Ken May

First impressions

Korea's EFL roots

I am an English teacher who has worked in Thailand, Korea, Hungary, and the United States. I have spend nearly six years on the road and, by all accounts, it seems like I have fallen into a permanent career of ESL teaching. This monthly column will focus on the teaching angle of Korea – where I now teach. I welcome any inquiries or comments from readers. I will be happy to work your questions into future articles. Contact me at:

If you scratch the surface of many English teachers in Thailand, underneath all that fine polish of discount dress shirts and shiny veneer of silk ties, you can often glimpse a trace of Korea. English teachers have either sacrificed their prized cherry of lecturing in a dusty classroom floor of a Korean hogwan, or they are fleeing to the country from Thailand to refill depleted bank accounts with a 2.1 million Won monthly salary. There is a distinct connection between the two countries. Like soil being tilled in early spring - mixing up lumps of clay, rotting debris, and earth worms – there is an observable churning of English teachers across Asia every year. Korea supplies a valuable foothold as foreign teacher leapfrog between being bored, broke, and bewildered. There is a shuffling between Asian countries as English teachers move in every direction. For some the crucial decision is Korea or Thailand? – a step down or up, depending on which way your world spins. I have heard dismal jokes that it all melts down to one choice: prospering in purgatory OR impoverishment in paradise. However, to understand this distinct connection between Korea and Thailand you must scratch even deeper than the cult of teacherhood. Dig, my child, into the fertile soil of education and submerge yourself into history – the answer rests in the recent rise of western ESL teachers in Asia.

Prior to World War Two the number of English teachers living in Asia was rather small. There existed small groups comprised of adventurous “cowboys” with no teaching experience, missionaries trying to win bonus points with God through religious conversions, wayward soldiers that never returned home, and traders who tired of doing business with make-shift hand signals and speaking in mono-syllable cave man language. The Asian countries that truly started to learn English first were British colonies (India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, etc.). The Americans had their clutches on the Philippines, so English took a foothold in that country, too. After these former colonies won independence following World War Two the sphere of western influence was placed into doubt. Civil Wars broke out across Asia: China (1946-1950), Korea (1950-1953), and Vietnam (1956-1975), as well as violent conflicts in Cambodia, Lao, and Myanmar. During the Cold War it became evident that the shared language of English would be useful to build alliances and to hinder the spread of Communism. There was a strong need for English teachers, but the conditions of travel were inconducive to crossing the globe for teaching jobs. Air travel overseas was still in its incubation period and it took months for westerners to arrive to Asia by ship. Finding a teaching job in advance also presented problems. Either people found employment through governmental or religious affiliation or they rolled the dice and accepted the risk of going to Asia to shake up a job after arrival. Qualified or not, these cowboys attempted to find work, and often found it, after traveling across Asia. Native English speakers were a scarce resource; a rare novelty without much teaching competition.

The Cold War continued as Communism spread. China, North Korea, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam eventually fell to Communism and closed their doors to western imperialists. Racial riots broke out across Malaysia – which ultimately led to Singapore’s withdrawal from the union in 1969. Korea and Thailand both had military dictatorships that created unsafe environments for foreign teachers. The United States persisted with its Marshall Plan which provided economic aid for allied countries. Thailand used a significant portion of its financial aid to develop an infrastructure of roads and a rail system, while Korea concentrated on industrialization. During the 1960s and 1970s, a small number of volunteer teachers and NGOs started to trickle into Asia that provided English teachers as a program component. Third world development organizations, such as Peace Corp, included English teachers as a tool to encourage future trade and economic growth. If you read novels by late writers such as Graham Greene or William Lederer you can catch an odd glimpse of an English teacher farting on a barstool among diplomats, soldiers, and businessmen. All in all, this is not such a radically unusual sight in Asia today. The main difference is that in modern times it is large scale. Where did all the new ajarns, senseis, and songsaengnims come from?

The great boom in ESL teaching really started in the early 1980s when Japan’s economy increased at an unprecedented rate. Japanese factories and industries rose to the forefront of the global economy with its production of electronic and automotive goods. However, one major obstacle in doing business was the inability to communicate with a common language. In 1987, the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) was created to supply its schools and companies with English teachers, and today the program now boasts of hosting over 6,000 active participants. English teachers had an incentive to fill positions at Japanese elementary schools and business corporations. The Japanese Yen was very strong and foreign teachers could earn sizable salaries. Because of the decent pay Japan could afford to avoid hiring “cowboy” teachers and to insist on solid qualifications. Thus, the schism became more pronounced between ESL teachers with degrees and teaching certificates, and the odd traveler who happens to show up in the country to parley their native tongue into a job. Of course, there were many loopholes, but an entire ESL industry was emerging that advocated training and education as a condition of employment.

During the 1980s there were also two significant changes that caused English teachers to multiple across Asia. One is that innovations in jet travel, developed earlier in the 1970s, made it more affordable to quickly venture overseas and find work as an English teacher. One could fly from the United States to Asia in less than one day. Secondly, the creation of the Internet also made it possible to communicate by e-mail with employers abroad, to post resumes on-line, and to obtain information from a school’s website. English teachers who were deterred from going abroad could now reduce potential risks by doing background research in advance. Teachers could swap advice, warn each other about dishonest schools, and find replacements. It can be argued that the impact of the Internet on English teaching remained in incubation until the 1990s because few individuals had access to it, however the infrastructure was taking shape. Teachers and schools experimented with the Internet’s potential. Websites such as the popular (not actually created until 1995) and allowed teachers to find and post job-related advertisements. The barriers of travel time and the inability to communicate with employers abroad melted away.

Coinciding with Japan’s economic boom were the rising economies of the four Asian tigers: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. It was widely believed that the competitive edge in trade depended on advancing English skills. Hong Kong and Singapore already had a historical background with English because they had been British colonies. It is my impression that a significant number of English teachers from the Commonwealth continued to teach in the former properties. However, a rare breed of English teacher also branched out to chance other Asian countries. At the same time when a Thai barstool became a twinkle in Bangkok Phil’s eye, 1989, a new wave of English lecturers were spreading outside of Japan, forming unique teaching communities of expatriates. English teachers created support networks and established places to share each other’s company throughout Asia. Taiwan and South Korea took precautions not to be left behind. Korea became fully wired, and the Internet was promply incorporated for massive recruitment. By the mid-1990s, Korea emerged as a hot spot for English teachers.

Prior to World War Two, South Korea had an agriculture based economy, and only traded with the west to a limited degree. South Korea rapidly industrialized under the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee and the United States became an important market for the goods that Korea produced. English became even more important for global trade. To a degree, Koreans had an eye on their Japanese neighbors. The nation that had repeatedly colonized them, and had sexually abused their women during wartime, was in a position of regional dominance once again. It was a matter of national Korean pride to create a highly educated population who were advanced in both technology and industry – one that would not be overshadowed by Japan. Proficiency in English was a major goal among Korean employers and families. Companies often considered TOEIC or TOEFL scores as a condition of promotion, and Korean high schools expected students to demonstrate English ability at final examinations. In response to this demand private schools, called “Hagwans”, proliferated during the 1990s. Children were enrolled in extra classes, often spending as much as ten hours a day studying. A highly competitive system of recruitment agencies was created both in Korea and abroad – concentrating on recent university graduates. Recruiting was a lucrative business, as was also the management of a Hagwan. South Korea motivated teachers to sign contracts by providing reasonable salaries and housing – the later was not often provided by schools in Japan and Taiwan. The Korean government refused to issue work permits to non-qualified teachers, so teachers without degrees and/or certificates had to go elsewhere for work (such as Southeast Asia). Korea’s economy surged in the early 1990s, until Asia’s financial crisis in 1997, but even then the infrastructure that found and hired English teachers remained strong.

Thailand, being located in SE Asia, seems to have missed the industrial wave caught by its northern neighbors. After World War Two, Thailand used financial aid from the Marshall plan to build an infrastructure of highways and a rail system – ultimately fueling its tourism industry. During the 1970s, while other Asian countries were developing manufacturing factories, Thailand was undergoing changes related to the Vietnam War. The country was the location of several U.S. military bases, and the center for soldiers on R&R leave. Hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants, and tuk-tuk drivers popped up to quickly profit from this demand. Red light districts were also an inevitable source of revenue. There was a massive migration to Bangkok and Chiang Mai from rural areas. People moved to cities to find work in the tourism industry – in the process learning a pigeon type of English to communicate with tourists and soldiers. Jet travel allowed many westerners to visit Thailand, and soon tourist ghettos began to form (Sukumvit, Soi Ngam Duphli, Khaosan Road). The English needs of the local community was highly concentrated around tourism. With the slow rate of industrialization, Thailand remained a poor country that could only offer low salaries.

Many early English teachers came to Thailand as tourists and taught as a means to supplement travel. Local schools felt lucky enough to find a rare teacher that they often downplayed the need to show proof of an university degree or teaching certificate. The spirit of the “cowboy” teacher continued in Thailand. Unlike in Korea, there wasn’t strong pressure for Thai students to learn fluent English at government schools. The family’s honor did not depend on children finding a high ranking management position at a powerful corporation. A simple job that allowed workers to contribute to the family income was suffice. Of course, there are many exceptions, but my point is that Thailand’s English needs evolved differently than in Korea. Even today, Thailand lacks the same scale of private language schools and recruiting agencies. Even with websites, such as, teachers must find work after arriving in country since they can seldom obtain jobs in advance. The selection pools of teachers is therefore limited. For this reason, Thailand remains vulnerable to unqualified cowboys who seek adventure. The recruitment pool is not of recent college graduates, but of those westerners who happen to reside in country for whatever reason.

Korea’s tourism industry, in contrast, never really kicked in to the same degree as Thailand. South Korea could not be reached by land. China and North Korea were Communist and more or less closed to westerners. Until recently, travelers had to take a boat to Korea from Japan of fly there from Hong Kong or Singapore. Despite all the “Hagwans” it can be difficult for tourists to find their way around Korea. Many hotels, transportation, and restaurant employees lack even basic English skills. An English menu is difficult to find even in major cities and ATM machines are still often only in Korea script. In this environment it was impossible for tourist ghettos to form (outside Itaewon) like in Thailand. English teachers can not easily enter or depart Korea; making it difficult to work as a tourist or to stay longer than your visa allows. It is much more expensive to fly out of Korea and back on a visa run. Therefore, the chance of working illegally is reduced. Since tourist contact was also limited in Korea, the style of English learned did not focus on conversational dialogue – instead business phrases and test taking skills were stressed most. Native English teachers often form Koreans’ first bonds with westerners. We can be a novelty. It is not at all uncommon to have fleets of children chase after a foreigner teacher shouting “Mi gook, Mi gook”. Thailand, on the other hand, has been mixing with foreigners much longer. It surprises few Thai children to see a foreign teacher or tourist.

The Korean version of a cowboy teacher is not the adventurous traveler or cash-strapped tourist. The “cowboys” of Korea tend to be naïve college graduates who go abroad for the first time. They can’t handle the culture shock or they get easily homesick. Instead, of learning to become well-skilled teachers many of them flee Korea in secretive “midnight runs” or waste their days drinking in bars with other expatriates. They might have earned college degrees, but teaching skills are at a minimum. For many of these cowboys teaching is just a job, or maybe a springboard for youths to save money during hard times at home. When I observe the teachers in Korea I notice that the average age seems to be younger than the teachers in Thailand. It is still rare for teachers to reside in Korea for a decade or more, although there are exceptions. In contrast, in Thailand many English teachers marry local women and raise families. Teachers retire in the country with savings that can last a long time, since Thailand’s economy is weak and the exchange rate favorable. Thailand is also a very beautiful and exotic country to settled down in. It is understandable that so many English teachers in Korea eventually find their way to Thailand, maybe they visit on vacation and fall in love with the place (like I did). But, as Thailand’s visa requirements become increasingly hostile to foreign teachers there might be a migration of English teachers back into Korea. After all, the basic salary is more than four times what a teacher makes in Thailand.

As Asia moves beyond the year 2000 there are seeds of change. English teacher continue to be churned under Asian soil, sprouting in new locations and sending down solid roots. Formerly communist countries such as China, Vietnam, and Lao are opening their doors to westerners. The demand for English teachers remains strong. China is the hot teaching destination of the future. They offer competitive salaries and their economy is a future powerhouse to contend with. It is rapidly industrializing like Korea did forty years ago. In SEA Vietnam, Lao, and Cambodia are becoming prime tourist destinations. Each also has the potential for industrialization. Will English teachers leave Thailand or Korea one day for opportunities in these emerging economies? Will websites such as inspire a new fleet of English teachers to migrate to Thailand instead; or to Cambodia or Indonesia which now host equivalent websites (but, not nearly as good). We can only wait and see – or go abroad ourselves to test emerging markets. The “cowboy” teachers may be the first to arrive, but ESL professionals and new university graduates will surely follow. The ESL industry thrives and grows in new directions. English has been planted.

Gumi City (South Korea)

Ten minutes away from my Korean home lurks an anti-western monument that was erected in 1871. The Cheokwabi monument reads: “Western barbarians invade our land. If we do not fight, we must then appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray the nation”. The anti-western sentiment was provoked by specific events. Korea took note of the occupation of Peking in 1860 by Franco-British forces, as well as the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1842). Russian war ships appeared on its coast in 1865, and in 1866 the French sent a detachment of troops to Kanghwa Island in response to the persecution of Catholics. The United States, in 1871, sent a fleet to battle on Kanghwa Island in retaliation for the loss of a merchant ship, the General Sherman, which sailed without permission up the Taedong River (now located in North Korea). Koreans attacked the merchant ship, burned and sunk it, then killed its crew – who allegedly treated the locals with disrespect. Moreover, Japan continued to lurk nearby ready to invade and colonize. Thus, is the story of how the former “Hermit Kingdom” was thrust out of isolation into a new age. The barbarians had invaded. For better or worse, the new foreign army is that of English teachers. Armed with recycled textbooks and the dog-ear pages of dictionaries, we continue to mark our place in Korean history.

Fast forward to the year 2004. Directly across the street from the Cheokwabi anti-western monument is a major industrial complex. It is only one of the four in Gumi City. Before his assassination, the military dictator, Park Chung Hee, enforced factory construction in Gumi – to no surprise the city he developed was his home town. A mountain exists nearby to which locals claim bear a likeness to the late leader, including a pockmark where the bullet entered his face. The city where I now teach is known as the “Silicon Valley” of Korea. It produces Korea’s electronic goods, communication equipment, textiles, and semi-conductors. It is more recently famous for its innovative development of LCDs. Western countries are now major trading partners and factory employees struggle to learn English for job promotion. Thousands of Korean children spend as many as six days per week at private schools known as “Hagwons”. These schools have earned an infamous reputation on countless web sites and travel blogs. Hagwons are a rite of passage for many teachers. New recruits often bust their chops with improvised English lessons in classrooms that lack teaching material. Those not broken down by the ceaseless energy of young Korean children are often defeated by ruthless directors that pressure them into extra shifts. The survivors of this cryptic fire become hardened veterans that either reside in Korea longer or move on to a new country to apply their recently acquired teaching skills. After surviving a personal maze of unemployment in the United States, I returned to Gumi without hesitation for a second round of teaching. The anti-western sentiment is fading, but survives in dormancy. Every now and then there is a sporadic outburst or organized protest. However, Korea now welcomes western trade and English teachers like never before.

The first time I worked in Gumi was in 1999 and 2000. I had previously taught in the United States and Eastern Europe. Like most teachers I was motivated by the Korean teaching salary. I found my job on the Internet through the eslcafe website. I blindly signed a contract and traveled to Korea without a clue about the city of Gumi. I knew that it had a beautiful mountain and a polluted river and that was about it. I arrived in Asia with less than $500 in my pocket (unable to save any more money with my Hungarian teaching salary). For the first time I was willing to teach elementary school children rather than students at the college level. Naturally, the Korean kids wore me down in my first six months. I exhausted every teaching technique in my book and resorted to cheap magician tricks, hand-made board games, and sing-a-longs. During my last few weeks I was desperate enough to break out the sock puppets. Oddly, the children loved me. I worked in a remote part of Gumi City – Okgye Dong (pronounced O.K. Dong) – that was covered with rice paddies. I was the first and only foreign teacher that lived in my province. It was months before I met another westerner. Massive gangs of Korean children would follow me to class and joke about the big-nosed teacher with strange blue eyes. They would block my path so they could play with my arm hair and taunt me with phrases such as, “Hello, how are you? I am fine, thank you, and you?”. Luckily, I was hired by a honest director, who honored our contract and treated me to many complimentary dinners. Thus, in 2004, I finally accepted the opportunity to return after teaching two years in Thailand, touring India, and suffering recession-related unemployment in my homeland.

Hippocrates wrote that you can not step into the same river twice. The truth is that the Gumi city that I returned to after four years was not the same as when I left. It had become HUGE and the population surged during my absence. The rice paddies were all gone. A fourth industrial complex was built on the site. An entire mountain was cleared away to create more space. Residential homes were bought and enormous 15-story aparment buildings stood in their place. When I first lived in this section of Gumi there were only a handful of restaurants in the area and no hotels. Now there exists an entire main street with dozens of nightclubs, eating establishments, and places to spent the night. In 2000 my school was the only hagwan in the area; now there are at least 9-10. The saturation of new hagwans has actually caused a small crisis, since competition is so strong that profits are down. All my former students had since relocated or transferred to a different hagwan. There was nobody for me to surprise with a visit. Virtually zero expatriate teachers remained from my past. To be fair, I never expected the song to remain the same, but I wrongly believed that I could still find blasts from the past. The palimpsest that I stepped onto was an entirely different city. The students were gone, the teachers were gone, and entire areas flattened and rebuilt. When I finally resettled into my old home of four years ago I was pleased to discover one lone survivor from my past – a single tea cup that I had purchased from a local artist. It had since passed through the fingertips of four new rounds of English teachers; circling back to me once again. I filled the chalice with green tea and thought about continuity. Had all my energy and efforts vanished into non-significance? Did my teaching have any lasting impact?

I struck out to find the western voice. I was curious to learn how Gumi went from point “A” to point “B”. The easiest way to find expatriate teachers is to head to the local watering hole. I ventured to two old bars called the “Hardcore” and the “Extra”. For me this journey was an one hour bus ride to Gumi’s central business district. In earlier days, these two clubs were hot spots for teachers to meet every Friday and Saturday night. In my book, Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates in Asia’s Global Village (published by Thailand’s Post Books), I analyzed the dynamics of expatriate teachers at the local bar scene. I fancied rebooting myself to the environment that had given me so much drunken pleasure, wild sexual encounters, and severe morning hangovers. However, the Hardcore was no longer in existence and the Extra had been remodeled and was nearly empty. What happened in Gumi was that the population of English teachers had gotten so huge that it began to fragment into cliques. Some hagwans employed so many teachers now that they established their own cliques and bars to meet. Expatriates formed groups limited to their own nationalities. The small, tight, community of teachers that I had known split into multiple cells. All the passion that was exchanged at these bars had dissolved into nothingness. They vanished like the heat from my butt on a bar stool on a cold winter night.

Persistence furthers, however, and in time, I eventually located a new nightclub where I could meet teachers. It was located across the street from the Extra on the third floor. The place is called the “Psycho”. Despite cliques and divisions, every Friday and Saturday at 11:00 pm dozens of expatriates gravitated to the site. There was a variety or English teachers from across the globe, a number of U.S. soldiers out for a night of celebration, and a fleet of German engineers. In many ways the Psycho reflected the spirit and dynamic that I described in my book. However, there was one major difference. This time the bar was operated, but not owned, by an unique blend of westerners. Expatriates had set out to carve their own niche in Korea and create a sense of place. There were sexy bartenders to fall in love with and wild managers that plied me with free tequila while I danced on wooden tables. Beautiful Korean women flirted and cool music pumped its way into my soul. I offered private toasts to Graham Greene and the Ugly American. Perhaps it is the foreigners who are now the isolated ones, forming our private Hermit Kingdoms in Asia, or perhaps we are just having fun. As the bar began to empty at 4:00 am I realized my role in the continuity of expatriates. I am the nameless teacher that passed by Gumi on my way to someplace else. I barked at the midnight moon and raged not softly into the morning light. In all this physical exchange and spilt beer only one thing remains after it has all evaporated away. What exists is the spirit of the foreigner living abroad. The missing link wasn’t a single person or a name that could connect me with the past. What survived was the energy of the expatriate. I drink from this cup of playful passion and pass it along.


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