Why I’m Leaving Korea

Who’s this young fella at the chalkboard?  Any idea when this was taken?  If you saw that tracker hat and guessed mid-2000s, hats off to you.

Snapped in January 2006, this is a young Henry teaching an English class at Pathom Asoke, a Buddhist organic farm and commune outside of Bangkok, Thailand.  January 2006 – ten years ago.  Since then, I’ve spent 7 of those years in Korea, loving the teaching, loving the people and the food and the language.  But on March 2nd, I’ll be flying back to Thailand on a one-way ticket.  So why am I leaving Korea?

There’s a difference between working somewhere and building something.  I’ve really been thankful for the opportunities to work at JETI (the training center), at Jeju and Gwangju University, and with the Fulbright program.  Instructors here are given the freedom to create their own curricula, and students and society have enormous respect for the work teachers do.  But in terms of the bigger picture – foreign university instructors in Korea have no upward professional mobility.  There’s no way to move into management, to affect political changes, or to win arguments about grade-fixing, etc.  That same freedom each instructor has to design his/her own curriculum, on the other side of that is the slippery nature of academic courses, and the frustration instructors feel when their hard work just doesn’t stick.

A lot of professional teachers feel dead-ended here in Korea because their careers can never be as satisfying as they dream they could be.  And of course, the longer a foreign teacher stays in Korea, the more that love of travel also gets dead-ended when Korea ceases to feel like a travel spot, and more like a permanent place to live.  But not quite like a home.  Again, because of the difficulty involved when that teacher’s goals shift toward building something instead of just working somewhere.  

Have you ever read one of those choose-your-own-adventure books when you were a kid?  You were having fun reading down one of the storylines, and when you figured out it wasn’t the right way to go, you still had your thumb on the page with your last big decision.  This image of me in the 2006 trucker hat in a Thai farm classroom, that’s where I’ve had my thumb stuck all these years.  While I was getting my graduate degree, making good money in Korea, and paying off my student loans, every once in a while I’d flip back to that image and think about it.

But the choose-your-own-adventure metaphor is not exactly accurate.  Because when you flip back in one of those books, your character can’t take the experience he’s gathered during the first storyline and bring it with him.  And that lack of experience is why back in 2006 I didn’t end up travel blogging and freelance teaching and volunteering after that trip to Thailand, though I thought about it all the time.  I never forgot about that thumb on the page.  And now, with loans to zero, a new hat, and the question of whether I would renew my contract on March 1st, 2016 – it hasn’t really felt like I’m saying “no” to Korea.  It’s more like, every time that contract renewal question comes back around, it gets harder and harder to say “yes”.

I’m leaving Korea for the same reason I first came to Korea – because I’ve never done anything like this before.  I’m leaving because when I go out for a drink on a Friday night with other English teachers, we talk wistfully about teaching and traveling.  As if we weren’t currently teaching and traveling.

I’m leaving Korea and I’m building something – currently two things.

  • henrygerlits.com, as a way to connect with clients for Skype English tutoring, and in the near future, courses on Udemy.com
  • this blog, ESL Nomad, to document my adventures and maybe send out a little inspiration for YOU to go out on your own as a travel blogger and freelance teacher

I remember the excitement and passion I felt when I first started teaching here in Korea.  There was idealism there.  And when I go deep, I can feel that it’s still there.  On March 2nd, I’ll get on that one-way flight to Thailand.  I’ll talk to everyone I can, say yes to everything I can, check out volunteer opportunities at schools and farms, hang out on beaches and trek in mountains, and work on building a base of educational services and content that I believe in.  I might come back to Korea at some point, but if I do, it’ll be with something that I’ve built (or tried to!).

I’m excited to tell you more as it unfolds here on this blog – thanks for joining me.

More hats, more silly poses: onward to Thai beaches!!


2 thoughts on “Why I’m Leaving Korea

  1. Today I said goodbye to an old friend who has become like a brother to me. As sojourners and foreigners we get used to saying goodbye, but I have never felt the hurt of it as much as today. Beautifully written Henry, and a very well articulated view of what many of us who have been here a long time feel. Cheers to you and your continuing journey. May you always find what you are seeking. 우리가 다시 만날때 까지 하느님이 지켜주소서.


  2. Thank you my brother, I feel the exact same way. Korea will always be a part of me, whether or not I come back to live long-term, and I know our friendship will draw me back for at least a visit very soon. Take care and see you and the family on Skype soon!


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