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Korea Experience Essay

Teaching English in South Korea is more than gaining international work experience, or saving up money for a year to travel. This opportunity is also about jumping into a full-on cultural immersion adventure while living and working abroad.

Greenheart Travel’s alumna teacher, Emily Balamut, is currently teaching in South Korea and shared her life in and outside of the classroom through her collection of photos. Check them out below and start picturing what your life could look like as an English teacher abroad!

First Impressions of the Culture and Classroom in South Korea:

When I first arrived in Korea, I was completely blown away by the amount of celebrity advertising I saw. It’s everywhere. After a month or so, I got used to it, but looking back at my first month here, I definitely felt excited and took tons of pictures with said celebrity advertising.

Various photos with celebrities and ads of members of Exo.

As a middle school teacher in Ulsan, I teach at two separate schools.

This one is Wolpyeong Middle School where I teach on Thursdays and Fridays.

This is the classroom at my first school, Munsu Middle School, where I spend Monday through Wednesday.

I spend the vast majority of my week when I’m at school, but not teaching, creating Powerpoints for my lessons. This takes up most of my non-teaching hours.

Here is an example of a lesson for my second grade class.

I love taking pictures from the back of my classroom when my students are engaged in the something happening on the screen.

Pictured here is one of my first grade classes at Wolpyeong from last semester watching a scary short film on Halloween.

Life Outside My Classroom

The cherry blossoms near my apartment.

Every year, the cherry blossoms bloom for about a week and I’m lucky enough to live near an area that celebrates this by lighting the beautiful flowers. Aren’t they gorgeous?

A very popular attraction in Ulsan is Ilsan Beach and Daewangam Park located in Donggu.

I love going to llsan on nice days and evenings and I plan on spending a lot of time hiking through the park and taking in even more breathtaking views of Ulsan this summer.

One thing about Korea is that they really try to embrace western culture whenever possible. We happened to stumble upon this Craft Beer Show in Gyeongju one rainy, cold Saturday. All the craft beer really helped warm us up.

My absolute favorite thing about Korea is the amount of amazing people I’ve met and encountered. This particular group met through language exchange meetings and decided to rent a bus and go see the cherry blossoms in Gyeongju. Unfortunately, the blossoms hadn’t bloomed yet, but we still had a super fun time walking around and getting to know each other.

photo courtesy of Brandon Jo.

Gyeongju is only about an hour away from Ulsan and has proven itself again and again to be a must-see destination for anyone living in the south (or anyone living in Korea). Gyeongju was the capital of Korea during the Shilla period and you can still see many historic sites such as Anapji (pictured), Cheomseongdae, and Bulguksa Temple.

A must-see in Ulsan is the Bamboo Forest located at Taehwagang Park. The perfect times to go are during the early spring or late fall to avoid the massive amounts of bugs that accumulate among the bamboo in the summer.

Ganjeolgot is probably the most visited destination in Ulsan. It is the eastern-most point on the Korean peninsula, so many Koreans and foreigners come to Ganjeolgot on New Year’s Day to see the first sunrise of the year.

Here I am showing you the rest of Ulsan

What to Eat and Experience During Your Free Time in South Korea

I spend a lot of time eating Western food in Korea. If you’re worried about finding some comfort food, don’t be too stressed. Korea loves western food even if they can’t do it quite the same.

Honestly, I will never find a pizza to write home about, but I will say that chowing down on a big plate of pasta or biting into a burger, even if it’s sub-par, really helps fight homesickness.

Eating big meals with new friends is another way I like to spend my time in Korea. There’s honestly not a lot to do in terms of activities in Ulsan; most Koreans spend their time with friends at coffee shops and restaurants. I’ve really embraced that aspect of Korean culture.

Going to language exchange every week has helped me solidify new relationships and create even more friendships. I love meeting Korean people who share an interest in getting to know each other’s cultures. We also often go to second round at a bar or restaurant after the coffee shop for even more good times.

Singing at a “song room” is hands-down my favorite activity in Korea. I sometimes go once a week!

There are 3 types of “Song room:”

  • a room where you rent by the song
  • a typical “noraebang” (this does not serve alcohol)
  • and my favorite, “norae town” where you can order alcohol and tons of food

I love singing, but even if you’re not good at it, it’s still quite the experience. You rent a room by the hour and just sing to your heart’s content.

Something that’s become a huge craze here are claw machines. Pokemon claw machines are the most popular and I often see young guys walking down the street with multiple Pokemon under their arms. This is my first and only catch so far and I’m incredibly proud of it!

This one is called Umbreon in case you’re not up on the Pokemon names.

Connecting with Korean Students

You haven’t lived in Korea unless you have opened a Blizzard account and played at least one of the insanely popular computer games. My game of choice is Overwatch and many of my students feel very close to me since I made sure to tell them I play and since most of them do, too.

It’s not for everyone, but try to at least appreciate KPop. It’s another way I have connected with my students and I tend to talk with them a lot about it. In January, I was able to see the last Big Bang concert for at least the next 2 or 3 years.

I’m pictured here with my “bias” (favorite), Daesung.

This is just a glimpse into life as an English teacher in South Korea. Living and working abroad is an amazing opportunity to gain professional experience, while also getting a chance to explore the culture as a local.

About the Author

I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota and am now living in Ulsan, Korea. I’m a total teaching newbie (having never taught in America) and teach 1st and 2nd grade middle school students; the equivalent of 7th and 8th graders. The advice I give in this article is gathered from two months of teaching these middle schoolers, so know that I am not a teaching expert. In these short months, I have already grown so much and my experiences in the classroom have made me a stronger, more confident teacher.  

You can read more about my adventures in South Korea on my blog, Emily Teaches Abroad in Korea.

How do you picture your life as an English teacher living abroad?

I had always wanted to visit South Korea and I recently had the chance to spend a week in this amazing country. Unlike its northern neighbor which is pretty much closed to visitors, South Korea is a welcoming and hospitable country. It is an interesting place with a unique culture and a highly developing economy.

I flew into the capital Seoul. On arrival in the city, it was the marked contrast between modern skyscrapers and high design shopping malls and shanty towns that was immediately striking. Wide streets lined by fancy boutiques lead to a labyrinth of narrow alleyways with tiny traditional shops and eateries and there is a clutch of great tourist attractions.

My tour itinerary began on Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, because I wanted to see the Royal Palace (Gyeongbok), the President’s residence, known as Cheongwadae or the Blue House, and the American Embassy. From here it’s a fairly short walk to Bukchon where there is the city’s largest collection of privately owned traditional wooden houses. It’s a charm with beautiful architecture and small courtyards, with the houses interspersed with quaint cafes and art galleries.

Taking the same route the next day, I took a trip into the mountains that peak behind the President’s House, and climbed the one known as Bugaksan. This affords the opportunity to pass through the Sukjeongmun Gate and through the city’s ancient fortress wall. From here the Seoul Fortress is easily accessible and there are also amazing views of Seoul.

Shopping in the Orient is an amazing experience so I made sure to pay a visit to the Shinsegae downtown department store. This huge emporium sells probably everything you can imagine and is a complete charm in the way the bottom floors sell all the basic staples of daily life – including the ubiquitous kimchee (fermented cabbage) and are frequented by Korean housewives while the upper floors cater to the well-heeled and brand conscious. As fascinating as it is, the new rooftop garden is a welcome respite. But, if you are going to shop in Seoul, it’s a must to visit the street stalls and hawkers of the Namdaemum Market where the wares seem to be spread out in a blanket of never-ending stalls. Be prepared to be seriously jostled by the crowds, but it’s also the chance to feast on the best street food.

One of the most surprising sights and a rue delight is the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Running for just under 4 miles through the city, the stream is remarkably quiet given its location, because it is 15 foot below street level. The serene setting, accentuated by waterfalls and bridge is a favorite strolling spot for romantic couples.

With a flying visit to Itaewon, the popular ex-pat neighborhood near to the main US army base, my time in Seoul came to an end. I was enthralled and captivated and hope I get to return one day.