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Teaching English in Korea: city or country?

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Apr 17 2012

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:

  • Seoul
  • 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.

Metropolitan cities

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.

Waegukin wrote these 902 words on April 17th, 2012 | Posted in Living |


15 comments on “Teaching English in Korea: city or country?”

  1. Jeanie says:

    Me again! I loved this as well… I was a little worried about SMOE being so competitive, but I feel little bit better now :).

    Thanks again!

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Yeah! Don’t worry about it. Go to the country.

    I’m back in the “country” now and love it. My apartment is large and fantastic, my school is absolutely beautiful, my weekly classes include one where I do nothing but teach a single 6th grade boy how to read and another where I am making a horror movie with six fifth graders. Seoul, by the way, is a fifty minute bus ride away, and the buses go every forty minutes.

  3. Candice says:

    Thanks for this blog, it’s golden!
    Quick q, though – I thought most people didn’t learn which city they were headed to until they arrived at the EPIK orientation.

    Do you find out where you’re going via your notice of appointment?

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Candice, you used to be able to list preferences of specific metropolitan cities and provinces with EPIK. They’ve changed it, although as I understand it you can still request either metropolitan cities or provincial positions, without being able to request individual cities or provinces.

    For my current position, I contracted directly with the school. Gyeonggi-do is different in that way – but it helped that I was already in Korea.

  5. camille says:

    hi, i just want to ask if it is possible for me to teach english in korea even if I am an undergraduate? But I have a TESOL certificate. I enrolled in a TESOL course last May because I want to teach English in Korea. Do you think I have a chance to work there?

  6. The Waegukin says:

    Camille, you may be eligible for the TaLK program – otherwise you will have to wait until you graduate. Please see my teaching English in Korea guide.

  7. Joe says:

    Hi, thanks for the blog some really useful information. My girlfriend and I are both wanting to teach in Korea next year, but as we’ve been together for three years now, would ideally be placed together or near each other. Would a rural application enhance our chances? Or will we have to try and find a hagwon with multiple openings? Or maybe the Gnet programme? Any advice would be great. Thanks

  8. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Joe – if I were in your position, one thing I would definitely consider is a quick marriage certificate, particularly if you want to live with your girlfriend.

    If you don’t want to do that, your best option is to go through a recruiter. EPIK no longer accepts joint applications from people who aren’t married. You may be able to find public school positions that are close to each other in one of the provinces that don’t use EPIK; otherwise there are many hagwons that advertise “couple positions available”, or a recruiter should be able to find you hagwon positions that are close.

    I don’t think requesting a country position will specifically increase your chances, although a willingness to work anywhere would certainly make it easier for a recruiter to find you positions close to each other.

    GNET isn’t really a programme, just a medium-sized city that for some reason conducts its own recruiting. They’re worth knowing about, but deciding to “go to Korea through GNET” isn’t really a practical option.

  9. Joe says:

    Thanks very much for the advice. Not sure we’re quire ready for the first recommendation- and wouldn’t have time to do it justice! But besides, it’d all be a bit silly if we didn’t get a place in Epik!

    I didn’t realise it was possible to get non-Epik positions through recruiters in public schools. That sounds like a good option potentially.

    But your other article on public v private schools went a long way towards scaring me off a hagwon! Would you still recommend giving it a go on the whole, despite them being worse than a public school? Or just look into other countries or other things to do after we graduate!?

  10. The Waegukin says:

    I don’t like hagwons, but there are plenty of people who would say I’m wrong and that they’ve had good experiences in them. It depends how much you want to teach in Korea. China is certainly more of a seller’s market these days.

  11. Vee says:

    I’m a little concerned by your use of the term “local color.”

    This may come off as haughty and arrogant considering I am just a student taking a random Korean Art History class to fill my schedule, but my professor lectured last week about the term “local color,” which is why it caught my eye.

    During the 1910s and 20s after Korea became a protectorate of Japan, submissions to art exhibitions (a relatively new phenomenon for the country, as art was previously a courtly duty) were primarily judged and monitored by Japanese judges. In an attempt to pander to the tastes of these judges (who had a vested interest in subjecting and displaying their self-determined “superiority” over the Korean people, as well as appealing to Western powers as a culturally refined nation), Korean artists often portrayed the country’s “local colors,” or exoticized, primitivized (if that’s a word), and self-orientalized depictions of Korean people and landscapes as the main subject matter for their work. Some argued at the time that the “local colors” art movement was a nationalistic one that allowed Koreans to celebrate their roots, but in my understanding of what my professor, a native Korean art historian, has conveyed to me, the term “local colors” has a negative connotation.

    I apologize if my explanation is a bit muddled and brief.

    In summary, I would advise, again from my limited knowledge, against using the term “local color” in such a light-hearted manner. Please do whatever you see fit with my two cents.


    PS. You also used the term to conclude your “Old Korea and New Korea” article.

    PPS. I really enjoy your blog. Your writing and insights are superb!

  12. Waegukin says:

    Hmm. Interesting comment, Vee.

    Part of what distinguishes good writing is an awareness of a word or phrase’s connotations, as well as its literal meaning. When I think about the phrase “local color”, I do think it has some negative connotations. It does have a sense, to me, of Lonely Planet, and even more so of vintage Baedeker travel guides, if you’ve ever seen one of those. It has a sense of privileged, wealthy observation of quaint local customs. And I think I was using that in an aware way (although, as you say, in a fairly light-hearted manner), both here and even more so in the Old Korea post.

    But – I wasn’t aware of the associations you mention. And while they do point in a generally similar direction, they are certainly quite a bit darker, and had I been aware of it I probably wouldn’t have used that expression in the same way.

    Having said that, as to what I’ll do with your two cents, I think I’ll leave it as it is and add a sidenote linking to your comment. I do think it is worth noting. And next time I’ll be aware of those connotations and make sure I intend to evoke them if I use that phrase.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  13. chanelle says:

    What would you say to be the best regional city. I need to list a preferred province on my EPIK application.

  14. Michelle Butcher says:

    How did you make friends and find things to do?


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