Erie Expatriates Seeking Jobs…in South Korea

This guest editorial comes from Kristi Gandrud, a native of my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, currently living in South Korea and working as an editor of a national English-language proficiency test. She created the Facebook group Erie Expatriates, which was inspired by one of my favorite Rust Belt blogs, Flint Expatriates.

What do you think about what she has to say? Do you know fellow Rust Belters who have sought work abroad? -Kate G.


When I was an undergraduate headed to Canada for my freshman year, I remember trying to get a money order to pay for my visa application in advance of crossing the border.  Standing at the counter in my credit union in Erie, PA, trying to persuade the clerk to make a money order out in Canadian dollars? I might as well have asked for Mauritian rupees. Before I left the credit union, half the staff had been called on deck to figure out how to perform such an exotic transaction. I shook my head at the apparent difficulty of using the currency of a country which, on a clear day, I could see from my bedroom window. Eventually getting what I’d come for, I left the credit union in disbelief of my hometown’s provincial ways, and made for the border.

Four years in Canada and one linguistics degree later, I found myself living in Seoul, South Korea as an ESL kindergarten teacher, far from the shores of that provincial hometown. I had, at some point in my undergraduate linguistics career, heard the drumbeat of the overseas ESL market, and registered for a one-year intensive Korean language class. When Koreans ask me how I got here, that’s what I tell them. I say, “Yeah…I studied the language in undergrad, so I got interested in Korea, and I just ended up here…”

But what I really want to say is: “Well, I come from a pretty economically depressed region of the US, and when I finished my undergrad, I had no viable options for a job in my hometown, and few personal connections for jobs anywhere else. I was able to get a job in Seoul that paid about $23,000 a year, included free housing and round-trip airfare, provided health insurance, and only required a bachelor’s degree,” –which is more along the lines of the truth. My Korean studies did help me move to Seoul, and my linguistics background did nudge me toward language teaching, but the main draw of the Korean labor market was stable, decently remunerated employment for my 22-year old self.

And it seems, I wasn’t the only Erie native to figure this out. Most obviously, there was my boyfriend (now husband) Chris: we were hired together by a major Korean ESL conglomerate, YBM, and were placed in different schools in Seoul. Chris was in as much of an employment bind as I was: he had just finished a one-year master’s degree in political science at the prestigious London School of Economics, but lacking professional opportunities in Erie—as well as personal or professional networks in London—he spent five months pounding the pavement before he finally gave up on getting a job in the UK, and heeded the call of the East Asian ESL-teacher experience.

Also somewhat obviously, there was Chris’s brother Nate. He finished a degree with top marks at Bard College—also, by all accounts, a well-regarded institution of higher education –but, lacking immediate opportunities to start earning an income, followed in his brother’s footsteps to Seoul. Nate now works as a kindergarten teacher at the same company where Chris and I worked, somewhat improbably given his double major in philosophy and history.

That, of course, is all in the family. But how about Emily, a girl from my graduating class at my high school? What are the chances that I would go thousands of miles from home, and meet a classmate working in the very same city, in the very same industry? And this didn’t just happen to me: Nate also met a classmate of his in Korea via Facebook, a girl in his graduating class who now works as an ESL teacher in Busan, on the southeast coast of the country. And what about the steady stream of emails from Erie residents that I’ve answered in the last four years: ‘My cousin is moving to Korea soon, do you think you could write to her with some advice?’ or ‘My neighbor’s son is looking for a job in Seoul, do you have any recommendations?’ or ‘My friend is thinking of doing a year abroad at Yonsei University, what do you know about it?’ When I can momentarily set aside my own gratification at having apparently developed a celebrity reputation in my immediate circle as the pre-eminent South Korea guru, I marvel at the unlikely number of Erie natives heading for the Land of the Morning Calm.

I won’t attempt a detailed review of the positively unfathomable, never-before-seen-in-human-history growth that the South Korean economy experienced from the 1980s to the present. Let’s just say that 50 years ago, it was the poorest country in Asia—malnutrition was widespread, and the infant mortality rate would make even the most hardened social statisticians cringe. (For reference: a Korean friend of mine who is in her mid-30s, the oldest of five children, grew up in a mud hut in the southern city of Gwangju.) Today, Korea’s economy is among the most developed in the world: it gained membership in the OECD, the rich world’s premier economic social club, in 1996.

If you don’t have a Samsung cell phone in your bag or pocket right now, you probably know someone who does. The last time I visited Erie, my father-in-law proudly gave me a detailed demonstration of his top-of-the-line, front-loading LG washer and dryer, and I must admit, they were quite nice. When my cousin from Pittsburgh wrote me to say that his Playstation soccer game contained a Korean league team called the ‘Pohang Steelers,’ I pointed out that, as home to steel manufacturing  giant POSCO, the coastal city of Pohang has taken much more from Pittsburgh than just the name of its football team. That friend of mine who grew up in the mud hut? She now lives in Seoul in a beautiful high-rise apartment with her successful lawyer husband and a three-year-old daughter. Can this country afford to employ legions of 20-somethings from depressed areas of the US to teach their kids English? You bet it can.

I’m living in Seoul now, and having gotten a master’s degree, have moved up a rung on the expat employment ladder: I work as an editor at Seoul National University on an English proficiency test. From March to July of this year, I spent a grueling 5 months in Erie trying desperately to find a job that would enable me to live closer to my parents, sisters, and grandparents. To no avail: even the interviewer at the temp agency told me the pickings were slim. I finally threw in the towel and decided to come back to a place where I knew employment, a decent wage, and health insurance awaited. This past week, I helped my father and sister-in-law book tickets to Seoul for Christmas. Since my brother-in-law, husband, and I will already be in here, it made sense to do the holidays in Korea.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with the good people at the Erie Federal Credit Union. I’ve been sending remittances home, and I wanted to check on a few of the details of the transactions. I explained to the teller than I was actually living and working in South Korea, and so I understood if my requests to deal in Korean won were a bit out of the ordinary. Fully expecting to don the outlandish mantle of the long-lost hometown girl, I was taken aback when the teller at the other end of the line said, “Oh, no, that’s fine. We deal with won all the time.”

Indeed.

-Kristina Gandrud

17 Comments

Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Education, Headline, Rust Belt Blogs

17 responses to “Erie Expatriates Seeking Jobs…in South Korea

  1. Ryan

    hey there,

    i loved your article. a friend of mine posted the link on his facebook. funny how you mention erie, or the rustbelt in general as a place for lack of job opportunities these days. i came to korea from atlanta georgia back in 2006. with a degree in political science, i was unemployable from the start. i haven’t looked back since. i’ve paid off both of my credit cards over the years, but still have that nasty 30k or so of student loan debt hanging over my head. the good thing is, like you stated, is money in the bank, health insurance, a free apartment….AND some goodies you didn’t mention, like low-cost transportation, healthy food, international experience, low tax rate (3.3%), and just being close to other neighboring asian nations for cheaper holiday travel.

    i, too, have met people from my high school, college, and just randoms from people who know people that keep coming over here. yeah, it’s all good for them so they don’t remain poor, but the downside is, our wages have been stagnant or dropping for the whole time i’ve been here. more and more people are escaping the grinding poverty and loss of opportunities at home. sometimes i just want to tell them…..DON’T COME!!!

  2. Tiffany

    Nice article! I’m also from Erie and living/working in South Korea. I’m currently teaching at an elementary school in Daegu.

  3. Kristi Gandrud

    Ryan–thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I agree about the other benefits of living in Korea: low cost of living, low taxes, convenient travel opportunities, and a healthy diet! (In fact, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t lost at least ten pounds immediately after coming here, but that’s a complaint for another article!^-^)

    You pointed out another really important thing: student debt has been a major factor in most of my friends’ decisions to come here. I’ve met a couple of really sad cases–people who are basically hiding in Seoul from their massive student debt, while it negatively amortizes through their entire early adulthood years. They’re basically in exile here, while their credit ratings get into a complete train wreck. Again, a bellyache for another article!

    I also agree that the ESL market has gotten considerably tighter. When I first came here in 2006, the basic hiring criteria were: (1)speaks English and (2) has a pulse. When my brother-in-law came, though, he had considerably less choice about where to work. When he tried to find a public school job after his first contract this fall, it was nearly impossible–and he just stuck with his hagwon (private academy.) I don’t have any sophisticated economic or immigration statistics here, but I would hypothesize that the slump in the US and British economies has done a lot to tighten up the Korean ESL education market. That being said, I would also hypothesize that the entry credentials haven’t become much stricter: most new ESL teachers here are still just recent graduates without any special training in education. The effect, as you said, has been more to push down wages, rather than to improve hiring criteria, which is odd, really.

  4. Joel

    Wonderfully written. From BC and educated in Saskatchewan, I went to Korea for the work as well. And this was due to the lack of connections, but that’s never what I told the Koreans who asked. I would say: my college roommate was Korean, I am interested in Korean history and language, my cousin lives in Korea with a family. All very true, but nothing describes the underlying conditions as well as a lack of connections, as I was a bit of a vagabond, and the rusting economy.
    Thanks for writing.

  5. Kristi Gandrud

    Tiffany, that’s interesting! Check out the Facebook page Erie Expatriates–I moderate it together with Kate Giammarise, who is one of the editors of RustWire.

    Joel, thanks for your comment. It brings up another interesting point: when I first got here, it seemed like every third person I met was from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Newfoundland–all places that are also short on entry-level jobs for university graduates (…and jobs generally, come to think of it.) I haven’t met so many Canadians from those places this time around, and though that could be just a coincidence resulting from my different position in the expat labor market, I wonder if the pool of foreign teachers ‘drifts’ from one economically depressed region to another as word about opportunities here spreads.

  6. I left NW Ohio for Ecuador for 2 years. I was teaching computer skills in an elementary school.

  7. Joel

    Kristi,

    I am assuming it depends on what one specializes in, but I am not certian. I can speak for the Education industry here, that there are jobs for French, science and math teachers, while the other disciplines are overly saturated. Slim pickings unless you are open to living up North or in a more rural setting. Plus I think both our countries have baby boomers just on the threashold of retirement but hanging on because of the economy. Meaning less jobs.

    I am studying to be a secondary history/geography/English teacher, but there are just too many people going this route. Partly because their is an idea in Canada, perhaps North America, that if you can’t ‘do’ that you can teach. That anyone can teach. I don’t think this is true. It’s not bleak but the system needs to serious reform. Perhaps there should be a Masters of Ed. or Arts requirement to teach in high school.

    Sorry, tangent. Yes, there is a shortage of entry-level jobs for university graduates, even in BC where it is more or less well off. But, like a wise man once said, ‘the rent is too damn high!’

    Now I am back at university getting my teachables, for the next year and a half, then teachers college, then hopefully the clouds break. If not, then Korea or elsewhere again.

    PS: Keep writing!

  8. As someone who graduated in 1969 from a women’s college in Buffalo and had my pick of teaching jobs with no contacts, I have to say that I am glad all of you found work but it is a pretty depressing comment on the state of things in the U.S. Teaching is much more difficult today but it has never been an easy job. I went on to a career in print journalism, a dying field. So I can’t say i have any advice but it is heartening to see you all willing to go to such distances (literally and metaphorically) to find jobs. Thanks to niece Kate for another great story.

  9. mijin

    Hi,

    do you guys have any tips about teaching job or media copyeditor job for a swedish guy who speaks fluent English as perfect as natives and Japanese and has master degree of Journalism?

    do only natives get a teaching job in Korea in reality?

    If you guys have any tips that will be so helpful.

    Cheers,

  10. Kristi Gandrud

    Josh–that’s interesting. I don’t know too many people who’ve gone to Ecuador, but it’s a testament to the global demand for English-speaking teachers.

    Linda and Joel–I think your posts raise an interesting issue about the idea of teacher training. In some places, and for some subjects, there’s a shortage of teachers, so local educational authorities are doing everything they can to get people to come and teach, including lowering the barriers to entry into the profession. (Korea’s ESL market being an extreme example of this.) On the other hand, there ideally has to be some mechanism to weed out the people who believe the old saw about ‘if you can’t do, teach,’ and who are just looking for some easy money. It’s a tough question, and I think Korea’s ESL market would be an extremely interesting setting for educational research about teacher training.

    Mijin–I would say yes, it is extremely difficult to get an ESL teaching job if you don’t hold a passport from one of the following countries: the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. That might be an official regulation of the immigration service to get an E2 (teaching) visa; in any case, I know that it’s the policy of many hagwons (private academies.) Editing jobs are quite hard to come by, but since you said you have a background in an appropriate field (journalism) it’s worth a look. There really aren’t many websites devoted specifically to English publishing jobs in Korea, so the best place to look is on places like Dave’s ESL cafe, etc.

  11. Enjoyed the article, Kristi. It’s good to hear more positive attitudes in Korea.

  12. Nice article – and definitely a reminder of Korea’s economic muscle. After 2 1/2 years in Korea I’ve traveled most of the country, saved some money, and otherwise made a life for myself – the sort of life I thought was possible in the U.S.. No longer.

    For mijin – If your Japanese is up to snuff I would suggest contacting a Japanese company that works in Korea. You may need to learn some Korean, but that’s a good idea no matter what your job is.

  13. Nice article, Kristi. South Korea is lucky to have a teacher with your background and your attitude toward the work and the life.

  14. Rita

    Thanks for the nice article Kristi. May I ask if you did your masters in Korea? I’m currently thinking of going to Korea myself and studying further while I’m there. The other thing I’m a little worried about is xenophobia – I heard it’s a bit of a problem in Korea, do you think that’s true?

  15. Kristi Gandrud

    Chris–I agree. It also seems very difficult to me to make the kind of comfortable life in the US that I have in Korea. I was telling a friend the other day, I think being middle-class in the US is like standing on a gradually tilting plane: unless you can find something really good to hold on to, you’re bound to slide off. There have been a lot of articles in the online press recently about America’s income inequality problem–particularly a very good series at slate.com { http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/2266026/ } which have informed my thinking about this.

    Kushibo–thanks! I do enjoy Korea, I must admit. If that’s not obvious from everything written above! 🙂

    Rita–I didn’t do my master’s in Korea. I did it in the UK. If you want to do a master’s here, I would really recommend the ‘big three’ (also called SKY): Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. These will provide you with the most internationally-recognized credentials, and will be most likely to have a wide variety of courses offered in English. If you plan to study Korean culture or language, there are a suprising number of scholarships available–through the Korea foundation and also through individual universities.

  16. Rita

    Thanks a lot Kristi – I will definitely keep that info in mind 🙂

  17. After living in Seoul for the past two months or so, I can attest to this movement of people. I am originally from Cincinnati, but now work out of Atlanta. During my short time in Seoul I ran in to old friends, friends of friends, and lots of Americans who had come to the land of the morning calm for job opportunities.

    My work there is only contractual, and I will not be there forever (or so I think), but I can see why many Americans go over for a short-term job fix and end up staying long-term. The quality of life is high, economic opportunities are great, health coverage is widely and readily available, the nation is connected through a tremendous transportation network including high-speed rail, and Seoul is one of the world’s truly great metropolitan hubs.

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