For Prospective EPIK Teachers: The Realities of Living and Teaching in Seoul with SMOE

It’s that time of year. Applicants to EPIK (English Program in Korea) eagerly await acceptance and eventual placement results. Almost everyone wants Seoul and almost everyone is disappointed when they don’t get it.

Everyone wants to live in the capital: the glitz, the glam, the Gangnam.

But for those of you holding out for Seoul and nothing else, we need to have a reality check.

I’ll admit, I was relieved when I opened my placement email and saw “Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education”. Confirmed– I would not be living in a village with no access to the outside world. I could keep doing all the things I had been doing already living in Seoul for my Korean language program.

EPIK orientation rolled around and on the last day everyone received their final neighborhood specific location. For large provinces like Gangwon, it was a blood bath. One couple had been placed an hour apart and the girlfriend spent the final hour of the orientation farewell dinner crying in the bathroom. Another guy had been placed in a small town of 7,000 people near the border of North Korea and said something to the effect of, “my father will NOT be happy about this.” As if his father could make a phone call.

The relief among the Seoul cohort was palpable in the face of our provincial comrades’ despair.

So with relief and gratitude I waited with my other capital city assignments at a nameless middle school to be picked up by my co-teacher.

I’ve been listening to the podcast “The Happiness Lab” and a quote from episode three has stuck out to me: the good is never as good as we expect and the bad is never as bad as we expect. Essentially, our human brains are still in evolution 1.0 for the ability to accurately forecast our reaction to the future. And so, I found certain aspects of Seoul life to be difficult but seemingly never mentioned in any blog, vlog, or YouTube video.

Reality 1: Apartment Size

S and the former principal took me to my apartment and I felt my stomach drop. This was the smallest “apartment” I had ever seen— in fact it was barely larger than the dorm room I had spent all summer in.

S asked, “what do you think?” and as I was still recovering from the shock all I could say was “it is… small”.

After several months I got used to the drying rack taking up 50% of my real estate on laundry day so it’s not a bother, although I’d like to have more space next year.

Some SMOE teachers have spacious apartments and some like me do not. Some teachers are a ten minute walk away from school, and some like me live 35+ minutes away via public transport. As with everything EPIK, it’s a gamble.

“Itty bitty living space”. 250 sq feet including the bathroom and closet.

Reality 2: City Experience

Seoul is a vastly different experience depending on where you’re placed. One teacher in Gangnam met two of her boyfriends in the street and works with many other foreign teachers with whom she spends weekends; on this side of town one man asked too loudly if I wanted to work in a karaoke salon and my coworkers dash home after 2:30pm to take care of little ones. (I’m not young but I’m still the youngest person in this school).

If you are placed in Hongdae, Gangnam, or Itaewon your mileage may vary. But Seoul is big and much of it is as Korean as Chungju or Andong, which is something vlogs don’t seem to mention. A bank worker in Seoul is no more likely to speak English than a bank worker in the countryside.

If you stay in a foreigner bubble I imagine this won’t trouble you. For someone like me, who is trying to understand the culture and befriend locals, it can be opposite of what I expected from social media.

Mileage may vary.

Reality 3: Income Inequality

I had come to South Korea with the general idea that Korean students were well behaved and self disciplined. That Seoul families were affluent and interested in education.

Boy was I wrong. I work in the far east of the city where each year, student population continues to decline as parents get better jobs and move their families to better school districts. My students are generally good-hearted but it’s clear many of them don’t have much parental guidance or oversight at home.

My co-teacher told me that during online classes most of the students didn’t submit any work which was worrying to her. Even the vice principal has said “the students here are not good at English” which is a marker for affluence (this is another debate entirely but to get ahead students must take after school academy classes; the amount and quality of these are determined by wealth).

In addition the expectation for students seem to be low; I asked my CT what our targets were for English and she said “finish the book”. While many Seoul teachers have students that are advanced well beyond the book, do remember that this is certainly not true across the city. And a point for more “rural” schools– they receive additional government funding to ensure students don’t fall behind simply due to location.

Reality 4: Pollution

Ask a Korean about pollution and they will immediately say that 100% is caused by China, no exceptions. No blogs or videos seem to mention that for nearly 8 months out of the year, pollution is horrendous. My previous CT was confused why I would be sick because of poor air quality: “are you allergic or sensitive to the fine dust or something?” she asked. Yes!

Science is still out on how much is owed to China but the reality is that nearly every day in winter from November to February is an orange or red fine dust day. And by March, yellow dust starts rolling in from the deserts of China as it has been doing for thousands of years.

Wearing a mask constantly, being unable to hike or even see the surrounding mountains that are perfectly visible in summer takes a huge mental and physical toll. And strangely never once has any Seoul doctor– ENT, ophthalmology, internal medicine, cardiology– ever mentioned that my various unknown illnesses could be attributed to pollution.

A green day (top) versus a red day (bottom).

Reality 5: Lower Salary but Higher Cost of Living

For those of us with SMOE, starting salary is 2M won. Salaries have actually decreased in the last ten years while cost of living and goods continues to increase; Seoul has the sixth most expensive groceries in the world after five Swiss cities but you can bet I’m not making anything like a Swiss salary.

You can certainly save money, with some effort, but it’s a bummer to think that people were snagging 2.3M won salaries in 2010.

Reality 6: Seoul is not the only city worth living in.

My coworkers continuously tell me I’ll never be able to live outside of Seoul because “no one speaks English” and “there are no foreigners”. I have no idea where they get this idea; perhaps Gangnam or Itaewon come to mind.

Yes, the specifically foreign neighborhoods around Yongin, the US Army Base, cater to English speakers. And yes, many places in Gangnam have English speaking services. (I still needed a translator for every clinic I’ve visited in Gangnam). I’m glad to have these at hand for my vegan cravings and dermatology needs.

I always thought it was a bit funny, too; my coworkers for the most part spend their time at school or home. They do not club hop, attend cafes, or take part in what they perceive makes Seoul better. I suppose it’s the idea that those things are more readily accessible.

Seoul is not the multicultural metropolis that Koreans seem to think it is. Rather, the Seoul perspective is a paradox: Seoullites think to themselves, “I saw a white person last week, wow Seoul is so international” but also “I saw a white person last week and ran away lest I be forced to speak English”.

When I have to explain to a coworker that I’m not the voice of all foreigners, and no foreigners don’t eat only bread for dinner, I wonder where this idea comes from.

Of course those foreign-catering places are more accessible by train or bus than if I lived in a different area, but the fact is I still have to seek them out.

Seoullites hardly consider Daegu a city and Daegu has 2.5 million residents! For people in Seoul, it is the center of the world. So take their perspective with a grain of salt.

Final Thoughts

If you are afraid of living outside of Seoul, ask yourself why– is it because you love Seoul so much? Or is it because you’re afraid you will be unable to handle Korea at its most Korean?

To my EPIK applicants, this is not meant to scare you.

I simply want you to be aware of some negative realities that seem to fly under the radar of all that is good about Seoul, and there are plenty. And to remind you that non-Seoul placement is not the end of the world.

If Seoul is your absolute be all end all, apply to hagwons. If you consider yourself adaptable, be ready to accept the reality that you may not get Seoul placement.

And you know what? That’s okay.

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