Teaching English Overseas - Korea & Taiwan

by Louis Frohman
(Washington, DC, USA)

I am an American and spent five years teaching English overseas, first in South Korea, and later in Taiwan. I first moved overseas to teach ESL in 2002 and did so with the assistance of a local Korean recruiter who worked independently in Portland, OR (USA) to connect prospective teachers with hiring schools. Regarding the use of recruiters to find placement, this is a convenient method for those who are moving abroad for the first time and may be uncertain as to how to find a job. My recruiter arranged for me to work for a school called ECC located in Seoul.

The school paid for my flight to Korea, provided at no charge a room in an apartment shared with other foreign teachers who also worked at the school. I worked six days a week, approximately 35 hours each week and was paid a standard monthly wage, 1.8 million won. I received holiday bonuses, 1 week paid vacation and my flight home would be paid for at the conclusion of my one year contract. I only taught grade school children and worked only in the afternoons and evenings.

However, my relationship with my employers was never very good and after five months, my contract was terminated. The school was willing to pay for my flight home but instead I opted to find another job and remain in S. Korea. Within a few days, I found another job offering the same benefits as the previous with greater pay and I only had to work five days a week rather than six. At this school, I primarily taught kindergarten and younger grade school children. I worked mornings and afternoon.

At either school, its a wonder the students learned at all because I was not a very good teacher and was given no training. I learned from the other teachers. I had fun with the children and the parents were satisfied with whatever progress was made. Overall, the experience at the second school was significantly better. What distinguished the two? I can name two factors; First, adjusting to Korean culture was a significant challenge for me and demanded a willingness on my part to adapt which I eventually accepted and learned to do. Second, working six days a week leaves little or no time to experience anything other than work and without some time for leisure. Ones purpose becomes to earn money rather than to enjoy life.

Perhaps these points are obvious and could apply anywhere but they were realizations that I arrived at while learning to make my life abroad a success. In the year and a half that I lived in S. Korea, I traveled extensively, visiting every province. I hiked in many of the national and provincial parks and visited numerous temples. There is fantastic scenic beauty outside the cities and there are many charming small towns in rural areas. I had a wonderful experience living in S. Korea and delighted in the connection I made with the culture.

I left S. Korea in late 2003 and after traveling in SE Asia for a period, I relocated to Taiwan to live and teach ESL. I lived in Yong-he City, in Taipei County but just across the river from Taipei City and accessible by MRT. I remained in Yong-he and taught at the same school for three years with one break in the middle.

The school I worked for had a well planned curriculum with carefully selected materials. I was provided with teaching instruction and observed regularly until I reached the point where my teaching was effective. I taught children of all ages.

My teaching experience was more rewarding in Taiwan since I was not simply a babysitter but charged with being an instructor from whom good results were expected. My experience in Taiwan was of course different from the life I lead in S. Korea. Comparisons are difficult because I had changed greatly over the year and a half that I lived in S. Korea and so I was better equipped for life abroad when I arrived in Taiwan.

The working arrangement in Taiwan is different from the arrangement in S. Korea. Taiwanese schools generally do not pay as high a monthly salary and do not provide housing for the teachers. Also, flights to and from the country are not reimbursed. This is not necessary as there are many more ex-pats interested in living and working in Taiwan and so there is no need for such perks.

That being said, these changes create a different dynamic between the teachers and the schools. In Korea, the relationship between the schools and the teachers is rather paternalistic as the schools are responsible for taking care of so many fundamentals. In Taiwan, ex-pats are required to be more self sufficient, frankly more adult, which leaves one feeling as if they really live in the country rather than simply passing through on a one year tour.

This sense is reinforced culturally as the Taiwanese seem generally more open to the idea of westerners moving to Taiwan, learning the language and becoming part of the culture. In general, Korean culture is less open to westerners and has lower expectations for how attached or involved ex-pats will become in Korean culture. This is not a criticism but just my subjective observation.

My time in Taiwan was rich with experience. I traveled extensively and studied Mandarin Chinese. I learned a great deal about Taiwanese culture as well as Chinese culture and history. My life in Korea required struggle and I believe it was that struggle which defined my time there and separates that experience from anything else I have done.

My life in Taiwan did not require that struggle but it did demand a new level of maturity. In retrospect, though elements of heaven and hell may be found in both teaching or living experiences, the challenges I with which I was rewarded were worth anything which may have been sacrificed in the process. My decision to leave Taiwan after three years was not due to any dissatisfaction with the experience which overall was wonderful. Instead, it was simply time for me to move on to the next stage in my life.

Comments for Teaching English Overseas - Korea & Taiwan

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Nov 13, 2010
by: Mark (Admin)

I've thought about teaching in universities in Korea. In what way was life a struggle there? And thanks for the detailed post comparing the two countries.

Nov 30, 2010
More about S. Korea, comparisons with Taiwan
by: Louis

How was life a struggle in S. Korea? Several factors made settling in S. Korea a challenge for me. Admittedly, most of them seem in retrospect to be petty and perhaps only a product of how inexperienced I was at that time. First, since it was my first time abroad, it took me a long time to get over my culture shock which predictably manifested itself in obsession over western foodstuffs and where I could get them. For example I made ridiculous journeys throughout Seoul in search of quality yogurt. I ended up making my own rather than forgo it. I also pined for a decent used books store with abundant affordable books in English. I would have faced this challenge no matter where I went in Asia and as I mentioned, the problem was amplified by my lack of exposure. Perhaps things are different now but at the time there were only a few groceries that stocked western foodstuffs and those were either near the embassies or the military bases. Second hand books were hard to come by. Next would be cultural traits that seem discriminatory, but probably are not, like taxi-drivers not wanting to pick up westerners, particularly at night. I never figured that one out but I allowed several splendidly drunken nights to be spoiled by waiting for a taxi to actually stop for me rather than just admitting defeat and walking home. Sometimes I would go to a new restaurant and not only not be served but not be looked at. This was not the norm but when it did, it was always rather awkward and disappointing. It was like being a ghost. Along those lines, walking through a brothel district was always an odd experience as I was totally ignored. It was fascinating. I was exactly as if I were a ghost.

Nov 30, 2010
Korea, Taiwan, part 2
by: Lous

Another factor is something I alluded to in my previous post. S. Korea has remnants of what is arguably a gift economy. With both of the schools I worked for, I found that the relationship between employee and employer was very different from what I had experienced previously and what I experienced in Taiwan. First, just because schools provide so much for their teachers and require no monetary payment does not mean that they do not expect something in return beyond a hard day’s work. The schools provide housing, airfare, bonus pay at the end of the contract. They will also buy or provide the teachers with other things such as furniture, kitchen necessities or whatever. As a westerner, I think it’s easy to simply see this as part of what is guaranteed by the contract, just another form of compensation. But for a S. Korean, (and any Koreans who may read this or other foreigners who know better, please feel free to correct me) these goods and services create a relationship between the employer and employee that does beyond a conventional western employment relationship. I think my employers saw themselves as parental figures and expected a level of devotion and appreciation from the teachers that was rarely met. I think things were expected of the teachers that we didn’t even realize but our “failings” likely resulted in any problems we might have had with the employers. I must confess, my first job there came to a premature end largely because of issues that were the result of my failure to recognize that I just wasn’t being gracious enough and probably asserted my self a bit too much. I think I would navigate this aspect of Korean culture a bit better I had another go at living there. I’m not sure how relevant all this will be for you since you are experience traveler who has been to and lived in many countries. I would like to add another positive note to my time in S. Korea and that is the freedom or independence I felt there. By this I mean access or having the opportunity to go wherever I wanted to go. I hiked in many parks and climbed as many mountains as I had time to do and I never needed to get a special pass or join a tour group to enter a park. Also, I actually think the inter-county bus system is better in S. Korea than it is in Taiwan in terms of getting to remote places. I never found myself wishing I had my own car or scooter in S. Korea as I did in Taiwan. Bus drivers, unlike taxi drivers, never turned me away or failed to stop for me. I hope some of this is helpful. I wish the best of luck!

Dec 01, 2010
Korea vs Taiwan
by: Mark (Admin)

I think most people who have lived abroad for any length of time have had obsessions over eating food from home. I once met a Korean traveller in Taiwan who had about 30 bags of instant Korean noodles given to him by his mother. As far as I know he never tried Taiwanese food. I used to have an obsession with marmite - but I'm more relaxed about with these things now. I eat what I can whenever I can.

I was told when I was in Korea that if you really wanted a taxi to stop you should hold up 2 fingers at the taxi :) 2 fingers = double fare. Or 3 fingers = triple fare. I never tried this so I don't know if it's true or not. In Taiwan taxi drivers have been a source of free Mandarin lessons for me. I imagine it would be harder to learn Korean from Korean taxi drivers - if they don't even stop.

If employers see themselves as parental figures then this will be an area of cultural differences where there's excellent potential for problems. It sounds like a less intense version of the traditional relationship between martial arts master and student. I've seen problems when people are oblivious of the expected relationship - or just don't wish to accept it - here in Taiwan.

I've decided not to go to Korea - for now - and have accepted a job in a university in Taiwan.

Jan 05, 2012
Korean difficulties
by: Jorje

I did the Korean thing and just wanted to weigh in a little. It's very difficult to sum up the many differences and misunderstandings that commonly lead to frustration between foreigners and Koreans. In my opinion this is because of a radical fundamental difference in worldviews at the core: in the West we believe it is our fundamental right to pursue happiness in our lives as an individual. We have freedom to (date who we want, pursue our own career choice, etc) and freedom from (mandatory military service, strict social obligations,etc) We do this as we see fit even if that comes down to getting on a plane to work in Korea for a year.

In Korea there is no such individuality: you are one link in a family chain that stretches backwards and forwards in time. Individual Koreans' own personal motivations and longings play a distant second fiddle to the will or good of the family. A daughter-in-law MUST go to Church with her mother-in-law for the family. A son MUST study to be an engineer because the father says so. Adult children will generally have to have their choice in mates reviewed by the family. Workers MUST defer to the boss. So on so forth. Under the Confucian system nearly every relationship between man and his surroundings has a prescribed manner of appropriate action, all else is rogue and needs to be corrected by intense peer review.

This is a sweeping generalization, but it is this fundamental difference in the way that we view the world that separates Koreans from foreigners. They do not think we understand their system and are somehow outside it. In one way, they envy us for this, in another they also tend to begrudge it (you will find that contradictions in theory or thought are not necessarily a problem in Korea... it is possible for them to believe contradicting facts at the same time somehow).

Anyway, it's toug to totally spell it out. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. The majority of foreigners in Korea that are there longer than 2 years are freaks of one degree or another.

Jan 06, 2012
About expats
by: Mark (Admin)

Remember that a lot of the long term foreign residents won't be visible because they will have their own networks of friends in the LT foreign community and in the local community.

Expats are often surprised that I've lived in Taiwan for a long time, but they don't know me. That's because I don't hang out at the expat sport's bars. So I think it's difficult to really know what the LT expat community is like, as so much of it remains hidden.

Do you think Korean society is changing? Becoming more individualistic? This is a change I've seen happening in Taiwan - although it's still very different from society in Europe or North America.

Feb 07, 2012
working in korea
by: Anonymous

I lived an worked in Korea for three years. Korea can be heaven or nightmare on the way you look at it. 1) respect your boss
2) like your kids
3) negotiate-your point but keep face
4) be positive
5) learn Korean/ explore the country.
6) save some- play a little- make sure you have a hobby.- have both Korean and expat friends.

My first year was difficult-the rest of my time in Korea was amazing- I meet some wonderful people, became fluent in Korean and well woke up one day and realized that I missed my home. The choice was to continue my life as Korean/wantah-be x-pat or go back to graduate school. North America just has so much more nature- no pollution etc- that is why I left Korea- Now I am traveling to Taiwan-went through the middle East and across Europe.

Mar 12, 2012
work in taiwan
by: tesabal

by now i have been working in taiwan for 7 years or so. i currently live in kaohsiung.i go to see taiwanese films every month to understand taiwanese culture but there i got hollywood actions (black and white dawn of assault). if you are a westener loving action films do come in taiwan. taiwanese are more aware and they accept you easily.do not worry if you dont know taiwanese as people here would try their english lessons with you.in korea taxi drivers dont know english but here its all opposite.the people are very friendly and acceptable. i do have some work experience in korea which i think is a bad place if like your identity. the culture here is very good the scenic beauty in the taroka gorge is wonderful.

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