Coming Out to Korea: Michael H

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Part 5 of 30, ESL Teachers Over 30

“Is this where I thought I would be? Abso-fucking-lutely not. But, I’ll take it for this year and many more to come.”

My name is Michael and Atlanta, GA, is where I called home in the US. I have lived in Sanbon (Gunpo-si, Gyeonggi) since August 2011. I have worked at a kindergarten and elementary hagwon the entire time. My second year contract expires in August 2013, but I just extended it this week until March 2014 to serve as the Head Kindergarten Teacher.

I moved here in August 2011 after a layoff that spring. My previous three years were spent in a marketing position. I received my BS in Business Administration with a Marketing Concentration from the College of Charleston in 2005. Like 99% of the other college graduates, I entered the rat race, immediately. By rat race, I mean waiting tables and applying like mad EVERYWHERE. I finally got a job at a private event venue, and moved my way up to Marketing Coordinator for two years. Then, I transitioned to working for a local bridal website.

Two weeks prior to my layoff, I visited a friend that was teaching in Spain. As I was so focused on my marketing career, teaching was something that I knew of but never considered. After visiting her, I decided that if I ever had the time and ability (read: no job or apartment lease), I would look into teaching. Luckily for me, the layoff happened at the end of April and my lease ended one month later.

I started off applying immediately for my FBI background check and other documents. Unluckily for me, two weeks after my layoff, I had to have emergency surgery that took a turn for the worst when the doctor made a mistake. A 24 hour operation and recovery turned into a week in the hospital and months of frustration at home.

After all of that, I finally had everything organized to move to Korea around mid August. I selected my hagwon through a recruiter and prepared to move. After a frustrating summer, Korea could not have come at a more perfect time.

I knew of one friend that had taught in Korea before. By friend, I really mean “that girl on Facebook that grew up down the street from me and answered a few questions I had.” All in all, I really did not prepare. I had traveled around America and to the Caribbean and Europe before, so I was confident and comfortable with the concept, but I didn’t have a clue about Korean culture or politics or Korean anything! I had only tutored briefly in college, so I certainly was not a teacher by any stretch of the imagination.

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I immediately fell in love with the country. The food, the men, the late nights, you name it. I love the little things that others hate. For example, Korea has an obsession with luxury goods and pure skin, but has wads of spit on the ground and “gas station quality” bathrooms in every building. My favorite quirk has to be the cluelessness of those in a hurry… like the ajumma that tries to cut me on the T-Money swipe as I am obviously reaching with my own card. OBLIVIOUS!

It doesn’t hurt that I am fortunate to have an amazing job. My school has been supportive from day one with everything. They even know that I’m gay. While they have met both my ex and current boyfriend over the years, they both still get invited to everything!

With all of these great things going for me, I find it really, really hard to contemplate my life back in America. I think of living back at home, trying to get my life going again, and being really depressed about the life I left at home. I always compare it to moving from my college town. While my best friends lived there at the time and I was sad to leave them, I moved on. I don’t think I could ever move on from Korea. I would think of the life I left on the other side of the world. Korea has been nothing but pure happiness. Why give that up?

My family wants me to come home, but I just can’t. We aren’t that close, so I am not bound to them. My friends miss me, but they tell me, “we’re just doing the same old shit, but you are over there living. Don’t run home for us.” I don’t think I will.

All this aside, there is, of course, the stigma of teaching abroad at an older age. I wanted to share my story because my job and life here have made me finally realize it is okay to stay with what you have if you are truly happy. It’s okay to take a different path. I grappled with finding the right path for years after college. As I turned 30 this year, of course of my mind turns to the Western ideals for success as I reflect on my life. Society says that I should be at home, working in my field, and saving gobs of money in my recently purchased condo.

All the years in Atlanta, I felt inadequate deep down – like I was trying to catch up to the others. Even with a marketing job, I wouldn’t have been happy until the perfect one. I wouldn’t have felt good enough until I was working for BBDO in a corner office (and God knows when that would’ve happened, if ever).

I’m not working in my field, but the reward is too great to care. It turns out I am actually a good teacher and the kids love me (and I love them dearly). I already know that leaving my school in 2014 is going to be hard. I tear up thinking about it sometimes. These children have become my own. I’ll have to find new ones (or adults…who knows this far in advance).

What are the rewards for teaching abroad? In one word – travel. I take two or three trips a year and only some Americans take one Asian trip in their whole lifetime. I have made some great friends, both Korean and from all over the world. I live cheaply and thoroughly enjoy the nightlife. My love life has been busier than it ever was in America. I actually met my current boyfriend on a trip to Japan.

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As I contemplate staying in Korea long term, I do gravitate back towards “the degree.” Maybe one day I will become fluent in Korean (basics for now) and get a professional job. Maybe I can start saving money to attend a university. I’d be happy with that, but for now, I’ll stick to my life that I have teaching.

Since I’ve discovered I’m not half bad at this teaching thing, I’m strongly considering making it my career. You know, get a TEFL certification and work at a University. I’d even love to work my way into a hagwon’s office end or administrative job. There are so many possibilities, but I just have to finish up at my hagwon. I continue to reap the rewards of an expat life and do something that I enjoy.

I don’t know what would make me leave Korea. The boyfriend wants to move to Japan, but that’s at least a year out and way too early to even remotely discuss. I know I’d go home for a death or ill family member. I do know that I’m not rushing home to go back to the rat race and that I would dearly miss the life and home I’ve made here.

Another thing I know? I do not feel ashamed of my place in life at 30. Is this where I thought I would be? Abso-fucking-lutely not. But, I’ll take it for this year and many more to come.

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To read more stories and thoughts of those who decided to teach abroad after 30, please click here.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Cindy says:

    Michael, it was such a pleasure to read what you have been up to. I always wondered what “happened” to you when you stopped coming to Spartanburg/Grammy’s during the holidays, but never bothered to ask, I guess! ; ) Anyway, I wish you all the best in life…it seems you have found it in Korea and in teaching. That’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you! ❤ Cindy Clements


  2. January says:

    I enjoyed reading this friend! I am glad you are happy. You deserve it!


  3. Michael says:

    I must say that I am VERY happy to read both of these comments! Moving here was a surprise….as was ending up being successful at my job! Thank you for the well wishes!


  4. Alex says:

    Thank you for this 🙂 I’m in a very similar situation… though I’ve been here much longer than you and feeling the 7 year itch. It’s time to move on…but not home, just another asian country for more exotic, fun, strange, exciting, sometimes-incomprehensible adventures….but deep down, I really think I’ll be back after a few years


  5. zoe says:

    omg! Of all the teacher’s stories, i can completley relate to you and your situation, mainly because you are not close to your family and the “rat race” you mention. I was in Japan for 4 long years, and just arrived back in the u.s. due to some personal situations. However, after coming home, though, and it was always “temporary” i thought, my parents dont want me to go back. i do, but also worry about my age as i am 32.


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