How Teaching English In Korea Changed My Life… The Not-So-Cheesy Story

Teaching English in Korea changed my life.

It’s true. Cheesy, but true. But I’ll try to save you from all that Cheddar, all that stringy Moz, and tell you an unsentimental version of my time abroad.

Hi. I’m Steve. In 2012 I graduated from the University of Missouri, had no idea what to do with my life, and hopped on a plane to South Korea.  

Does that story sound a bit familiar to you?

It should. If you’ve ever met an ESL teacher abroad, especially in East Asia, that’s one of their basic character traits. And let’s be honest, it’s not as terribly irresponsible as so many folks like to claim.

ESL teachers have heard every type of jealous barb, thinly veiled as legitimate criticism.  

“You’re running away from the real world.”

Or “You couldn’t hack it in America so you went abroad.”

And my mom’s favorite…

“You just want to be a college kid forever.”

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There’s some truth in each of those statements, but there’s truth in so many statements. “Jalapeno Peppers are spicy” is a perfectly astute observation, but I’m not entirely sure how helpful it is. Jalapeno Peppers are widely considered spicy, but as an adult you’ve probably already learned that. Friends and family shouldn’t reiterate that statement to you.  It doesn’t exactly help anyone.

All of these negative statements about the life of an ESL teacher share the same utility as “Jalapeno Peppers are spicy.”

Except, the ESL barbs are several times more disingenuous. When Bob, your recently graduated friend, is trying to validate his questionable decision of enrolling in Law School, he’ll just want to criticize your life choices to validate his own.

The truth is a lot more nuanced.

Perhaps ESL teachers DO travel to other countries in order to escape a harsh reality in their home countries. But reality in the United States wasn’t really that harsh. It just wasn’t interesting. At least, it wasn’t for 22 year old Steve.

So I took that 14-hour flight across the Arctic. I signed up at a small, countryside public school. And I taught.

I taught English to a total of 40 middle school children separated into 3 different classes. It was difficult. It was confusing. It was… pretty hellish at the beginning. I wasn’t a trained ESL teacher.   was just a college graduate hoping to travel around the world. Teaching in Asia was the easiest route.

At some point in that first year, my priorities slid from “Let’s travel to weird cities and do some Hangover-type of stuff” to “I need to make these kids learn English.”

In other words, I matured.

I’m sure there are many of you who didn’t need to travel halfway around the world and live within 10 miles from North Korea to experience the same revelation… but I did.

I found respect for my job. Which led to respect for myself, an attribute that I desperately needed.

Without school grades as a source of motivation, I had no idea what to do with myself. All those years studying Philosophy didn’t exactly help me figure out the next step after University. Especially since it all feels so frightening.

There’s a big sense of finality to choosing a career immediately after graduating University.  

The party’s over.  All road’s have led here.  Get a job, get married, have kids, die.

All those trite phrases from the movies finally resonated with me. And I chose to do… nothing.

That ‘nothing’ started a few months into my final semester and didn’t dissipate until  June 23, 2012. On that day, I walked into my small teacher’s office in my tiny countryside school.  I sat next to my co-teacher, a short Korean woman named Mrs. Moon. She was tiny, feisty, and always seemed to bob up and down the hallways as she ran to classes.  When she wasn’t rushing around, all of that pent up energy needed a target. I know that because she yelled at me.

Full on, top of her lungs, yelled at me.

She got wise to what I was doing.  She saw my lack of dedication in class, my lazily made activities, and my general disinterest in the job.  

Mrs. Moon decided that enough was enough.  Steve might want to travel the world and make fleeting friendships like every backpacking flick ever, but that’s not how it works here… is what I assumed she thought.

I’ll try to sum up what she said, because I hope this might tug a few of you ‘traveling ESL teachers’ on those little heart strings. The children at school didn’t sign up to have a teacher who was only halfway invested in their success. They don’t need someone who’s only interested in updating their Instagram with the latest weird food they found at a street vendor. They needed someone to care.

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Mrs. Moon made sure I understood that.

That left a lasting impression on me. One that drove me from an aimless ‘bro in Asia’, into an academy owning, curriculum designing, slightly balding 30 year old man.  

Learn how you can teach English abroad here. 


Words and photos by Steve Lemlek. Steve ([email protected]) is an American born teacher, writer, and curriculum designer.  When he’s not making English Conversation lessons for his website, HalAndSteveEnglish.com, you can find him at the local food tent chowing-down on odeng and gopchang.