27 Pro Tips for Living and Teaching in Asia with Kim Rodriguez

Alone with Peter Season 2, Episode 10 Tips for Living and Teaching in Asia with Kim Rodriguez
Alone With Peter
27 Pro Tips for Living and Teaching in Asia with Kim Rodriguez

Do you love K-Pop, fried chicken, and kids? You might love teaching in South Korea! Even if those aren’t your things you might really appreciate this episode. Listen as TEFL Teacher and World Traveler Kim Rodriguez shares actionable, practical tips for living and teaching in Asia.

If you’ve had your eyes set on teaching English as a second language, traveling, and becoming a digital nomad Kim can teach you a lot. In Season 2, Episode 10, we discuss everything from how to make friends in Korea to choosing the right school for you.

Kim has been living and teaching in South Korea for over eight years and is a great resource for anyone interested in the ESL teacher lifestyle. She has worked in the Korean public education system for a long time as both an Elementary Teacher and University Professor and currently holds a position as Visiting Professor for a Korean National University where she teaches English as a second language. She’s traveled to 28 countries in 8 years while teaching in Korea, paid off debt, and acquired her master’s without taking on a single loan. That’s the power of a good ESL job. Have I piqued your interest? Check out the full interview below! But first, some information about our upcoming Instagram Live with Kim!

Have questions about Korea? Join the Instagram Live Q&A Saturday, February 5th at 7PM PST

This is your opportunity to ask Kim any questions you have about teaching abroad, travel, or anything else you might like to know! We’re going live for a 30-minute interview so Kim can update us on the latest in Korea and answer any questions you might have. Follow @alonewithpeter on Instagram to take part in the Q&A or to watch it after the fact. We will be going live at 7PM PST, 10PM EST. I hope to see you there!

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with TEFL Teacher and world traveler Kimberly Rodriguez. (@lil_miz_kimbo)

*Transcripts may contain a few typos. With interviews ranging from 1-2 hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy

Peter Kersting: Welcome back for part three of our interview with Kim or as I like to call her Kimbo Slice. Kim, we are going to rapid-fire, go through a couple of different questions that I wrote down. Now, in this episode, I really want to kind of focus on how we can learn from your experience. So I’ve listed these questions in no particular order, but I think that a lot of people might ask these questions if they’re interested in teaching in Korea. So I’ve kind of listed them as if I’m a prospective teacher. We won’t be able to get to all of these, but the hope is that we can answer a few of them and that’ll give people the tools and insights that they need to take a similar leap of faith to your own. So are you ready?

Kim Rodriguez: Yes, I’m ready.

Peter Kersting: Heck yes, let’s do this. All right. Question number one. What’s one piece of advice you would give someone looking to teach abroad?

What’s one piece of advice you would give someone looking to teach abroad?

Kim Rodriguez: I would definitely say research. Research the heck out of that country, research the heck out of those job opportunities. Look at all the pros and cons, create lists. Create a plan. Don’t go in there with just one view, have a open mind to different possibilities and different outcomes of the country that you’re trying to go to. Korea is not the only place you can go abroad teach. It’s a great place to teach, but there are other countries as well. So just research thoroughly what it is that you expect or want from that place that you choose.

Peter Kersting: Really good point. How can I be a respectful and involved member of society while I’m living abroad?

How can I be a respectful and involved member of society while I’m living abroad?

Kim Rodriguez: I would say to be a respectful and involved member of society, I think you should definitely try to learn about the culture before you get there. So learn as much as you can. It’s going to be different once you’re actually there, but trying to at least learn a little bit of the language. You don’t have to be fluent in the language of the country, but you should at least know basics, know survival language. So how to say hello, how to say goodbye, asking for directions, learn the numbers, learn the money, learn how to do basic things that are going to take you so much further.

Kim Rodriguez: It’s great if you are able to learn the language fluently, but it’s not a necessity that you have to force yourself to do. You can develop that over time. To be respectful, I would say try to be patient with situations. You’re not always going to understand things. You might feel frustrated a lot of the time because something might clash with the way that you’re used to doing things, but just be patient. And just remember you are a visitor in this country. Things don’t work the same as your home country so definitely be respectful and be mindful that there are going to be major differences in how people live and how people act around you.

Peter Kersting: Yeah. I love it. And we talked a little bit there about integrating into the culture and learning the language. I think those are really key points to that. I would also add that you should kind of look at things being different as a good thing, right? You left wherever you are to be somewhere different. So try to look at differences as an exciting thing and you’re going to get a lot more out of it I would say.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah, definitely.

Peter Kersting: That’s just my two cents. How do I make friends, Kim? Will I be able to make local friends? Do I just have to hang out with expats? Can I hang out with expats? What’s that look like?

How do I make friends, Kim? Will I be able to make local friends? Do I just have to hang out with expats? Can I hang out with expats? What’s that look like?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. So I think this is going to really depend on the location of where you’re placed. If you’re fortunate enough to be placed in a city or a town that has a lot of foreigners, you’re going to make friends with those people. Most likely there are people that maybe they are a little bit more introverted so maybe you won’t. But you can always make friends with locals, you can make friends with other foreigners in the area, depending on the culture. So if you’re coming to Korea, for example, it is a little bit harder to make friends with Koreans only because a lot of the time they want to do a language exchange with you. So they don’t really view you as a friend friend, they view you as someone they can study with or gain something from. So as long as you kind of realize that that’s the dynamic you’ll have, and you’re okay with that, then you’ll have a little bit of a smoother transition.

Pro-tip: Make friends with people that have been here and are well established

Kim Rodriguez: Usually I would say hanging out with other expats is going to be a safer bet to making friends. If you’re going to make friends, make friends with people that have been here and are well established because then you have a core group of people that are not going to leave and it’s much nicer. A lot of the problem in Korea is that people are only here for one or two years and they rotate out. So if you become friends with someone that’s only there for a year and you’re staying for five years, you’re going to lose your friends every single year. So make friends with people that have been here long term, because you then have a stable group of people.

Peter Kersting: That’s a pro tip right there. What are some things you wish you knew going in? We talked about this a little bit throughout your interviews here, but is there anything in particular that we didn’t touch on?

What are some things you wish you knew going in? Is there anything in particular that we didn’t touch on in earlier interviews?

Kim Rodriguez: Things I wish I knew I would say, oh gosh, I’m not really sure. There’s a lot of things that I wish I knew before I got here. But because I’ve been here so long, I’m used to so much. Nothing really phases me anymore. I would say maybe just trying your best to really immerse yourself in the language and immerse yourself in culture. The more time you spend with people that speak only Korean, the more you’re going to force yourself to learn it. If you only hang out with foreigners, you’re going to be less likely to have motivation to speak Korean. So definitely try to immerse yourself more in the culture that way. Don’t be afraid to try new things. There’s going to be a lot of things that are new and different and uncomfortable. But I would say give them a shot, just try it out. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to try it again. But [crosstalk 00:06:10].

Peter Kersting: Like some of the super-fresh seafood.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. The octopus.

Peter Kersting: Or the eel or whatever. [crosstalk 00:06:15].

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah.

Peter Kersting: Oh, some stuff is so good. What are some things you learned like some big things that were, “Wow, I get it,” after a little bit of time there?

What are some things you learned like some big things that were, “Wow, I get it,” after a little bit of time in Korea?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. So there are some things here that I really like that I’ve learned and picked up just mannerisms, I guess you would say. They are very respectful in Korean culture. When you pass someone something, you always have to pass with your hands extended. It can be on your wrist, on your forearm, on your chest, but you’re always passing something with your right hand and it’s just a sign of respect. If you go to the store, you give your card, you have to give your card properly. If you just throw it on the counter, it’s rude. It’s really, really rude. So I appreciate these small mannerisms. I think they’re a nice sign of respect, the same with drinking culture. The drinking culture in Korea is very unique compared to what we do in America, you just drink and drink and drink at the table.

Kim Rodriguez: But in Korea, they have a whole culture of eating together and drinking at the same time and no one can ever have a glass that’s empty. And when you do drink, you have to pour with the correct manners. And then also you don’t drink facing each other, you drink slightly to the side. So it’s a whole process and I think it’s a really fun thing to experience. If you don’t drink alcohol, you can still enjoy this. You just drink soda instead. But there is a lot of peer pressure in Korea to drink so be aware of that.

Peter Kersting: That’s a pro tip you just have the glass, that water, or soda or whatever, you can have…

Pro Tip on Korean Drinking Culture: Keep an empty glass under the table that you can pour unwanted alcohol into it so you don’t have to drink. Or keep a little in your glass so they won’t pour you more.

Kim Rodriguez: Under the table, have a empty glass and you can pour the alcohol into it so you don’t have to drink.

Peter Kersting: Well and you just got to lead that little bit at the bottom, right? So then I’ll try to refill-

Kim Rodriguez: So that you don’t have to get filled up every single time because if it’s completely empty, they’ll fill it back up.

Peter Kersting: And generous that way. Okay. So I’m sold, Kim. It sounds super cool. I want to teach, but I don’t know if I should do hagwon or public school.

I want to teach, but I don’t know if I should do hagwon or public school.

Kim Rodriguez: Pros and cons of hagwon and public schools. Okay. So a private school is going to have you starting at a later time or an earlier time of the day. So with a private school, you can kind of choose depending on the type of school you want to work at, whether you want to work mornings or evenings. So if you’re a morning person, then a private school would be nice if you’re working with kindergartners because that’s the age group that is usually during the day. The evening classes are going to be for middle school, elementary and high school students. There are pros and cons for both. Personally, I’m biased. I did the public school system so I think it’s a little bit better and it has a bit more pros. Pros of public school are that you get set vacation dates that you’re guaranteed to have depending on if there’s not something crazy like the pandemic might kind of limit your vacation, but you have set vacation dates.

Kim Rodriguez: You have healthcare insurance, you get a pension and a severance package once you leave, you get a fully furnished housing apartment. You also have a flight that’s paid, usually round trip or sometimes it’s only one way, depending on the type of contract you have. And you have at least a set school that you’re going to be working at. So those are all really good pros. Cons, you could end up in the countryside. You could end up being the only person in your town. You could also end up working at multiple schools. I worked at three schools in the countryside with a commute of an hour. That’s also really possible. There may only be a bus in that city. So you may have to wake up really early because of the bus schedule or you have to leave really late because of the bus schedule. Another con could be desk warming. You may have to come in and sit at a desk for eight hours a day even when there are no students in the school. This is something people don’t really think about but it’s a con.

Possible Con: Mandatory Desk Warming

Peter Kersting: I snuck out for sure during desk warming, My school liked me, they didn’t check on me at all. And I just kind of at first I would stay. But then it was like, “Hey, there are no Korean teachers here. I’m done for the day. I’m out of here.”

Kim Rodriguez: Sometimes you can sneak out.

Peter Kersting: But it really depends on the school and I am not at all recommending you do that. When you lose your job, don’t come crying to me.

Kim Rodriguez: Yes, because you can lose your job. I think a big reason why they created that rule of mandatory desk warming is that some teachers were going out after school and getting into trouble or getting into accidents. And then the school is responsible for you because you’re supposed to technically be at work.

Peter Kersting: Technically during school hours, yeah. Right?

Kim Rodriguez: During school hours. Yeah.

Peter Kersting: Yeah. It’s interesting.

Pros and cons of public school vs. Hagwons/private schools

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. Those are pros and cons for public school. Private school, there are pros, but some of the cons would be the school can suddenly close and you’re out of a job. They can withhold your pay and not pay you the right amount or not pay you on time. They don’t always guarantee you a vacation. Sometimes in a year of work, you’ll get one week of vacation, not really enough to travel because sometimes they’ll break it up into five days or three days with the weekend. It’s not really enough to go far. You can go to Japan or maybe the Philippines for the weekend, but you can’t go to Australia.

Kim Rodriguez: So those are some cons. Private school also the hours can be really late and really long. Students may not be on their best behavior because it’s after hour school and you are going to have a lot more work at think in a private school, unfortunately. In public school, you do a lot of games and a lot of fun, interactive things. But in a private school, you’re either really going to be teaching, really, really teaching or you’re battling students that are with really bad behaviors. And if you lose students in your class, you can lose your job because you’ll be viewed as the problem, not the students.

Peter Kersting: I’m certainly biased in this way as well. But one of the biggest differences I would say is the structure of the contract for a public school is very consistent across public schools. At least on the elementary level, I can speak to that. I think it’s the same for the middle and high schools as well. It’s different for universities, but you are going to have a set schedule and you’re going to be paid a certain amount. And second year, if you’re there second year a certain amount, you’re going to get a flight stipend to come in. At least as it is right now, you’re going to get a flight stipend home. You’re going to have your housing paid for, which is huge in Korea.

Kim Rodriguez: You save so much money when you don’t have to pay a rent.

Peter Kersting: I always tell people, I lived there for a year. I made basically the equivalent of $22,000. I somehow found a way to pay off $10,000 of debt and travel to six countries and live better than I ever lived here, including now. And so you maybe are making a lot of “money” but where your money’s taking you is a lot further with all of those benefits that you’re getting. Private school, some people love the private school experience and it goes really well for them. But the hagwons, it really varies hagwon by hagwon. So, as you mentioned your first point, we’re going to put you back to number one, research, research, research. Personally, I wanted to travel, so I needed the two weeks and that even didn’t feel like a lot to me.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. And you’d be lucky at some schools if you even get five days. I have friends that worked in hagwon and they got two days a year and that’s with the red days, the calendar, the holidays of the year.

Peter Kersting: What’s the point even?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. You have no break. And then sometimes you have to even come in on a Saturday because you missed the class on a weekday. And it’s like, “Well, now I have to give up my weekend too?”

Peter Kersting: Not for me. Not for me.

Kim Rodriguez: Not for me either.

Peter Kersting: All right.

Kim Rodriguez: I’ll never do that.

Peter Kersting: I’m going to make my choice between private school and public school. I get it. Okay. So how can I fit travel into my schedule though, Kim? How can I travel as a teacher? What does it look like?

How can I fit for travel into my schedule though, Kim? How can I travel as a teacher? What does it look like?

Kim Rodriguez: So I will say there is a way to fit travel, depends on how much you prioritize it and it also depends on your situation. If you’re in Korea, primarily to get out of debt, which a lot of people do come here to work for one or two years to just straight off pay their debt, maybe consider staying a third year that where you can just save so you can travel. Because at the end of the year, if you’re from America, you do get a pension and a severance package. So usually what that amounts to is one full paycheck plus [crosstalk 00:15:15].

Peter Kersting: A month. Yeah.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. Some bonuses that you get. So if you pay off all your debt in one year or two years, that’s great because now you’re even, but now you can stay maybe one more year and you can travel to anywhere you want after. Plan trips that are easy to do.

Kim Rodriguez: So for example, maybe there’s a five day holiday, like Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok. Chuseok is a really popular time for people to travel. If you know that you’re going to have those days off, then book a year or six months in advance, that vacation that you want to go to because everybody in the country is traveling at the same time so you know prices are going to skyrocket. So plan early, definitely plan early. Let’s say you want to go to Japan, book that vacation as soon as you possibly can. Go enjoy it and then you can come back and do whatever. Also, Korea’s a really pretty country. You don’t have to go abroad. You can also travel domestically. Really there’s a lot to do here. I’m still learning a lot of things in this country as well.

Peter Kersting: Are the festivals going to come back? Because I think that is one of the things about Korea that I loved so much. It’s true Japan as well, but the fall and spring festivals. I’m assuming they didn’t have them in 2020.

Are the festivals going to come back?

Kim Rodriguez: They haven’t had any-

Kim Rodriguez: They’re having the Mud Festival like this weekend, apparently in Boryeong, which is a really famous Mud Festival. They are having it unless it’s been canceled. But as far as I know, it’s still planned to be running and yeah, the festivals here are great. They’re really great for cultural exchange. There’s always some reason why they have it. There’s always something related to culture. So the Mud Festival is related to something specific. There’s a fish festival, there’s a ice festival. There are flower festivals, there’s-

Peter Kersting: Firework festivals, there’s so much-

Kim Rodriguez: Firework festival, lantern festival. Everything you can think of and it always ties to history or some natural phenomena that’s here so it’s nice.

Peter Kersting: So you think 2022, they might be back to doing those?

Kim Rodriguez: I think everything’s going to depend on the whole pandemic situation.

Peter Kersting: Does it look like it’s going that direction though? I’m just curious.

Kim Rodriguez: Right now, it’s not looking great. The Delta variant is pretty bad and I would say a very big majority of the population is still not vaccinated. They’re only doing ages 60 and up right now. And they are starting to do foreigners that are teaching elementary, middle school and high school, but not my age group. So my age group is not up until mid to late August. I don’t know when this episode’s going to come out. So that might date this a little bit.

Peter Kersting: Right. We’ll see.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah, but either way it’s supposed to start coming out more and then hopefully things will kind of balance out. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know.

Peter Kersting: So we talked a little bit about hagwons, which is the private school option versus public school options. When we were referencing that, we were kind of referring to either adult, elementary, middle school, or high school, what’s teaching at a university like?

What’s teaching at a university like?

Kim Rodriguez: It’s really fun. It’s very different than teaching kids. I will say that it has its own set of challenges. Adults can be pretty hard to motivate sometimes. You get a lot of students that come into class late, don’t come to class at all, leave class in the middle of class to go smoke, and then they come back reeking like cigarettes, but they are generally easier to teach. You can have a lot more interesting conversations, playful banter with the students.

Kim Rodriguez: I call my students kids because I feel like Korean young adults are basically high school students. They have that attitude that they don’t really know anything about life yet. And I think that’s kind of mean to say, but-

Peter Kersting: That is so fun.

Kim Rodriguez: They’re really young and they just don’t really get anything yet. So I don’t know. I also think that they’re very privileged as students. They have it much easier than I had it as a university student. So I always tell them, I’m like, “Yo, I worked full time in college and I commuted and I was in three clubs and I was doing this and this and this. And you guys only have to go to school. That’s it. You don’t have to work, you live at home with mom and dad. Why can’t you come to class?” No get it.

Peter Kersting: Uphill and down in the snow as a kid with boxes for shoes.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah.

Peter Kersting: But yeah, that is interesting. Okay.

Kim Rodriguez: But it’s fun. It’s fun teaching them.

Peter Kersting: Obviously this is a very personal question to you but what’s the connection between travel, food, and culture for you?

Personal Question: what’s the connection between travel, food, and culture for you?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah, so I think the connection between travel food and culture, I think they all work together. I am very interested in obviously food. I will travel to a new culture to try their food because I think food and culture are just so immersed together. And so, yeah, I try to research different things. I’ll try something and then it makes me curious about the culture and why did they cook this this way? And well, why does it taste like this? What kind of seasonings did they use? It interests me. And also it’s not always about food. There are just some places that really call to me, maybe because of a spiritual reason like going to Israel, for example. I didn’t know anything about their food. I knew hummus and falafel and that’s literally it and it’s good, but it’s all I knew.

Kim Rodriguez: And I didn’t go there because of food, I went there because of a spiritual reason. So it’s beautiful to go to some place like that where you can see all these different religions and people coexisting. Right now, they’re having some issues out there. So can’t really say it’s all peaceful right now, but it is nice to go to a different type of culture and see how people are living because the media might portray it in a whole different way. But when you actually get there, it’s completely different or it’s not as bad as the media hypes it up.

Peter Kersting: Getting a chance to see it for yourself and be able to-

Kim Rodriguez: Make your own thoughts about it. Yeah.

Peter Kersting: That’s cool. Have there been any places in Asia that you’ve gone you felt like you’ve made a really spiritual connection with?

Kim Rodriguez: Ooh, Ooh. I don’t know if I made a spiritual connection with any of those in the Asian countries. I feel like I felt like that in South America because there were a lot of beautiful cathedrals and churches, but yeah. I mean, I definitely feel like anytime that I’m in nature, I feel that connection. I don’t know what it is about nature for me. I love the ocean. I love the mountains. So when I’m in a place like that, where I just can have my thoughts, I think it really, really connects me to that place.

Peter Kersting: Kim, I think we’re going to wrap it up here, but before we do, is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d really love to touch on? Any last comments you’d like to share?

Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d really love to touch on? Any last comments you’d like to share?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. So I’m just going to say that if you’re interested in going to Korea, there’s definitely a lot of things that you should try and prepare. Korea’s not the only place to go. It’s the place that I’ve called home for eight years and I absolutely love it. Has its good days and its bad days, I would say no matter what you’re going to do, I would say research. There are pros and cons to the private school and the public school system. Neither is perfect so it truly depends on the lifestyle that you want. Do you want to be working at night and have free time during the day? Or do you want to work during the day and have free time in the evenings? What kind of vacation time do you want? Do you want to live in a big city or do you want to live in the countryside?

Kim Rodriguez: These are all things that I think you need to really look into. How open-minded are you to living in a new culture? Because you cannot come here and expect people to be how they are in your home country. You just can’t, you will be really, really miserable. And you’re going to find every little thing that’s wrong with the country and it’s just going to eat you up. If you do make it out to another country like Korea, give yourself more than three months before deciding if you want to leave or stay. There’s this thing called midnight runs and it happens pretty often in Korea. People come and they get here and they think that their life is going to be perfect while living here and they get here and they just are afraid.

Kim Rodriguez: They’re afraid of everything. They’re afraid of not knowing the language, they’re afraid of the transportation system, they’re afraid of the is going to the grocery store. Going to a restaurant is overwhelming because they don’t know how to read the language and they don’t know what they’re eating. Don’t get overwhelmed. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Just remember, it’s fun. It’s fun to just pick something in the menu. If you’re a vegan, you’re going to have a hard time here. I’m not going to lie, but if you’re not a vegan and you’re open to eating anything, you’re going to be fine.

Peter Kersting: Well there are so many good things to eat if you do it too!

Kim Rodriguez: Oh yeah.

Peter Kersting: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are vegans who do it, they just don’t eat there.

What can Vegans eat in South Korea?

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah. And you could still eat well as a vegan. It’s just that you’re going to have to be more conscious of what you’re eating and you’re going to have to prepare more of your meals.

Peter Kersting: You’re going to have to be cooking a lot more out.

Kim Rodriguez: You’re going to be cooking a lot. You’re going to be cooking a lot. And everything has some type of fish or oil in it here, even kimchi. Kimchi has little fish in it. People don’t know that sometimes. So you just have to be very careful about what you’re consuming if dietary restrictions are a thing for you. But yeah, I would say just prepare as best as you can, be open-minded, don’t panic. If you feel like you’re freaking out, have someone that can kind of help you out and tether you or be your foundation and yeah, there’s no wrong country to choose. Just choose the one that fits your calling.

Peter Kersting: Thanks for coming on the show, Kim. I really appreciate your time and this has been a lot of fun for me. I hope you had fun too.

Kim Rodriguez: Yeah, it was really fun. Thanks for having me. I hope that your listeners enjoy my ramblings.

Peter Kersting: No, no. It was awesome. I think people are really going to get a lot out of it and if they want to follow you, they could find you @lil_miz_kimbo and I will put in the show notes, any of the things we talked about.

Kim Rodriguez: Okay.

Peter Kersting: And look forward to catching up more later, Kim.

Have questions about Korea? Join our Instagram Live Q&A Saturday, February 5th at 7PM PST

This is your opportunity to ask Kim any questions you have about teaching abroad, travel, or anything else you might like to know! We’re going live for a 30-minute interview so Kim can update us on the latest in Korea and answer any questions you might have. Follow @alonewithpeter on Instagram to take part in the Q&A or to watch it after the fact. We will be going live at 7PM PST, 10PM EST. I hope to see you there!


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