Beyond Hallyu: Teaching English in Korea (Taylor Rivers, History BA 2020)

Taylor Rivers in Korea

Hi there – I am Taylor Rivers, and I graduated from FSU with a major in History in December 2020. Since March 2021, I have been teaching with EPIK (English Program in Korea). I live in Daejeon, Korea’s 5th largest city with a population of 1.6 million people and the hub of Korea’s high speed rail network. I teach at two very different high schools. One high school is for advanced students in math and science, and it is co-ed.  Many of its students are from well-to-do backgrounds, and some have even lived abroad. The other high school I teach at is an all-boys vocational school. Most of these students are from working-class backgrounds and are often less motivated to learn English. I like teaching in both schools. Each has its own quirks. That is what makes my job interesting.

Truly, this is the first job that I have not hated going to everyday. The work is challenging in a good way, especially in the beginning when I did not know Korean. However, learning the language has made me a much more successful teacher. Not only can I communicate better with my students, but I finally understand why they make the mistakes that they do. After six months of studying Korean, I can confidently say I can speak roughly at the level of a three-year-old. I take Korean language classes at the Foreign Residents Office of Daejeon, I have a workbook that helps me to study when I am not busy teaching, and I watch YouTube videos from the Korean department at the University of Iowa. These are extremely helpful in learning Korean, especially the alphabet. If you want to learn Korean, I could not recommend these videos more highly: Prof. Yoon's Korean Language Class.

Overall, I love living in Korea, especially in Daejeon. As one of the major cities in Korea, Daejeon offers many amenities that cannot be found elsewhere. For example, there is every variety of ethnic food you can think of: Mexican, Indian or Thai food as well as various European cuisines. Like all major cities in Korea, Daejeon has a very efficient public transit network that includes a subway. Due to its central location between the two metro areas of Seoul and Busan, Daejeon offers fast, cheap, and easy transportation to every city in Korea. It is the perfect location from which to explore the country. Also, as Daejeon is home to 18 universities, it has a very young population. In spite of that, it is affectionately referred to by its residents as “No Jam City,” a slang term meaning it’s boring. Daejeon is much quieter than Seoul or Busan, but unless you’re from Los Angeles or New York City, you’ll find Daejeon quite lively. Daejeon is only boring by Korean standards.

Korea is a wonderful country with an amazing cuisine and beautiful culture. I love learning about the history of Korea, as it is not well known outside of the country. Personally though, the drinking culture is my favorite aspect of Korea. For those who are not aware, Koreans consume more alcohol per-capita than any country on the planet, including Russia. The average Korean consumes 13 shots of hard liquor a week. This has resulted in a culture where almost any social gathering revolves around large amounts of liquor being consumed in a series of complex rituals and never-ending drinking games. If you work in Korea, you will be invited to go drinking with your coworkers often and if you have any desire to be respected, I recommend you go. These sorts of gatherings, whether with friends, coworkers, or significant others, usually result in the night ending in some sort of “bang” (Korean word for room) where you’ll do karaoke; behind the safety of these closed doors some less socially acceptable activities might occur. Watch Psy’s infamous "Hangover" music video for reference.

Given the amount of alcohol one consumes here on a regular basis, it is good to know that Korea is an extremely safe country. Violent crime is virtually non-existent. You will see people of all age groups, genders, and social classes passed out drunk on public transit and even in the street, but they always wake up with all their belongings and dignity.

As far as making friends is concerned, it can be challenging. However, as I am very motivated to learn Korean and assimilate into Korean culture, I have found it relatively easy. Most foreigners get by with knowing only English and being friends with other foreigners. It’s much easier to live in the foreigner bubble, as all signs and pretty much everything important is written in English. There is also the problem that a lot of Koreans are reserved. I have found it rewarding to assimilate into the Korean way of life, but I do have very few foreign friends because of this. On the other hand, I have made many Korean friends, and this means that I am often invited into spaces where other foreigners rarely ever go. Because of these connections, I feel very at home in Korea and am rarely homesick.

Like any place, Korea has its downsides: namely its extreme social conservatism and toxic air pollution in the spring. However, the good far outweighs the bad, and I have found the past six months to be some the happiest and most satisfying of my life.

I’ll leave you guys with a list of good Korean movies that doesn’t include “Parasite,” if you want to learn more about the country without visiting:

  1. Peppermint Candy (1999) dir. Lee Chang-Dong
  2. My Sassy Girl (2001) dir. Kwak Jae-Yong
  3. Memories of a Murder (2003) dir. Bong Joon-ho
  4. Joint Security Area (2000) dir. Park Chan-wook
  5. The Host (2006) dir. Bong Joon-ho