Alice Slevison from Asia Options sat down with her China Policy colleague Tristan Leonard to discuss his experience as an English teacher in Seoul.
Some background about Tristan…
I started out with a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, where I wrote my research paper on Japanese kamakura historiography. Upon graduating I went to Northern Thailand to volunteer as a high school teacher. Whilst in Thailand I became proficient in Thai and developed an interest in industrial development. I returned to Australia to complete a Masters in International Relations at the University of New South Wales, where I received the NSW Chinese community scholarship. I later spent two years in Korea in the government education system then proceeded to teach at universities in both Mainland China and Taiwan. I then returned to Australia to undertake my Masters in International Political Economy at the University of Sydney, where I wrote a thesis on systemic risk in the Chinese financial system. I now work as Research Manager at China Policy in Beijing, directing research projects on political risk and economic policy in China.
Where did your interest in Korea stem from?
Towards the end of my first master’s, I became interested in Korea’s industrial development experience. Whilst living in Sydney I had become exposed to the Korean restaurant scene and Korean community, so it seemed like a good fit to combine studying a niche East Asian language with my interest in the South Korean economic development model, and also a chance to explore a new region of cultural, historical and artistic depth. Korea had always seemed like an overlooked aspect of the Northeast Asian dynamic to me, and I was fascinated by the duality of an ancient Confucian society that had rapidly developed extreme technological capacities. My research field is now in East Asian economic development and industrial policy so my Korean experience has proven invaluable.
Were you able to speak Korean before moving to Korea?
I had no background in the Korean language before I moved to Korea, but I had previously studied German, French, Latin and Thai and backed myself to go in cold. I chose to live my first year in the most isolated and least developed province, Gyeongsangbukdo. ‘Gyeongbuk’ for short has its own dialect or saturi (사투리), and the village I lived in was extremely traditional. Making friends with ajumma (아줌마) living in traditional hanok (한옥); making kimchi (김치)with cabbages direct from the mountainside; and earning a black belt in haidonggumdo (해동검도) with a clan of ajjushi (아저씨), I was exposed to all kinds of opportunities to learn first hand language skills. The Gyeongbuk dialect is a remnant of Silla dynasty Korean and aspects of it maintain a two tonal system (standard Korean has no tones). My Korean is not very strong but I still know some dialect words like kashigae (가시개)– scissors– that I can confuse my friends in Seoul with. If you only learn one word, I suggest goguma (고구마), Korean sweet potatoes will get you through a long winter.
How did you go about finding a job in Korea?
I went to Korea with the English Program in Korea (EPIK), which is modelled on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). This was a great way to walk into a stable job as they place recruits directly into the government education system. I worked first for the Gyeongsangbukdo Provincial Ministry of Education and later for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Regulations on foreigners teaching in Korea are strict but very transparent. Notarised copies of degrees (from a Notary Public) and certified copies (from a Justice of the Peace) of criminal background checks, as well as an original invitation certificate from the employer, are needed to obtain the work visa. Upon arrival in Korea, the visa is converted to an identification card which also serves as a multiple entry permit.
Entering through the government education system via EPIK made all of this very simple. Going alone into university teaching or hagwon(학원) teaching would require both more organisation and risk. Landing a job in a legal or computer science related field would require much more networking and luck.
Did you earn a fair wage whilst working as a teacher in Korea?
Education is a serious industry in Korea and teaching is a respected and well-paid profession.
Probably the best thing about the government teaching programis that accommodation is subsidised by the provincial government and administered by the school. In Gyeongbuk I lived in a new one bedroom apartment with ondol (온돌) floor heating and a mountain hiking trail metres away and in Seoul I lived in an officetel (오피스텔) – a kind of serviced apartment – in central Jongno where I could walk to vibrant HyeHwa, shopping in Dongdaemun, historic ChangDeok palace and Anguk, or downtown Jongno-3-Ga.
Health insurance was covered by the employer, the wage was easily enough to save on and university teaching or cram school teaching can even be quite lucrative. I spent a lot of time travelling to different cities and scenic places in Korea; bought books and clothes; ate out and went to concerts; and travelled to Japan, Taiwan and China. Being a teacher will never make you rich, but Korean wage to living standard ratios mean you can lead a comfortable life.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of being a teacher in Korea?
It was truly wonderful to be immersed in a culture that so idolises learning and education in all forms. Helping to shape the direction of so many talented students’ journeys through academic life was a real gift
It was also always humbling to be invited to symphonies, recitals, galleries, libraries, universities and countless private homes due to my status as a teacher.
Perhaps most uniquely I was able to offer life advice to students who were not academically gifted, reminding them that there are many paths to success, some of which cannot be measured in test scores.
Were there any negative aspects of teaching English in Korea?
Korea’s strong Neo-Confucian hierarchy can prove challenging to negotiate. Probably the best advice I could give would be to learn to recognise and accept your place in the hierarchy and to differentiate between ‘inside group and ‘outside group’ mentality.
Age, gender and education all affect your place in the hierarchy and you should learn to behave appropriately. It is actually very rewarding to be able to integrate yourself with a new culture once you recognise the social cues.
If you are ‘inside’ a Korean group, such as a sports club, language club, alumni group or with work colleagues then your Korean counterparts in those groups are as close as family to you. Some of my best memories are from being in such close relationships with my Korean brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. But as is understandable from their history, outsiders are largely viewed with distrust. Trying to make new friends by introducing yourself will likely get you nowhere, but being properly introduced could make you friends for a lifetime.
Any tips or recommendations for young people interested in teaching English in Korea?
In retrospect, my advice to anyone considering Korea would be to maximise your exposure to their university system.
If you are considering teaching, go with at least a Masters degree, and teach English in a university. It really is not hard to land an entry-level university teaching job but it does make the paperwork and accommodation sourcing more difficult.
A much better option to maximise your Korean experience would be to study there. Korea has a wonderful array of educational institutions and the big universities all have entry-level Korean language courses and English taught master’s courses in international studies. Seoul National University, Yonsei, Korea University, Sungkyunkwan or Ehwa Women’s University in Seoul all have good Graduate Schools of International Studies (GSIS) or you might consider Busan University of Foreign Studies if you prefer the south.
Korea really does present a huge range of opportunities for teaching and learning. For Australians considering engagement with East Asia, spending a year or two in Republic of Korea could prove invaluable. Korea is one of Australia’s most important trading partners and Korean language skills are sure to be in demand in the future.
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