Teaching English in Korea with a Baby in Tow

When we arrived in Seoul, Korea laden with nine black oversized duffle bags and a car seat, we had flown for 14 hours with a one-year-old. Our son was supposed to fly seated in our laps, but luckily, the flight attendants found us a row by the bulkhead, so he slept most of the time. He had just taken his first steps in June; by August, he wanted to run. For part of the trip, he toddled up and down the aisle of the plane, smiling and laughing. I changed him on the ground back by the coffee station.

Navigating Seoul airport was one of the most challenging experiences of my life because we were exhausted and didn’t have any instructions from English 20/20, our employer and sponsor of our work visas to teach English. After struggling to get all our luggage onto a shuttle bus and figuring out we had to catch a connecting flight to Pusan, the second-largest city in Korea, we just barely made the flight. At one point, the baby—strapped into his car seat—was passed from person to person like a fire brigade to the shuttle. This added four additional hours to an already incredibly long trip.

Why Korea?

Carlos had earned a certificate to teach ESOL in Seattle. However, the prospects of finding work in the field were few. One needed experience to obtain the position and a position to gain experience, so we were caught in a loop. I happened across an ad in the Sunday New York Times for jobs to teach English in Korea. We researched the situation—before the Internet—and although there were some published accounts of shady scenarios, for the most part, it seemed like a way we could teach non-English speakers and parlay the experience into an eventual state-side job.

We interviewed in Eugene, Oregon. My brother was visiting us in Seattle for Christmas, so he watched the baby while Carlos and I talked with the recruiters. It was a package deal, both of us. The company was amenable, and we were to start training in Los Angeles in May, which meant leaving our high school teaching positions a few weeks early.

Our previous experience teaching in a low-income high school in Miami with many ESOL students came in handy as the company promoted me to the teacher manager of the branch of English language schools where we were assigned. This promotion meant a little more money and some opportunities. We stayed with relatives in LA during the training and experienced our first middle of the night earthquake. Our visas were held up by a standoff between the 1996 Clinton government and South Korea. While the two countries resolved the issue of student visas, we were stuck in LA for three months. In hindsight, this was actually quite wonderful as we had the summer, albeit broiling, to visit museums, parks, and Hollywood shooting sets on the company’s dime. They put us up in a Korean hotel for a month where we fed our son in the bathtub; then they moved us to a spartan mother-in-law suite of one of the language school owners in Beverly Hills.


I have a sensitive nose, and one thing that struck me was the olfactory power of the Korean national dish, kimchee, my first memory upon arrival in Korea. The ubiquitous red fermented cabbage permeated from the pores of almost every person. It was off-putting at first, and I thought it didn’t bode well for the next year, especially considering the harrowing arrival experience. When I finally tried kimchee, the vinegary-peppery taste grows on you, and soon I was addicted. Seriously, addicted. A meal wasn’t complete without a dose of the pickled cabbage staple. When I smell it in the air today, my mind instantly returns to Pusan.

Living and Working in Pusan

The manager of our language school, called a hakwon, met us at the Pusan airport. He took us out to eat the first night, and we stayed at a hotel. The next day, we toured the school—on the third floor of a building in a downtown section of the city. The first floor was a knock-off restaurant called Pizza Hot, which we frequented. If you didn’t get the order correct, the pizzas could contain pickles, fish, and maraschino cherries, and the cheese was so salty it was inedible. The basement contained a parking garage where cars would drive into a space with a metal lift, park, and then the driver would push a button to elevate the vehicle. A second car could park underneath. Parking was a premium and cars, a luxury.

Our assigned living space was one of two ground floor apartments with the owner and his family living above us. Upon entry to our place, to the right was a small bedroom that tightly fit one double bed. Next, there was a tiny galley kitchen with a half-sized fridge and a table with two chairs. From somewhere, we purchased a highchair which took up about a quarter of the space of the kitchen. The bathroom, across from the kitchen, contained a toilet, a sink, a washing machine, and a handheld shower. We bought an oversized plastic basin for our son, which sufficed as a bathtub. It was perpetually humid, tiled from floor to ceiling with a drain in the center. We hung our clothes outside on a line in the warmer months and strung them across the second, larger room during the colder months. The larger second room in the back contained a single bed, a tv, a desk, a side table, and a couple of armoires. All the furniture was seafoam green, and the floor was yellow vinyl. It was easy to clean- just three rooms and a bathroom. The baby slept between us, so we used the single bed as a couch/day bed.  The courtyard allowed us more space but was just a cemented enclosed space with a couple of kimchee jars and a lawn chair. A lesbian couple who also taught at the school lived next door. They broke up halfway through the year and hated each other. They still lived together, though, retreating into their bedrooms and glaring at each other in the shared public areas.

I used to joke that we couldn’t see a blade of grass as we walked the ten minutes from our apartment to the metro station. We passed a small store where we bought much of our food, although occasionally we would go to a larger department store. Beautiful young Korean women in formal business suits but with mini-skirts were assigned the full-time job of smiling and pointing at bags of frozen dumplings, called mondu, in the freezer cases. Korea is known for its low employment rate, but many jobs were extraneous like this one.

Faith in Mrs. Han, the Babysitter

Mrs. Han came and got the baby each day before work. She jostled him onto her back and wrapped him snugly with a podeggi, a cloth baby carrier. Our son ate bits of eel and seaweed, like most toddlers, and we have photographic proof. When we returned from school, Mrs. Han would bring him back to us. To this day, I can’t believe we would allow some strange lady to come to our house and take our child away. We didn’t know where she lived or how to reach her, much less communicate with her, since she didn’t speak English, and we spoke limited Korean. She seemed to love him, and he was such an easygoing baby. The Hans even took us to one of the area’s most renowned temples, a memorable experience.

Teaching at a Hakwan

At the school, we had classes scheduled throughout the day. The manager had lived in the states, so he spoke English well. The absent boss would occasionally arrive on the scene to yell at the local female Korean English teachers. They would sit and endure it, looking down at their hands which were folded daintily in their laps. We never knew why they were being chastised. It seemed ritualistic, the boss would yell, and the employees would cower. They also stayed all day until the manager or the boss left. The expat teachers came and went as we pleased.

We had a teacher room with three desks against the outer walls and six desks facing each other in the middle. I think there were a couple of file cabinets and a copy machine somewhere. The textbook series purchased by the company was overly juvenile. As soon as we could, we bought better ESOL books, although the school forced the students to acquire the assigned text. They were mostly picture books of kids in the US, which were adequate for the little kids but not appropriate for the older students.

We met our students in a small classroom; I think the largest class I ever had was maybe ten students. There were whiteboards in the rooms. The kids expected a firm, silent class where they parroted English words back to us. We had been instructed in TPR, total physical response, and we knew that we had to get the kids up and moving for them to internalize language learning fully.

The American Experience: Salsa?

One memorable lesson included a recipe for salsa. Thus, we would have a roomful of Korean kids cutting up tomatoes, chopping onions, sprinkling in the vinegar and adding a tiny bit of sugar and salt. We substituted flat-leaf parsley for cilantro, and we went easy on the hot pepper. After stirring, we had the kids try the salsa by scooping it onto an approximation of Doritos that were sweeter than the familiar nacho cheese flavored. All the ingredients were widely available and used in Korean foods, but this mixture was somehow mostly unpalatable to the kids. They would tentatively scoop it and taste the salsa with the tip of their tongue. A couple of brave boys in each class liked it and would usually eat the rest that the others didn’t eat. The girls would demurely push it around their plates but not eat it. I thought it was hilarious that we Americans were in Korea, making salsa and passing it off as a distinctly American cultural experience.

Living the Ex-Pat Life

Expats teaching English and US military folk in Korea are abundant. Occasionally, we managed to gain access to the USO and the base commissary. I bought a coveted box of macaroni and cheese once. The US consulate library in Pusan contained some English language books to keep us occupied when we weren’t reading the Korean Times English language newspaper or watching AFKN, American Forces Korea Yongsan, which ran US kids shows and sitcoms in English. We watched a lot of Barney in those days. Koreans gained a perspective of America through “Different Strokes” and the “Facts of Life.”

We brought a collapsible stroller that doubled as a backpack, so we walked a lot and visited temples and historic sites. Korean people are great hikers, so we joined in the national sport. In his early years, our son was a towhead blond with bright blue eyes. His eyes have since turned hazel, and his hair has darkened to reflect Carlos’ Latino heritage. At the time, he was a wonder, and people would stop us in public places to ask if he could be in their photos. Thus, there are hundreds and hundreds of Korean family photos at tourist spots from the mid-1990s that include a random smiling American child.


One opportunity I had was when I collaborated with an expert brought in from the states on a kindergarten book series. She sent me a Mac computer and a modem, so we had early access to the Internet and our AOL account from home and work. I would write the lessons and send them to her; she would pay me for the job. I don’t know if the curriculum ever made it to print. I met with her in Seoul a couple of times, traveling by train. Her Harvard doctorate earned her the position and prestige, but her “expertise” was wont. Of the 15-20 other teachers who trained with us in LA and served with us for the company at its branches, we were the only ones with actual teaching experience.

The job of teaching ESOL was easy because of the director and manager’s incompetence; they couldn’t get enough Korean students through the door. Our schedule sometimes included classes in the morning for adults or young kids and classes in the evening for school-aged kids. Hakwons were the equivalent of afterschool tutorial programs. Students were enrolled in other after school pursuits like etiquette, calligraphy, martial arts, music lessons, and extra tutorial sessions for math and science. They even filled their schedule with extracurriculars on Saturday morning.

Korean Students Pressure to Succeed

Korean students were under enormous pressure from birth to achieve high scores on the national exams and earn a place at a prestigious college. The spots were extremely competitive, and some students succumbed to the pressure contributing to an inordinately high suicide rate. Thus, a hakwon should have been a lucrative business considering its need was in high demand. Nevertheless, we sometimes had 12 hours of teaching per week when other branch’s teachers had 30. When we weren’t in the office teaching or working on lesson preparation, we were at home with our child. Carlos and I worked out a schedule where we didn’t need Mrs. Han full time. It was a good life, although tedious. The contract was one year with an option to renew for a second. In hindsight, we should have done a second year. We lived off of less than one of our salaries, didn’t have to pay taxes on the income earned (or pay into social security, etc.), had a national health plan through Korea, and received a month’s salary at the end of our contract for retirement. We returned to the US flush with cash but needed to use some of it at our next job that was not so well-paid.

The Key to Living Well in Korea: The Food

The key to living successfully in Korea, or other foreign countries as well, is to enjoy the local food. We ate our usual continental breakfast of coffee, toast or cereal, or yogurt at home. For lunch, we ate with the other teachers who usually ordered delivery. The soups were delicious and filling, and bibimbap was a favorite- a rice dish with various accompaniments. Sometimes, we would call in for Japanese food from a local restaurant. I remember ordering sliced lotus and ramen. If I were at a department store counter, I would select chapchae- a buckwheat glass noodle and vegetable dish served at room temperature. For restaurants, we often ordered beef bulgogi from a hibachi cooked at the table, or a delicious rib stew called kalbi. On the street, kimbap- a seaweed-wrapped and sliced rice roll- and mondu were easy to find and inexpensive. Every meal was served with a side of kimchee. At one point, we got sick of eating so much mondu. At home, the baby loved bananas, but we had to be careful. He wanted to eat only whole bananas, not pieces or slices. He was so good-natured, but this was his one sticking point. Wrath would occur if we offered him a broken banana.

Some of the most unusual food items we experienced had mixed reviews. No, neither of us ate gaegogi, which is dog meat. One could find it down sketchy alleys in storefronts frequented by men only. It was said to be an aphrodisiac that would enhance one’s virility. I ate paper cones of silkworm larvae out at Hundae beach from seaside vendors. Like popcorn, it was salty and would disintegrate in one’s mouth. At the movies, one could partake in shrimp chips, leaving the theater with a seafood smell in the air. Camel-colored Asian pears shaped like jumbo apples could be found individually wrapped for gifts or consumption. We called them “papples.” It was proper etiquette to bring the host some fruit when attending a party. Market aisles were full of savory and sweet crackers and cookies. The packaging was deceptive, though. Sometimes what you thought was strawberry or chocolate could end up being shrimp or wasabi-flavored.

Toys and Travel

We had a few items for the baby to play with, but his favorite by far was a clear plastic soda bottle with a couple of coins in it.  He would run around the apartment, hitting people with the soft plastic, shaking the bottle to hear the coins jingle. That, or he would bang on pots and pans with wooden spoons. At age one, he already had the predisposition of the musician that he has grown up to be.

On a school break, we traveled to Kyoto to see the ancient historic city and visit with Carlos’s cousin. He had moved to Japan in his 20s to study martial arts. He ended up staying, marrying a woman he met from Kyoto, and having three kids. It was nice to forgo hotel bills as his cousin opened his home and took us around sightseeing. We also enjoyed experiencing a slice of life from the vantage point of local Kyotans. Our son ate fermented rice balls for breakfast, and one night, we all sat around a bubbling meal of sukiyaki.

Traveling internationally with a one-year-old, teaching English in Asia, and experiencing Korean culture over a year (and Japanese culture for ten days) are some of the highlights of our lives. I wonder how different Korea is now—with K-pop, technology, and the omnipresent threat of North Korea. I think of that time with sweetness. Korean culture was always at a distance to us because of the language barrier. I confess that we didn’t try very hard to acculturate. Our lives as parents to a young child were streamlined, and our goal to gain some experience teaching ESOL was met.

Farewell, Korea

At the end of the year, we took a job teaching at an international school in Cartagena, Colombia. We left Korean in early June, retracing our steps with fewer bags (we mailed some stuff back) and lots of souvenirs. This time, the trip was 24 hours of pure hell. Our recently turned two-year-old did not have the luck of his own seat for this leg of the journey, and he had no interest in staying in our laps. We also flew from Seoul to Miami, which added on another four hours versus LA to Seoul. After a month and a half sojourn to south Florida to stay with relatives, we were off on another adventure to South America.