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Window on the World: My First Experience Teaching Overseas

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

Have you ever considered teaching English overseas?

Window on the World: My First Experience Teaching in South Korea

I took a job teaching at a Hagwon (training school) in the southern port city of Busan. It was 2004, and I hadn't yet been in Asia. I had no job, was staying in a temporary accommodation with a friend. There was nothing tying me down. I love travel and adventure, and the timing was right for me.

The phone interview consisted of one question in broken English: “Why you want come to Korea?” I rambled on, mentioning how I’d love to learn about the culture, study the language, etc…“OK, thank you.” Interview Over. About 20 minutes later I got an email from the recruiter. “Congratulations, you got the job!”

I exchanged a few emails with the teacher I’d be replacing, which was helpful, and gave me reassurance that the situation I was getting myself into was decent. The school paid for my flight up front – a nice perk for choosing Korea as a destination to teach English.

One week after the interview I was on the 15 hour flight. I had a duffel bag of clothes and books, a backpack, and a couple hundred bucks to last until the first paycheck.

I was picked up by Hana, my recruiter, who met me at the airport, and was then taken to the apartment which I would share with the teacher I would be shadowing for the next week, about a 15 minute walk from the school.

It was an exciting time, quite unlike anything I’d experienced before, this being the first time I stepped foot anywhere in Asia. The smell of the air, the greenness of the land, the hills of Busan that are everywhere throughout the city. It felt magical being there, walking through the streets, especially in those first few weeks and months.

I believe it was later the same day I arrived, I was at the school, sitting in on the classes I would teach.

I didn’t know what to expect. Would the kids like me? How would they react to an American? The war in Iraq was daily on the news. I hadn’t been around kids in years. I had no previous experience teaching, and this would be a trial by fire. After a few days shadowing their current teacher, I would be thrown right in with the wolves.

What surprised and delighted me, first off – was their humor. The classes were filled with laughter. They were constantly doing things to get me to laugh. And they found much of what I did hilarious: the pictures I drew on the board, the goofy faces I’d make, the silly, exaggerated pronunciation of new words to get them to repeat and help them remember.

And I was surprised how well they spoke English. Even the 2nd and 3rd graders knew enough to have simple conversations.

Their curiosity was refreshing and disarming. They had so many questions about me. If I liked Korean food, could I eat kimchi? And about America. It was a positive force in many of their minds, since America helped liberate Korea from Japanese occupation at the end of WWII. Their parents and grandparents had told them stories. It was fascinating and eye-opening, to learn about their history and hear their perspective. Here on the other side of the planet, a place I knew so little about, I was now getting a crash course.

This is probably my favorite part of being an ESL teacher overseas – the window it opens onto another world.

The travel on weekends and during holidays was a huge part of the experience. Visiting nearby Buddhist temples, hiking in the hills and mountains, hopping a bus to a nearby town. Exploring the city and hanging out at Dadaepo or the more famous Gwangalli Beach. Meeting and becoming friends with my Korean co-workers, as well as a group of expat teachers from all over the world. Seeing how much of a food culture it is, and getting to try new dishes all the time. Getting to know Koreans who are possibly the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve met anywhere.

I moved right into a ready-made life – the life of the teacher I was replacing. Took over his apartment, his job, his scooter, and he even set me up for a date with his ex-girlfriend. It was funny, and in my mind at the time it became kind of a metaphor for life. How we are part of the passing show, just temporary players on the stage – the space we inhabit, the roles we fill eventually filled by others as we live out our lives and pass on from the scene.

It was a year filled with amazing experiences. It wasn’t always easy. In fact, much of it was extremely challenging, the job had many tough days. But this made it all the more satisfying to complete the year contract. I felt a huge sense of personal growth.

And it was this experience that set me on the course to realizing I wanted to keep teaching into the future. Even though it often gets a bad and false rap as “not a real job.” (Whatever those are. Do they even exist anymore?) The money I was saving, the money in my pocket, and the adventures I was having were real enough for me.

I would be back again to teach for another year in Seoul, and then a few years in China. Next year, I’ve decided to explore somewhere new. Possibly a short-term contract in Japan or Thailand.

One thing I love about the field of ESL – there are so many opportunities, and jobs all over the world.

My experience in Korea opened my eyes to this world, to see the possibilities.

If you are considering teaching ESL for a year overseas, or even making it your career, I encourage you to go for it. The experiences you have will be life-changing. You will save a lot of money, and see a part of the world you wouldn’t have otherwise.

I’ve found all of my jobs on Dave’s ESL Café website, though there are other good ones out there as well. I wouldn’t recommend jumping into a situation as quickly as I did. (This was in the days of arriving on a tourist visa, and making a short visa run to Japan to convert it to a work visa). Take your time, do your research, talk to other teachers at the school, and make sure you feel good about the situation. This will make all the difference.

You might be nervous, scared of throwing yourself into an entire new world overseas, so far from home. But I guarantee within a few weeks you will look back and laugh at your fears, marvel in a new sense of accomplishment, and feel happy you had the courage to take such a step.

It might even reveal a new direction for your life, one that you weren’t aware of before going.

Dadaepo Beach in Busan

Dadaepo Beach in Busan

Gwangalli Beach

Gwangalli Beach

Traditional Korean temple house and pagoda.

Traditional Korean temple house and pagoda.

Bulguksa Temple on the slopes of Mount Toham.

Bulguksa Temple on the slopes of Mount Toham.

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