Two years ago, I was a senior in college, trying to enjoy the last few months of life as a carefree student before stepping into the deep, dark, unknown commonly referred to as the “real world.” After a lot of careful deliberation and a sobering analysis of the American job market (especially for History and English majors), I decided to move to Asia for a year to work as a teacher.
But where to go? I’d never traveled to any Asian country before, so my knowledge was confined to what I’d read or heard from other people who had lived or travelled in the region. I wanted to go somewhere I could be comfortable, but still learn and experience a lot of new things. The first country that came to my mind was Japan. It was the Asian country that I’d heard most about, and I really like eating sushi.
After a bit more research, I realized that Korea was a far better destination for me. After living here for more than a year and a half, my experience has only compounded those affirmations. I’ve decided to compile some of the reasons I chose Korea for anyone who might be weighing the same decision.
1) Money: If Pink Floyd taught me anything, it’s that money is important. If making and saving money is important to you, then Korea is a much better choice than Japan. In general, the average ESL teacher in Japan and Korea make about the same salary. But the cost of living in Japan is significantly higher than it is in Korea. In my personal experience, I’ve been to Japan for vacation, and I can tell you that everything was more expensive, from a drink at the convenience store to a nice dinner out. In contrast, teachers working for ChungDahm Learning in Korea can save about $1,000 a month, without giving up any of the modern conveniences you’ve grown accustomed to.
2) English: If you don’t speak Korean, getting around in Korea can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. But this is the case in all foreign countries. In general, most places you go in Korea, especially in the big cities, you can get by with knowing little to no Korean. English is becoming more and more prevalent every day, and if you are patient with people, communication shouldn’t be a problem. Japan, on the other hand, is notorious for its lack of English fluency. So, with no foreign language skills, living in Korea will be your best bet. But if I were you, I’d learn to read the Korean alphabet: it’s extremely easy to do (it took me about 2 hours, and I am no language wizard) and will make life much better for you, even if you don’t understand all of it.
3) The People: It took me a very short while to realize that there are a lot of things that are unique to Koreans. All countries have unique characteristics and trademarks. But in general, Korean people are extremely warm and hospitable. This is especially true if you are a foreigner. Koreans are very proud of their country, culture and heritage. As a result, they love to see foreigners visiting their country. I’ve been in Korea for a while, and that feeling of being welcomed still makes me feel great about being an ex-pat in Korea. I get the sense that people are genuinely happy to have me living here. In Japan, foreigners are a lot more common, so chances are you won’t feel quite as special there.
4) Food and Health: Of all these topics, this one might be the most controversial. I won’t deny that Japanese food is good. But Korean food is extremely diverse, and tends to be much healthier in general. If you come to Korea and stick to Korean food, you will probably lose weight. Of course, fried chicken is as plentiful as any other kind of dish. However, that’s just a testament to the real diversity of edible delights there are here, from street food to restaurants.
View of apartments in Seoul, Korea.
Are these opinions biased? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the mind of this expat (and many others I’ve spoken to in my travels, mind you), Korea is the place to be this side of the Pacific Ocean.
Mark Rudnick is a proud product of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who found himself moving to Korea to teach English in 2009. He obtained his first teaching role at ChungDahm Learning after being recruited by Aclipse. He currently works at the R&D office at Chungdahm in Seoul, after spending a year as a teacher at the Pyeongchon Branch. Mark finds Korea a fascinating place to live and work--there really is something new to learn each day (for example: did you know that before the popularity of cell phones, all Koreans carried beepers?).