korea. There are a couple of H&M and Zara locations in Busan, and they have Forever 21 in Seoul as well. I’m able to fit into Korean shirts and skirts but haven’t tried pants anywhere other than western stores. BRING SHOES – if you have above size 7.5 feet you’ll have difficulty buying shoes (again – unless you visit the western chains). Also I find that people here tend to have incredibly fashionable outfits that they pair with running shoes. I don’t understand it, but that’ll give you an idea of most of the shoes that are sold here. If you enjoy a cute pair of heels then bring them – although they might get ruined on the uneven sidewalks…
3. Dining Experiences will be limited and I’ll have to sit on the floor – myth
Um…NOPE! There are TONS of different styles of food here, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t eaten kimchi in at least 2 weeks (well other than the cooked kimchi in my mandu). I have been to a vegetarian restaurant, several Italian restaurants, a cocktail bar with “Mexican” food, and yes – tons of Korean restaurants which can mean BBQ, fine dining, Makgeolli bars for pajeon, lunch box stops, and so much more. Korean food is not limited to pork, rice, and kimchi – I promise. I have yet to sit on the floor in a restaurant. It’s been offered at a couple of places but usually we sit at a table. Oh, and you’ll get good at using your chopsticks – promise.
4. Koreans don’t speak English – half truth
Well you’re in Korea, a KOREAN-speaking country, so you should probably learn enough Hangul to at least get by. I learned how to read the alphabet before my arrival (it’s incredibly straight-forward) , but it’s only since actually being here that I’ve noticed how many English words are actually just written out in Korean, and which words I need to order food, take a taxi, get directions, etc. You’ll meet a ton of Foreigners here and the Koreans with whom you strike up friendships will likely be the ones who have studied at English Academies (or other teachers!) or who have studied at the English Universities. If you do know key Korean words you can freak out your students when they’re being bad by telling them to stop/ don’t do that in Korean (HA-JI-MA) or asking for their homework but adding “Chuseyo” (“Give it to me” – ie. “Please”). I don’t imagine that I’ll ever have really good conversational Korean, but I haven’t had a real moment of panic quite yet without it.
5. Don’t work at a Hagwon – myth
There are many horror stories about living and working in Korea, but once I settled in in Busan I have to say I’ve been really happy. I have many friends who work in the public school system and teach 15 classes a week but have to stay at their desk when they’re not teaching. They have a standard 8-4 or 9-5 and I believe get paid less than Private English Academy workers do. I technically work longer hours (some days I start at 10 some days at 12:45 but I usually finish up around 7:30) but I have many breaks where I can go home and make lunch (I live half a block from work) or go to the gym, or read/ take a nap. There’s a beautiful park near where I live too so sometimes I hang out there. I block out a couple of days a month to get my lesson plans done, and my colleagues are always there to help me as well. I was nervous that I would be a bad teacher, but for the most part you can use your textbook as a guide and create fun activities to confirm your students knowledge.
6. Pack your own toothpaste, deodorant, and tampons – TRUTH!
I haven’t really looked for deodorant or tampons (I brought 5 sticks and 200 tampons) yet, but I know that the toothpaste is a little sweeter and doesn’t contain fluoride. Just make it easy on yourself and stock up before coming. I brought the little ob brand and just packed them in ziplock bags stuffed in my shoes. It’s not a lot of extra weight and you’ll feel more comfortable having your own brands. Bring some power adapters as well. It’s also worth bringing a couple of towels and your comforter from home.
7. Birth Control Pills are available over the counter in Korea – Truth!
I wasn’t able to get Yasmin, of course, but I got a similar combination of hormones. I don’t feel any difference in my personality and haven’t noticed any changes in my body because of the pill. It’ll cost you about $10/ pack and because it’s over the counter it doesn’t fall into the category of prescription medication covered by National Health Insurance, but it’s not stressful to get at all, which helps.
8. Dating in Korea is a nightmare for Foreign Women – Myth!
Sure, there are a ton of foreign guys who come to Korea intent on securing a hot Korean girlfriend, but unless you’re in a very rural area or somewhere without foreigners you’ll have a fine time meeting people. I’ve read about foreign women being really lonely because they Korean guys and Foreign guys all want Korean women, but I can pretty much guarantee that if you’re in a city you’ll find all sorts of people with all sorts of “types”. The great thing about dating foreigners here is that you all share a bit of a bond with other teachers, all teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and most foreigners here have a bit of a sexy sense of adventure and taste for new things which makes going on dates really exciting. Careful about telling your Korean friends though – once you’ve been on ONE date with someone the general consensus is that they are now your significant other!
9. Your apartment will be a tiny box – half truth
I’ve seen some horribly small apartments here and some massive ones. Mine could comfortably fit a king size bed (note: I have a single) and a couch (note: I have a loveseat), but my floors just got redone, I have TONS of storage, the wallpaper is fresh, and my bathroom is pretty massive. I’ve seen some very small apartments as you get closer to the city centre, but most of those have double beds and frankly I’d rather be downtown and have a nice sized bed! My life here is pretty comfortable – sometimes I consider getting a bigger bed but I’d rather spend the money on a trip (it’s incredibly cheap to travel). Perhaps I’ll get a foam topper at some point but for now? Nah…
10. The cost of living is really low in Korea – myth!
In comparison to life back in Canada certain things are quite cheap, but if you want fruit, vegetables, meat, or peanut butter be prepared to shell out. I tend to live on peppers, eggs, mixed greens, cabbage, bananas, and avocados. Wine and Spirits are more expensive than back home, but beer, soju, and makgeolli are very cheap. I can go get a healthy kimbap for about $5 Canadian, or a Korean fast food lunch box for about $4 Canadian (definitely cheaper than back home). Ultimately it’s been nearly 2 months and I haven’t saved anything, but I also haven’t been skimping on good times. Once I’m through my first 4 months and am no longer paying my deposit on my apartment I’ll be able to send a little bit more home. If you’re a bottle blonde consider heading back to your roots. Getting your hair bleached properly in Korea will cost you megabucks – they wanted to charge me nearly $400 to get mine dyed, although I have heard of people spending $300 or as little as $125. Not worth it for me. Either invest in sending yourself some Revlon highlighting kits before leaving or head back to brunette. I would also advise waiting until you get your ARC to get a phone. The arrival store will cost you over $80 each month to rent a phone and the plan. My phone costs me $45/ month and I got a brand new Samsung Galaxy Grand Max.
11. When handing something/ accepting something always use two hands – half truth.
When you hand money to a sales associate at a shop they’ll generally be a little taken aback at a foreigner being so polite. Do it anyway, and smile a lot. If you don’t have your Korean down then it’s best to overcompensate with politeness! Most places will just hand you your change with one hand though.
12. The Korean transportation systems are amazing – TRUTH!
Don’t be afraid to get on an intercity bus and just GO! The systems are a great way to check out temples, neighbouring cities, etc. and the HU-Metro system is really well laid out. Make sure not to sit in the sections designated for ajummas and adeshis unless you feel like getting reamed out by everyone on board young and old alike! Ajummas WILL push you out of their way even if there is plenty of room to go around – this happens in the streets as well. People have this bizarre tendency to stand really close to you. Just move if you’re uncomfortable, but know that it will likely happen again.
So there you have it, friends! The first of what will most certainly be a growing list of truths and myths. Anything to add? Leave me a note in the comments!