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A Guide to Living and Teaching in South Korea

Taking the Plunge in Busan

Islands off of Busan, South Korea.
Islands off of Busan, South Korea.

Slowly breathe in, then slowly breathe out. Inhale serenity, then exhale my ego. Trying to do my best to focus my attention on myself rather than on the chatty tourists, I dove and made the inevitable journey inward. I had no idea how much time had passed. Time seemed to have come to a standstill.

*  *  *

The Decision to Teach in Korea

I had just graduated from my university with a degree in English. Even though I loved literature and writing, I had no idea what I wanted to do when it came to a career. As I am pretty reserved and introverted, teaching was an option — though it seemed distant. But I felt that I needed a drastic change in my life. Not long before, I signed up for a TESOL certification course and told the agency representing me I was interested in working in either Taiwan or Korea. Having sent out one letter to each country, South Korea was the first to respond, and my prompt response was about to accelerate my exposure to a new world.

Why Busan?

For my entire life, I had lived on the cold and often brutal northeastern coast of the United States. So, when deciding where to stay in Korea, I knew I wanted to live near the beach. I did not care if it was a small beach, a crowded beach, or even a dirty and polluted beach. I wanted to be near a beach. Busan (known as Pusan until 2000) made sense because I was not fond of the cold. From the stories I had heard about the South Korean winters in Seoul, I wanted to be as far away from the tundra as possible. With a population of over 3.5 million, it is the second-largest city in the country. Even though it is second to Seoul in terms of population, it is still number one in many other qualitative ways.

The Warm Welcome in Busan

Rooted on the southeastern coast, Busan is known for its exotic seafood, sultry beaches, rowdy baseball fans, and much slower pace of life than its big brother capital. Although salaries are relatively lower than average compared to Seoul, hospitality in Busan makes up for the pay. In Busan, I discovered that it was not just a coincidence that so many expats trumpet the kindness of South Koreans. Because the city has a smaller population than Seoul, there are fewer foreigners. This means that those who are not natives tend to be viewed in a particular and often peculiar manner.

To illustrate the unusual kindness I found in Busan, one of my fondest memories occurred when I was jogging by an elementary class on a local bike path. All fifty of their little faces lit up. Everyone waved and said hello as if I were a rock star. Needless to say, I started to feel like one after a few months.

Even on the last day before leaving, I had people coming up to me, continuing to offer a welcome to Korea. It is definitely a shock coming to a country when you are not used to receiving such kindness. At first, it seems strange, but then you realize that such consideration is not a front but a driving force in their way of life. Becoming familiar with the fine points of their culture and language will help you and assist you in your assimilation by leaps and bounds. Koreans love anyone who takes the time to learn about their way of life and will welcome you with open arms if you choose to do so.

Getting Around Busan

It will not take long until one of your students wants to be your tour guide and shows you around the area. Even if you think you can manage, Koreans like to make sure you can find and get to everything without problems. Do not be surprised if your Korean friends grab your hand when crossing the street or to prevent you from getting lost in a mob of people.

One benefit of living in a city such as Busan is excellent public transportation. Compared to Seoul, the subway system of Busan only has three lines, making it much easier to get around. It is the best transportation system for anyone new to the country because the subway map is in Korean and English. On the other hand, the buses do not all have English translations, and you may find it confusing to figure out which route you are on. I treated getting lost on a bus as an initiation every foreigner must go through. Besides the bus and the train, the taxi can be an absolute lifesaver despite the higher cost. Before getting in a taxi, it is best to pronounce the name of the town you want to go to. Ask your Korean friends and students to help you with your pronunciation if you need help. Although most taxis have a telephone help service, correctly pronouncing your destination will save you time and trouble. Even though taxi fares are increasing, they are still relatively low compared to Seoul and other major cities around the world. Most fares start at 3300 won ($2.40) and increase in 100 won (.75 cents) increments for each 133 meters.

*  *  *

Adjusting my awkward cross-legged seated posture and meditation cushion, I slowly rose and gathered my things. The giant golden statue of Buddha stared back at me. I stood up and tried to shake the life back into my legs, which had both fallen asleep. The sense of stillness remained.

*  *  *

Food in Busan

Being the fifth busiest seaport in the world, Busan is the perfect place for seafood lovers. Tanks of eel jaang-oh and squid oh-jing-oh stand posted in front of just about every corner store. In the nearby city of Nampo-Dong — just to the south of Busan — one can find the largest fish market in the country. At the Chagalchi market, numerous potential a la carte oddities, including sea squirts and jellyfish, can be bought. Because of its prime location, seafood costs a fraction of what it would be anywhere else, and it is possible to eat a meal fit for a king for a price affordable to a pauper. Like the rest of the country, the food is spicy. Soju, a vodka-tasting rice liquor, flows from the cups all night to accompany the spicy food. Spiced cabbage kimchi sits on every table. Tipping as a custom is virtually nonexistent. It is not unusual and widespread for the teachers and students to dine and even indulge in a few drinks together. Do not feel awkward if your class asks you to go out for a bite at the end of the day. Busan is undoubtedly a party for your pallet — from the shrimp chips to the jerky-like dried squid served at the movie theaters and baseball games, Busan is the seafood capital.

The Beach and Surroundings

With its shimmering seascape and rocky ridges, Haeundae offers the most famous beach in the country and hosts various events. A spiritual gathering called "The Awakening" attracts so many people that the mass of humans can even be seen from space. Of all of the beaches near Busan, including Song-Jeong and Gwangan-li, Haeundae is the most popular of the three. Even though it attracts thousands of tourists yearly, Haeundae still maintains its cultural identity.

Because a suntan is frowned upon, it is not uncommon to see women and men wear garments covering their arms and legs. Pale skin is not only sought after, but exposing a lot of skin is viewed as disrespectful. Busan is much more conservative than Seoul, and the people who wear revealing clothes on the beach are either from the capital or visiting countries. Even though it is slowly becoming more acceptable, if you wear a bikini, be prepared for stares and the infamous finger-pointing.

Outside of Haeundae is the beach of Gwangan-li. Here, one can go on the Ferris wheel at the Me World carnival, eat some of the town's well-known eel, and take a postcard picture of the massive modern-day Colossus of Rhodes suspension bridge. In October, the beach hosts one of the world's most spectacular fireworks displays. Under the bridge, lasers, music, and rockets whiz through the air.

Haeundae Beach near Busan.
Haeundae Beach near Busan. Photo by Ian Moore.

Temple Visits and Hiking Adventures in and Around Busan

Besides the beach, Busan offers some of the most magnificent temples in the country. Korea is a terrain carved out of a rough and rugged mountainous landscape. One has to hike to reach most of the temples. Clad in hiking gear and wielding their walking sticks, housewives (ah-jumas) and their husbands (ahd-ju-shees) line the countryside hills to participate in a year-round hiking activity and visit the temples. Just a few minutes from the beach crowd stands one enchanting temple. Located off of Song-Jeong, Hae-Dong is built on the precipice of a cliff that overlooks the sea. After being destroyed by the Japanese during WWII, Hae-Dong shows no sign of its reconstruction, and the original aura still emanates from within the temple walls. Because of the temple's isolated location, there are no bus routes to and from it, which means it can only be reached by car or foot. Despite the tourist crowds, the temple of Hae-dong and other temple sites are places to escape the industrialization and babble of the urban atmosphere. Beomosa, the largest temple in the city, offers visitors the chance to participate in a weekend-long temple stay to see what it is like to live as a Buddhist monk.

Since Buddhism is the dominant religion, the temple is one of the best places to immerse yourself in Korean culture. Despite the heckling car horns and jackhammers patterning on the pavement, the temple brings closure to the chaos. Away from the city lights, nestled in the heart of the mountains, the wispy ancient air is the genuine cry of Korea that every visitor needs to experience before they leave.

*  *  *

Once I left the meditation room, a kind older woman reached into her bag and handed me a rice cake tightly wrapped in a sandwich bag. Although I had only been meditating for 20 minutes in that room, my stay in Korea was like a year-long contemplation. I left the country a completely different person.

Resources for Teaching English in South Korea

Ways to Avoid Landing a Nightmare Job:

  • Learn how contracts work and study the contract
  • Ask a teacher who works in the school a few questions about the living and working conditions
  • Research the reputation of the institute
  • If possible, visit the school itself
  • Don't be afraid to say no to the contract: You will not hurt anyone's feelings


  • Job listings, discussion forums, games and lesson ideas for experienced and inexperienced ESL teachers
  • TESOL certification course and job-finding agency
  • Reach To Teach Recruiting: Agency with teaching jobs in South Korea
  • Everything about Busan including blogs, job classifieds, forums and baseball schedules
Related Topics
Living in South Korea: Articles, Best Resources and Websites
Teaching English in South Korea: Articles, Jobs, Schools and Websites
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