Sunday, July 12, 2009

Getting Hired and Other Tips for Non-Caucasians Looking to Teaching in South Korea

Here’s the question:

I was born, raised and educated in England. I also graduated from a top university. I have been applying for teaching jobs in Korea for about three months, but have been rejected immediately. I have all of my paperwork in hand and there doesn’t appear to be any other problems aside from the fact that I am of Indian decent.

So, I ask, am I being rejected strictly because of my race? And if I do get a job, do I even want to put myself in such a position?

I actually have another friend who is having the exact same problem. He's been applying for about a month and never gets past the first phase which is the resume/photo submission. This is an issue that gets discussed a lot on K-blogs and Im certain that everybody knows someone who has dealt with this discriminatory practice. Not a great first impression of Korea, huh?

I'm not going to talk about race relations in depth really. The topic has been covered over and over again by countless bloggers and journalists from hundreds of angles and perspectives, so let me give you the shortend version: Korea developed at a pace that few nations have experienced. During that time, every aspect of traditional Korean life was challenged, bent or broken. Due to the rapid speed at which globalization tore through the Hermit Kingdom, people didn't have much time to be introduced to the rest of the world. So, we now have a Korean society where (in terms of ethnicity), that is slowly working towards open tolerance, but is still decades away. The bottom line is that Koreans have only “accepted” Caucasians at this point and there is a waiting line for the rest. It sucks, but that's where we are.

So, why can’t you, a native English speaker who meets the minimum requirements for teaching in Korea, get a job? Well, it's all about enrollment, money, stereotypes, fear and (and this one might be the biggest reason) mothers. The Korean mother has all educational power and, if many of them bond together, they can pretty much guarantee that a small English academy will be closed down.

Here's a fictional story based on what I have seen:

Without knowing, a school hires a teacher with tattoos on his forearms. He starts teaching. The students innocently tell their mother about the tattoos. Her instincts tell her that this new teacher has been involved with bad people because tattoos = bad. Maybe she thinks he was a criminal, involved with drugs or something equally "terrifying", but the stereotype has been identified and matched and now she is going to pin all sorts of negative traits on this teacher. The fact that teachers on E2 visas have to submit background checks and pass drug tests doesn't matter. After all, she believes real teachers don't have tattoos and since he does, that means he can't be a real teacher and her kids deserve the best.

So, in a panic, she tells her fellow hagwon mothers. They exchange information and relay second-hand horror stories about teachers with tattoos. Now, all the mothers in that class believe that the new teacher is dangerous. They talk to the director. They complain. The director can't fire the teacher (yet) because if they don't have a teacher, then that means less classes and less money. The parents are upset because the director is putting their children "in danger". They pull their kids out of the school. The next day, some of the remaining children who are in other classes notice that their friends aren't there anymore. They tell their mothers. Their mothers call other mothers. The cycle starts again and the hagwon's reputation gets destroyed and eventually it closes.

I have seen this type of thing several times. Perception is king in Korea and if a teacher gets an "X" put on him or her, then there are few ways to get out unscathed. Directors know that, so they avoid the situation. How do they avoid it? By only hiring typical "white" North Americans.

In the case of the questioner, I have a feeling that directors and recruiters don't believe that someone who looks Indian could be a native speaker. Remember, perception dictates treatment and just like the tall, white women with blond hair who get accused of being Russian prostitutes, the England-born Indian will be viewed as Indian and only Indian.

It's a bad deal and an even worse introduction to Korea, but there are ways to beat the system. As I mentioned, hagwons operate at the will of mothers. If there's one mother who riles the troops up into a frenzy, then the hagwon risks losing money. However, public schools, international schools, universities and adult language institutes have a different system and are not subject to the strong-armed Korean mothers. They do not discriminate as much as hagwons.

Applying Tips

If you don't want to wade through the discriminatory hiring waters, then there is a way to do it.

1) Don't apply with recruiters

Recruiters typically try to push teachers into positions they don't want. Trust me, I've been a recruiter. That's what we were encouraged to do. They want easy cash which means easy cases. An African-American or, in this case, a Brit of Indian decent requires a lot of work for the recruiter and, as we know, placement is not
guaranteed. Save yourself the trouble and cut them out of the loop.

2) Apply directly

As I said, avoiding hagwons is crucial. Not only will you save time, but you might be dodging some serious headaches later. And since hagwons typically get teachers from recruiting agencies, you'll need to handle your own case. It's possible as well. All you have to do is apply directly. Universities, public schools (government-run), and adult institutes all have websites where you can apply directly. Take care of it yourself.

3) Play the game

If you're really set on coming to Korea and want to teach in hagwons, want to use a recruiter and everything else, then you have to play the game. Hagwons and recruiters judge you on your picture more than your resume. They look at your skin color, your facial hair, your weight, your expression, your hair and even your surroundings. The reason schools don't want to hire non-whites is because Korea has a pretty good grasp on their idea of "white culture", but they don't know enough other races. So, play into the stereotypes. I really hate offering that advice, but if you are intent on working in such a medium then you've gotta play the game.

4) Don't get frustrated

Just because schools and recruiters (and maybe mothers) have unfounded concerns about hiring anyone that does not fit their narrow definition of what a native speakers should be, that does not mean you should give up. You will regret it.

5) Don't assume the worst

Douche-bag recruiters, directors and mothers are not at all representative of Korean people in general. No one is. Just because your first interaction might have been a bad one, that does not mean that that is the norm. Remember, it's not only about race. It's about being different. Men with long hair, big beards or visible tattoos get left out just as much as African-Americans. The reason white people are tolerated more here is because of exposure. Koreans have been exposed to Caucasians for decades and so the more non-white people who make their way to the peninsula, the more exposure Koreans will get.

I know the system is messed up, but time is the only thing that can fix some of these stereotypes. Until then, be smart, have a good game plan and avoid the avoidable.

If anyone needs direct links to schools, let me know and I will provide them.


Baumberger said...

I would like the direct links to schools, please. I've got a friend who is teaching IN Seoul and I would really like to be near someone familiar while everything else around me is new. And well, Seoul just seems great in general. I know recruiters really try to shy you away from Seoul (at least the ones I've dealt with) and my friend recommended applying directly.

The Expat said...

I'd be happy to help. What type of schools do you want to teach at? Where in Seoul does he live?

Kenri Basar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kenri Basar said...

Hi there...

Atleast African-Americans and people of Indian and other race who are residents of Native English speaking countries can get hired...I wonder if it would be possible to find an ESL job, me being an oriental from India.

I learnt that Korean Govt. are now hiring Philippinos, Singaporeans and Indians but I had no luck finding any school who hires non-native speakers. I tried applying directly to schools but never got any reply so far. I have done my Bachelors in Psychology and Masters in Mass Media.

Is there any hope for me? LOl...reading your article gave me some hope...


Baumberger said...

She lives in the Nowon district. I would prefer a public school for my first experience in Korea, any age group above kindergarten is fine. If there are any hagwons with good reputations, those would be acceptable as well. thanks!

Anonymous said...

Baumberger -

I live in the city of Uijeongbu, which is only two subway stops away from Nowon. (Central Uijeongbu is only four subway stops away from Nowon Station.) It might be worth expanding your search to include Uijeongbu in order to have a larger number of schools to choose between.

The Expat said...


You are correct. The gov't did mention that they wanted to hire teachers other than native-speakers, but as you experienced, no school is doing it. It was a farce.

Educational reform in Korea is very, very slow and the idea to rely less on NET's and more on other perfectly qualified teachers from other countries was nothing more than an attempt to pander to the anti-native English teacher movement currently in full swing.

I hate to say it, but I am not sure that you will be able to find employment in the ESL world right now. Sorry, but not all is lost. Do you speak any other languages?

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I know i'm commenting on an old post, but I hope you still get this! My wife is having a hard time getting a job regardless of the fact that she's taught in Korea twice before!! Oh ya, she's Fillipino...

Do you know of any schools we can contact directly in Bundang? I got a contract there so that's where we'll be living

The Expat said...


Your wife will most likely NOT be able to teach unless, of course, she has citizenship and a passport from one of the Big Seven. And even then, it could be tricky.

I'd suggest tutoring and phone English.

CG said...

I've sent an email and saw this afterwards. Although I wasn't born in the big 7, but from an English speaking country...Should I put that I was born there [ie. USA] anyway? Would that help get me through? I know they look at the photo first. I'm not sure if they would have something against and black woman with curly hair :/ I'm cute, I swear!

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