“I don’t share their opinion that life isn’t real if it doesn’t suck enough.”
Essay by Brian Williams
I wasn’t running away, or trying to hide or avoid anything by coming to Korea. Although, I can see how this is good place to do that. I was just looking to continue doing what I already knew I loved: traveling and seeing other cultures. However, I needed to do it in a responsible way and take care of my obligations back home; Korea allowed me to do that. Did I expect to stay this long? No, but things have just worked out well for me here. So, here I am, five years later and 33 years old.
I came to Korea in 2008, just one month after graduating law school. I never really had any interest in practicing law per se (per se is one of the many fancy legal words I learned in law school, so you can see that education wasn’t entirely wasted on me). Sadly, Salle Mae and the other student loan agencies didn’t consider my lack of interest in my degree to be a good enough reason to not pay back my loans. So, as graduation approached, and as the US economy started taking a decidedly sour turn, I started to weigh my options and recalled something I had looked into a few years earlier – teaching in Korea. It seemed like the perfect one-year adventure/opportunity for me.
Deciding to come to Korea wasn’t as big or hard of a decision as I imagine it might be for other people. I had been lucky enough to live overseas for a year when I finished high school and went to Botswana, Africa to teach AIDS prevention education. That experience was the biggest milestone of my life and, most importantly, it made me consciously aware that my life didn’t have to be confined to my nation’s borders. I traveled internationally almost every summer while in college and found my love of all things international only kept growing, so much so that I actually applied to teach in Korea way back in 2004 but found getting a job to be extremely difficult because of my race. I sent in my resume and would instantly be contacted by recruiters who said because of my teaching experience in Africa I would be considered a top recruit and would get paid more. They would then ask me to send in a photo, and I would never hear from them again. This happened five or six times before I gave up. So, I’m not sure what made me try again. To avoid that from happening, I sent my pictures with my resume from the start when contacting recruiters and was pleased when I was still contacted by a few. They confirmed my suspicion that my race was a factor back in 2004 and said it would still be “hard” for me to get a job in 2008, “but not impossible.”
I have no clue what happened on the recruiters’ end, but I was quickly contacted and told they had found a job for me teaching for one of the larger Hagwon franchises in Korea. While I applied for a teaching position, the company that hired me offered me a job as a writer in their newly formed publishing department before I arrived. So, I’ve had a pretty different experience than most expat’s working here in terms of what I do for my job. That said, I still face many of the problems and frustrations as my friends who teach in terms of dealing with a very foreign and, let’s say, nonsensical work environment. However, the good heavily outweighs the bad. I have gotten to experience what I still find to be one of the most different cultures on the planet. I have gotten to travel a great deal every year, including annual trips home. Furthermore, economically speaking, life is easy; and socially speaking, life is very active, dynamic and vibrant because people in the expat community are from all over the English-speaking world and are all eager to meet new people, try new things and explore what their host country has to offer.
While I do find myself annually debating whether to stay or go, the decision is usually easy to stay for just “one more year.” In fact, the main reason for the internal debate at all is something that I think everyone here feels, whether they are aware of it or not. They feel some societal pressure to measure up to some imaginary yardstick of where they should be in life. I think this is even more true for people in their 30’s who have an even harder time shutting out those preprogrammed images in their heads of what they think they should be doing at this age in life, mostly because the idea of settling down and starting a family becomes a bigger part of that calculus. With that said, I’ve had some of the very best years of my life here in Korea due to traveling, the economic comfort, and the great social scene in Korea. If someone had told me back in the day that I would have more fun going out, exploring the world, and meeting new people than I did when I was in college, there’s no way I would have believed them. That’s not the normal course of life. At least, that’s not the course it’s supposed to take, right?
I think this ease of life in Korea really messes with some people here. I get really annoyed when I hear people who are leaving refer to going back home as going back to “real life.” I feel like it dismisses people who have been here for a while as somehow avoiding real life or hiding from it. But, I understand where they’re coming from because things can be so easy here in terms of taking care of your responsibilities (apartment paid for, health insure provided, no need for a car, not having to kill yourself working). It doesn’t match what many of us in the West have been told about life: that we have struggle; that you need to own big-ticket items, even if that means going into debt to get them; that you’re not working hard if you aren’t feeling stressed out. I think this causes some people to see themselves as not growing personally and, if teaching wasn’t their plan in life, they don’t view themselves as developing professionally either.
What I can assure everyone is that living in a culture as different from our own as Korea is challenging and is changing them and forcing them to grow in dramatic ways. They might not easily be able to measure themselves, but their experiences are most certainly causing them to develop as people by simply being so far outside of the familiar. Furthermore, I also suspect that people who don’t view teaching as their calling are getting a lot more job satisfaction than most jobs. I mean, I’m not a teacher, but I get a lot of satisfaction from my job just knowing that what I make will be used to help teach students. I also know from previous experience that feeling is even more so for people that get to see their students actually making progress.
There’s also something many of us get out of being the cultural bridge Korea forces us to be. Korea is still one of the most isolated countries on Earth. There are about 50 million people here and only about 200,000 of them are Westerners. This means on any given day, any of us could be the first foreigner a Korean has ever seen or talked to. I know that’s especially true for Westerners from minority groups, such as myself. To me, this gives a lot of what I do here on the day-to-day an added bit of significance as I like to think I’m helping to slowly help integrate the world, even if I don’t go out of my way to do it. I know it’s a lofty claim, but the mixing of cultures has to start somewhere, and Westerners just being here is certainly a step in that direction. I think it plays a role in giving extra meaning to the average expat’s happy-go-lucky life here. I would like to think part of the reason I was able to get a job in Korea easily, after being unable to get a job four years earlier due to my race, was because a handful of black people came before me and helped open some minds by simply being here.
Sadly, I’ve seen many people give into the pressure to pursue a more normal, well mapped out life, and leave Korea before they were admittedly ready to. I believe societal pressure made them feel another year here was another year their life was on hold. They came to see living in Korea as putting their life in a vacuum where each year in Korea was a year of their life, so completely unconnected and disjointed from their life back home, that it essentially was a year out of time. I’ve watched people who were on easy street in terms of their finances, who enjoyed their jobs and had called the previous year in Korea the best year of their life, leave to go home and live with their parents only to go back to waitressing and start taking on debt again. Why? Because that’s “real life” to them. I don’t share their opinion that life isn’t real if it doesn’t suck enough or isn’t hard enough. If you’re alive then you’re living a real life. If that life is largely carefree, then you should count your blessings and there shouldn’t be an age restriction for being able to enjoy it.
Brian is also a prominent writer for Netsidebar, an addictive new website for intellectual young adults. Of course, older adults over 30 are also welcome. Check it out!
To read more stories and thoughts of those who decided to teach abroad after 30, please click here.