Six Irish reactions to a big Korea move

You can tell a lot about people from the way they react when you tell them you’re going to teach English in Korea for a year (Though I don’t suggest doing this unless you are actually going to teach English in Korea for a year). Here are the five types of people I have encountered:

  1. The ones who think South Korea is a third world country.

I went to my doctor for a check-up shortly before heading to Korea. When I told him about my plans, he looked at me with admiration and said ‘It goes to show that there’s more important things in life than having the latest iPhone’.

A surprising amount of people seemed to think I was traveling to an impoverished land to live in a mud hut with no running water or electricity. They imagined me battery teaching hundreds of children who have to walk to school in their bare feet and sit on the floor. I’m not sure if they think the images of North Korean refugees with protruding ribs applies to all of Korea, or if Korea gets lumped in with poorer east Asian countries.

Whatever the reason, I kind of liked how these people saw me as an altruist, and I felt like I was letting them down a little bit when I told them this wasn’t a volunteering gig. In fact, part of my motivation for coming to Korea was that it provides some of the best wages and conditions for native English teachers – including a rent-free apartment and a maximum of 22 hours of classes per week.

Don’t get me wrong, South Korea does have poverty. The Confucian influence means that the family, rather than the state, carries the biggest responsibility in terms of looking people. So if you’re born into a poor family, chances are you’ll be poor for your whole life.

But South Korea’s wealth has increased vastly since the 1960s, and is ranked 15th in the world by nominal GDP. Along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, it is one of the ‘Asian Tigers’. Much of this success is attributed to education, which is valued extremely highly in South Korea – especially English language education. Hence the various efforts to entice native English speakers to become teachers here.

The upmarket Gangnam district in Seoul. Source: Sbindependent
  1. The ones who think Kim Jong-un is personally going to kill me.

I can’t blame these people. We watch North Korea carry out rocket tests while its citizens are starved, persecuted and worse. We laugh at the latest ridiculous proclamation by North Korea’s news agency, and the eccentricities of its dictator, Kim Jong-un. We just don’t know what’s going to happen next, and North Korea has become quite a source of infotainment.

I felt like the only way to reassure these people that I intend to come back in one piece was to tell them where in Korea I’m going. If North Korea was to attack, its preferred target would probably be Seoul which is far closer to the North Korean border, and far less sheltered than Busan. I’m also told that the amount of ancient temples in Busan means that North Korea won’t want to shell it.

Kim Jong-un waving during a military parade in 2012. Source: NTI

3. The ones who can’t understand why I’m not going to Australia.

“But everyone is in Oz!”

Australia is English speaking and has a sizable Irish population. For many people these are big advantages, but right now that’s not what I’m looking for. Part of Korea’s draw is the challenge of learning a new language and immersing myself in a culture which is very different from my own. I would love to see Australia, and maybe even live there one day – just not at the moment.

In another sense I was staying in my comfort zone by going to Korea because I was able to have a job and a place to live lined up beforehand. Because I don’t have a specialist trade like hairdressing or pluming, it’s unlikely that I could do the same if I went to Australia.

4. The ‘problem’ people.

“But you have a boyfriend!” “You’ll be so homesick!” “You’ll have to eat rice all the time!” “Korea has different writing to us! DIFFERENT WRITING!!!”

I know there’s a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t have come to Korea, but there’s many more reasons why it was the right decision. In my dying days when I’m reflecting on my life, I can’t imagine thinking ‘I’m so glad I didn’t go teaching English in Korea when I was in my 20s, it would have been too hard to learn Korean and I would have missed my boyfriend too much and I would have got sick of eating rice all the time.’

One of the things I’m making a conscious effort to do at the moment is to relax, see the big picture and stop stressing out. Living and teaching in Korea is a massive learning curve, and I’m too busy learning – about teaching, about Korea and about all the interesting new people I’ve met – to stress out about things that I know I can cope with if I try.

5. The “OMGI’mSoJealous” people

There is a small but very devoted number of Irish people who have been swept up by what’s known as the ‘Korean wave‘, a growing appetite for Korean cultural commodities around the world. They love anything prefixed with a K, especially K-Pop and K-Dramas, and their dream is to go to the land that where those things came from. To my shame (and their horror) I’ve never watched a Korean drama, and I would never listen to K-pop voluntarily- although I sometimes stick on a metro sexual K-pop boy band video for the students if we’ve had a really good class.


6. The ones who don’t know what to say.

Some people didn’t want to risk embarrassment about their lack of knowledge about Korea. But they shouldn’t be embarrassed – most Korean people don’t really know anything about Ireland either. When I tell Korean people where I’m from, they mostly think I’m saying ‘Iceland’. One of the most useful phrases I learned before arriving was ‘아일랜드는 영국 옆에 있어요’: Ireland is beside England.

The world is a big place with a lot of countries. I think it’s fine to admit that we don’t know anything about most of them. Here’s a good place to start:


About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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