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September in Seoul?
March 27, 2012 3:10 AM   Subscribe

Talk to me. Don't be afraid to be long-winded. I welcome oversharers. I've done reams of research on teaching in South Korea, but I still have lots of questions. And the only people I really trust to answer them are you. Spill, please. What's your Korean story?

My goal is to save as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. I have debt to pay back, and more years than I care to count of under- and unemployment to address. I'm also deeply burned out on the American economy and trying to somehow accommodate it. And I could sure use a serious change of scenery. So, after weeks of research, I've deduced that I can make the most money most easily teaching in Korea (given payrates, free housing, and cost of living).

But I'm left with questions. I realize I absolutely don't have the energy for a hagwon, and I wouldn't teach kids to save my life. What I want is a university job or something similar teaching adults, with a 2.5 million KRW/month or better salary, no more than, say, 25 hours/week of classes, and the usual attached apartment, bonus, insurance, and other perks.

Opinion on Korea is fiercely divided on the internet. But even if it weren't, I'd still have some doubts. Apologies for the lengthy questionnaire, but these are the things I wonder....

1. What are the odds of my getting a university job of this kind in Korea from the States?

Pluses
  • I've got 2 years teaching experience in Japan (both middle school and college) + 3 years teaching experience in the States (college).
  • I've worked in educational editing (lots of ESL books, a few famous; and some grammar books), and I've done some government writing/editing.
  • I've also conducted several author tutorials, on and off over the years.
  • I have an extensive background in foreign (non-Asian) languages.
  • In general, I look good on paper and, in fact, I was a really good teacher.
  • In person, I also happen to fit the physical stereotype of the "foreign teacher" in all my, you know, light-haired exotica, et al.
Minuses
  • But my teaching experience is nearly 20 years old.
  • And I have no CELTA, DELTA, TESOL, or MA.

2. When can I expect to start seeing ads for the fall semester? Or should I just start applying to lists of universities I have found and, if so, any idea how I find the contact person in the English Department's name on a Korean University Website?

3. Can I really save $12-$20 grand there in a year, living a la graduate student; that is, frugally but not badly, assuming a base salary of 2.5 million KRW/month?

4. How stable is the won-to-dollar exchange rate? I've read about its lows during the Recession, and I know you're not my economists, but I'm just wondering what the view is from those who've followed it long-term for similar personal finance reasons.

5. Which is better? On- or off-campus housing? And what does teacher's housing tend to look like and include?

6. How likeable is Seoul? I was there years ago, and I remember it as being really gray and bland. But I'm not sure if that was a fair assessment, even then.

7. How polluted is Seoul? How sprawling is it?

8. Can you use English-language GPS in Seoul!?! How hard is it to navigate, generally?

9. Is it difficult to make friends there? Teachers, businesspeople, single men, whomever.

10. Are there many Westerners there in their 30s or 40s?

11. Did going to Korea help your career in any way?

12. Did you learn Korean?

13. Do you think China would have been more interesting?
posted by Violet Blue to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have you checked out the IAmA on Reddit? There's a surprising number of posts on teaching English in Korea and Seoul specifically.

Including one from MeFi's own Meatbomb
posted by j03 at 3:25 AM on March 27, 2012


To answer your #13 question:

I am teaching in China right now. I have a very laxed college/vocational school job (similar to university setting, although the students are more immature).

My base salary per month is 5,000 RMB ~ $800 USD. I have friends here that have saved like hoards and are going to head back to the states with close to $3,000 USD. You can find higher paying teaching jobs too in universities 7,000-11,000 RMB/month. Usually university/college positions include housing/apt, utilities, bed, furnished. Guaranteed r/t airfare, bonus perks (maybe 1,000-2,000 extra per semester), travel allowances, etc.

I'd recommend giving China a look. I had friends in SK and loved it (Busan, Seoul)... in Busan there's actually a section of the city that the government is tearing down, but some expats still live in apartment buildings there... they have really amazing architecture and character apparently.. that's what a friend said though, I've never been there.

I do think China would be more interesting from a cultural perspective. If your just looking to sock away cash SK I hear pays the most. Regardless though teaching ESL as you probably might know from being in Japan, you can really cut back on things you indulged in back in your home country. You can always pick up tutoring jobs to make extra cash on the sides too pretty easily.

Be careful though! Make sure you google schools/language school names. See what's out there, there's a ton of bad situations.

I also find that when you can get your housing included it makes a lot of things easier-- no hassle and usually the salary/benefits are greater than if you were paying rent each month for your own place.

Good luck!!
posted by melizabeth at 4:53 AM on March 27, 2012


1. "And I have no CELTA, DELTA, TESOL, or MA." This will kill your Uni plans there, they are very big on official certification. MA is the minimum expectation for uni work there. Unless you have some very special buddies to pull strings or some other strange happenstance you WILL NOT get hired at a Korean uni without the paper.

2. See above, I would look for the better / juicier jobs that are not uni.

3. Especially with accom. taken care of, Korea is really cheap. If you like Korean food, eating out at restaurants is really really cheap. Living frugally you can save plenty. If you get most of your entertainment online Korea is like paradise - unmetered and high speed, pirate away.

4. Don't know, please Google it, this is easily available public info.

5. Depends very much on your own preferences. All Korean accom. is small by our American standards.

6. You've been there, and you aren't telling us much about yourself... to each his own. Seoul is the best culture / shopping / access / etc. in Korea.

7. It is polluted and sprawling. Again, get on Google. All of Korea has alternative approaches to sewerage, and anywhere can have the mystery toilet smell.

8. Don't know.

9. Varies by your own personality.

10. Yes.

11. Not really.

12. No. This is seeming a little more like a survey - how is this question of any use to you? :)

13. Yes. But again that is me personally, a million individual preferences and prejudices behind this. The money in China is generally not as good, and that sounds like consideration number one for you.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:56 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


1. In my experience, it's very difficult to get a university job without a Masters and/or TEFL/CELTA.

2. I'd start checking ads now.

3. How much money you save will generally depend on where you are. The larger cities, particularly Seoul, are more expensive, and you can expect to be paid less. In small towns, you can expect to save a decent amount of money, and you'll be paid more because all foreigners want to live in Seoul.

4. Not very stable.

5. I've never known any university teachers in Korea to live in on-campus housing.

6-7. Seoul is huge, huge, huge, and very polluted.

8. There are English-language GPSes in Korea.

9. It's more difficult to make friends in Seoul because you have a lot of long-time foreigners with their own circles of friends, and there are so many foreigners people won't be excited to see you walking down the street.

10. Yes.

11. It helped my career, but I'm in education.

12. Yes, I studied Korean with a private tutor.

13. China would be very interesting, but you'll make significantly less money.
posted by toerinishuman at 8:22 AM on March 27, 2012


I worked there 96-97 and came home with 9k saved, and I taught wayyy less private lessons than my friends did.

You can totally save money but you may have to work in a after-school school (haegwan? Spelling?) To do so.

I didn't know anyone who was able to procure a higher level teaching job at the time.

For me the culture shock was huge (no breakfast foods!?! What!?) But now I love Korean food and have a huge respect for the culture.

I think either decide to go or not, I'm not sure you can optimize the situation to teach only certain levels etc if you also want the financial perks.

However, of course, that was 15 years ago so things might be totally different.

(I did do TEFL certificate before leaving but it was only the BA that really mattered).
posted by bquarters at 8:47 AM on March 27, 2012


13 questions - I think this is a record... I'm in Seoul right now, and have been for the past four years (see my profile for my blog).
1. What are the odds of my getting a university job of this kind in Korea from the States?
Slim to none.

2. When can I expect to start seeing ads for the fall semester? Or should I just start applying to lists of universities I have found and, if so, any idea how I find the contact person in the English Department's name on a Korean University Website?
Now. Just start searching, but understand you're not qualified for the job.

3. Can I really save $12-$20 grand there in a year, living a la graduate student; that is, frugally but not badly, assuming a base salary of 2.5 million KRW/month?
Yes.

4. How stable is the won-to-dollar exchange rate? I've read about its lows during the Recession, and I know you're not my economists, but I'm just wondering what the view is from those who've followed it long-term for similar personal finance reasons.
It's stable enough.

5. Which is better? On- or off-campus housing? And what does teacher's housing tend to look like and include?
Off-campus housing, if you can get support. It'll be small either way.

6. How likeable is Seoul? I was there years ago, and I remember it as being really gray and bland. But I'm not sure if that was a fair assessment, even then.
I love Seoul, personally - I may never leave. YMMV, of course. It has gray days, but it also has vibrant days aplenty - as a photographer, I'm always looking for the scenes to capture.

7. How polluted is Seoul? How sprawling is it?
Not as much as you think, on both counts.

8. Can you use English-language GPS in Seoul!?! How hard is it to navigate, generally?
English GPS is available. Once you get your bearings, it's easy to get around - subways and buses are all around.

9. Is it difficult to make friends there? Teachers, businesspeople, single men, whomever.
It depends on your personality and interests. There are plenty of people doing plenty of things beyond their official teaching jobs - it's just a matter of getting plugged in and enjoying what you find.

10. Are there many Westerners there in their 30s or 40s?
Not 'many', but more than a few.

11. Did going to Korea help your career in any way?
I'm in a better place now, personally and professionally, than I ever was in the States. Not in teaching, mind you - that's just a job to stay legal and pay the bills. My real passions are traveling and photography.

12. Did you learn Korean?
Yes - in fact, I wrote a book about the basics. Search on Amazon for Chris Backe and you'll find it.

13. Do you think China would have been more interesting?
Possibly, but you wouldn't be able to pay off student loans, and the thought of working under the Chinese government genuinely scares me.

MeMail me if you'd like :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:52 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I lived there for 2 years, from 2009-2011. I was ready to leave at the end of 2 years, but I don't regret being there. Here we go:

1. What are the odds of my getting a university job of this kind in Korea from the States?

Slim to nil. Competition for these jobs is fierce and people with a few Korean years under their belts are gonna get first draw. Still, give it a shot?

2. When can I expect to start seeing ads for the fall semester? Or should I just start applying to lists of universities I have found and, if so, any idea how I find the contact person in the English Department's name on a Korean University Website?

You can try and contact them, generally recruiting firms only work for the Public School or Hagwon systems. Another reason you'll have a hard time- Many Uni gigs are word of mouth.

3. Can I really save $12-$20 grand there in a year, living a la graduate student; that is, frugally but not badly, assuming a base salary of 2.5 million KRW/month?

Probably. I was make 2.1 and I saved about 12k a year. I didn't really count pennies, I went out constantly. If you budgeted, I'm sure you could save at least as much.

4. How stable is the won-to-dollar exchange rate? I've read about its lows during the Recession, and I know you're not my economists, but I'm just wondering what the view is from those who've followed it long-term for similar personal finance reasons.

It really depends. From the time I was there it was as low as 1100 and as high as nearly 1300. Current events really shape the exchange and it's also a highly manipulated currency.

5. Which is better? On- or off-campus housing? And what does teacher's housing tend to look like and include?

My ex-wife & I shared a 1 br apartment. Understand that 1br does not mean "One bedroom and a living room, maybe a kitchen". It means "1 bedroom, that is the living room and one of the walls will be the kitchen". Again, this depends on where you are. We had friends who were out quite a ways and had several rooms. I had friends who worked for a tech company and had proper, US-style 1 bedrooms. But I wouldn't count on it.

6. How likeable is Seoul? I was there years ago, and I remember it as being really gray and bland. But I'm not sure if that was a fair assessment, even then.

It depends on how hard you try to get to know it. It's amazingly alive- There's a verticality that doesn't exist in the US, it's busy and tough and loud. It's not a walkable, ped-friendly city. But cabs are cheap and there's always something interesting if you know where to look. There is a kind of samey-sameness to cities across Korea (Especially the "downtowns" tend be utterly interchangeable), but some areas of Seoul like Hongdae, HBC and Itaewon all have a particular flavor that's comparable to a "neighborhood" like the way Brooklyn or Berlin are arranged. If you're only there for a few days I think it's impossible to like it. It's a city of tiny amazements.

7. How polluted is Seoul? How sprawling is it?

I didn't seem to have any problems with the pollution, some people swear up and down they can taste it or something. For reference, I've lived in NYC and LA, so maybe I'm calibrated? It is a massive, sprawling city, but you'll likely spend 95% of your time in 5% of it and public transport is great.

8. Can you use English-language GPS in Seoul!?! How hard is it to navigate, generally?

You can get an iPhone and use that. Navigation is kind of a nightmare, they don't really use street names. When you get a business card from a bar or something it almost always has a little map on it so you can find it again. But, just ask a cab driver to drop you off in a neighborhood and navigate from there.

9. Is it difficult to make friends there? Teachers, businesspeople, single men, whomever.

Nah. Because the moment you see a foreigner, that;s enough to be friends. You have an instant bond! I was friends with lots of people I never would have engaged back in the US.

10. Are there many Westerners there in their 30s or 40s?

Some. Generally, the older someone is the more people tend to be like "Why is that dude not doing something more productive?". ESL in Korea is kind of seen as a "I'm young and confused and want to travel" kind of thing. Which is not to say that there are no pros, but I know that was the view from my social circle.

11. Did going to Korea help your career in any way?

Maybe? Depends on what your career is. It made me way more confident about handling challenges.

12. Did you learn Korean?

Not really, but I was an obstinate jerk about it for awhile. You absolutely can if you have any drive to do so.

13. Do you think China would have been more interesting?

I have friends who prefer China, more as a cultural thing. It's a matter of preference. I liked Korea plenty.

Any Q's, feel free to MeMail!
posted by GilloD at 1:23 PM on March 27, 2012


Quite honestly, you'll have better working conditions, better pay, more opportunities to earn more money and save if you teach in rural Japan. The earthquake and the Fukushima accident scared away a lot of teachers.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:50 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in Seoul for about five years, but left nearly two years ago.

Firstly, I saw in one of your other questions that you're in your forties. This is relevant to how Koreans will see you and to how you wil relate to other expats.

1) I'll leave that question to someone who has experience in finding University jobs. I know that there's a lot of competition for them (particularly in Seoul) and while I've heard it's possible in some small-town universities to get one without an MA, it's a lot harder.

2) Again, not my area.

3) You can, but it all depends what you mean by 'frugal'. For some people that means a strict regime of living off basic Korean food, for others it means three cocktails instead of four on a Friday night. You can guess which group of people save the sort of money you're talking about. Korea is a very good place to save money quickly as a teacher, but that can go wrong in a couple of ways.

(a) You can have such serious problems with your employer or Korea in general that you leave early, losing salary, return airfare allowance and a decent reference in the process.

(b) You deal with culture shock by treating yourself, mostly in ways that recreate an American lifestyle: living in a big flat, regularly buying Western food, taking lots of foreign holidays, buying new electronics, using imported brands etc. That's going to double the time it takes to pay off your debts and if you're doing it because you're somewhat miserable in Korea you're just going to be miserable for longer.

Therefore you need to be honest with yourself about the risk that you will give up on Korea or fall into the overspend trap. How serious are you about living frugally and how long are you prepared to do it for?

4) It's fairly easy to look up charts of historical FX rates online and from that you can see it's no more unstable than any major currency. However, something could happen in the ROK or DPRK tomorrow that would send those numbers into uncharted territory.

5) I don't know, but housing costs are hugely variable - if you want to save a lot your focus should be on what is cheapest.

6) Seoul is fairly easy to dislike if you're the sort to dislike cities. There's plenty to like about it; it's very efficient, vibrant and is a fascinating reflection of the Korean mindset, but it's very easy to dismiss it as "grey and bland" and feel thoroughly miserable there.

7) Polluted compared to where? The yellow dust is pretty bad and there's an awful lot of noise & visual pollution. On the other hand, it's not anything like an industrial city in the the third world. It's astonishingly sprawling, in that you can sit on a local train for an hour in a straight line and not escape built-up areas.

8) No idea about English-language GPS, but it wouldn't be much use, since the addresses you will be trying to reach will mostly be in Korean and romanization is not always consistent. If you're asking because you plan to drive in Seoul, then I would strongly suggest you drop that idea. Navigating is fairly easy once you've learned Hangul and public transport and taxis are excellent and very affordable. Addresses can be hard to track down, but many businesses provide maps on their websites.

9) Are you asking about making friends with Koreans or other expats? Making friends with Koreans can be hard, depending on how deep you want the friendship to be, your ability to deal with cultural difference and, of course, your ability to speak Korean. Making friends with expats is easier, except that an awful lot of them are half your age. You obviously have a wider range of people to choose from in the cities.

10) Among teachers, quite a few, but still a minority. Some of them are lifetime Asia hounds, saving up for a retirement on the beaches of Thailand. Others are unable to return home due to debt or murkier issues. Some are Korea enthusiasts and others are lifelong EFL teachers. Among non-teachers (and excluding Western students in Korea) the majority of ex-pat are in that age range. However, it's not terribly easy to break into their social circles.

11) Very much so, but that's because I worked for a global organisastion and the relative lack of interest in Korea compared to their other locations made it easier for me to get promotion.

12) Not much. I was mostly focussed on the job and was constantly expecting to leave within a year. Staying five was not the plan!

13) The differences between employers and locations within China (and Korea) are easily as big as the differences between the countries. Someone working in Seoul for a University probably has as many experiences in common with someone working in Shanghai for a University than someone working in a public school in a rural Korean backwater.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:46 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have been teaching in Seoul for 10 years. I own a very successful high-end test-prep and college app. consulting business now. Feel free to Memail me if you want to know any of what I know--I haven't taught EFL/ESL, though, strictly test-prep, AP English, and academic reading/writing at the top foreign language high school in Korea.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:35 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I spent a few brief months doing hagwon work in Seoul about two years ago. Won't go into the details, just suffice to say that I didn't particularly care for the working environment - hagwons are best avoided. That being said, I actually kind of liked Seoul!

Not too familiar with the current job market, so skipping the first three...

4. How stable is the won-to-dollar exchange rate?
As far as I know, it's pretty stable.

5. Which is better? On- or off-campus housing? And what does teacher's housing tend to look like and include?
I had a furnished studio apartment near my school. It was kind of basic and wasn't anything to go nuts about, but it wasn't bad (not to mention free!). The big highlight for me was location - I lived in a fairly urban district in northern Seoul, near shopping (actually, on top of several shops) and only about a 10-minute walk from the nearest subway station.

6. How likeable is Seoul? I was there years ago, and I remember it as being really gray and bland. But I'm not sure if that was a fair assessment, even then.
Seoul has gotten a lot better in the last few years. Some of the areas downtown have been revitalized and I thought looked quite nice (Cheonggye Stream area, Gangnam, etc) That being said, you don't have to go very far to see "gray/bland" or even rather ugly architecture - but it is improving.

7. How polluted is Seoul? How sprawling is it?
I didn't think the pollution was THAT bad, but it is kind of noticeable at times - particularly after it rains and you can suddenly *see* the mountains (at least for a day or two). Very sprawled though, but like other Asian megacities it's high-density sprawl.

8. Can you use English-language GPS in Seoul!?! How hard is it to navigate, generally?
Maps on your iPhone/Android will work, as long as you have a connection (or pre-cache the maps). If you want a dedicated GPS unit, Garmin Nuvi's can be loaded with maps for pretty much anywhere, including Korea. There's also Naver (Korea's answer to Google), which has a Maps page that is extremely accurate - it is in Korean though.

There is an addressing scheme but it's not very logical nor easy to use. Most people seem to rely on either landmarks or giving directions from the nearest subway station.

9. Is it difficult to make friends there? Teachers, businesspeople, single men, whomever.
I made a few friends, but not speaking Korean well and being the only Westerner at my school, I did have a bit of trouble at times. Seoul has a big expat population though so lots of online groups (Meetup, Couchsurfing, etc) - I met most of my friends through those.

10. Are there many Westerners there in their 30s or 40s?
A fair number - most Westerners I met were in their 20s or 30s (and a few older). Virtually all were either teachers or military.

11. Did going to Korea help your career in any way?
Quite a bit! Teaching ended up being a dead-end for me, but the experience did help me get my current job (Diplomacy/International Affairs), which I never would have considered before going to Korea.

12. Did you learn Korean?
A bit. I learned hangeul very fast, and picked up some tourist Korean. Didn't stay long enough to take classes and become good at it.

13. Do you think China would have been more interesting?
Don't know, haven't been to China yet (but hope to go someday).
posted by photo guy at 8:53 PM on March 27, 2012


Not from me, but from a friend who doesn't yet have a Metafilter account:

1. What are the odds of my getting a university job of this kind in Korea from the States?

Within Seoul without a Master's degree it would be very difficult. And even in the countryside and smaller cities it will be difficult if you aren't in the country for a face to face interview. But you never know here on the ROK; you'll never know what you will find with snooping--doesn't hurt to apply. There are certain backdoor jobs to uni careers.

2. When can I expect to start seeing ads for the fall semester? Or should I just start applying to lists of universities I have found and, if so, any idea how I find the contact person in the English Department's name on a Korean University Website?

I don't remember when they put the ads up. But remember that uni jobs do most of their hiring for Spring.

3. Can I really save $12-$20 grand there in a year, living a la graduate student; that is, frugally but not badly, assuming a base salary of 2.5 million KRW/month?

I'm not one to talk about saving money. In my experience moving to a new place always costs more than you expect. Eat ramen and kimbap and never go out drinking and you should be able to save money--maybe not as much as 12 to 20.

4. How stable is the won-to-dollar exchange rate?

I have no idea. The won 5 years ago was MUCH stronger and that sucks because I make a lot more money now. But I really have no frickin' idea.

5. Which is better? On- or off-campus housing?

Off campus. On-campus sucks. Some unis rent out apartments for singles and sometimes doubles. I live in Wonju, not Seoul. My apartment is paid for, but I really feel like I'm getting what I pay for.

6. How likeable is Seoul?

Seoul's charms must be teased out. In my opinion the greatest thing about Korea is befriending Koreans and learning the best places to eat. There's a real food culture. (BTW, don't come here expecting some variation of Japan. They are TOTALLY different countries. Best not to compare the two for your own and everyone else's sanity.)

7. How polluted is Seoul? How sprawling is it?

It is seriously sprawled. But language schools are generally clustered in certain areas. It is polluted, but not in an overbearing way.

8. Can you use English-language GPS in Seoul!?!

I don't drive in Korea. Public trans is awesome throughout the country.

9. Is it difficult to make friends there?

No, although I know it is harder for western women to meet men (whoo-boy, there's a can of worms waiting to be opened. A lot of the forums are sick with racism and sexism. But there are actual decent people here. There's a huge expat community, and just a bunch of amazing people in general. The qualifications are getting stricter, jobs more competitive, so the pool that the new people are coming from is improving in quality (and increasing in age, too.))

10. Are there many Westerners there in their 30s or 40s?

At the uni level we are mostly 30s to 50s and even beyond.

11. Did going to Korea help your career in any way?

It is my career, for better or worse. I make money, I can eat out when I want. I can take vacations. I wish I could live in the US.

12. Did you learn Korean?

No. I'm in my fourth year, and I can barely count to ten. But I'm lazy. It's not for lack of opportunities. You could do it.

13. Do you think China would have been more interesting?

May you live in interesting times, I believe is the saying.
posted by Erroneous at 7:02 AM on March 28, 2012


"MA is the minimum expectation for uni work there."

For Seoul this is probably true. But the biggest obstacle is this -- a uni won't hire you unless you're already in-country. Most of the college-level English teachers here (like me) take a hagwon or public school job for one year to leap-frog into a college gig. But it's kind of a Catch-22 -- colleges actually have less money than the hagwon do, and they don't want to buy you a round-trip ticket.

I do know college teachers who definitely don't have MA's, but they more than likely have some sort of TESOL certificate (having been here a few years already).

Frankly, you aren't going to get a college/uni position unless you're already here.
posted by bardic at 5:43 PM on July 15, 2012


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