What getting a first job in South Korea was like

Photo Credit: StockSnap | Pixabay

South Korea is my home. I was born in Daejeon city but grew up in Bundang (3-40 minutes south of downtown Seoul) all my life. I attended Korean public schools until I moved to America after finishing my first semester of 9th grade (aka “3rd grade of middle school” in Korea). I believe that was 2008.

In June 2012, I came back to Korea to work. I had just completed my Associate of Arts degree in America and although my hope was to transfer to a four-year college immediately, our family didn’t have the financial means for it at that time. So at age 19 (Korean age 20), I was now searching for a full-time job at one of the most hyper-competitive job markets in the world.

Tancheon, a stream running through Bundang

I went on Saramin (the Korean equivalent of LinkedIn) day in and day out as any faithful job searcher would. After having interviews at a handful of companies including some offering me to pay less than $1,000 a month, I landed an interview at an international non-profit organization.

To be honest, I knew pretty much nothing about the non-profit field at that time. I remember someone once telling me about World Vision and how I had no context to understand what that person was talking about. This particular position I applied for at this organization was a year-long contract Sponsor Relations Coordinator position that required intermediate English skills. When I sat down for the interview, I tried my best to give thoughtful responses with the knowledge I had about this organization. The two interviewers sitting across a long conference table from me seemed to be delighted to see a young, energetic 19-year-old. Truthfully though, I only remember two questions from that interview:

(1) Are you going to be okay with sitting at your desk for a long time? You seem to be very energetic and outgoing.

(2) How much did it cost for you to study in America?

Shoot. Well, my answer to the first question was of course a yes. I wasn’t going to say “No, actually you’re right. Let me just go outside and play all day.” The second question though, really? Was my resume with my family background, my photo, height, weight, and blood type not enough? Apparently not. I indirectly answered this question by saying studying abroad in America costs roughly this much in average for anyone blah blah blah. They had no idea that behind all of this was my family’s indefinable sacrifice to provide for my education.

Example of a Korean resume

I walked out of that interview feeling okay actually. I was happy I had an interview. A few other candidates I sat with in the waiting room prior to the interview seemed nervous but I wasn’t. If this was going to work out, it was going to. If not, that was going to be okay as well. ‘I’ll keep trying,’ I thought to myself.

Though, just trying hard enough wouldn’t be enough in South Korea in terms of getting employed. South Korea’s job market for young twentysomethings is tough to say the least. Many college students postpone their college graduation to build their resume by getting all sorts of certificates or taking language exams. Internships tend to be unpaid and interns are expected to provide “unlimited labor.” By the time they receive their college diplomas, they may or may not have a job lined up for them. Many still remain in the season of “job-preparation” for an indefinite amount of time which often entails nagging relatives on holidays asking questions about “what you’ve been up to.” This season for some lasts a few months and some for years.

So there surely was a side of me that wondered if I would be able to get a full-time job in Korea. However, given that the position I applied for was a contract position and that my language skills were more than qualified, my trajectory looked brighter than I expected.

Around a week or two later, I went on the organization’s career website to find the latest post about the position. Believe it or not, my name was on it. I screamed, “Mom! Dad! I got the job!” So there, I had it. My first job!

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