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Teaching English in Seoul

When my job was lost to downsizing, I faced a choice. Should I stay in a crumbling America, or go abroad?


The decision was easy. If America didn’t want me, then plenty of other countries did, because I was a master of English, the global lingua franca.


So, before long, I found myself on a Korean Air 747 soaring over the Arctic, on the way to teach at a private school that I had never seen or heard of before. Though it didn’t seem so at first, moving to Korea turned out to be one of the best career moves I ever made.


The 747 arrived at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport late at night. The school’s director and vice-director were there to meet me. They deposited me at a “yogwan,” or traditional Korean inn, for a night’s sleep. The next day, I was at school, getting acquainted with other teachers and the curriculum.

The teachers – all native speakers of English, plus a Japanese lady who taught her native tongue — were a mixed lot. There was a towering beauty who was all smiles in class but growled about “those damn students” between teaching hours. Another teacher, a bubbly young blonde from California, once went into a spontaneous dance on a polished floor, slipped, and landed heavily on her rump.


The Japanese lady belonged to some religious cult with detailed teachings about torments awaiting the greedy in hell. The school fired her. I wondered if it was to save money, or to keep her from attempting conversions. Perhaps she gave management disturbing thoughts about the high tuition.


I taught advanced English conversation. Students were mostly college age and close to native fluency. They could discuss, in lucid English, everything from Korean ghost stories to computer science. My students taught me as much as I taught them.

One thing I learned was that Korea has a vastly more literate population than the United States. Korean students can quote Caesar in the original Latin. Meanwhile, roughly half of all Americans lack the reading and comprehension skills to understand this article. Care to guess whose brainpower will be imported to keep the U.S. running?


Korean kids have their whimsical side too. Inscriptions on t-shirts seem simply to have fun with English. For example: “UFO – Meeting Next Particular Any Style or Color.” That’s nice to know, if I ever go shopping for a UFO. The message on the back of one jacket read, “Just Take Care Of.” Of what? Anything you like. What could be more user-friendly?


These are examples of “Konglish,” the Korean-English patois that many Koreans use. They seem apologetic for it, but I love it. It’s like the scrambled-word puzzles one sees in newspapers. How, for example, would you interpret “Alram Beel”? No, it’s not Arabic for a gas station. It’s “Alarm Bell” in Konglish. Wandering in a Konglish environment for a few days, you start to think spelling and grammar are just Western preoccupations.


You may want to spend about a month in Seoul checking out employment opportunities. There are plenty, in fields ranging from consulting to teaching. Schools and companies need the services of native speakers of English. Just be careful of the hagwans, or private English “academies.” Some are reputable, but others are rip-off operations. If a hagwan owner pushes a contract at you and urges you to sign on the spot, then run, don’t walk, out the door. Get a university position if you can. Benefits and pay are better than at hagwans. A friend of mine from Canada got tired of the hagwan racket and wound up with a university job here. He loves it. Maybe you will find a good position too.

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