Moving to the motherland: Finding work and community in Korea
by Jane Park
The end of August marks a special anniversary for 25-year-old Linda Kye. She will have lived and worked in Korea for one year. It will most likely be the beginning of a few more years of her sojourn in the motherland.
Kye moved to Seoul from her hometown Vienna, Va., after graduating from college and working at World Vision. She needed a change of scene.
“I wanted to live overseas and the job opportunity I had to teach English at a public school offered an ideal living situation,” she said.
Korea was an opportunity Kye decided to seize, as she was already familiar, somewhat, with the language and culture of her parents’ home country.
“My Korean language skills is right around the intermediate level,” she said. “Therefore, I find it fairly easy to communicate with native Koreans.”
Kye teaches English dialogue and conversation at a public middle school in the Bongcheon division of Seoul.
Although Kye says she’s happy in Korea and finds it a “very positive experience,” it comes with a share of day-to-day headaches.
“It poses a challenge to communicate in English only to all the students,” she said, because the school prefers an immersion approach to students’ learning. Although Linda speaks Korean, she’s encouraged not to use it with her students.
And her days can be long and sometimes repetitive. “I teach two lessons 10 times each in one week,” said Kye, who makes it a point to arrive at school and prepare for the day at least an hour before her students file in.
Outside of school, Kye decompresses with friends she has made at church.
“I found my community within my church, Presbyterian Church of the Lord. I’ve been very blessed to find a good group of friends there,” some of whom are also American citizens working in Korea.
That’s where she met Joseph Wang, another sojourner in Korea who hails from Centreville, Va.
Wang, a second-generation Chinese-American, has been teaching English at a public school in the small city of Icheon, southeast of Seoul.
Although he isn’t Korean, Wang said, he’s getting the same overseas experience he had wanted, had he gone instead to Taiwan or Tibet.
“I came to learn and gain experience as a teacher in public school. I know for sure that I’m not here for fun, travel or any of that,” the 29-year-old said.
Despite being a foreigner, Wang said, he’s been warmly welcomed at his school and church.
“Communicating with people is tough sometimes since I do not speak Korean, but I still manage with body language, sign language and lots of creative guesses,” he said.
Wang said in the five months he’s been in Icheon, he’s built relationships with his students, some fifth and sixth graders as well as native teachers who learn English from him. As a Christian, Wang said, it’s “totally up to the Lord” whether or not he stays longer in Korea, though his plans won’t take him back home anytime soon.
Kye fares quite well with the Korean natives, too.
Outside of church, where many of her friends are English-speaking Christians, she built a second community around a slightly more unexpected pastime – basketball in the Gaeopo-dong district of Seoul.
“I began going there every Saturday to play pickup games and somehow got introduced to a group of people who love playing as much as I do,” said Kye, who now plays with a group of native Korean men a few times a week. “It’s been quite interesting getting to know them and learn about Korean basketball culture and lingo. It’s brought be great joy to play basketball in Korea just as I had in America,” she added.
Although “all’s up in the air” about exactly how much longer Kye will teach and live in Seoul, she said she’s in no rush to come back to the States.
Kye isn’t alone among young Korean-American adults committing a few years to life in Korea.
Twenty-three-year-old Brian Lee said he plans to stay there for five to seven years. Surprising, perhaps, for those who knew Lee as the self-proclaimed “typical whitewashed second-gen Korean-American.”
“When asked by family and friends if I saw myself as an American or a Korean, I’d 100 percent of the time say that I’m an American,” said the Los Angeles native. Not only was he limited in his Korean, but he also had little interest in learning the Korean culture, eating Korean food or rooting for Korean sports teams.
It wasn’t until college that Lee explored his Korean identity. At UCLA, he eventually took a minor in Korean along with his economics major, and became involved with Korean-American non-profit organizations in his community.
“Being involved with the Korean community and building my network amongst other Korean-Americans eventually provided for multiple career opportunities to work overseas in Korea,” he said.
Those connections led to a job offer from the international tax team division of Samil PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Yongsan-gu district of Seoul.
Today, 14 months since his move, Lee said he isn’t homesick for California at all. He currently lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins – one reason, he said, why the transition was easy.
One challenge that Lee had to overcome was the language barrier in the workplace.
“Communication was extremely difficult the first few months,” he said. “Now that a year has passed, my speaking, listening, reading, writing and typing abilities have significantly improved.”
Lee said he was fortunate to avoid Korean office culture, something that can be both unfamiliar and unpleasant for foreigners. While Kye cited a strong, competitive atmosphere and workplace hierarchy as common characteristics, Lee said he doesn’t see that at his company.
“The employees at a foreign firm are more forgiving of foreign workers who have not fully assimilated to the Korean office culture,” Lee said. This is worth noting, as Lee is the youngest male employee at his firm, even among coworkers who share his entry-level position.
“The average age for males entering the rat race in Korea is 27 to 29,” Lee said. The majority serves in the army for two years during college in addition to obtaining graduate degrees or vocational licenses. And although convention would dictate Lee to show outward respect to superiors and older coworkers, he said this pressure isn’t as pronounced as it might be elsewhere.
If anything, the lack of such emphasis on social respect and seniority in the workplace has made Lee mature quickly among his older peers.
“Working and constantly being around older people made me feel just as old.” he said.
Lee’s friend Wendy Kim, however, experienced sharper adjustments in her Korean office.
Kim, a 25-year-old resident of Irvine, Calif., was recruited by NCsoft, a South Korea-based online-game company about eight months ago, shortly after she moved to Korea for the “new experience.”
She was one of 33 new recruits – 13 women and 20 men, whose first assignment was to attend an intense training session in the countryside.
“It felt like a boot camp,” said Kim, describing her initial culture shock.
“We woke up at seven and did the morning stretching and running, ate breakfast, heard lectures, took tests on the lectures, read books and wrote book reports, heard more lectures on self development,” she listed. “We probably only had five hours of sleep at most.”
In addition to the rigorous training, Kim said, employees were required to play games and present skits, something she found unnecessary and odd.
Although Kim said she’s learned a lot at the company and has no regrets about taking the job, the unsaid rules in the office can still make her feel like a fish out of water.
For example, “when you are done with your work, you cannot just leave,” she said. “When your immediate boss is still working, you have to stay.”
Kim said it’s called nunchi in Korean, the notion that one should always be aware of what others are doing – and act accordingly. This calculated tact, if you can call it that, keeps each employee in his or her place.
Kim said nunchi also dictates lunch habits, and that eating apart from one’s work team is generally frowned upon.
“I guess it’s O.K. to go out and eat with your friends once a week, but it’s better to just eat with your team. You can tell your boss doesn’t like it,” she explained.
Nunchi often causes Kim to burn the midnight oil, as well.
“We probably get paid half of what people are getting in the States and work twice as hard,” she said.
Still, Kim said she wants to stay at least three more years before moving back home.
It’s a consistent theme in Lee’s, Wang’s and Kye’s Korean stories, too, though each has encountered everyday challenges and adjustments. For Lee, working in Korea is a way to validate the Korean side of his identity, which he only recently embraced. For Wang, it’s a stepping-stone for furthering his teaching opportunities when he returns to America one day. For Kye, it’s an overseas experience that proves she can create communities and build friendships away from home.
And for all four of them, it’s a period of growth and a sort of coming of age.
Lee expresses it best when he said, “I’m 23, but mentally I think I’m 34.”