I left South Korea…but not because I had a horrible experience there.
In fact, I feel super blessed to have had such an incredible experience. I worked at three wonderful schools and always had lovely co-teachers and co-workers. I met amazing individuals and got to experience so many new things.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I had my fair share of negative experiences as well. But most of my bad experiences in Korea were related to dating. (As you all already know…) Aside from dating, I had it pretty good. No co-teachers from hell or hagwon horror stories.
You might be wondering why I even decided to leave then. Well, to explain, I’ll start off by sharing a conversation I had with an adult student during one of our 1 on 1 tutoring sessions:
Me: Why did you decide to become a radiologist?
Student: Well, actually, I didn’t plan to become a radiologist. I was doing my residency for -something else-.
Me: Oh, so what made you change your mind then?
Student: One day, when I got to the hospital, I found myself feeling relieved a patient I would have had had already died. I felt relieved because I wouldn’t have to deal with it that day. That was when I realized I wasn’t in the right career. I hated the pressure of having to make quick on-the-spot decisions that could mean life or death for someone.
Me: Yeah, that must be really difficult. I don’t think I could do it either.
Student: That’s why I decided to switch to radiology. I mostly just do research. It’s nice because I stay behind the scenes, and I have time to think through everything.
To be honest, I was taken aback when she told me this story. How many doctors would be honest enough to admit something like that? Not many I would think…
Although I have never been in her position, her story still resonated with me. At that time, I was feeling very conflicted about my own path.
After a year and a half of teaching English in Korean public elementary schools, I realized I wasn’t feeling mentally challenged enough. While I really did love my students and enjoyed seeing them learn and grow, I eventually grew tired of teaching phonics and basic English day in and day out. I know, what did I expect when I started, right?
To be honest, I decided to teach in Korea because I was scared to commit to a job back home. I didn’t want to settle down yet, and to me, committing to a full-time job meant settling down. The thought of getting stuck with a 9-5 job in Oklahoma terrified me.
So that’s why I signed a six-month contract with the TaLK program to teach and learn in Korea. It seemed like the perfect program to dip my toes into the world of teaching because I would only be required to teach 15 hours a week. I figured it was also the easiest way to escape from Oklahoma and move abroad again.
The first six months in Korea were challenging for sure. Half of my time was spent trying to figure out how to effectively teach, while the other half of my time was spent trying to figure out how to motivate and manage the kids. Although extremely stressful at times, I enjoyed the challenge.
After finishing up my six-month contract in the boonies, I decided to sign a new one-year contract at another school an hour away from Seoul. I wanted to experience the not-so-rural Korean life. I had also just gotten used to teaching and wasn’t ready to go home yet.
My second teaching job was my first full-time job ever. I finally experienced the dreaded 9-5, which was more like 8-6 because of the commute.
The second time around was a lot easier, though. I had gotten a hell of a lot better at teaching and managing the classroom. Aside from my horrible 3rd-grade class from hell, most of my classes went rather well.
But towards the final few months of my second contract, I started to grow tired of teaching really basic-level English. It no longer felt fulfilling for me. Because of this, I wanted to try teaching adults next. I thought teaching adults would be more mentally stimulating. And well, it definitely was.
Teaching adults came with a whole new slew of challenges. I came to realize knowing English is one thing, and teaching it is another. My students often stumped me with questions I had no clue how to explain. Questions probably only English or linguistic majors could answer. I actually ended up with more knowledge of English than when I started. It’s so true that when you teach something to someone else, you end up learning more about it in the process.
I enjoyed teaching adults a lot more than teaching kids. For one, I didn’t have to worry about classroom management, which was my least favorite part about teaching elementary students. Another thing I enjoyed was the opportunity to have deep and meaningful conversations with my students. While teaching them, I felt like I was also learning from them. It was the challenge and mental stimulation I craved.
But something still didn’t feel right. Even though I enjoyed teaching adults more, I realized I just wasn’t passionate about it. It simply wasn’t something I was excited to do. Whenever I was notified one of my students had canceled their tutoring session, I felt a little… relieved. I know, that’s terrible, right? Maybe it’s equivalent to a resident feeling relieved after hearing a patient had passed away.
I started feeling guilty about robbing my students of the opportunity to learn with a more passionate teacher. Although I tried my best and put a lot of effort in, I still felt like a fraud because of my lack of passion for it. Worst of all, the students at my main school were paying the academy $80+ per 50-min class. Was I really giving them their money’s worth? Even though my students and the academies I worked for seemed to like me, I felt uneasy at the end of the day nonetheless.
During that period, I also started to feel guilty about neglecting my blog and everything I had worked on before moving to Korea. If you’ve followed my blog since then, you might remember me talking about becoming a digital nomad. My initial plan was to continue working towards my digital nomadic goals while teaching part-time in Korea. I thought I would have a lot of free time to write and hustle.
However, all that pretty much went out the window as soon as I moved to Korea. My priorities changed from working on becoming a digital nomad to just surviving in my new role and environment. I definitely forgot how overwhelming moving to a foreign country is. Your priorities and plans change before you even realize it.
After I switched to teaching full-time, I started writing less and less. Not because I didn’t want to write, but because I always felt too exhausted after coming home from work to do so. And it was hard for me to sit down and write when my mind felt so cluttered with worries.
So there I was. Guilty of my lack of passion for teaching. Guilty about abandoning what I was actually passionate about, writing and designing. The guilt alongside with financial stress and loneliness spiraled me into a depressive episode.
Like the radiologist I was tutoring, I came to realize I needed to get off the path I was currently on.
Quitting wasn’t exactly easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy.
How should I do it? When should I I do it? Should I really do it?
Then one day, between my first and second teaching job, I decided to open up a flight booking app to look for flights back home. I found a relatively cheap one-way flight, entered in all my information, and stared at the almost-confirmation page.
I wanted to confirm the booking, but I was so scared of what would come next. It’s the same feeling you get before sending a vulnerable text to a crush. You want to do it, but you’re scared you’ll regret it.
Alas, I mustered up the courage and clicked “complete booking”. That same week, I wrote my one-month resignation letters.
I originally intended to return to Korea at the end of summer to finish up the orthodontic treatment I had started. But I wanted to come back on a student visa rather than a teaching visa.
Now, that I’m back home, I can confidently say leaving Korea was the right decision. I’ve restored my mental health and am finally feeling like I’m headed back in the right direction. Although I’m still stressed out with finances and figuring out how to make money pursuing my passions, I feel better mentally now without guilt eating at me inside.
After going back home and taking time to realign, I’ve decided to no longer return to Korea to live. While teaching English abroad was something I don’t regret at all, I think it’s time for me to really start chasing my goals.
Through all of this, I’ve realized getting on the “wrong path” can help steer you towards the right one.
And who knows, the new path I’m heading down might still not be the right one. But the good thing about life is that you’re never stuck on any path. It might not be easy, but you always have the choice to stop and change directions.