One English Teacher’s Experience in South Korea: Lifestyles of the Cheap and Faceless

Lifestyles of the Cheap and Faceless: One English Teacher's Experience in South Korea

Today I got groped on an elevator.

In one swift movement, two fingers were forcefully jammed up, right between my legs.

I quickly spun around.  Only the elevator wall stared back at me. Looking down, just past my knees, I made eye contact with the perpetrator. A spacey grin of silver-fillings and baby teeth giggled back.

For all intents and purposes, I am an expat English teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. But really, descriptors like, “sideshow clown,” “anatomical body used for a child’s own curiosity and self-exploration,”  or “stand-in with a white face who needs to be ready for any and all photo opportunities (the more ridiculous, the better)” would probably be a lot more accurate.

My situation is not unique (seriously, everyone gets groped on the elevator). There are loads of us having this same experience, getting tiny fingers shoved up our rears, posing for carefully orchestrated pictures with students we’ve never met, spending our days dispelling myths about Niagara Falls being the only place to visit in North America.

With about 25,000 ESL teachers living in South Korea, our lifestyle habits and social trends tend to be both insightful and shameful.

For starters, we’re a pretty cheap bunch of kids. Our salaries rival that of engineers and professional baseball players. But even with this kind of monthly income, we still choose to buy the bottom-rung beer at the convenience store. We still select the student fare when riding the subway. We still fill up on the free (and unlimited) side dishes offered with every traditional Korean meal. Yet we can always be found experiencing the best of Seoul nightlife.

It’s a lifestyle we have grown accustomed to. We aren’t forced to pay for things like coat checks or covers. We don’t have to worry about going hungry at work. Instead, we assume that there will always be at least five students offering up a handful of chips that they have previously manhandled. Or at the very least, some strange chestnut candies which look deceivingly like chocolate-covered almonds.

Things like tipping, waiting in line for the bus and even paying for rent are more foreign than our own working visa status.

I don’t mean to generalize an expat’s spending habits. But as foreign teachers, we tend to be grouped together. Which brings up the next oversimplification of an ESL teacher: we’re faceless. We’re not from South Korea. Therefore, we are all the same.

I’ve been described as having black hair and black eyes. I’ve been told I have a small face. There are repeated comments that I look tired or sick. When I can be bothered to make an effort, my co-teacher is convinced that I have a secret date later that evening. None of these descriptors are accurate.

We accept that our mere presence, our black eyes and small faces, is the reason why we are here. Among expats, we rarely discuss our actual jobs. We can be the most amazing mind-molders or the most complacent of babysitters. But there’s no point in talking about it. Our situations are all too similar.

My classroom is a venue for my current interests or music obsessions, and my students probably hate me for this. I opt to show them skateboarding videos or travel clips in class. If I’m concerned that the lines between YouTube and teaching are becoming too blurred, I’ll grant them a game of Hangman. But I always choose the word jazz. Google told me it’s the hardest word to guess. The fact that I have researched this may communicate that the feelings my students have towards me may be reciprocated.  But that’s not the case. I just like to see 10-year-old kids’ anxiety increase as the stick figure nears lethal suspension.

South Korea can be a country of strained language barriers. This serves as a daily reminder that we are somewhere other than “home.” But it can also be a place void of all those difficult things about home: expensive healthcare, being put on hold with customer service, noxious record store clerks. It’s a perfect combination, which is exactly why it’s a crying shame that South Korea remains off-the-radar as a travel destination. As it stands, I’m convinced that the primary contributor to South Korea’s tourism industry is luggage-toting parents from English-speaking countries visiting their cheapskate, sick-looking kids.

But those parents who do choose to visit, or those with a quick stopover before making their way to other Asian heavy-hitters like Japan or China, will discover an animated country full of contrasts, cafes, and corn-topped pizzas.

It’s a place where it is extremely possible to take part in creative outlets which seem unattainable in another place. It’s a country where you will be easily and quickly rewarded for breaking out of your countercultural circles and befriending Koreans.

It’s a country where, in the end, you can’t help but smile after getting groped on an elevator.

READ NEXT: 10 Places You’ll Make Bank Teaching English Around the World

Sarah Kloke

Sarah is on a worldwide hunt for the perfect brunch. In an attempt to track down a haunt with unlimited coffee refills and the perfect hangover cure, she has spent the last two and a half years traveling and working in Asia. Unable to find that breakfast haven, she has been given no choice but to continue to travel the world. She also works as an intern at Vagabundo Magazine and documents her own travel stories (burnt pancakes and all) at Where's My Toothbrush?


20 Responses to One English Teacher’s Experience in South Korea: Lifestyles of the Cheap and Faceless

  1. Michael August 17, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I miss the rich lifestyle I had in China. I never had to worry about money or bills. I went to the supermarket and never bothered looking at the price. I just bought whatever I wanted and felt like carrying. Buying bottles in clubs in China was just a given. In NYC, I would never buy a bottle though. Good times.

    • Sarah Kloke August 20, 2012 at 1:26 am #

      The thought of bottle service in NYC just made my heart palpitate.

      However, I start salivating thinking about it here in Asia.

  2. Payje August 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Heh… Jazz… who would have guessed? Hey do you guys really get paid like rap stars? Even if you don’t, I still really enjoyed reading this post. Teaching English abroad is always one of those things I’ve thought about… but just haven’t done. But now that I know you get to watch youtube and play hangman all day my thoughts are changing.

    • Sarah August 20, 2012 at 1:33 am #

      That’s the best part…they NEVER guess ‘jazz.’

      Okay, well maybe it’s not ALL sunshine, youtube, free candy, and hangman sort-of gigs, but if you do your research, your life could seriously parallel a mediocre almost-chart-topping-but-will-probably-never-actually-make-it rap star.

  3. Gerard ~ GQ trippin August 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    When we were in Seoul we stayed with a friend who was teaching English. And all his friends were teaching English. It was definitely the ‘cool’ thing to be doing there. It’s funny how you mentioned drinking cheap beer at places like Family Mart, we saw it all the time. Makes sense, if I taught, I’d make as much $, then when done, get out and travel some more.

    • Jeremy Foster August 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      I’m currently thinking about going to China to teach English. And that’s exactly what I’ve got in mind!

    • Sarah's Toothbrush August 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      It’s practically written into our contracts that once finished, we will all spend our ESL teacher salary on travel.

      That is unless we have blown it all on nights spent drinking at Family Mart.

  4. Jessica August 24, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    “Anatomical body used for a child’s own curiosity and self-exploration,” – I love this. I teach ESL in Thailand and there is zero sense of personal space with these kids. Plus, hi-fives are expected anywhere, anytime, and in any quantity demanded.

    • Sarah's Toothbrush August 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

      I’m confident my personal space was left on the baggage carousel at Incheon International Airport.

      On the plus, high-fives are my preferred currency so that has become incredibly beneficial in these parts.

    • Tim August 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

      My kids here in Korea love hi-fives too. In front of school, on the elevator, in the middle of class, whatever. They breath on their hand and wind up like baseball sluggers. Apparently in an attempt to cause me pain but I just laugh. They’ve also taken to teaching me. Not even hangman excites them as much as when I say something in Korean.

      • Jeremy Foster August 22, 2013 at 4:43 am #

        DITTO! They did the exact same to me. They loved it when I was “bowled over” by their incredibly powerful high-fives.

  5. Agness from October 11, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    I agree with Michael. I am also missing my rich life in China, no bills to pay, lots of travels and no need to worry about money. The perks of being a foreign teacher in Asia. Not in all Asian countries though.

    • Jeremy Foster August 22, 2013 at 4:43 am #

      It’s the best, ain’t it? Money money moneeyyyyyy!

  6. Tim August 16, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    This was hilarious! I’ve yet to be groped in an elevator but in the middle of class one of my students decided to poke me in the butt and another gave it a slap. They’re touchy little buggers. Corn on my pizza with a side of pickles…why? haha

    • Jeremy Foster August 22, 2013 at 4:42 am #

      My students used to grab every part of my body, and stick their little fingers in places they didn’t belong. I just had to get used to being groped on daily basis.

      • Tim September 20, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

        They also like to pet my arm hair. “Oh, so soft teacher.”

        • Jeremy Foster October 5, 2013 at 2:22 am #

          Haha they loved to play with my beard, every time I decided to grow it out.


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