So you’ve decided you want to teach in Korea. Do you have some savings? Do you speak English? Are you disease-, crime-, and drug-free? Do you like to travel, do you want to stay in one place for a year, are you ready for the responsibility of teaching, and can you handle kimchi? You need to ask yourself these questions. Obviously, every job is different and the levels of responsibility vary, but for the most part, you have to be ready to work. You’re not going to be on a year-long vacay. Korea puts its foreigners through a pretty rigorous entry test, including a background, drug, and disease check. Although, fun and travel are a huge bonus and will not be ignored, so don’t worry!
The easiest way to get a job is a referral. If you don’t know anyone that’s been there, hop on some of these websites and you’ll probably find someone to help you out: www.waygook.org, www.korea4expats.com, www.daveseslcafe.com.
People already in the country have the best information about where to get a job and whether or not that job is worth making the trip. Biggest tip: DO YOUR RESEARCH. Tons of resources are available to find out what makes a good job offer or a decent place to live. Really think about what is important to you and make choices based on that. Chances are you can find a job to suit most of your wants and needs. Think about how big a city you want to be in. The size will most likely determine how many other foreigners you’ll be around, access to foreign products, nightlife (or lack of), comfort, and standard of living. You also want to consider your job. What age group you want to teach, your hours, the size of your school, their reputation, and what they provide for you. Nearly every option is available, from babies to adults, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., two classes to 20 – so really think about what you want.
Leave for Korea in the fall. You’ll arrive in time for winter and will spend a lot of time indoors. I say this because your first month in Korea, you don’t get paid. And then your next three paychecks have a good chunk of change taken out for a housing deposit. On top of that, you’re spending a lot of whatever money you do have on start-up costs. Point is, getting here when the weather is nice and all you want to do is go on cool trips and see cool things is harder to do when it’s the beginning and you have no money.
I originally worked with a recruiter, Gone2Korea.com. They were extremely helpful. You have to do a lot of paperwork before departing and they helped me every step of the way – until I found my own job and abandoned them (Sorry, James!). Be prepared for a lot of trips to the post office, to dish out around $200 (for postage, various visas and forms, a passport if you don’t have one), for some waiting, and for everything to move really fast. Most steps in the process depend on something else (approval for a visa, your background check, etc). All this happens after you find a company that offers you a contract and will sponsor your visa.
Once all the paperwork has cleared and the contract is signed, you get to pack – and pack wisely. I was proud of myself for having some space left in my luggage, but now I’m wishing I had used that space more effectively. You have to think about what best suits you and what you need to be comfortable.
You want to bring enough “stuff” to last you the first couple of weeks. This frees up your money to be spent on food and other more interesting and fun activities. Korea is a highly developed country with a lot of access to foreign products (depending on your location) and lots of internet companies will ship you almost anything your heart desires, but it all costs money. Face wash that cost you $3 at home is probably going to cost you 10,000 to 15,000 won ($9 to $16) here. Prioritize your spending.
You can find a Korean equivalent to almost anything you need here. The biggest complaints about Korean vs. American products are deodorant, toothpaste (theirs doesn’t have fluoride), Q-tips, undergarments, towels, aspirin, and sheets. Chances are your apartment will have a bed, but most people here sleep on floor mats. Sheets are expensive and the mat moves around a lot. Towels here are usually smaller, and my apartment didn’t come with one, so I’m really glad I had one the first few days. If you are taller or bigger than average, you will have a difficult time finding clothes and shoes in your sizes. And I mean Korean average, which is pretty short and thin. While I usually wear a small or medium in the US, I’ve jumped up to a large or extra large here. I have friends that have trouble finding a women’s size 9 shoe or above.
Bring along a few things to add a touch of home to your new place. Small things like coasters, a few photos, and little trinkets will make you feel a little more at home in your empty apartment the first few days. Bring as much as you can – especially enough to get you through a few months, until you have money to have stuff shipped to you.
Another thing to keep in mind when packing: When you arrive, chances are you’re going to be jet-lagged, disoriented, and busy. My school expected me to go to work the day after I arrived (at 11:00 at night!) and my first days here were spent observing classes and learning about the school. I am really glad I didn’t have to devote a lot of time to finding the basics for living those first few days. Put it all in your carry-on, in the event your luggage doesn’t make it when you do.
My apartment is pretty nice for a first-timer and provided me with a bed, bedding, table, chairs, a toaster, etc. However, my school did not provide any kind of dishes, flatware, food, or any type of kitchen or bathroom accessories. I wish I had brought at least some food and supplies to get me through the first 48 hours. Definitely could have used some toilet paper. I’m not saying bring a kitchen set, but maybe a plastic set of silverware, a few napkins, a cup, a trash bag, and some snacks. After traveling for upwards of 20 hours, arriving late at night and being expected to be up and ready to go in the morning, you won’t be too keen on trying to wander around your totally foreign city, trying to find something to eat and a way to eat it. Also, bring a bottle of water. I died of thirst my first night because I was too tired and cold to find a convenience store, too afraid to drink the local water, and too stupid to know that the second faucet on my sink was a filter. Bottom line: Think about what you would need to survive comfortably for 3 to 5 days if you couldn’t get to a store.
Another pretty collective complaint about Korea: the air. Almost everyone gets sick their first few weeks. I had what I call “the Korean Funk” for at least three months. I wish I had brought more medicine from home. You never know how you’re going to react to foreign medicine. I would definitely recommend going to a doctor as soon as you can. The visits and the meds are super cheap.
My best advice is to sit down and think about what you do and don’t need to be happy and comfortable for daily living. Remember that you’re not going to be teaching 24/7, so make sure you have clothes for every situation – gym, chill time, going out, etc. If you can’t fit all this into your suitcases, have it shipped to your school. It’ll be like getting a present. Opening a box full of home comforts is pretty awesome when you’re in a new place. Throw some treats in there. Korea has tons of great candy, but they may not have your favorites (Starburst jellybeans, I misssss you!).
Also, try to bring little trinkets and gifts for your students and coworkers from home. Share some of your hometown with your class and colleagues. Presents are a great way to get in good with your coworkers from the beginning!
Last but not least, if it’s not a necessity, don’t worry about. You will figure out how to get it eventually if you can live without for a few weeks. After a few weeks of being here, my originally empty apartment has acquired two bookshelves, a desk, a cabinet, a microwave, and a dish rack. All for free. People are coming and going all the time, so check websites (and the dumpster!) for things being given away or sold and pretty soon, you’ll be set.