Canada to South Korea: A Life Away from Home

Sitting in front of her laptop on Skype with the early morning sunshine pouring through the curtains behind her, Elizabeth Boulet smiles in her pyjamas, eating breakfast from across the globe. The Seoul sun is a contrast to the night sky in Canada, the place she calls home. 

During her final year of university, Boulet noticed her friends starting to apply for scholarships or grad school. They seemed to have their lives planned out, and yet she wasn’t sure what step to take next. The thought gave her anxiety until the middle of her fourth year, when Boulet remembered an idea she briefly contemplated back in high school: going to teach abroad. The idea suddenly seemed possible for her, so she started planning. Taking a gap year or two was making more sense by the day, she explained, to “make sure that going to grad school is something [she] wanted to do,” rather than something she felt she had to do to get a job.

She remembered her interest in South Korean media and music, and feeling like she knew the culture. “Knowing,” she emphasizes with air quotes, “as well as you can know any culture from just the media.” She picked South Korea for other personal reasons such as their wheat-free diet, seeing as how wheat is something that she cannot eat. 

“In terms of monetary opportunities, South Korea is probably number one for young people with no teaching experience,” explains Boulet. Teaching English in Korea is profitable for people with student loans and debt, because they will often give bonuses, and the flight and rent is included. Things are also generally inexpensive in South Korea-annoying debit card fees that Canadians pay per month aren’t an issue for Boulet now. “That doesn’t exist here, I don’t even know how many times I’ve used my debit card,” she jokes.

There are two options when teaching in South Korea: people can choose to either teach in a public school or in a hagwon, which is a private academy. Boulet explains that kids are enrolled in hagwons for after they attend regular school, which is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There are many different hagwons that specialize in different subjects such as a specific sport or instrument, or on other topics- whether it be Korean literature or English. Most students are enrolled in many subjects, especially the ones who are ten and older. “You can just imagine how exhausting it must be for the students,” Boulet sympathizes. 

There is a choice of going with a recruiter when planning to teach abroad. Recruiters look for people with a university education, who are the right age, and ideally, who have a TESL- a Teaching English as a Second Language certificate. Once approved, they will indicate where and how to get the required documents to teach abroad. Boulet decided on using a recruiter herself. “You really can’t complain,” she says, as recruiters are free and do the bulk of the work for you. 

Her weekdays consist of having mornings to herself to read, do yoga, or go out for lunch before going to work at two. She returns at ten to her small apartment that has pictures of her smiling friends on the wall. Her school provides the daily lesson plans, so she’ll review it before heading to class, and modify it if necessary. She finds it fun to be around the children, but says that you have to remember it’s also about disciplining them when needed. 

“The more interesting question is what I do on the weekends,” she smiles. “That’s when I really go out and explore and meet people, and try new food, and try new things.” She describes herself as a “laissez-faire kind of traveler,” and enjoys exploring the mundane things in the city- mainly finding cute restaurants and cafés, and going to art museums. “I just love art, so I want to make sure I see art from all over the world,” she explains. 

After a few months abroad, she has not yet experienced a culture shock. “I feel like when you’re in a city, no matter where in the world you are, cities are very similar,” she explains. The only slight ‘shock’ she’s experienced was the food, because she hadn’t really eaten Korean food before.  “I enjoy the core bases of Korean food, which is spicy, delicious, meat, things like that.” She imagines that others may experience a cultural shock, depending on their personalities and the circumstances. However, in Boulet’s experience, she managed to adapt fairly quickly and she made it her number one goal to make many friends and feel comfortable. She keeps in touch with friends and family at home while building a foundation in Seoul, which is helping to delay or prevent her from experiencing a shock altogether. There are many small differences between South Korea and Canada, but not enough that people won’t be able to adjust, she reassures. 

She would recommend this experience to anyone who wants to do this, but mainly to people who will be open to the experience, and to someone who enjoys immersing themselves fully in a different culture. “Korea is such an interesting country, with such rich history that we don’t think about, and there is just so much to do that’s different,” she explains. She goes on to say that whichever way someone wants to travel, whether it be by partying all night, take their time to visit places, or to sightsee all at once, that you should just “travel the way you want to travel.” She warns to not expect a grand discovery of yourself. “Sometimes you’re just moving to another place, you’re still the same person with the same problems, but you’re just in a new country.” 

Boulet strongly suggests to research before living abroad. Prior to leaving, she looked up things that would be useful to her daily life, such as where to go for medication, how to get around, and even where to purchase things for her apartment when she arrived. She hasn’t contemplated the future, and whether she’ll teach elsewhere, or how long she will live in Seoul. Right now, Boulet is living day by day, enjoying the small things that South Korea is making her discover. She’s not ready yet to leave her temporary home just yet, but she says, “anything can happen.”