Living & Working Abroad: Seoul, Korea
For young, college-educated Americans, the best opportunities are overseas
Living & Working Abroad is an ongoing The Loop 21 series spotlighting some of the best cities around the world to find employment.
Anthony Baber had been sleeping on a borrowed cot from his new job for several weeks. It was about time that he furnished his new apartment. Baber headed to Lotte Mart, a local department store.
"For some reason, the workers looked really happy to see me," recalls Baber, 23. As he waited for help, a group of older women kept smiling at him while whispering to each other in Korean. When he asked for bed sheets, one saleswoman took him by the arm and pulled him around the aisle. Baber says the experience was nothing like he had ever experienced coming from Michigan; when a black man is in a store, the faces that usually follow him don't have smiles on them. But this wasn't home. Baber was in South Korea, where black men are welcomed oddities. "Suddenly, we ran into another black man, carrying a mattress pad, being led by another giddy Korean woman. The women burst into a fit of the giggles and one of them even started clapping. I guess that was the first time those women had seen two black men in their store at the same time and found it greatly amusing. For me, it was just a coincidental meeting, but it really does show the lack of diversity in Korea."
Baber is one of thousands of Americans who head to South Korea for work; a small but growing percentage is African-American. Since Korean job opportunities in a number of sectors are limited due to strict visa codes, the majority of Americans in South Korea, who are not in the U.S. military, are teachers at either private or public schools.
Teachers normally sign a one-year contract, which may cover round-trip airfare, free housing and health insurance. Moreover, teaching jobs in South Korea offer individuals the chance to travel throughout Asia, save money and also learn about a new culture—all for working approximately 24 hours a week.
Unlike public school teachers, private instructors like Baber teach on a night schedule that starts at 4 p.m. and finishes between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Luckily, South Korea is a 24/7 culture—neon lights are ablaze as soon as the sun sets, and its capital city, Seoul, never stops.
Anthony Greene, 29, lives near Gangnam, a lively neighborhood district in Seoul where Korean soap stars can be seen sauntering down the streets.
"In terms of being a person of color, I am very comfortable living in Gangnam," says Greene. "There are not many people of color here, so I am often the only black person anywhere that I go, but it is not awkward or strange for me. I enjoy the experience of being completely immersed here, and am learning a lot about myself in the process."
Like Baber, Greene works for Chung Dahm Learning Institute. Baber recently finished his first contract and is on a term break—a three-month, unpaid vacation.
Many teachers use this time to explore other parts of Asia or visit family in the States before returning to resume another yearlong contract. Both Greene and Baber say they intend to stay longer.
"I'm planning on staying in Korea because the job market in America, especially for a liberal arts degree holder in Michigan, is incredibly scarce," says Baber, who makes $25 an hour and works approximately 24 hours a week. "I don't really know what I want to do long-term yet and teaching in Korea is a pretty cushy gig. It's a great place to live and it pays well, so it gives me a bit more time to figure out my next move career-wise."
Greene, on the other hand, sees the possibility for professional development. "I want to use my freedom to work abroad, travel, get a ton of experience and, ultimately, live in order to never return to the rat race in America."
There aren't any formal numbers on how many African-Americans are living and working in Korea's education system but Ben Glickman, the co-owner of Footprints Recruiting, believes African-American applicants have increased.
Glickman says this change is a result of several things. First, Footprints Recruiting, which screens candidates for English teaching jobs, has developed a very good relationship with predominantly African-American universities. "The word has gotten out…that word filters back to their universities and colleagues, and they know that we are a legitimate program. I have seen a steady increase over the years." Another factor, says Glickman, is South Korea's improved social conditions. In 1996, there were very few black, English language teachers in Korea. Glickman admits social conditions in South Korea weren't the most conducive to the needs and interests of people of color. Now, black and brown faces are welcomed additions.
Glickman also points out the most important shift: a change in attitude among African-Americans.
As for what makes a good candidate, Glickman assures that race is not a factor. "It's people's personalities," he explains. The ideal teacher is "energetic and rolls with the punches" and doesn't "treat the job like it's a 9-to-5 position," adds Glickman. "People who are open to pushing the envelope and exploring other opportunities overseas are the best candidates.""There was a self-defeating attitude among blacks, who thought, 'Well, [teaching English abroad] is a white, middle-class thing to do,'" says Glickman. "Now it has become an accepted thing in the black community, like [it is] in the white community. [English as a Second Language] is hopefully not seen as an all-white bastion. It is something that we definitely encourage all races and colors to try."
Maisha Cannon's reasons for leaving the United States were less about work opportunities and more about personal happiness. "Initially, I came here to get a break from reality," says Cannon, 33, who graduated in 1999 with a B.A.
in English. "I was laid off. I was losing my house and the cost of living was such that I didn't feel I could maintain anymore in my home city of Los Angeles, Calif." Now on her second teaching contract, she plans on staying for as long as five years.
Although Cannon earned more money as a recruiter for companies like NBC, E! Entertainment Television and Hot Topic, she still found herself living paycheck to paycheck. In December 2010, she lost her home.
"My base salary between 2008-2010 was $75,000. So, no way is my salary here better. I'm making about what I did working part-time in college 12 years ago," laughs Cannon. "The difference is that my overhead here is virtually non-existent compared to being a homeowner, having a car, insurance and being taxed as a single person with no kids. On what would be considered meager earnings in the U.S., I am able to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle without the stress that comes with maintaining it." Cannon's Korean salary is US$24,000.
Not only does Cannon lead a comfortable lifestyle, but she is also fond of South Korea. She suggests that African-Americans should not believe all the negative comments made about the country. For African-Americans who are thinking about moving to South Korea, she recommends the following:
1 - Research the country thoroughly.
2 - Reach out to as many African-American contacts in South Korea as you can.
3 - Join the "Brothas&Sistas of South Korea" Facebook group.
"There are plenty of black people here in South Korea. [More than 1,400] alone are on that Facebook group. Imagine how many more that are in the military or don't know about the Facebook group who are living here and thriving," adds Cannon.
Both Baber and Cannon believe it's important for people of color who decide to move to Korea to be open-minded.
"I don't know if I could say South Korea is a good place for people of color because that's too general of a statement," laughs Baber. "You have to come with an open mind because certain scenarios can be off-putting. Old people may stare at you, the cuisine can get a bit wild, and Korea is still a bit unknown to people of color. I can tell you one thing for sure: Being a black man in Korea automatically makes you interesting. It may be all stereotypes, or just the excitement of seeing someone so different, but Korean people are really fascinated by our presence. Guys come up and say 'you are handsome!' or 'we are friends!' out of nowhere. People mainly want to talk to you about hip-hop and Will Smith, but they're at least willing to converse. So if you can cope with it, it's a great place to be."
Cannon says she also feels like people of color have just begun to discover Korea's hidden secret. "We're really on the late freight."