Teaching English in Korea: city or country?
This is a supplement to the Waegukin big guide to teaching English in Korea. One question you will need to consider if you’re thinking of teaching English in Korea is where you want to live. Without getting into the merits of individual cities, you have three choices:
- Other metropolitan cities
- Regional cities/the countryside
In fact, these days, those are the only three choices you can make with EPIK. To look at them in order:
I know what you are thinking. You have decided to come to Korea, and you want to teach in Seoul. Why? “Because it’s the main city. And it’s the only place I’ve heard of.” OK… I would have said the same before I first came to Korea. I ended up in Gumi, teaching at a country school about a ten minute bus ride away. And you know what? It was wonderful, and perfect for me. And I would have been miserable in Seoul. If you asked me now where I would like to teach in Korea, I might name a few specific places, but I would also add: “Anywhere, really, except Seoul.” So what’s wrong with Seoul? Nothing, really: but there are some things to consider.
- It’s big. OK – you like big cities. But Seoul is huge. 22 million people in a single contiguous area. Think New York or London are crowded? New York has 1,800 people per square kilometer. London has 5,300. Seoul has 10,400 people per square kilometer.
- Also, it’s an ugly city. There are some nice areas, but most of it is a grey, monolithic concrete city.
- Also, it’s expensive. And for public school positions, you get payed 100k less than in other metropolitan cities (also true of Busan, Daegu and Incheon – although the latter is really just an extension of Seoul).
Having said that, there are people who will tell you it is the only place to be. They will tell you it is the most cosmopolitan part of Korea, that it is the cultural center of Korea, the educational center of Korea, they will point to the clubs and the bars and the variety of experiences on offer there. All of which is true and may be right for you. But have a better reason than “it’s the only place I’ve heard of”. Korea has more to offer than Seoul, and in my opinion has better places than Seoul to live and teach. You can always go to Seoul – most of the country is less than three hours away from it by public transport.
Daegu, Daejeon, Busan, Incheon, Ulsan, Gwangju. All these are popular choices and all have their charms. They are busy and lively, with significant populations of waegukin. They are modern, but will still have pockets of Old Korea for local color.**A reader has drawn my attention to some additional connotations of the phrase “local color” in the context of Korea. Had I been aware of these, I probably wouldn’t have used this phrase here. You can read the comment here. Public transport is usually good. Nothing wrong with any of these places. They are all “safe” choices. On the other hand, I do also urge you to consider:
Regional cities/the countryside
I put these two together because regardless of whether your school is in a regional city or the countryside, you will probably be living in a regional city, or at least a medium-sized town. True countryside doesn’t tend to have the sorts of apartment blocks where foreigners are housed, and so not many people end up actually living there (the schools also tend to realize that most foreigners do not want to live in an isolated village). Now, I know what you are thinking. Just as most people coming to Korea automatically think, “I want to be in Seoul,” most will also think, “I don’t want to be stuck way out in the boondocks.” It’s understandable… but!
- Regional Korea is almost certainly not as rural as you are imagining. Korea is mostly uninhabitable mountains; for the rest the population is clustered into the valleys. There are lots of people in not a lot of space. So the downtown areas of even regional cities tend to be bustling places full of restaurants, shops, motels, and noraebangs.
- Regional Korea is really beautiful.
- Public transport in Korea is amazing, and inter-city buses go everywhere. You are not “stuck” anywhere.
- People, in my experience, are more hospitable to foreigners in regional and rural Korea.
- Your school and students will be grateful to you for coming there to teach. You will be helping students who otherwise would have less access to native English teachers.
- You are less likely to have to desk warm.
- Your apartment is likely to be larger.
I know… you won’t listen to me. But if you don’t get your application in to EPIK promptly and end up having to go somewhere regional, I wouldn’t despair, or cancel my application. You might find it is the best thing to happen to you. I’ve spent the last year in Daegu, and now I’m moving back to a regional city, to teach at a country school with less than 70 students. Personally, I would take regional Korea over any of the other options.
Note: I’ve since written another, more detailed guide to what I think are some of the best places to live and teach in South Korea.