Question from a reader: Come to Korea to find a job?
Another reader writes in a question - I LOVE questions from readers! If you have one that's not already been answered in other posts (please search first!), e-mail me at chrisinsouthkorea AT gmail DOT com. The reader writes:
First off, thanks! Thank you for sharing your experience and offering support via your website to people unknown to you. As Spike Lee said in one of his first movies, "That's mighty white of you" (She's Gotta Have It).
I am taking the Bridge online 120-hour course. I have the time now, and figured it couldn't hurt, although I have no idea if this will help me secure a better-conditions, higher-paying job.
Question (I accept your invitation to ask): Bridge tells me that one cannot obtain a visa once in korea. Is that true? I still feel uncomfortable committing to a year knowing nothing about a school and local neighborhood conditions (I realize in the interviews I will learn more about these things). Do people arrive there, investigate places personally, talk to people (EFL teachers) in bars, and then nail down the best jobs, or do you simply have to pay your dues that first year?
I have travelled to 18 countries, having lived in Spain, England, Thailand and India. I'm no tenderfoot, however, it seems all of the EFL stuff is done via internet and phone when it comes to Korea.
Oh yeah, I'm thinking of Busan and not Seoul (I am a sea-side kind of guy, and 3 million is a good -sized city for me). Any thoughts?
Thanks for reading! Obtaining a visa for a long-term stay is done either before you come to Korea or before you can enter Korea for a long-term stay. By obtaining the visa I mean actually having the visa physically placed in your passport. That's the case if yoiu're going to be a teacher for at least one year, meaning the Korean embassy in your home country is in charge of getting all the visa stuff taken care of. Once you're here, renewing your visa becomes another situation to take care of. If you're renewing with the same school, there's one set of paperwork to take care of. If you're starting at another school, most people have to do a visa run (e.g. visit the Korean embassy in another country to actually pick up the visa) to obtain their new visa.
The idea of coming to check out the neighborhoods and THEN deciding on a job isn't a bad idea - at least in theory. In reality, however, most schools either pay for your flight over here or reimburse you once you arrive. If you get a job with them after you arrive in Korea to find it, they don't pay for your flight to Korea. Instead, they'll pay for a flight to do a visa run (since you probably came on a 'tourist visa', which doesn't allow working for profit). At that point you've taken two flights and will have to pay for the cost of one. Some can afford to front or eat that cost - others can't. The average twentysomething recent college graduate fascinated with getting an English teaching job in a foreign country is not as likely to afford it as the slightly older, perhaps more financially stable person.
As far as what's the best way to inquire about a neighborhood, one idea is to take a look at a subway map of the city in question. Korea's six largest cities have a subway system of some kind - Seoul's is obviously the largest, but Busan has an excellent three-line system as well. There's more information on Wikipedia about subways in South Korea (warning: some details are out of date - I may actually have to edit Wikipedia to update things). The best way to learn about a neighborhood is to talk to the native English teachers at the school in question. They're going to know the area, the people, and socioeconomic status, and what's really going on in a given area. Make it a point to ask about talking to them, and consider any school that doesn't honor that request as suspect.
Do people arrive there, investigate places personally, talk to people (EFL teachers) in bars, and then nail down the best jobs, or do you simply have to pay your dues that first year? In a word, no. Most people coming to Korea - and this is admittedly a fairly stereotypical approach - learn about the opportunity to teach English in Korea through the internet or online. They apply for the job, talk to a recruiter, get interviewed by the school, and eventually are given an offer to come teach. A contract is sent, printed out, signed, and sent to Korea along with the rest of the paperwork to get a visa. You usually have to take a trip to your nearest Korean embassy for an in-person interview (if anyone did NOT have to do an in-person interview, say so in the comments!), then get ready to leave your home country for a year.
I'm afraid I don't have any statistics on how many foreigners stay through their first full year, so I can't offer any numbers. Anecdotally speaking, a recent poll on this blog suggested about half of my readers had been in Korea for at least a year - take an online poll with a grain of salt, of course, but once you're here it becomes obvious whether you'll try to make it work or not. Most of the expats that have been here for more than a couple years would talk about their first year as 'paying their dues' in a manner that suggests it was spent learning the ins and outs of Korean culture, or at least the Korean way. Once their first job (or first year) is done, they have a much better idea on how to get what it is they want out of life - whether it's a job at a university, a job teaching adults, a job teaching kids, or getting the heck out of Korea. To a certain extent, most people do enter Korea somewhat blind, but that's because for most teachers, this is their first international experience. Someone with your experience has learned to be a little wary of what people say - especially if you can see the conflict of interest.
It's always possible for a job to not be as expected, despite your best efforts. In those cases, jumping ship and finding another job isn't usually too difficult to do. I've written before about 'discernment from afar' and how difficult it is. I dare say that the majority of longer-term expats in Korea have managed to jump ship at one point or another to escape some unbearable or asinine situation. That doesn't sound good, but consider that they're still here, working as an English teacher and doing the best job they can.
Oh yeah, I'm thinking of Busan and not Seoul (I am a sea-side kind of guy, and 3 million is a good -sized city for me). Any thoughts? As an English teacher based in Seoul, I'm afraid my observations regarding Busan are limited to a few visits to the area (check those out at http://chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com/search/label/Busan for every post I've ever done about Busan). I've heard Busan referred to as 'Seoul lite', although the sea is one distinctive factor of the area. There are certainly more than enough foreigners around the area, and I'd recommend it if you're OK with the size. Check out Busan Haps for a magazine made by expats for expats in the Busan area.
Also worth noting: a satellite city of Seoul might be worth looking into - these include Ilsan and Paju to the north, Bucheon and Incheon to the west, Guri to the east, and Bundang or Gwangmyeong to the south. These are all connected to the Seoul subway system, although you're aways from the city limits in some cases. They're close enough to come into town on the weekend, but far enough away that catching the last subway train home becomes very important. Check out this question asked by another reader about smaller cities as well.
Best of luck :)
© Chris Backe - 2009