Teaching English overseas was not what I thought it would be

Around nine years ago, I made the brave decision to teach English in South Korea. I was working full-time in an office job and was feeling restless and ready to see the world again.

Three years before that time, I completed my working holiday in the United Kingdom. I returned to Sydney and tried to settle down, working full-time and doing grown-up things but my feet were itchy and I knew it was time to take an adventure again.

Before I went to South Korea, I completed a Teaching English as a Second Language course. I then started researching jobs in South Korea online. I was quite overwhelmed at first at the amount of jobs being advertised. It was also difficult to find information on the schools that were advertising the positions. I was keen to teach adults but it seemed that most jobs being advertised were for teaching English to children.

I have never spent that much time with children, but I realised that if I wanted to make my dream of teaching English in South Korea come true, I would need to teach English to kids. So I accepted a job at a hagwon (a private institute or “cram school”) in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city. I quit my office job which was scary but I was very excited about this next stage of my life. My intention was to live and work in South Korea for at least a year, travelling to Japan and other neighbouring Asian countries.

When I arrived in Busan in late 2011, I was in for a bit of a shock. The weather was freezing (I am Australian and not used to minus temperatures) and a stranger (who was the principal’s husband) came to pick me up from the airport to take me to the school. It felt weird and unsettling and I realised I was completely out of my comfort zone.

When I arrived at the school that evening with the principal’s husband, I was shown into a lonely, dirty studio flat. The principal’s husband gestured to the studio flat next to mine and told me that the girl currently living there, was moving out soon and that it would soon be my flat. I saw the girl smoking a cigarette inside the flat and my heart dropped. I have never been a smoker and don’t at all like the smell of smoke. I was worried about what the flat would look like and smell like when I moved there. That night, as I slept in the cold room, I hoped I would survive the next twelve months okay.

The next day, the principal introduced me to the other English teachers — an Englishman and two women from the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Englishman and I didn’t really connect but I did enjoy chatting with the Filipino teachers. I also met the Korean teachers, however, I found them reserved and not necessarily that interested in forming any kind of friendship, except for one male teacher who was quite sociable.

I was assigned around ten classes a day (for 30 or 40 minutes each), teaching 5 year olds to 16 year olds. For someone who has never had much experience with kids and is not a teacher, I felt like a fish out of water. The only two things that had got me this job was being a native English speaker and having a university degree. However, I felt like the principal also expected me to be an experienced teacher, despite me never having promised this.

The dream job ended up being a nightmare — long hours, teaching tedious content, being required to be strict with the children (even hitting sticks against desks to get the students’ attention) and working for the demanding principal — and it started to take its toll.

The only saving grace was my life outside of work. Although it was difficult at first to develop a social life in Busan, I eventually met people in the area through meetups. I also had a friend living in Seoul. I would take the express train there and meet her and her friends and go out in Itaewon and other westerner hotspots.

I found South Korea endlessly fascinating — the culture, the people, the food and also the nightlife. It is no wonder the country attracts so many expats — there are many beautiful places to hike, a plethora of spas and saunas and endless opportunities to socialise and meet new people.

However, it seemed my burgeoning social life was not enough to make me stay in South Korea. I hated my job and I no longer wanted to work for a crazy boss. I was extremely homesick, longing for my Sydney life again. After four months in Korea, I packed up my bags and left for Sydney. I was very upset that I had not completed 12 months in South Korea, but I knew that was way too long for an intolerable job.

When I landed back in Sydney, I got a lot of questions from colleagues and friends about my decision to turn my back on my teaching English dream. One afternoon, I was with friends at a bar and I said: “When I was in Korea, I realised how great my life was in Sydney”. One of my friends replied: “Maybe that was the whole point of the trip” and I realised he was right. Maybe my time in South Korea taught me how lucky I am in Australia and that I actually have a great life here.

Life went on. I got a new job in publishing, met a guy who became my boyfriend and stayed in Sydney for many years. I often look back on my Korean adventure — although short, it was such a valuable learning experience and one I will never forget.

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Helen van Soest

Helen van Soest

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I’m a writer and editor, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. I love reading books, articles and blogs. See my blog: https://myhsp.life/