Starting a New Korea
"What's it like in Korea as a TEFL teacher?” "Good” has never seemed like a sufficient response for our man in the Far East – it's a question that needs a lengthy answer. So here it is, urinating bosses and all
I came to Korea in 2011 to 'teach English' with very little idea about what to expect, and fewer pointers. I ‘knew’ about Korea’s love of dog eating (as characteristic a feature of Korean cuisine as lettuce is of Scotland's, it turns out), its TV channels dedicated to online strategy game Starcraft, and the national hero status of equine dancing sensation PSY. Oh, and apparently I would tower over the locals – I’ve since met an unsettling number of twelve year olds who are taller than me.
It's therefore unsurprising that the first few weeks came with a steep learning curve. It's easy to attribute something to cultural differences or to be painfully aware when you've made a monumental balls-up in a social situation, but it's near impossible for that awareness to become instinct.
A rough crash course: bow, take off your shoes before entering a room, and don't disagree with anyone older than you. Oh, and titles are favored over names. This means calling your boss 'boss' and not 'Ms Kang.'
Fortunately for foreigners, Koreans make allowances on the etiquette, making Korea an easy place to live to the point where you can get by without even understanding the language. I know people who have lived here for 3 years and can't order food in a restaurant.
While social life is relaxed and stress-free, the same can't be said for work. Korea is a popular location for English teachers because it offers experience and good pay without loads of qualifications, but it’s notorious for stories of nightmare bosses, unreasonable demands and squabbles over money. None of these are as funny or disturbing as the events that befell two friends of mine, ‘Billy’ and ‘Becca.’
The first sign of trouble: they turned up to work and their boss told them they had two weeks to save their jobs. They looked through their contracts, trying to find some justification for this, and all seemed hopeless until they got drunk with the boss and asked him nicely not to fire them.
If that sounds a bit unconventional, what followed was arguably worse. Regular company-wide boozing is a feature of Korean work culture and a few weeks later Billy and Becca were again drinking with their boss. The atmosphere was soured when the boss ordered them back to school to finish lesson plans... at 1am. Their boss then drunkenly followed them home before collapsing in Billy's bed and urinating. That said, provided you can avoid any serious disputes or bed-wetting, working in Korea can be an enjoyable experience.
As well as asking what it's like to live in Korea, people often comment on how 'brave' I am for working in a country as foreign as Korea, but the truth is it's embarrassingly simple. I'm convinced that anyone could do this. The differences between Asia and Europe are largely cosmetic. I love the life here but it doesn't seem foreign to me – except for the urinating bosses.