1. You might wander into North Korea.
Before I left the US to teach English in South Korea, I got a lot of “advice” from well-meaning friends, relatives, and random Internet commenters. Lots of people made the joke, “Oh don’t accidentally end up in North Korea!”
That is impossible. There is an expanse of land called the DMZ that is heavily guarded by troops from the North, South and the US. It’s like saying, “Don’t accidentally trip and fall into a bank vault.”
While the two countries are technically at war, there’s very little evidence of it in the day-to-day lives of Korean people and foreign expats. Many South Korean people do not view North Korea as part of their country. They look at the divided peninsula as two entirely different countries with different interests and cultures.
2. You’ll only be able to listen to KPop.
People always ask me, “Do people really do that horse dance there?”
“You know the one Opppaaa GANNGNAMM STYLE!”
Yes, KPop is very popular in Korea, but it’s not the only type of music produced and enjoyed here. And there are other artists besides Psy — like Super Junior, Big Bang, and Girl’s Generation. You might enjoy some of it if you can get past the glittery showmanship and the fact that it’s in Korean.
3. You can’t have a dog in Korea because Koreans eat dogs.
I’m going to take this moment to lay some education on you. The short answer is yes — some Koreans eat dog meat, sometimes. Dog soup restaurants are still around, but dog meat isn’t sold in regular grocery stores. Many people don’t eat it and lots of Koreans are embarrassed that some people still do.
4. Korea has space-age technology.
For some reason, lots of people think Asia is this bastion of 2050 technology. This isn’t the case. Yes, many front doors in Korea lock with a pass code, they have KTX high-speed trains and the world’s fastest internet, but Korea is far from flying cars and using teleportation. Let’s be honest, lots of countries have similar technology. The United States doesn’t because we don’t invest in public commodities the way other countries do.
5. Korean kids are so smart, teaching them is going to be super easy.
Every country has “smart people,” No country has all smart people. How exactly do you define smart? Is it the amount of knowledge or facts you know? Or how you analyze text? Or maybe what you do with the knowledge you have to make the world a better place?
In Korean schools, children are encouraged to learn massive amounts of material. Some students attend school for as much as 12-14 hours a day. The breadth and depth of some students’ knowledge is remarkable, but they’re compensating in other areas. Not every student is passionate about being forced to attend English class, nor do I know the appropriate response to a child falling asleep in my class when I know they were probably up all night studying. So no, it’s not easy. It’s different.
6. You won’t be able to find the products you need.
Many of the travel blogs preparing new ESL teachers are hopelessly outdated. They will tell you that you can’t find everything from tampons to peanut butter to bed sheets. None of this is true. Homeplus, Costco and High Street Market all sell foreign products at relatively similar prices to back home.
7. Korean schools have children’s best interests at heart.
In South Korea, many students attend privately-owned, after-school academies called hagwons. Some hagwons are wonderful institutions that provide a positive learning environment. Unfortunately, many are not as wonderful.
Korean standardized tests and the hagwon industry has long been the source of controversy and corruption. Most hagwons are businesses before they are sources of academic enrichment. Many ESL teachers go to Korea believing they will be encouraged to create innovative lessons for young minds, but this isn’t always the case. Instead, many hagwons operate using a cookie cutter model of ESL education that isn’t always in the best interest of the students.