FAQ: Headed to Korea edition

Over the past month or so since I started telling people about my move to South Korea, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about it. Here are some of the common ones, along with my responses.

Q. Why are you going to Korea?

A. A couple reasons:

  1. I like teaching. So I’m moving to Korea to teach English as a second language. I think I can save money doing this while getting experience at the same time.
  2. I have a window here where I can get away without worrying about many responsibilities back home. In a couple years, I won’t have the opportunity.
  3. I love writing, and I want to live my life so that I can write about it. Korea is a way to shake things up again by experiencing another culture. I think it’ll force me to do things I would be too scared to do otherwise.

Q. Do you need to know Korean?

A. No, supposedly not. Some of the teachers I’ve talked with know some Korean. Others are like me: they don’t know any Korean. The academies say they prefer teachers who don’t speak Korean because they want their students to be totally immersed in English. But I think that’s just a selling point to get more teachers.

Q. Where are you going to live?

A. Seoul. It’s the largest city in South Korea. Almost half of South Korea’s population lives in the Seoul metro area. The academy where I work will pay for a studio apartment within a couple blocks from where I’m teaching, though I’m still not sure of the exact location.

Q. When are you leaving?

A. I wanted to leave this month, January, but my background check is taking longer than I thought it would. That’s pushing me out until, I think, mid to late March. [Update: I'm leaving late April.]

Q. What’s up with the background check?

A. It used to be that teachers only needed a state background check. But as of 2011, I need a federal version, which takes up to 12 weeks. I wasn’t able to work things out fast enough before the holidays, so I had to get the federal check. Now I’m just waiting.

Q. How long will you be gone?

A. My contract will last a year, because of the work visa I’ll get. So if I start in March, I’ll probably be back in March or April of 2012, if the world still exists then. We’ll see where I go from there.

Q. Why South Korea in particular?

A. It’s one of the easiest places to start teaching ESL. Academies in South Korea need lots of teachers, and they prefer them from the USA. So to entice us to work there, the academies pay housing and travel costs in addition to monthly salaries. I looked into other countries, and from what I heard, South Korea seemed like the best place to start.

On top of that, I was particularly interested in South Korea because I have some Korean friends, online and offline, who’ve helped me learn more about it. And South Korea’s right between China and Japan: I’d like to visit at least one of the other countries while I’m away.

Q. Where will you work?

A. I’m still not sure. I have to wait to get all my papers in order. The plan, though, is to work at a hagwon, which is like a private academy. The hours at the hagwons start later in the day and end in the evening. I think I’ll like that schedule better than normal school hours because it’ll leave my mornings free. Hopefully, I’ll only work during the week, but we’ll see how that actually goes.

For each class, I’ll partner with a Korean teacher. I’ll cover the oral side of English, and the other teacher will cover the written side. That’s about all I know at this point because I still haven’t signed a contract or anything.

Q. Are you paid in US dollars or Korean money?

A. I’ll be paid in Korean money, the Korean Won. Because of the exchange rate right now, I’ll lose money sending it home (as opposed to a few years ago). Oh well… I’d prefer keeping the dollar strong, but if it weakens, then I’ll make more money. Either way, I win.

Q. Is it expensive to live in Seoul?

A. Yes, technically it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world. But since housing is covered, the living expenses go down drastically. Also, I won’t have a car, so that cuts out gas and insurance costs too. Teachers usually say they spend most of their money on food and alcohol.

Q. Aren’t you scared of living in South Korea?

A. Yeah, a little bit but not because of my safety. I’d already decided to go before I heard about the attacks in November. But even if I hadn’t, it probably wouldn’t have phased me. I figure if someone’s going to die, it might as well be me. (I think I’ll write more about this later.) Frankly, I’m more nervous about trying to speak Korean, which – according to the FBI – is the second hardest language for native English speakers to learn.

Q. What’s religion like there?

A. Broadly speaking, about 50% of South Korea’s population says they have no religion at all. The rest is split between Christianity and Buddhism. I’m pretty sure Confucianism has a big influence on society too, even though only a tiny minority say that’s their religion.

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I’ll post more about Korea as the dates get closer, specifically about how to do all this, what I’m taking, and more about the culture as I learn it. And then when I get there, I’ll of course share even more about my experiences. I’m excited.

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