Friday, May 27, 2011

Living Abroad: "Life After Teaching in Korea"

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Since many of you have expressed an interest in knowing what it was like for me to live and work abroad, AEM has launched a new series entitled, "Living Abroad." These pieces are about American expats who have lived or are living abroad. I am also exploring options of moving abroad again in a year or year and a half, and will be writing about that possibility (primarily here), as well as sharing my own experience of living and working in Korea. If you are interested in sharing your story with my readers, please don't hesitate to send me an email ( Those of you who have yet to leave the country are also welcome to submit pieces. This series is part of a public service to let indentured educated citizens know that there are other options, and that they can find fulfilling opportunities beyond U.S. borders. 

It is that time of the week again on Twitter! The wonderfully happy #followfriday tributes are flowing from Tweeps' fingertips around the globesphere (!), so the next post is befitting for the day, because this respondent was discovered on . . . Twitter. I found Jenn Pedde when sending out my tweet called "CODE HELP" to people who mention student loan debt. We immediately struck up a conversation, and somehow Korea came up. Jenn was delighted to hear that I had lived in Korea, because she has too. I asked Jenn if she'd be willing to contribute to my series, "Living Abroad," and she gladly agreed.

Here's what she had to say:

Deciding to teach abroad is a terrifying experience.  You’re not quite sure what is compelling you to want to leave everyone and everything behind when choosing to move to a foreign country.  Some would call it a general higher calling or a need to live differently.  Teaching abroad is not for everyone, which is a good thing.  Those that you meet when you’re out on the road are some of the most unique people in the world, and they will affect you greatly [my emphasis]. 

As it stands today, teaching abroad in Asia is the most rewarding, financially speaking.  Asian countries such as Japan, China, and South Korea pay a premium price for naturally born English speakers.  Salary packages will vary when it comes to the benefits offered. But for the majority of jobs in South Korea,* they will offer:

(a) a monthly salary;
(b) free housing;
(c)  free round trip airfare;
(d)  50% health insurance;
(e) and a bonus upon contract completion, and a pension.

The average monthly salary in Korea is around $2000, and the cost of living in the country is inexpensive, which enables a teacher to save significantly more than if they were living in Japan. Moreover, Japanese teaching positions do not generally offer such benefits, like round trip airfare.  Depending on where you find your job, you may or may not need a teaching certificate.  In Korea, most jobs do not require any teaching experience, but will pay more [if you have] certification or [you possess] advanced degrees.

After a year, many actually come to like the world of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).   I know I learned more about the English language while teaching it than I could have ever imagined.  It’s an incredibly difficult language to learn.  We have a lot of inconsistent rules and we love to steal words from other languages (For example, did you know that banana isn’t an English word?  Yep, we stole it from the Spanish).

So what do you do with that one-year of experience when you’re done?

In my case, one year wasn’t enough.  I stayed teaching in Seoul, South Korea for a total of 2.5 years.  I kept finding more opportunities and meeting more of the locals.   Getting invited to things like Korean weddings and family events and being so involved in another culture was almost addicting.   I have never felt so welcomed somewhere and that’s a hard feeling to give up.  I was once given a bottle of wine at a restaurant for just “being pretty” and that was after we paid the bill!  Asian hospitality is unmatched.

With such positive experiences, I returned home with thoughts of going back to school to get my Masters in TESOL and doing this for the rest of my life, but I decided to put that on hold.  The idea of being home to reconnect with family and friends was more important than going off gallivanting again, so I quickly dove into the job search.  If you put your teaching experience on your resume and highlight some of the tangible aspects of the position like working with a diverse staff, performing interviews for potential students, and creating lesson plans and report cards in a timely manner, these skills translate well into entry level jobs for a number of companies that have a global reach.  Your international experience and cultural knowledge may be extremely valuable to a company. It's also an amazing talking point in an interview.

You’re not limited to the field of education after teaching is on your resume, though you may find it inspiring.  You can translate the experience into a variety of areas and fields.  I myself went to work in technology and marketing, but I know that I’ll be back in Asia at some point in my life for more than just vacationing, and the potential for an advanced degree is still in the back of my mind.   I know plenty of former ex-pats who came home after one year and went on to get their MBAs or Master;s in Nursing because they also allow plan to use these degrees for future, professional travel.  At the end of the day, whatever you decide to do when you finish your teaching experience will seem like a breeze compared to the challenge of living abroad, but the options are all there. The world is yours!

Jenn Pedde is the community manager for the Masters in Social Work program at the University of Southern California.  She lived in Seoul, South Korea for 2.5 years teaching English. Jenn is an avid traveler who enjoys photography.

*I should note that in my experience, my hogwon did not pay for housing, healthcare, etc. Since they paid above average rates, that is how they justified not covering these costs. But Jenn is correct. Most hogwons cover such expenses.

Hongdae: Entertainment  District of Seoul  (where the founder of AEM, when not teaching and fighting on behalf of the indentured educated class, had loads of fun with good friends)

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