We have been living abroad in South Korea for just under 2 years now, and it is still an adventure. I get quite a few questions from people thinking about working and living abroad, and I wanted to put together a list of things you should probably consider before you make your decision to pack up and move overseas. As we always say on the blog, for us, moving to Korea was the best decision ever, but it doesn’t come without some difficulties. Hopefully this post can help you get a better sense of what kind of things you need to know before you go.
Living Abroad: Why are you going?
A good question I always ask people to reflect on is why they are considering moving abroad. We can get so excited with the idea of change that often we don’t take the time to really evaluate what we are feeling, and what we need. If your gut reaction is that you ‘need a change’, ‘hate your job’, or ‘need to escape’, then I want to encourage you to do a bit more research about what living abroad actually entails.
Before we left for Korea, Chris and I weren’t satisfied in our jobs, and we were tired of working hard to barely pay the rent. We also had a desire to travel, learn about different cultures, and spend time outside of what was becoming a dreary routine. These are all common reasons for moving overseas. But once we started seriously considering moving, there were a stack of other questions that needed to be answered: what are we going to do? What if we hate it? How do we decide where to go? How can we afford it?
If you are seriously considering moving abroad, you need to be prepared for a long battle. It is not as simple as just booking your plane ticket and figuring it out when you get there like the Hollywood movies would have you believe. If you are feeling the need to run away, maybe you need to book a holiday rather than a one way ticket. Real life has a nasty habit of following us wherever we go, and you need to factor that into your decision making, despite how rose-tinted the Instagram pictures are. I spoke more about this in my blog post ‘how travelling didn’t change my life‘.
Living Abroad: Work
Just because you’re moving halfway across the world to a gorgeous location, doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to sit on beaches and in cute cafes every day. Working abroad is just that: working. There is quite a toxic myth permeating social media, about the carefree and epic digital nomad lifestyle. These are people who work from their laptops for just a few hours a day, and then are free to learn yoga on the beach, or change location every second week. The story you see online is simply not the whole truth.
Now Chris and I are desperate to get ourselves working remotely so that we are free to do more travelling and create our own schedules, so there are definitely some awesome opportunities out there that you shouldn’t let me discourage you from. But you need to be realistic about how much work you’re going to be putting in. When you move to a new country, you may be able to live off of your savings for a while, but you will need to find work. Setting yourself up as a freelancer takes time and money, so you may want to look into a more stable job for the first while until you can do what you want to do.
For us, we teach English, which is a pretty 9 to 5 job at the moment. Be aware that just because your 9 to 5 job is somewhere exotic, it doesn’t mean you will love it more than your current 9 to 5. Each job will have its fair share of drama, boredom, and hard work, so be prepared. If you enjoy and are qualified to teach at home, then yes definitely consider teaching abroad. But if not, here are all my reasons for you not to become a TEFL teacher.
You also may not be able to find work in the area that you’ve studied or have experience in. We have friends who are psychologists who came to Korea for a year teaching English. During the year they travelled tons, had some awesome new experiences, but they also went home safe in the knowledge that they were not meant to be teachers, and that psychology was definitely right for them. I do think that spending a year or 2 living abroad can give you a great new perspective on what you want from your life. But I also know that getting that perspective isn’t all smooth sailing, and requires a lot of reflection and personal growth.
There are a range of other jobs out there, and with a little research you may find something in your field or that interests you. Here is a great list of travel related jobs that may not require you to move abroad at all. My main advice is that you shouldn’t go with the first thing that you come across, or the job that your friend does, thinking that their life looks amazing.
This is a career change, not a holiday, you’ll need to have the stamina and resilience to get through the ups and downs, just as you would changing careers at home, only this time you’ll be doing it with very little support and in a different language. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying think before you do.
Living Abroad: Money
I want to make this a separate section, because a lot of people are shocked when they find out that getting to work in Korea was not cheap. In fact, we only managed to get here because Chris had some invested money and his parents bought us a TEFL course as a wedding present. A lot of companies are going to try and sell you a dream of living overseas and making pots of cash while travelling every weekend, but they will neglect to tell you how much it costs to get there. Be careful and do your homework.
I’m going to speak about our experience coming to teach English with EPIK in Korea, so it may be different for you, but the idea is the same. EPIK is great in that you will probably (depending on your chosen province) get reimbursed your flight cost after your first month of work. You’ll also get a bonus for finishing or renewing your contract, and your flight home reimbursed. However, you need to remember that this is a reimbursement, meaning that you need to buy your flight on your own dime, knowing you’ll get the money back later.
You’ll also need to take enough money with you to get you through your first month working, which EPIK recommends is about $1000. You can get through with less, but also you don’t want to be stuck far from home, so having a bit extra does help. Even before that though, you’ll need to pay for a TEFL course, which can be pretty pricey. All TEFL courses are not made equal, and a comprehensive one can put you out quite a bit of money.
Another hidden cost is getting your documents ready, apostilled, and sent to your employer. Chris wrote a great article about getting your documents ready for teaching in Korea, and it is a lengthy process. If you’re not in one of the major cities, you may need to pay an agency to get your documents verified, which is expensive. Add to this the cash required for all the extras, like luggage, new Winter clothes, etc, and you’re looking at a lot of money.
I don’t want to put you off living abroad, but unfortunately it can be really expensive to get to your job and make it to the first paycheck. If you don’t have the funds available, but you desperately want to get overseas, consider saving up rather than racking up credit card debt. It may take longer, but it will really help you have an easier time abroad not having to stress about extra debt.
Living Abroad: Language
One of the most exciting things about moving abroad is getting immersed in a completely different language and culture. But remember, you’re thinking about staying long term, not for a 2 week vacation, so things are going to be a little different this time. Hopefully you’ve never had the experience of needing medical attention while you’re travelling, but it can be a scary and frustrating experience. If you live and work in a foreign country, sooner or later you’ll need to access essential services like healthcare. If you’re in a major city, accessing healthcare in English might not be a problem. But if you’re in a smaller area it might get a bit messy.
In fact one of the keys to living abroad happily is understanding that what was super easy back home can become a huge drama in a different country. Sometimes you will be refused entry to a restaurant and you won’t be able to understand why. Sometimes packages won’t be delivered because you can’t answer the delivery guy’s questions. Even ordering takeout over the phone becomes a little more stressful. If you’re serious about living abroad, think about learning the local language, and start sooner rather than later. Be prepared for misunderstandings, they’re gonna happen daily!
Living Abroad: Culture
Just like the spoken language of the new country is completely foreign to you, so will the new culture be a language you need to learn. If you have spent time travelling you will know how little we question our cultural norms until we are confronted with something completely different. Experiencing a new culture on holiday can be a fun taster, but living abroad is changing to a whole new diet!
An example of this is my experience with the Korean workplace heirarchy. In South Africa, we don’t usually go for dinner or get drunk with our bosses, unless it is a once a year Christmas party. In Korea, staff dinners and activities called ‘Hweshik’ are an integral part of working life. These dinners are mandatory, involve a lot of alcohol and possibly noraebang (Korean karaoke), and can go on to all hours on a work night. There are multiple etiquette rules that need to be honoured, and the whole thing happens a lot more that once a year.
As a TEFL teacher in Korea, these hweshik are a requirement for us too, and although we are invited to them, we know we cannot really refuse. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is a cultural quirk that took a long time to get used to, and can be inconvenient. There are a myriad of things like these that you will need to navigate when you live and work abroad, and more often than not, you can’t google the rules, you just have to observe and learn from others until you get it all right.
Learning a new culture can be frustrating, but it is vital. I once met a guy from California who had been in Korea for 9 years but refused to learn any Korean, because “I’m here to teach English.” Don’t be that guy.
Living Abroad: Loneliness
Have you ever had a friend that you hung out with daily, who had to move away? Remember how much that sucked? Well that’s what having expat friends is like. Another thing that the digital nomad myth leaves out is the fact that you will spend a lot of the time either alone, or lonely. People living abroad are often contract workers, who move every few years, or eventually go home. When you become an expat (or the term I actually prefer: economic migrant), you’ll find that your friendship circle is transient as people come and go. This can be really tough to get used to.
I’m married, so I can’t speak from experience, but it seems to also make dating much harder as well. We all get holiday romances and how sweet they are for a few weeks, but it is a whole different ballgame for people living abroad. If you’re leaving your home country to get over a bad break up, just be aware that dating abroad has its own issues, so your heart will get broken abroad just as much as it would at home, just maybe by a hot foreigner.
Making local friends can also be really difficult. depending on how good your grasp of the language and culture is, it can be tough to connect with local people, or even to find out where to meet them. I was hoping to have a lot more Korean friends but to be honest I can count them on one hand. I have a good relationship with my coworkers, but they are all older than me and have families, so it makes hanging out a bit strange and culturally unusual, so we don’t really do that. I’m very happy living abroad in Korea, but it can be quite isolating as well.
I hope this has been a useful read for you, and that you feel a bit clearer about your decision to move overseas. My wish is that you take the time to ask the right questions, no matter how hard they are, before you begin living abroad. Remember that the people telling you that travel will solve all your problems are generally trying to sell you something, and you don’t have to buy it. If you do it right, living abroad can be awesome, but you need to go into it with your eyes wide open, and embrace all of the challenges along the way.
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