From Hamilton To South Korea: Teaching English Abroad After Graduation


Many of us like to travel and explore new places and cultures.  Sometimes, we go on an exchange during school and study in a difference country.

Other times, we wait until we are free of commitments and spend some time backpacking and gathering as many stamps as our passport can hold.

Finally, there are the few who choose to pack their entire lives up in a suitcase and move abroad to work.

Before she went to South Korea to teach English, recent McMaster grad Erika Strong had to pass the TESL exam, get her travel documents in order and start enjoying kimchi (fermented cabbage).

There are a number of reasons why people choose to live abroad.  Having done this myself, I know that it is a completely different experience to actually live somewhere new, rather than just being a traveller passing through on vacation.

Working abroad comes with a long checklist that you should ensure is complete before getting on the plane.  Since just about anyone can hop online and find out what another culture is like, I decided to head straight to the source and reach out to a Canadian living abroad.

To help me sort through the dos and don’ts, the ups and downs, I contacted Erika Strong, who is currently living and teaching English in South Korea (if you are considering this endeavour, I suggest you check out the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada page on Teaching English in Korea).

After graduating from McMaster University with a double major in anthropology and communications, Strong knew she needed to gain some valuable work experience.  She also wanted the chance to visit new places and see more than the walls of a cubical, so she did what any adventurous spirit would do: she decided to spend the next year working in South Korea.

To prepare, Strong had to pass her TESL exam, get copious travel documents in order, kiss her mom and dad goodbye, and start enjoying Kimchi (fermented cabbage).  There were many things however, that Strong could not prepare for –  the culture shock a Canadian endures when landing in Seoul is not something that any book or website can fully describe.

The hierarchy that exists in Seoul is unlike anything we as Canadians have ever experienced.  At the school where Strong teaches, the principal is at the top of the hierarchy with the teachers below.  She personally finds that she is mostly exempt for the hierarchal system because she is a foreigner.  However, she is careful to respect it because it makes for a pleasant work environment.

As with visiting any foreign country, the other major aspect of Korean culture shock is the language.  The ability to speak Korean is not a requirement when you apply to go to teach English, so this is a hurdle many international teachers must overcome when they arrive.  Strong is adjusting well considering her lack of Korean, and is lucky to have some supportive fellow teachers who translate when needed.

Strong says it is important for people to attend events, meetings, and any other social activities they are invited to by co-workers.  A huge component of taking part in Korean culture is showing up and participating whenever given the opportunity.  You will be respected and also avoid offending anyone by rejecting their invitation.  She also advises those travelling to South Korea for work to be adaptable and ready for anything because an employer might change your schedule at the drop of a hat.

Working in another country is an adventure all unto itself.  It takes organization, preparation, and a whole lot of guts.  Somewhere like South Korea, which is so different than Canada, can be especially difficult because you need to put as much effort into adapting to the culture as your new job.  Don’t let this scare you though, because the relationships and experiences you will accumulate are those that will last a lifetime, both in your memory and on your resumé.

TalentEgg TipTalentEgg Tip: If you’re thinking about going to school, working or volunteering abroad, check out one of the Study And Go Abroad Fairs happening over the next week in Vancouver (March 3), Montreal (March 5) and Toronto (March 6).

Photo credit: modern and traditional alive in Seoul by tylerdurden1 on Flickr
About the author

Gabi Pirraglia graduated from McMaster University with a double major in communications and cultural studies and is now working as vice president of communications for the multiplatform communications firm POWERGROUP. She spent her final year of school providing career insight for McMaster University’s Career Services blog, Water Cooler Gossip. Gabi has an affinity for writing, popular culture, social media, and anything covered in gold sequins.