Why I’m Leaving Korea — and What I’ll Miss About It

The view of South Korea out of an airplane window.
On final approach to Incheon International Airport in South Korea on February 22, 2020. (My own photo)

I touched down at Incheon International Airport on a chilly February day in 2020. It had been years and years of hoping and wishing I could get to Korea in some way, shape, or form. I didn’t have enough money for a vacation. Applying to university there was a hassle, since I had dropped out of school in the first place. Attempts to get internships there had fallen through. But now, I was in Korea, ready to embark on a brand new journey: teaching English.

I’d finally completed my degree in December 2019, my job in Korea secured back in October. I left my part-time job as a passenger service agent at my local airport on February 18 and hopped on a plane early on February 21.

As the wheels of that Airbus A350 touched down on Korean soil and I stared out of the window with tired, tear-filled eyes, a million thoughts flew through my head: had I made the right choice? Would I be a good teacher? Would I make friends, be more sociable? Would I be able to survive in a country where I had an elementary, at best, knowledge of the language?

Would that coronavirus thing really get so bad, or would it just pass in a few weeks?

The First Year

I landed in Korea on February 22, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic barely in full swing. Some 150 miles south of Seoul, in Daegu, an outbreak was underway. As I walked off of the plane and toward baggage claim, I saw scary-looking people dressed in white hazmat suits waiting to test travelers that had arrived from China.

The number of confirmed patients swelled. It got to the point that my hagwon (private academy) shut down. I found myself stuck in my one-room apartment in my sleepy neighborhood in Gimpo for five weeks.

The road I lived on in Gimpo. (My own photo)

I could leave if I wanted to, but I was terrified of and under-equipped for this illness — convenience stores were bare of masks. Only Korean citizens and foreign residents with Alien Registration Cards (ARCs) were allowed access to the masks the governments gave to pharmacies to hand out for free.

All I had was a cheap, cloth mask that was only good for blocking out fine dust. I hardly left my apartment, only venturing into Seoul once or twice in my first month there.

Finding food was hard, since I only had cash (not a lot of it, either) and I didn’t have access to any of the delivery apps (I needed that ARC, unfortunately). A coworker lent me her McDelivery account and so I was able to eat burgers and fries every now and then. Other times I hurriedly popped down to the convenience store for sustenance, usually ramen and snacks.

A month after my arrival, I was thrown into work after a day of very cursory “training” from management and a little moral support from my fellow teachers. I was pretty much told what classes I had, what books I needed to teach with, and “good luck.” I was terrified.

Because of COVID, my class of twelve students was only three to start. I welcomed it, as it allowed me to ease into teaching. As the months passed, my class grew. We shut down again for another three weeks after a mid-summer COVID outbreak.

Come December, I was spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my students via Zoom.

Stuff like this made the pain worth it. (My own photo)

My first year was rough. I had trouble students who I wasn’t allowed to actually punish or discipline, lest their mothers and fathers get upset. I cried, I pined for home, I very quietly threatened to quit out of frustration — but I managed. I managed so much that I decided I wasn’t done with Korea, I wanted to keep going.

I started applying to jobs and contacting recruiters in October. I landed a few fruitless interviews. I had one hagwon (private academy) director laugh as I answered her video call. She didn’t even interview me, just asked me if I had any questions, said she would send over the information, then never contacted me again.

Another school in Seoul liked me, extended a contract, then told me the next day they gave the position to someone else because they returned the contract more quickly than I had. Turns out that Korea’s ppalli ppalli (literally “quickly quickly”) culture pertains to looking over contracts as well.

It was the end of January, a month left on my contract, and I had nothing. I contemplated going home, but my heart wasn’t in it. Without really thinking of it, I posted my resume on a teaching jobs website and, just like that, at 11 o’clock at night one night I got an email from the director of a new hagwon just outside of Seoul, asking me for an interview.

We had the interview, in which I realized that the director was just trying to sell the job to me instead of me trying to sell myself as a good potential hire. “So when can I expect the signed contract?” she asked me at the end of the interview.

I suddenly had a new job, and my empty cup of hope had been refilled. On the very last day of classes at my old school, I piled all of my belongings into a hired pick-up truck and started my new life on the opposite side of Seoul.

The Second — and Last — Year

I’ll be honest, I really liked my school. I had a lot of doubts about it initially — it’s a big franchise with a big reputation. A lot of its former teachers saying to avoid it at all costs, citing shady bosses and long, hard hours. In essence, it was my last resort, but I think I lucked out.

With any hagwon, the hours are going to be rough: you spend all morning teaching kindergartners, then all afternoon teaching elementary school kids, with very little downtime. But the kids are sweet, for the most part, and management was always helpful to me. Being a brand new branch of the franchise, we were all starting new together… which was kind of rough at first but everyone was going through it together.

My new city, Hanam, was a real change of pace from my last city. Located thirty minutes by bus from Lotte World Tower in Seoul, it was more like a city than Gimpo was. It was like living a pocket of Seoul without actually being in Seoul. I felt rejuvenated by Hanam’s energy.

I spent several months at this new school thinking I was going to stay at least one more year, especially because I loved my new city, too… but then June came.

Beautiful Hanam City. (My own photo)

I spent a lot of June homesick and lonely. My big friend group from my last school was scattered all over now, and I wasn’t really clicking on the same level with my new coworkers. I decided that the best thing for me to do was get back into my passion hobby: photography.

The only problem was, I had a shitty laptop that chugged and froze just trying to boot up. It wasn’t even old, I’d only gotten it a month before I came to Korea, it was just shitty.

My sister had the same laptop, bought just a few months before mine, and when she had a hardware issue the manufacturer told her those laptops had been discontinued. I wonder why…

So I decided to get a new laptop. I went to the Electro-Mart at the mall with my friend to find the perfect one… and I made a beeline for the MacBooks. I’d been a Windows girl all my life, but the MacBooks were calling my name. They were reliable powerhouses, and I’d been let down by almost every single (cheap) Windows laptop I’d ever had.

After much waffling — god, MacBooks are expensive — I bought a new MacBook Air. My birthday gift to myself. Now I could take photos and shoot and edit 4K video to my heart’s content!

And while I did start going out and taking photos and editing them for my dedicated Instagram page, I also found myself lapsing back into another passion of mine: writing.

I had always wanted to try my hand at screenwriting, but it seemed daunting and confusing so I never did. But there was something about having this new laptop that made me want to try… and I did.

I tried fruitlessly in Pages, then decided to seek out actual screenwriting software. Downloaded a free trial of Final Draft, wrote constantly… I was obsessed. I would be at work counting the hours until I could get back to my laptop and write some more.

Summer break hit and I wrote feverishly. I made a Twitter account exclusively for this new passion, to try to network with other screenwriters… because I’d decided this was my path. I wanted to pursue a career in screenwriting. It would be no easy task, but it was one I was willing to undertake.

And with that revelation, my desire to remain in Korea began to dwindle so quickly it shocked me. I just wanted to hop on a plane and go home to devote my life to pursuing this dream — but I had a contract to complete. That fact became a daily burden to me: I loved my kids so dearly, but I wanted out so badly.

It wasn’t just this newly rediscovered love of writing that had me itching to go. The shine of Korea had worn off for me, I’d realized. This was probably due in part to COVID and all of the restrictions that came with it, stopping me from fully enjoying my stay, but I began to see Korea for what it was… just another country, faults and all.

Why I’m Leaving — And What I’ll Miss

Believe me, I didn’t come to Korea thinking it was going to be a perfect utopia of a place, but I did constantly compare it to home and tell everyone how much better it was.

And there’s a lot that is better in Korea than in the U.S.: for one, the healthcare system is incredible. I developed a weird ear issue my first few weeks out here and when I went to an internal medicine office (into which I just walked in, no appointment), they told me to just go to the nearby ENT instead.

“Do I need a referral?” I asked. I got a confused look in response.

Then I just walked into the ENT, got seen within moments of entering, and then paid, like, five bucks for the visit.

Another time I had a respiratory infection and went back to the same ENT. He prescribed me some medication and I went to the pharmacy full of dread at how much I would have to pay for the medicine. I don’t remember the exact amount but it couldn’t be more than $10 for a weeks’ worth of decongestants, pain relievers, and whatever else he had me on. Unheard of back home.

Public transit is great and convenient, too. The buses and subways are usually on-time and can be easily tracked with Naver and Kakao Maps, and you can easily get across sprawling Seoul for under $2. I had no such experience in the big cities in the States.

I also never felt unsafe in Korea. I could leave my iPhone on a table at Starbucks to go get my order and not worry about it being gone when I get back. I could walk around all alone in the middle of the night and feel certain I wouldn’t get snatched or assaulted.

The thing, though, about being a foreigner in Korea, especially a foreigner who is a person of color and larger in size, is that you are always going to be the “other.” Until recently, we all carried around cards that called us “aliens.” I came here knowing that.

And yet, I’d come to grow wary of being stared at, whether it was by curious kids or judgmental adults. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times people have opted to stand rather than sit beside me on the train or bus. Many other expats have reported being turned away from cafes and bars just for being foreign.

While I’d get the “Wow, your Korean is good!” comment from time to time, I eventually gave up trying to flex my Korean-language muscles in public, as baristas would struggle to understand me even as I spoke loudly and confidently and pronounced my words properly.

I was tired of having to hunt down plus-size stores, whose clothes weren’t really actually plus-sized in the way it is in the West. A plus-size here is more often than not just an XL back home, and if you did find something bigger, it wasn’t always particularly stylish. I ended up spending so much money buying and shipping clothes from the States just so I could have something cute to wear.

And then there’s the lack of forward and upward momentum for a foreigner working in Korea. On an E-2 visa, all you can do is teach English at hagwons or public and private schools. You would have to get a whole other visa to teach at a university and make more money.

And if you want a non-teaching job… unless you can speak Korean fluently, forget about trying to get a coveted F visa — unless you end up marrying a Korean national. For love, of course.

Sure, there’s the perk of not having to pay rent (most hagwons pay the rent for you), but the pay isn’t great, especially if you’re saving money or paying back student loans. It’s shocking how quickly 2.1 to 2.5 million won disappears over the course of a month if you aren’t careful.

And as a teacher, it kind of got depressing watching my young students fall asleep in class every day. When I’d ask why they were so tired, they’d say that they’d gone to bed late the night before.

“Were you playing video games or something?”

“No, teacher! After English academy, I have xyz academy, then I have abc academy, and then I got home at eight o’clock and had to do homework…”

In Korea, it’s not unheard of for kids to spend their entire day learning. I’m talking “actual” elementary school, then two hours of English, then art or jump rope (!) or ballet or piano, and maybe another activity.

It’s like, these kids are seven, eight years old, exhausted and burnt out. There’s no rest for these poor kids. Are they probably a million times smarter than I was at their age? Maybe, but at what cost?

Yeah, things aren’t great back in the States, and I honestly wonder every day if I’m making a mistake by going back as opposed to staying one more year. But, honestly, I’m burnt out. I’ve been burnt out, and sticking around isn’t going to make that go away.

Cherry blossoms in Seoul Forest, April 2020. (My own photo)

I’ll miss Korea in some ways — I’ll miss how pretty it is in the springtime, trees abloom with cherry blossoms. I’ll miss seeing the sun set over the Han River as I pass over it in a subway car or in a taxi. I’ll miss the hell out of my kids, unable to watch them grow up and become the English-speaking prodigies I know they’ll become. I have memories all over Seoul, and places that I still want to visit but never had the time.

Maybe I’ll come back one day — as a teacher? Maybe not. As a visitor? Sure. Maybe I won’t even end up staying back home for long, and I find myself becoming an expatriate elsewhere in the future.

This dream of mine, to come to Korea, has been fulfilled. I can close the door on it now and know that I managed to reach that goal. I will always look back on my time on Korea with fondness, and remember it as the place where I found myself. Now it’s time for the next chapter.

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Screenwriter and sometimes blogger.

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Hayley Daughma

Hayley Daughma

Screenwriter and sometimes blogger.

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