Strictly speaking, in Korea we're all minorities. Korea is gradually becoming more diverse, but basically it's a homogenous society, so historically they haven't had to deal with anyone who looked very different from the norm. As in Japan, the word for foreigner, weiguk, means "outsider."

For years, the "outsiders" they've dealt with most for have been white Europeans and Americans. These are also the ones they see in western films, the ones they more or less understand, and the ones they're (almost) comfortable with. Not surprisingly, these are also the foreigners they mostly want teaching them English. They'd also prefer that you were young, female, slim, and attractive, but they'll compromise on those. If you're of African descent, you'll have a steeper climb -- but don't give up! It's not hopeless.

Realistically, here's what to expect. In the smaller cities, you'll get a lot of stares (we all do). Some Koreans will actually be afraid of you. In cosmopolitan Seoul it's a little better; they're more used to seeing people from all over the world. Korean rugrats being what they are, they'll stare, point, giggle, and chatter no matter what city you're in.

Even in Seoul, expect your job search to take a fair bit of time. Unfortunately, a color blind job search from overseas isn't of much help; almost every hagwon director will want to see a photograph before even talking to you. If you somehow manage to get hired without sending a picture, there's a chance you may be canned on some pretext soon after you arrive.

I'm sorry to say that there's not a whole lot you can do about this. Korea doesn't have any anti-discrimination laws that protect you (or me, for that matter). What few laws it does have are mostly aimed at protecting other Asian nationals working in Korea. Unskilled workers from China and the Philippines do many of Korea's 3D (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs -- sound familiar?

Some westerners who've been to Korea blame Koreans' negative attitudes on Spike Lee movies, and there's probably some truth to that. Koreans do get some of their impressions of the west from films, and the Hollywood action movie image of African-Americans is not very flattering. But I suspect the attitudes go much farther back, at least to the 1950s, the Korean War, and the way Koreans saw white American GIs treat black American GIs.

Actually, though, African Americans aren't alone. You'll also have fewer job offers if you're Hispanic or -- believe it or not -- Asian-American. Even Korean-Americans have it tough. Hagwon directors want native English speakers who are immediately identifiable as such, before they even say a word.

I know, all this sounds discouraging. That's not really the way I mean it, because it's not impossible for members of minorities to get teaching jobs in Korea. I won't tell you that you'll have all the opportunities that other people will, but I do know of some who've gotten jobs. It just takes persistence.

What else do you need? Start with a pretty good self-image and a very thick skin, because Koreans, especially kids, won't much attempt to hide their negative initial reactions to you. They'll make extremely insensitive comments (mostly in Korean, but you'll know). You'll also have to have a white-bread middle American just-like-the-movies vocabulary and diction (sorry, no Ebonics).

If you can deal with all that, go get your passport now! There are a few progressive hagwon directors in Korea. With lots of patience, it is possible to find a job. And while it may not be a breeze, I think it's the right thing to do. The only way to change Koreans' attitudes is to show them that diversity is a good thing.

Back to the Teaching FAQ

Home | Album | Journal | Institute | Teaching | Culture | Links

Contact the Webmaster