A Day in the Life of an ESL Teacher in South Korea

By Tida Kheav on January 3 2020 in Feature

Young people walk the streets of Seoul, South Korea. Savvapanf Photo / Shutterstock.com.

Dongtan, South Korea is a little satellite city outside of Seoul. It’s about a 30-minute bus ride from the Gangnam District and about an hour away from Seoul Station. Dongtan is also known as Dongtan New City. It’s just over 10 years old and was designed as a planned city. Mostly, for new young families looking to raise their children away from the big city. When I say new, I mean there are massive vacant apartment complexes waiting for new tenants to call it home. When you walk around the neighborhood, you’ll see mostly familiar faces as shop owners will quickly recognize you as regular. I’ll take you along to see what a “Day in the Life” is like living in South Korea as an English teacher.

A Day In the Life

Morning

10 AM: Google Home greets me in the morning with a light alarm and an update of today’s news, weather, and air quality. Air quality checks are a norm in South Korea as micro-dust and pollution can get quite bad during different seasons. It’s always a good idea to check the air quality to prevent any unwanted illnesses. 10 AM is an unusually early start to my day. Most days I get out of bed around noon due to late shifts, but today I am in the mood to explore Seoul before work.

My workplace is an after school academy, so classes tend to run between from late afternoon until 10 PM. Most teachers will have a late dinner after work, followed by a catch up on the rest of their daily chores or routines.

10:30 AM: I walk out of my officetel (studio-style apartments) and head to the bus stop praying there isn’t a huge line to the city. As it’s still morning rush hour, the line for the bus is usually packed with students of workers headed to Seoul. Luckily, I am able to hop on the bus to Seoul. In cities like mine, where the subway line isn’t nearby, there are usually commuter express buses that go directly to Seoul. The 45-minute commute is the perfect time to catch up on my poor efforts of learning Korean through Duolingo or Drops. Ten minutes a day on an app is not recommended if you are serious about learning a new language. Most passengers use this time to squeeze in a quick nap before beginning their workday. 

11:15 AM: After the bus ride, I continue my commute by heading towards the subway station. The station is buzzing with people speed-walking to catch the next subway and rushing off to their next destination. In Seoul, the subways are quite organized. There are lines on the ground indicating areas where pending passengers should wait to allow room for departing passengers to exit. No matter how carefully I make my way to the lines, more often than not, there is usually an ajumma (older Korean woman) who will abruptly force their ways to the front of the line. Their feistiness usually gives me a giggle. The subway arrives and the double doors open as a flood of commuters exit the train and new passengers swiftly pack themselves into the train. Although the train is packed with people, the only sounds you hear are the train humming its way on the tracks and quiet whispering. 

11:30 AM: I shuffle my way out of the train once I’ve arrived at my stop, Hapjeong Station. The area I’ve decided to grab brunch is popular amongst students and young adults. The streets are lined with trendy cafes and later in the night, it’s a popular area to grab dinner and drinks. The locals in the area have already taken out their trench and peacoats, fashion trends in Seoul seem to really influence the city. Many people tend to have very similar fashion sense, so it’s always nice to see the styles that really stand out. 

11: 35 AM: I walk up the steps to my destination, Urban Plant, a cafe I discovered online. I’ve created a list of restaurants and cafes I plan on visiting throughout my time in South Korea. Cafes in South Korea are different from the cafe’s back at home (Canada). Most cafes really focus on the aesthetic and truly aim for that Instagrammable look. There are some really unique cafes in Seoul: dog cafes, raccoon cafes, meerkat cafes, drawing cafes, to even jewelry making cafes. Today, the cafe I decided to check out was decked out to resemble a greenhouse. Every available space had all kinds of beautiful healthy green plants. The walls were lined with shelves with each shelf filled with potted succulents and leafy plants. Outside terraces had canopied rooftops, and seating areas made out of wooden pallets, complete with cushioned seats and soft throw blankets.

11:50 AM: After ordering my breakfast for the day, I review my lesson plans, catch up on emails or messages from family, and of course, update my Instagram feed with my new cafe find. Most workdays, I’ll grab a late breakfast or lunch around the neighborhood. In Dongtan, there are quite a few places to dine at. However, the places I have found typically serve similar items and sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to brunch items that remind you of home. Some of my regular lunch items in the neighborhood would be donkatsu (breaded and deep-fried cutlet), pajeon (Korean pancake), ramen or curry. It’s always nice to people watch while waiting for food. Most days, I’ll notice the cafes or restaurants to be filled with mothers and their young children, groups of older ladies catching up, or business people quickly enjoying their lunch before heading back to work.

Afternoon

12:45 PM: It is time to head back to Dongtan and fit in a quick nap before arriving in my town. The subways and bus lines are much less crowded so I am able to grab a seat right away.

1:45 PM: After a long bus ride, it’s time for coffee. One thing I truly adore about living in South Korea: there is absolutely no shortage of coffee shops. Even better, the quality of the coffee is always great. In broken Korean, I’ll order my usual Iced Americano, nod and say “nae” (yes) to something I’m not quite sure I’m saying yes to. After each encounter with service workers, I realize I really should make more efforts to properly learn the language. Some days, I’ll sit to enjoy the coffee and make attempts at learning more vocabulary. As I struggle with memorizing vocabulary words I think about how much respect I have for my students that memorize dozens of words weekly.

2:30 PM: I sign in at work and begin the routine of work meetings, check-ins, printing necessary materials and chatting with coworkers. This time before class can also be used to prepare classes later on in the week and update staff on the student’s progress.

4 PM: In comes a small herd of energetic elementary students. After attendance and homework checks, class begins. Students in South Korea are known for being incredibly hard workers. With my time teaching for the past year and a half, I am able to confirm it’s true. Most students will be enrolled in multiple after school academies throughout the week. There are English academies, Korean academies, math academies, coding, jump rope, science, and even boxing academies. The amount of additional learning and extra-curricular activities that students participate in is astounding. Some students will be out of their homes from early morning to late in the evening, and sometimes even until 10 PM  at night.

Evening

7 PM: My evening classes are literally like day and night. The students that enter the class are now the middle school level students and much less energized. The workload has increased and middle school students face more stressful expectations at school. While they’re exhausted, if you’re doing well, you’ll still be able to wake up their zombie-like state and get them engaged in the class. Most students have a fantastic work ethic and take their studies quite seriously. Higher-level students are already reading and learning writing skills that are college level. With the material so advanced, sometimes it’s easy to forget these are still middle school students obsessed with BTS, gaming and their teacher’s personal lives. While the hours may be a little tiring, the interaction with students is definitely the highlight of the job.

10 PM: It is home time! After freeing the students and completing daily reports, most teachers will round-up and head to a late-night dinner together. Popular favorites of the group would be barbeque or fried chicken. Korean barbeque is pretty standard, you get a plate of meat, toss it on the grill, and pair it with banchan, traditional Korean side dishes that vary, but usually consist of kimchi, seasoned beansprouts, and pickled radishes. Korean fried chicken is probably the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. The chicken comes out packed with flavor, perfectly moist and crispy without the greasy feeling afterward. 

The restaurants are usually full of people even late at night. The work hard, play hard culture is strong in Korea. The late-night dining and drinking is the norm. There will be a combination of young adults, couples, foreign teachers, and business workers still fully suited, all enjoying a delicious meal and drinks with friends. Sometimes, even on the weekday, these late-nights can easily turn into early mornings. On the weekend, it is pretty standard for a group of friends to head to Seoul for a night out only to return to the city at 5 AM in the morning. Popular areas like Gangnam, Hongdae, and Itaewon, will completely transform from a calm place to explore in the day to complete debauchery at night. 

Night

12 AM: If there are no lessons to plan or chores to catch up on, you’ll be able to find me at a nearby PC Bang. A PC Bang is a gaming cafe that is usually open 24 hours. Here, you can pay hourly to gain access to computers. The computer stations are equipped with powerful pcs, headphones, and comfortable chairs. They also serve food and beverages. It’s a nice space to play some games, chat with friends, or surf the internet. Given that the space is comfortable and food is provided, it is easy to get sucked in and stay for hours. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed, most people will go on their own or with a friend. You can always tell how well someone’s the game is going if you hear giddy cheering, or sometimes, even random shouts of cursing and rage. 

2 AM: I’m always shocked at how late it is when I finally check the time. I sign off and head back to my apartment. The streets are super quiet and fairly dark, but it never feels unsafe. The level of safety I feel walking home at 2:30 AM in Korea is something I probably can’t stay I’ve experienced in other parts of the world I’ve visited. It is something I truly love and value about living in South Korea. 

2:30 AM: After getting ready for bed, I’ll briefly chat with family and friends back home. The challenge of living halfway across the world from your loved ones is finding the best time to catch up with the time difference. It is a nice little routine I have to end my day.

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