The English Teacher Therapist

As an English teacher I’ve heard endless stories about how hard it is to hold down a job in Korea. Working with adult students isn’t so different from being a therapist, actually, almost all they do is talk about how they despise their pointless jobs, but if I say something like, why don’t you quit, try something different, strike, move to another country, ask for a raise—anything other than the status quo—they say it’s impossible. Korea’s been hemorrhaging immigrants for a century though, so I think their more daring countrymen overseas would disagree. This country has some of the longest working days and the lowest productivity on Earth.

As to more horrific specifics: bosses regularly steal workers’ pay and also don’t pay overtime even though people regularly put in four, five, six hours a day more than their contract states. The minimum wage is $5 an hour, and most things (except restaurant food, taxis, and healthcare) are more expensive than in the USA. I had a Chinese friend who worked at a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant; one day no customers came in, so the boss told her, after she’d been working all day, that he couldn’t pay her. There was no way she could fight to get her wages back.

It’s a job creator’s market here, which means abuse is rampant. Koreans generally believe that good jobs are almost impossible to find, which means that if they get one they’ll bend over backwards—sometimes to the breaking point (the suicide rate is the second highest in the world I think)—to hold onto them, never saying no, never asking why, when ridiculous demands are made of them. The culture here is partly to blame, as everyone must have the most expensive car, apartment, phone, watch, clothes, education, wedding, and stroller they can possibly afford, since a person’s worth is measured entirely by their apparent wealth. The crazy amount of debt here is going to bring the economy crashing down when people stop buying Samsung phones and Hyundai cars.

My Korean wife’s been looking for jobs lately, and she dropped a new doozy on me just a few nights ago: in Korea you can’t just write a resume and submit it to a hundred different employers, you have to go on their websites and fill out their different question forms individually. These forms are also set up so that you can’t paste information in from a master cheatsheet. It seems the only thing employers aren’t doing is whipping ships full of rowing galley slaves, but actually there’s been a few scandals lately about people abducting homeless Seoullites and enslaving them on salt farms in the southwest. Women are unable to procure decent jobs and often turn to prostitution (as many as one in five Korean women I think?). Don’t get me started on the plight of immigrants, who will never be accepted as equals here.

In my opinion English teachers and white collar foreign workers like myself have it the best in the Daehan Mingguk—maybe better even then the Samsung execs who get thrown in jail now and then when a new government gets elected and decides to purge the corrupt opposition. Low hours and tolerable pay. If you can deal with the garbage everywhere, the nightmarish architecture, the smell of sewage, MERS, and children pointing at you and laughing every day, it’s not so bad.