Kari Nguyen: Learning to Lean on Others

ESL Teachers Over 30, Part 9 of 30

So why did I come to Korea? At my age, shouldn’t I be in some corporate job with a husband, 2.3 kids, and a golden retriever waiting at home for me to make dinner when I get off work?

Essay by Kari Nguyen

My name is Kari Nguyen and I’m a 37 years old Vietnamese-American. I’m a native English teacher at an English education center in Seongnam. I came to Korea exactly a year ago, and I recently renewed my contract with the same center for a second year.

Now that the boring logistics are out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about why I’m here in Korea at such an “advanced” age.  I say “advanced” because a typical English teacher in Korea is mostly a 20-something who is a fresh out of college graduate and is unsure of where they want to go with their career.  So, they head to Korea for adventure.  Others can’t seem to find a job at home so they come here. I don’t fall into any of these categories because 1) I am not a 20-something and 2) I had a real, full-time job back home that I had to quit to come to Korea.


I remember when I first was working with recruiters in Korea to get a teaching job here.  One of them had asked me how old I was and at the time, I told him, “I’m 35.” I heard a distinct, audible gasp over the phone and a long pause.  I nervously laughed and had asked him, “Umm…Is my age going to be a problem getting me a teaching job in Korea?” He chuckled and not so confidently stated, “Well, no, but it’s just we normally get teachers that are fresh out of college.”   30-something teachers are not that common in Korea, but we do exist and it’s not impossible to come here to teach if you’re over 30.

So why did I come to Korea? At my age, shouldn’t I be in some corporate job with a husband, 2.3 kids, and a golden retriever waiting at home for me to make dinner when I get off work? While my 30-something friends from back home have Facebook pages full of pictures of births, birthdays, anniversaries, etc, mine are full of places I’ve traveled to and of interesting food I’ve eaten.


I came to Korea because a year ago, I was sitting at home, with my work laptop in my lap. I had to write over thirty case notes for clients I had met within the past week.  Plus, it was a Saturday night. I never imagined that the long hours, sweat and tears I endured to get my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy would result in me sitting at home on a Saturday night staring at the laptop screen and wishing that I could just shoot myself.   Ok, maybe it was not that drastic.  But at that moment, I felt I really needed to do something about my life and career where I wouldn’t be so unhappy.

In that moment, I felt trapped in the corporate world and my job. Then, out of the blue, I remembered my friend Tina who was in Korea teaching English.  I immediately messaged her on Facebook to tell me more about her job and whether she liked it or not. Tina, being quick as lightning, messaged me back a few hours later giving me all the details. It was in a matter of hours that I made up my mind that I was coming to Korea. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense because I had nothing tying me down in the US – no boyfriend, husband, children, marriage, relationships or pets, not even a plant that needed tending. I remember feeling so liberated knowing that I could just take off and leave everything behind to move to another country.


Now, a year later, I can say that I don’t regret moving to Korea. I’ve seen so much and have become stronger mentally, emotionally and physically. I’ve learned so much about myself and about life while living here. I strengthened my mental and emotional fortitude by being on my own in a foreign country.  I’ve been forced to be humble and ask for help since I can’t speak the language like I could at home.  At home, I felt like I could do everything on my own because I spoke the language. Having to ask for help has taught me that it’s ok to lean on others in time of need, and that I don’t have to suffer alone. It may sound strange to some, but this is something that my fiercely independent identity has struggled with in the past. I still struggle with it from time to time, but I’ve gotten a lot better about it.

If you are reading this and over 30-something and wondering to yourself if you can really do it. If you can just leave everything behind and move to a foreign country. I can attest that YES YOU CAN.


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


28 thoughts on “Kari Nguyen: Learning to Lean on Others

  1. I really enjoyed this essay. I am 38 years old and in a similar situation. I have a Master’s degree, no wife, I have a child but she is in high school and living with her mother, I absolutely can not stand my job. I have been offered two positions teaching in China and not sure if I should pick up and leave or not. This essay helped a little. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your story, Jeremy. I’m glad my essay helps your situation a little. It is a very daunting and scary decision to make but I find that sometimes; you just have to take a leap of faith. The more you mull over something, the more likely you’ll talk yourself out of it. I hope that you’ll be able to make a decision and be at peace with it soon.


  2. I find myself in Kari and Jeremy’s position. Slightly older than them and similarly discontent. My job is going nowhere, but it’s in my hometown, so I’m mulling things over way too much, already wondering what I’d do when I returned from Korea! I’ve visited Korea three times, always impressed, but am still not sure how to decide. I guess it’s the old leap of faith, as Kari says…


    1. Hi Steve, I’m glad you found your way to my essay and I hope that it helps you make your decision some what. It indeed is a leap of faith but then again, the greatest adventures come out of leaps of faith! Good luck with your decision!


  3. Hey Kari! I’m so glad I read your essay. Thank you!!! Very inspiring!
    I am 39 and have been offered a job at a hagwon called Avalon in Suwon in Gyeonggi-do province (about an hour west of Seoul). I’m planning to be there Aug 15th.. but I’ve been extremely anxious because everyone else there are in their early-mid 20s. I’m literally having nightmares about it.
    I’m hoping to meet more 30-40 something folk there. It seems like the teachers are older in public schools. Have you had any issues with age-prejudice?
    Are you meeting other over-30 teachers? And hanging with some locals?
    Also, I was wondering (woman to woman) if you’ve had much dating experience w/ Korean men in the ROK. There certainly are the stereotypes regarding Korean men… 오빠들 and 바람둥이들, etc.. I cannot imaging doing that whole cutsie~poo thing.. “Opaaaaaaaaah!” >insert pouty/cute face< yikes.
    No, no, no… I'm a grown woman for crissake.


    1. Hi Mia! Suwon is really close to where I live in Bundang. Feel free to add me on FB and send me a message. I’ll be glad to show you around when you get here! Welcome to the RoK! 🙂


  4. Hi Kari- Thank you so much for your essay! I needed to hear this. I am an 40 yr old Asian female looking to teach English overseas. Every blog that I’ve been on has been about teachers in their 20s, so your essay (and this blog) is very inspiring. My husband (also 40) is quitting his corporate life to look for a more meaningful career and life experiences. I have a passion for travel (and food), and we both feel that teaching is the perfect way to do both. It is definitely an overwhelming process, but we are up to the challenge. Would love to hear more about your experiences and we hope to learn more about others like us!


  5. I know that this article is old, but oh well. Glad you’re happy out there. Live the life of your dream Kare Bear. From, 121


      1. Just an enigma of the past that’s sometimes wondering if you’re happy, which you are, so it puts a smile on my face that those I’ve cared for in the past are finding their way. PS. I was one of the first to call you that. 🙂 Take it easy and enjoy.


  6. Thanks so much for this article! I am a 43 year old half British half Spanish ESL teacher. I have been teaching English in Spain for 8 years and I´m now considering moving to Korea – I totally relate to you… No boyfriend, no kids, etc… and extremely unhappy with Spanish politics and economy. I´ve been looking throughout various countries and Korea seems pretty perfect. Still a litlle concerned about the age bit biut I think it´s worth a try…


    1. Hello Val, sorry it took me so long to reply to you! It’s a bit ironic that you are teaching in Spain and want to come to Korea because I had thought about going to Spain but didn’t think I’d be able to find a job there since I’m not an EU-passport holder. 😀 I hope that you did eventually get to go to where you want and are happy doing it. 🙂


  7. Seems a while since you were originally in Korea but thought id post anyway.

    Well here I am actually thinking of doing the same. Im 33 and nearly went to Korea in 2009 but circumstances caused me not too. Now I’m thinking that my job in the UK is going nowhere, I have nothing tying me down here so why not.

    However I don’t have the necessary TEFL certs etc so for someone my age I’m wondering if its a disadvantage.

    Anyway, an inspiring tale, giving me ideas!


  8. Haha the real truth is Kari was fired/terminated from her job at the Orange County Social Services for botching a high level case with Nadia Suleman aka Octomom. Here is a link to the case and the background (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalie_Suleman). Unfortunately her big mouth and Facebook got her in trouble with her superiors who promptly fired her. She had been unemployed since, and hanging around the local Orange County scene trying to “get a boyfriend/husband”. That was a major strike out as well. So, her only option was to leave the US and her beautiful Lexus car for Korea and teach English!


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