On being an introverted ESL teacher in Korea

Since it’s in the title of my blog, I figure I’m justified in posting about being introverted once in awhile.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in many ways teaching ESL in a foreign country (Korea specifically) is the perfect job for an introvert. I have the best of both worlds here in that I interact with people every day as part of my job, but at the same time the burden of upholding conversations and making small talk is entirely alleviated.

I can eat in the teachers’ cafeteria, surrounded by coworkers and other teachers, and be silent the whole time (save for a greeting and goodbye to the people sitting with me) without seeming rude. I can walk down the streets, go to the store, ride in a taxi in complete non-awkward silence, cushioned by the comfortable language barrier. Only my fellow introverts can understand what a relief it is to be able to totally retreat into your inner thoughts without feeling pressure to speak in the presence of others.

Because of my foreigner-ness, I will never be expected to converse with others. It’s a nice shell to retreat into when I’m feeling a little drained – and unlike in America, this shell goes everywhere with me. I can retreat at (almost) any time, no problem.

I’m not saying I never try to interact with Koreans or speak in Korean. I’d like to be fluent someday and be able to hold full conversations in Korean. But anyway, Korea is not a chatty culture when it comes to strangers. In America, you might exchange pleasantries with a fellow customer in the check-out line or the fast food worker behind the counter. Here, not so much. So even if I do become fluent in Korean someday, I will never have to make small talk with the person behind me in line while we wait for our turns. And that is a relief.

Of course, the flip side is that my job requires me to be in front of a fairly large audience multiple times a day and speak and teach and interact and be “on.” But I actually enjoy that part just as much because it involves kids. If I wasn’t working with kids, I have to say I would probably be less than enthused. But because it’s kids, that type of social interaction energizes rather than drains me.

It’s a nice balance.


3 thoughts on “On being an introverted ESL teacher in Korea

  1. Craig says:

    First time here and great post, thanks!

    It’s really interesting, useful and comforting to read about an introverted esl teacher who’s making it work for them. And in a more general sense someone who understands and appreciates their introversion. I’ve often pondered teaching esl abroad but before really understanding my introversion was put off by feeling that need to act extroverted to ‘fit in’ with everyone. I actually went to a tesol course in cambodia and vietnam but got so damn drained with the whole school trip, group party 24/7 atmosphere thing, and being made to feel like the weird guy who didn’t wanna be in everyone’s pockets all day long, that i came home!

    Since then i’ve been much less drawn to the more obvious, backpacker/gap year choices in SE Asia and felt that somewhere like S Korea may offer a more introvert friendly option. It seems from your experience i may have been right and have some hope again! So thanks!

    Whereabouts in Korea are you and how many other esl teachers/westerners are at your school/in your area?

    Thanks for the post – onto your other introvert related stuff for me now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maddy says:

      Thanks for commenting! I can totally relate to feeling drained in that group party type of atmosphere. I felt the same during the EPIK program orientation, but thankfully that was only a 10-day ordeal.

      I’m teaching in Daegu (a big city in the southern part of Korea) with EPIK (the English Program in Korea), which is the public school program for native English teachers. At my school, I’m the only foreign teacher (and that’s pretty standard for public schools). If you come here to teach at a hagwon (a private academy), you’ll usually have several western coworkers. I know that there are plenty of other ESL teachers living in this city, and if I want to reach out to them I certainly can, but I can also easily go for weeks without seeing or speaking to any foreigners. For me, that’s perfectly fine. ^^

      Hope this helps! I’m glad my experience inspired you to possibly look into it again.


      • Craig says:

        That’s a great help, thank you!

        It’s very interesting about being the only ESL teacher in a public school. Again, in Vietnam it seems very different whereby you’re working at a dedicated language school, probably more similar to a Hagwon. In this environment you’ll be surrounded by countless other esl teachers and as such that extrovert/group atmosphere again it seems.

        Plus, even forgetting the whole introvert/extrovert thing, i love the sound of being able to find work in a city and school where i can keep myself to myself in terms of other westerners. For me, i think it would really add to the feeling of an ….*cringe, *vomit, *apologies …. “authentic” Korean experience. If that’s ever really possible!

        Thanks again for your help.

        Liked by 1 person

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