If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you have decided to take the amazing leap to go teach English in the best country in the world (in my totally unbiased opinion)! Either that or you’re my friend and you’re trying to get my blog more views. Either way, I appreciate you.
I’ve compiled a list of 10 things I think are important to keep in mind before your arrival based on my own personal experience. I hope this is helpful and will make your adjustment a little easier!
If you’re just one of the friends I mentioned above, who’s free for lunch next week?
1. Learn some Korean beforehand
The Korean language (Hangul) might seem daunting to those of you who have never seen it, but I am telling you, it is by far, the EASIEST, Asian language to learn in terms of the alphabet. There are only 14 consonants and 10 vowels. If you take the time to learn just the sounds and general structure of the words, it will make your life 100x easier. Seoul is a fairly foreigner friendly city, but there are times where things are only written in Hangul. You might have to read signs, menus, and even your students’ names. If you’re able to at least recognize the letters, the adjustment will be a lot smoother. I went to Korea already knowing how to read/write and it made a massive difference overall.
2. Educate yourself on the culture
This is in tandem with #1, but it is critical to be culturally aware and respectful during your time here. Remember, you are a visitor. Foreigners can get, and already have, a bad reputation in South Korea. More often than not, we are the one’s seen disrupting the general peace because of our lack of cultural awareness. When you enter a restaurant or store, you should bow and greet those working. It doesn’t have to be a full on 90 degree bend, but just a tilt of your head and acknowledging them is polite and refreshing. South Korea’s public transportation reserves seats for the elderly, pregnant women, and the disabled. I cringed every time I saw a foreigner sitting in the older than 60 portion of the train… and looking noticeably uncomfortable as he confusingly shot his eyes at the open seats around him, wondering why no one else is sitting down in the packed car… they’re basically for those who fought in the war dude.
3. Bring enough money
Apparently, someone told one of my coworkers “Just bring $200. That’s more than enough.” Okay… that’s a flat out lie and that person should not be allowed to give advice. Maybe his school was different, but in my experience, you should come to Korea with at least $1,000 to feel secure. You will be paying for a health check, utilities, transportation, food, toiletries etc. It’ll take you a while to realize where to buy things for cheaper and it’s all a part of the learning process. You most likely won’t get paid until the next month’s pay period. So, going into it, you should be assuming you’ll spend a month without any income. (One nice thing is that they often reimburse your flight in your first pay period. So it’s like you’re getting all your starting money back!)
4. Stock up on certain products
South Korea is insanely ahead of western countries in numerous ways. However, there are some things that the country just doesn’t deem necessary (or they prefer a different model of a product.) Here are the 3 major items that I was aware of:
- If you are an Apple user, make sure you buy a South Korean compatible charger as the circuits are a lot stronger and can potentially fry your electronics. Also, Apple products are very expensive in Seoul and are only sold at a handful of licensed resellers (I believe one Apple store has opened on Garosugil but I am unsure if the prices there are better than said resellers).
- Another thing is shoes. Korean women typically wear from a size 5-7 and I had friends who weren’t even able to find sizes 8 and up. Frustrating, but they’re accommodating their market.
- Lastly, Korean women also almost exclusively use pads. In turn, it can be a struggle to find tampons in even major stores. I was able to find Tampax Pearls at my local EMart but there was maybe one box left and it was ridiculously expensive. If you have room, stuff your bags.
5. Pack for the weather you’re arriving in
This might seem like an odd one but be aware of the weather during the first few months of your arrival. South Korea has some of the best shopping, but you’ll find yourself too busy with other things to really shop for essential clothing or work attire. What is best is to pack for the weather you will experience first. Once you’re settled, you’ll have ample time to shop for the upcoming seasons. I would definitely bring your nice, expensive items (perhaps a large coat and boots for winter) that you don’t want to spend money on. However, for the most part, it’s smart to bring a wardrobe that will hold you over for the starting time period. I found myself at H&M and Forever 21 buying thin sleeveless work blouses that I didn’t even like. I just couldn’t stand wearing the fall tops I brought in the 95 degree, humid weather.
6. Plan trips ahead
I personally went to Seoul to experience life in South Korea. I didn’t have a huge desire to travel on weekends or for national holidays. I wanted to feel immersed in the country as much as I could. However, I know that a lot of people take this as an opportunity to travel throughout Asia. It is definitely doable, but planning ahead is key. Depending on your school, you’ll get around 5 days vacation plus 5 national holidays totaling around 10 days (really depends on your school and what days these holidays fall on.) You will most likely have to request your week vacation in advance (or you can take them in separate chunks or by day). If you can, plan your potential trips in advance to confirm the time off with your school. Also, traveling on national holidays can be extremely difficult as everyone is trying to go visit family outside of the city. Here is a calendar list of Korean national holidays for your reference!
7. Say “yes”
Meeting people you click with can be difficult. You often see the same foreigners during your nights out in Hongdae and the pool of expats can feel small. It is a huge game of trial and error. Saying yes to every experience is crucial to your time there. If someone asks if you want to get a drink after work, say “yes.” If a nice girl you’ve only met a few times asks if you want to go on this weekend trip to Ulleungdo with a bunch of other expats, say “yes.” Sometimes the things you say “yes” to might suck, but like I said, it’s all trial and error. The types of people who come to teach English in South Korea ranges and finding your niche and group of friends can be a bumpy road. I trust you’ll meet people who you legitimately cannot stand and people who make you question how you ever lived without them. So, say “yes” to every invitation.
You never know where or when you’ll meet someone who can completely change your entire experience.
8. Find someone already there
Post on Facebook or on other social media that you’ll be heading to teach in South Korea. Ask around and see if you can find a mutual connection and do your best to meet up with them. Whether it’s a friend of a friend or a cousin of a friend or a random relative, it’s surprisingly comforting to know at least one person. Maneuvering through a new country is challenging but they can show you the ropes, take you out, and give you advice. From my experience, I loved showing the city to someone new and opening their eyes to how amazing their time there was going to be.
9. Give it at least 3 months/ 1 semester
The adjustment is a process. You’ll feel homesick, you’ll get frustrated, you’ll feel alone. But I think giving up on this experience is the biggest mistake.
You’ll often hear about foreign teachers doing a “midnight run.” It’s basically when someone freaks out, packs up all their things, buys a plane ticket home, and leaves in the middle of the night. They don’t notify the school or any coworkers. They just leave.
Ultimately, the school can’t do anything to make them come back and they would rather spend their time and energy trying to fill the empty position. I personally think that it is extremely selfish and immature to do a midnight run just because this experience isn’t exactly what you thought it was going to be. You are an adult who signed a contract and unless you have an emergency or feel in danger, you should give them the courtesy of at least a few weeks notice.
I understand that issues arise and we all have our own personal lives going on at home. However, it doesn’t take much to message your head teacher or HR and tell them you have a family emergency that requires you to leave immediately. Leaving without telling anyone leaves your entire school hanging. The morning after someone does a “midnight run” is so incredibly chaotic and tense. Other foreign teachers and staff have to take your classes and pick up your slack. Sometimes it can be months before they find a legitimate replacement.
BUT, I have also heard horror stories of people not getting paid or the housing being unacceptable. If your school is not delivering on a promise of your contract or you feel unsafe at work, it is totally understandable to leave.
If you are struggling your first few weeks or months there, just know that everyone else has gone through the same emotions and speed bumps. Every person I’ve met throughout this experience has felt the urge to leave at least once, if not multiple times. If by 6 months, you still hate it, teaching and South Korea might not be right for you. But if you find yourself leaving before the end of your first semester, you are selling the entire experience, and yourself, short.
10. Take pictures and videos
There’s a happy medium between living in the moment and capturing those moments on film.
In the long run, taking photos or videos of the little things will hold the most genuine memories for you. When your students write you a note or give you a gift, take a picture of it. When you and your friends are playing drinking games at your favorite bar, take a video. Don’t just think in terms of Instagram posts or posed pictures to send back to your family. Think in terms of capturing your life there as a whole. When you look back, you’ll remember the big trips and events, but it’s the little things that made your year truly special.
I am personally so excited for you and if you have any questions, please leave a comment or message me. I will never get tired of talking about this stuff. Good luck!