Seven months after graduating with an English degree from USFSP, Chris Thornton spent a year and then some teaching his native tongue in a private language academy in Ansan, South Korea.
The Crow’s Nest: What made you want to go to the other side of the world to teach English?
Chris Thornton: I knew that originally I was interested in teaching, but I spoke with a number of teachers and a lot of them said, “Oh, you’d have to be crazy to become a teacher in Florida right now.”
So I said, “Is there some place where it’s not crazy to become a teacher?” One in particular said “ESL [English as a Second Language] is pretty good.”
Later, I was with friends in California when one asked me, “What are you going to do now that you’re graduated?”
I said, “I’m going to go to Asia to teach English.” It just came out. Long story short, it’s because someone recommended it, but in a way, it was kind of a whim, too.
CN: How difficult was it getting a position?
CT: Once I got in touch with a recruiter, I was getting some recommendations from within a few days. I was picky, which is a good thing, and so I said no to a few positions.
I think I said yes to something within two weeks. The first one, actually, decided all of a sudden they could not hire someone after all. That happens. They’ll get in touch with a recruiter just in case they’re thinking of expanding, and then they don’t.
One time, I actually got hired, got the contract. After having gone to the Korean consulate in Atlanta, went through the whole process—there is a lot of paperwork—essentially they told me, “We’re not able to hire someone after all, we’re broke.” That set me back for a few months. It took me, from start to finish, five months or more. But it really should have taken a month or two.
CN: Were you worried?
CT: I was nervous; I was also really excited. I think I was more nervous about my work environment than anything else. I spent countless hours researching other people’s experiences, what it looks like, what I’m supposed to do in any given situation. I had cultural books and phrase books. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but it’s almost exactly how I pictured the experience, minus the odd sensation of every city looking like Las Vegas lit up at night. Even though you see it in pictures, you don’t figure that that’s everywhere, but it really is everywhere. The signage is completely different: colorful neon everything.
I was nervous about whether or not the employer would be reputable, whether they would have insane expectations I couldn’t meet and wouldn’t know why. But there was nothing like that. I prepared really well and I was well received.
CN: What about the less than prepared people?
CT: There was more than one American teacher who was completely unfamiliar with the culture and the food. [One teacher] had extreme dietary restrictions. She had Chrohn’s disease, gluten intolerance, couldn’t read a word of Korean and was lactose intolerant. She was not only unable to eat a lot of things; she was unable to determine what things she could eat. So she needed our help with everything.
CN: What were your days like? How were the kids?
CT: The day started with little kids: I taught kids as young as 5 or 6. Those classes had a lot of singing. Sometimes I would have a CD player that goes with the book and we’d be singing songs with very simple phrases. Usually it was a lot of silly “Barney” stuff.
As the day progresses, it’s like you are progressing through school. Everyone is just getting older and older until your last class is teaching middle schoolers that are all jaded. They are making fun of you, and you can tell it, but they know you can’t understand what they’re saying.
One of our American teachers was Korean-American or “keopo” as they say in Korean. She pretended not to understand Korean for the entire year. She was an attractive young lady and they were saying obscene things to her—terrible, horrible things. The last week of the year she started speaking Korean fluently to their faces. You can imagine how shocked and terrified they were.
CN: Any advice for others looking to teach ESL overseas?
CT: You’ll see a lot of this same advice on the forums. Try to only go to a place that you’ve heard recommended multiple times on message boards. Even then, still, you should always talk to one of the English-speaking teachers that work there. If there is no current English speaking teacher, I wouldn’t accept the contract at all.
Read the contract over and over again. Try to do everything right by Korean standards, not just legally, but figure out what’s customary. Try to do everything right so you’ll be on their good side. As long as they can afford to be good to you, and you act like a Korean in custom, then they will actually treat you better than the contract. If they think you are rude or have no interest in their culture, you could end up with much worse.
CN: How was the food?
CT: If you can learn to like Korean food, then you can eat like a king for very cheap every single day. Far and away the food was the best thing for me.
CN: And the beer?
CN: Would you go back for another year?
CT: I did try to go another year. I went to what turned out to be an un-reputable school for about a month. The contract stipulates housing: it was to be an apartment of a certain size to accommodate two westerners, me and my then-girlfriend.
The first night we are shown what is to be our living space. It is not an apartment; it is actually a small hut. It is without modern amenities. It had a hose next to a toilet with a showerhead attached and a drain on the floor. We were promised air conditioned, there was no air conditioning. It was summer. It was very hot, very humid. We fought with him over the course of a few days. From what we gathered, he simply did not have the money to meet the contract. Essentially he broke the contract. So we bought our plane ticket and ditched him.
CN: Knowing what you know now, would you have gone in the first place?
CT: I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was the best year of my life, so far. I feel like, in a way, it changed me in such a way that I can appreciate things here, now. So hopefully, this will be the best year in my life.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
Photo by Christopher Guinn