Why I Came to Korea

May 9, 2011


Today is a holiday in South Korea: Buddha’s Birthday. My original plan was to enjoy a temple visit, but the weather did not oblige. So, I sit inside my clean apartment and think of things to write. Once you get out of the habit of blogging, it’s hard to start up again. This past month, I’ve had friends move away, new people coming in, life changes, better weather, and moments of Zen. I’ve talked about the bitterness one can develop after teaching English for twenty years in Asia. While I don’t think I’m quite there yet, I can see how the path I’m on in Korea might one day lead me to that state of mind.

I taught in Japan for a year as my first experience abroad. My first experience with English as a foreign language. My first experience being the dumb foreigner. And I learned a lot, for better or worse. It was just too easy to be paid to do something that came naturally. So it was to be admired (ogled, anyway) or an attraction for locals. When you’re not challenged in your personal life or your job, when you don’t see any reason to change because it wouldn’t affect your life in the slightest (i.e. you will always be the foreign English teacher in Japan), you truly are in a social stasis. No growing maturity. No intelligence. You might even slip backwards at the lack of stimulation. After two years in Japan, that’s how I felt, and why I wanted to escape while I was still aware enough of my situation. A few more years, and I doubt I’d be able to see myself for what I had become: a charlatan in a shirt and tie walking through the streets of Japan like I owned them, when in fact I was always in a class of my own (not the good kind).

So I left. For Thailand, China, New Zealand, back to the US for a few months, thinking I could just settle into a high-paying job with all my “experience” in Asia, enjoy the perks of success, get a fancy apartment, date a model, and enjoy the rest of my days. A bit of an exaggeration, but I think that’s what I had in mind. But when you give up two years of your life fresh out of university, you sacrifice more than those two years; you forego all the opportunities that an entry-level job and the connections with the people you would have met bring with them. Of course there are other chances, other jobs, other career paths I could have explored, but I wanted the easy road to success, and deluded myself into thinking it could be that easy: a lottery ticket, an interview for a job for which I wasn’t qualified…

Looking back, I’m pretty sure I knew exactly why I chose to move to Korea and teach. I can say all I want about my wanderlust kicking in and wanting to try life in a different country, one having aspects of Japan but still culturally unique, but in the end, it came down to cowardice. I wasn’t willing to get my hands dirty and do what I needed to do in the US to work for success, when I knew there was a job out there waiting in which all I would have to do was stand and talk. Nothing difficult. They would even pay me to come over there. When I knew that option was available, when all potential recruits see that choice, your work ethic for anything else essentially vanishes.

Why try in your home country? There’s an easier solution. Why try in Korea? They pay you either way. That’s what Japan did to me: their English educational system taught me to stop learning, stop trying. Though you can certainly survive as a mindless English speaking foreigner lacking ambition of any kind in Japan, Korea, China, and a handful of other countries, this “skill” doesn’t carry over too well when it’s time to go home and actually work for a living.

I’m being overly cynical about this whole process, but I can’t help it: I want newbies to learn from what I’ve done and the mistakes I’ve made. Namely, it’s perfectly alright to teach English for a year or two in Asia… after you’ve had some kind of experience in the real world and you know there’s something for you to go home to. Otherwise, you’re really screwing yourself over. Age doesn’t matter, but many in their early to mid 20s come to Asia, high on life and thinking they’ve hit the jackpot. Working and traveling is a jackpot. Teaching English is far from it.

I know there are those out there with college loans to pay off, kids to support, and savings to build. People who have no intention of staying longer than their contract allows and returning to the real world. But some get caught in the vortex and end up living the rest of their days unchallenged, and often bitter. Too black and white? Am I challenging those who start dating locals, finding themselves pregnant, and settling down while doing the same job? …a little. You may think a job is just a job, and your personal life is quite fulfilling, but what of the rest of the world? Do all the people around expect you to change? Their opinions don’t matter, but their perception of you certainly does; to them, you will always be the same.

This is a little more depressing than I had intended. Let me just say that although I’ve benefitted from my time abroad in terms of experience, I don’t believe I’m going to have an easier time “making it” at home due to it. I came to Korea to teach English knowing full well I’d be excited at first, then slowly fall into a routine until the job became practically pointless in my eyes. That’s already happened. And I’ve even agreed to stay until October to make a little extra money. How hypocritical of me.

I just wish teachers out here were actually teachers. I wish job experience out here actually counted as experience. I wish we were motived to learn rather than be apathetic about our students, employers, and ourselves. I wish maturity could be measured in interviews, so we didn’t have drunk foreigners parading through the streets of Hongdae and Itaewon on a regular basis. I just wish there were higher expectations of everyone.

2 Responses to Why I Came to Korea

  1. Carlo alcos on May 9, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Turner, I think you’re way too hard on yourself. Don’t regret. I think any path one chooses in life is easy to pick apart. The grass is always greener, right? Trust me you will look back on this and it will all make sense and you will be glad you did what you did. You’re a good man Charlie brown.

  2. Kelly Harrington on March 29, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Ha! I have been working in sales/project management let’s see since I was 28 (after doing grad school in of all things, physical therapy) and I am 44 now. I feel like I have totally WASTED all these years as a corporate drone (I am of the mindset that climbing the corporate ladder is a false reality forced upon folks to keep working/kissing butt until we die at the ripe age of 56 when heart disease starts creeping in). No one I know is “happy” with their American jobs. NO ONE. At least not in this unbearable thing called Corporate America with its 50 hour work weeks, 2 week vacations and sedentary lifestyle (I am a big time ultra distance runner so my weight/health has not declined but I am one of a kind in these crazy call centers)

    So let me tell you.. you are NOT MISSING anything. In fact, I hope you are STILL traveling and kicking butt being a one of a kind abroad. Yes, you are. You are. Be proud of your choices, pat yourself on the back and go get some more green tea and keep running and soaking in those fantastic sounding hot tubs abroad. As for me, it it works out, I will be coming soon!

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