My wife Elicia and I parted from our stable, comfortable lives and jobs in Madison, WI in April 2013. Things were going great: nice duplex, easy commute to work together, double income, amazing friends, close to family, etc. Why would we think about picking up and moving our life to South Korea to teach English? I’ll try to exlpain as best I can.
Background: Traveling has been in Elicia’s heart since elementary school when she lived near London. She does a great job explaining her story and point of view on our move to Korea in her blog. I became intrigued with traveling when I traveled to Europe and Taiwan for my previous job. Together, Elicia and I loved getting out there and seeing things. We got married in Dominican Republic and since then, we tossed around ideas and locations to move to. What could we do? Where could we go? How could we make money and travel? We had a desire to explore the world together… the problem was finding work that provided a decent wage; after all, we have a nice chunk of student loans we need to pay off.
The Spark: I’ll be clear when I say that Asia wouldn’t have been my top pick. Would I have preferred Spain or somewhere in South America? Sure. I’d love to pick up Spanish again and become fluent. More on this later! Anyways, we attended University Wisconsin-La Crosse and we watched three of our mutual friends (two were Elicia’s roomates) move to South Korea to teach English. At first we didn’t know much about it. Then Elicia kept showing me pictures of mountains, beaches, and beautiful countries in SE Asia our friends were experiencing. It was the lifestyle Elicia and I were seeking. We reached out and got information from our friends and the web. Within a few weeks, it was clear to me that teaching in Asia had so many benefits… it quickly rose to #1 on our list on where we wanted to move.
The Process: In my opinion, most grand adventures like this start with a referral. I feel so thankful our friends provided the referral to us. To teach in Korea, you can either teach in public schools or private schools (called Hagwons). Our three friends used a company called Canadian Connection. I was always thinking, “wait, is this legit?” Answer = 100% !! Companies like this filter through potential teachers via application and Skype interview and connect teachers to Korean public schools. You generally have the choice of what province you will live, and what age kids you’d prefer to teach. We applied for the April 2013 contract, but we started the application process in October/November of 2012. Why so early? It takes time! At first it’s busy. You could gather frequent flyer miles for municipal buildings and the post office if they had such a program. You need fingerprints, background check, diplomas, official stamps/seals/signatures, application and essay, letters of recommendation, etc. Is it a daunting task? Nope. Does Canadian Connection do an amazing job laying it out in an easy-to-accomplish guide? Yes! Our last task was going to Chicago to the Korean embassy (driving was faster & easier than mailing passports) to obtain our one-year work visas. Once we received our visas and had our one-way plane tickets booked, everything started to seem real!
Leaving Comfort: For me, a hard part about packing it all up and moving to a completely foreign country was leaving what was comfortable. Having been married since August 2012, we finally felt settled into our duplex in Belleville (just outside Madison, WI). If we were to move to Korea, what will do will with all our stuff? 2 cars? Phones, credit cards, bikes, bank account(s), insurance, etc.? For some reason, this is what I worried about most. I wanted to protect Elicia and I and make sure we’d be ok. What would happen to our things, and how would we coordinate all this? Looking back on it now, it kind of just makes me laugh. Everything fell into place, just like it was supposed to. We sold my car that I loved so dearly. But why do we need two in the first place? Here in Korea, we have so little but I’ve never been happier. I’m reminded of a quote by Yvon Chouinard, “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s so easy to make it complex.” We found a 10’x10′ storage for our things we wanted to keep and two or three trips to donation centers for the others. I must say that simpler is better.
Telling my employer of our departure was a difficult thing to do, and I can’t be more thankful for their understanding and well-wishes. Saying goodbye to friends and family was also tough, but we threw a little get-together in Madison for dinner the night before our flight to Korea. In my opinion, moving to a foreign place is like taking a leap of faith. During the application process sometimes a week or two will go by and you wonder, “am I really accepted? Where will I live? Who will I teach? How will I get paid?” Those are questions Elicia and I asked eachother all the time. We trusted the plan and the process. You have to trust. After all, thousands had done it before us, so we felt safe by going through the system. Leaving comfort is something Elicia is better at than me. Now, my thought is this: if you leave what is comfortable, and make a new home elsewhere, anywhere at all… you can always make that new home just as comfortable as before, right? YES!
Lifestyle: Teaching English is work. We are here on a one-year contract to teach English, and I have found that being in front of 32-36 students per class takes a lot of energy! We live in the Jeollanamdo Province, which is in the SW corner of South Korea. A bit more rural, and about as far away from Seoul as you can get. This province’s public schools have native English teachers (NETs) teach a maximum of 22 classroom hours per week. We are at school from 8:40am until 5:00pm and get an hour lunch break. Is teaching really stressful? Nope, not at all. There is plenty of time to plan lessons, research, interact with colleagues and students, surf the web, plan vacations, follow American sports, etc. Overall the stress level is way, way less here. I teach 17 classes of 45 minutes each per week, and I’m at an all-boys middle school. I also have three hours of teacher workshop every week, where I help Korean teachers learn English. I wouldn’t have it any other way! I am loving it here. We do, however, live for the weekends. Monday through Friday we are settled into the routine of teaching: wake up, bus to school, teach, bus home, eat dinner, relax, sleep. Repeat. We often go on a short hikes, meet friends for dinner, or explore parts of Yeosu we haven’t seen yet. Weekends? Amazing. We often plan weekend trips to go hiking, find secluded beaches, meet with our friends, camp, find festivals/music, etc. We don’t have a car (yet) but we have found inter-Korean travel very easy with public transportation like express buses and trains. Our weekends fill up quickly, there is always something to do. Overall, the lifestyle here is second-to-none. We are here to work. But boy oh boy, we get to experience amazing things Monday through Sunday.
Financial Freedom: This is arguably the one thing we all want. But what is financial freedom, really? I think it depends on what you’ll do with the extra cash. What are your needs? Wants? Goals? Desires? Dreams? In my opinion, I often think lifestyles expand as budgets expand. I’ve been guilty of it, too. More cash = more spending. It’s so easy to do. So how do we get freedom if we keep spending more? While we were in Madison, we each had good jobs that allowed us to pay the bills and even save a little each month, allowing us to slowly pick away at our credit card debt and student loans. But there were problems, and they are called bills. I needed two hands + toes to count our monthly, reoccuring bills. When we moved to Korea, we watched virtually all of these bills vanish. HOW?
The big incentive is in the pay structure and benefits. We make a modest wage here, but we are able to save way more every month because we have exactly three bills to pay. Rent is provided by schools, along with our cable TV, internet and water bill. We pay electricity and gas along with our fancy iPhone5 bills, but those are even less than in the States. What is the cost of living in Korea? Food, drinks, travel and general items are about the same as Madison. But it’s cheaper to camp (free!) and enter National Parks (usually $2). Just like at home, if you shop around, you can find some deals. For some reason I’m not quite sure yet, I feel as though our desire to spend money has subsided. Maybe it’s because we’re in a foreign place and we don’t know how to spend money because of the language barrier. Or maybe it’s because our focus has instead shifted to saving to pay off debt and tavel. Either way, we are spending less on petty things, allowing us to save more to combat students loans.
Big Picture: Finding financial freedom is very achievable by teaching English in Korea. I’d lie if I said it wasn’t a reason we moved to Korea. If we teach one year, our loans will be 2/3 paid off. Stay a second year? You get a pay-bump, signing bonus, and other financial incentives when you’re done with your two year tenure. If Elicia and I stay two years we will leave debt-free with a hefty chunk of change left over. What a blessing! Whether it’s 12 months or 24 months of teaching, our goal is to become more financially free. Debt is burden. A thick, dark cloud. Sure, it’s a way of life and sometimes ok to have, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. The big picture is that moving to Korea will enable us to do amazing things during our stay, but more importantly, it will give us flexibility when we are finished teaching in Korea. What will we do after we’re done teaching? We have absolutely no idea. There is comfort in knowing that, let me tell you. We can carve our own path. We can re-locate anywhere. Our stuff’s in storage. Our things are taken care of for now. We will be in control of where go, what we do, what we see, and what jobs we apply for. Moving to South Korea has enabled us. Remember how I wanted to pick up Spanish again? We will be in a position to travel Europe, South America, or other destinations for one month or longer. We will have resources to help us find teaching jobs in virtually any country. We could volunteer somewhere. We could donate our time and efforts to help a good cause or something we believe in. Best part of this? We won’t need to stress about finances to make that dream possible.
That is why I am so content with our decision to move to Korea. We are having a blast in Korea. Experiencing new cultures, being able to travel SE Asia during our vacations, and all our weekend shenanigans are so cool. It will be sad when we eventually say goodbye to Korea, but, I look forward to and welcome the opportunity to say hello to our next chapter, wherever that may be. I know for certain that it will be together, with Elicia, and we will have open minds and hearts. Korea is the catalyst that will fuel the next journey, and that is why we picked Korea.
“The best journeys answer questions that, in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.” – Jeff Johnson, “180° South“