Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Why Korea?

Why Korea?

It will probably surprise most that my journey with Korean actually started out when I was on exchange in China. My university major was Chinese and my second elective language was Indonesian, a choice I made because of the proximity of Indonesia to Australia. Even in high school I studied Japanese as an elective course for 2 years and had a passing fad with J-pop.

Up until 2007 I had no experience with Korean culture or any interaction with it, embarrassingly I didn’t even know what Kimchi was, I had never met a Korean person and the only time I had heard the Korean language was by chance when I watched [My Sassy Girl] late night on Australian TV. I remember distinctly at the time at how bizarre the film seemed to me. The language sounded annoying, I didn’t understand why the main character [Jung Jihyun] father in the film was always drunk or why the main character was posing as a delivery man and carrying ‘chinese’ food in a giant metal lunchbox. In hindsight there are so many things about that movie that make utterly no sense unless you understand Korea; the language, the culture and the people. I’ll admit that watching that movie now is far less entertaining than it was when I didn’t understand.

It was in the summer of 2007 while on a year exchange program in China that I met my first Korean person, almost all of my Chinese language learning peers were Korean, so I quickly went from having never met a Korean to knowing around 50 of them in a matter of weeks. My exchange city was Dalian located on the Liaoning peninsular, and I was enrolled in a Chinese program at the Dalian University of Foreign Language (DUFL), roughly less than an hour flight from Incheon and a 15 Hour ferry from Mokpo. Because of its proximity to Korea the city and the university was and still is dominated by Korean students and Korean families who have moved to Dalian to work in Korean owned Chinese shipbuilding yards. To give you a clear idea of the amount of Koreans I was surrounded by, one day my Chinese language school posted a list of the entire student body at DUFL complete with names and nationality. Of a total student body of 800 foreign students a staggering 600 were Koreans!

To be honest I was initially a little avoidant of my Korean classmates. I had come to China to learn Chinese and bond with Chinese people but inevitably the attraction to my Korean classmates was too strong. Apart from those students from Europe or with an English background I found that Koreans were some of the easiest to befriend and share common interests. You only had to step outside on a weeknight to see hordes of Korean students drinking and eating barbecue meats – something that as an Australian I was initially attracted too. The only difference being is that the next day my Korean classmates would all be in Class at 9am on the dot, hangover and tired of course but never late. In contrast I would always just skip school citing my throbbing headache from the nights drinking as a fair excuse to miss school; I would learn in later years that my Korean peers were simply preparing themselves for the reality of corporate life.

I laugh about it now but at the time I must have looked so lazy to the Koreans in my class; I rarely studied, I went out most of the time, skipped class regularly when I was tired and I talked and joked in class even with the teacher! I was on exchange for the experience not for the lessons and it is an attitude that remains with me today. Even then it was evident to see how fixated my Korean classmates were on getting high HSK scores to help them with employment. Why were they so worried about getting a job when I didn’t care - I tried constantly to change their thinking - “Don’t worry, everyone gets a job, who cares about the stupid HSK” I would say. I had no idea of how tough and competitive the Korean job market was; nor was I aware of the ideal of a Chaebol and extreme lengths at which they go to filter potential applicants for jobs.

Eventually my interest in my Korean classmates became so strong that I decided to learn a few words. I would tutor one of my friends in English while she tutored me in Korean. I think the only word I learnt at the time was 맛있다 [Delicious], 춥다[Cold], 덥다[Hot] and 대박[Awesome] but surprisingly only understanding these few words helped me to understand through context many Korean conversations. You wouldn’t believe how often a Korean person says “ 추워[it's cold]’ ‘~맛있다[It's Delicious]’ ‘너무 더워[It's so hot]’ in one day. It’s one of the interesting and sometimes insanely annoying aspects of the Korean language. How easy it is to express ones feelings; communication is achieved easily but you have to put up with someone saying they are cold 20 times in ten minutes.

My time in China was one of the best experiences in my life and although I didn’t continue with learning Chinese it was what set me on the path to learning Korean. The friendships and bonds I made in the short 1 year period were incredibly strong and I am proud to say that I am still friends with and remain in contact with many of those friends from 7 years ago. The day I departed back to my home in Perth I remember around 10 friends came to escort me to the airport. Roughly 8 of them were Korean and I just couldn’t control myself and began crying. I am not a very emotional person but that feeling of never seeing those friends again affected me to such an extent that once I boarded the plane I had only one thought for the entire flight home – I WILL visit Korea.

Back in Australia I still had 6 months of my degree to finish. I didn’t have any aspirations to begin work straight after graduation so I privately started planning my trip to Korea to study Korean. My initial plan was to just spend a gap year to see my friends and relive the experience I had in China. The only issue was that I had already invested 4 years and a university degree into learning Chinese with the idea I would be working in some capacity between Australia and China and I needed solid reasons to essential jump across the yellow sea and justify a gap year in Korea (to have fun) rather than returning to China.

In 2009 before leaving for Korea I did some research into the Korea-Australia relationship. What I managed to find was a statistic that estimated the number of students enrolled in tertiary Korean courses in Australia at below 100 nationwide....BELOW 100! Japanese is one of the most common languages taught at high school in Australia and Chinese courses are arguably the most popular of the Asian languages at University but Korean, however, at the time was really struggling to attract students and still is today. My university even shut down its Korean program after years of low enrolments such was the lack of interest only for UWA to somewhat revive the program with limited success.

In my mind at the time it was simple, Korea is Australia's 4th largest trading partner, 3rd largest export market and 3rd largest student enrolment market but only a paltry 100 Australian students were investing time and money into learning the language and culture. This was the evidence I needed to give up what seemed as though the more lucrative Chinese market to pursue learning Korean. I don’t believe the situation is unique to Australia either and a similar lack of Interest from American, Canadian, British and European students alike means that there are significant opportunities for any students from those nationalities in Korea. The recent and popular 비정상회담[Non-Summit TV Show] is the perfect example of this. There is nothing special about the foreign presenters on that show, their careers or their intelligence. They are just everyday people who made a very smart and deliberate choice to study Korean.

I like to think that my decision to study Korean was the smartest bet in my life. Despite the rise in Korean culture awareness and rising popularity of Korean TV shows, music, food and electronics abroad there still exists this very large gap in the market for Korean speaking professionals. Despite the popularity of Korean culture increasing there will always be the Chinese and Japanese markets attracting away the majority of foreign talent interested in Asia. I have been incredibly lucky since I started learning Korean but that luck was brought about by being opportunistic.

Before travelling to Korea I actually decided to apply and was granted a Working holiday visa. Most people know that thousands of Koreans go to Australia every year on working holiday visa’s but very little know that the program is mutual; that is Australians can also travel to Korea on a working holiday visa. Of course getting a good paying part time job in Korea is impossible so the idea of a ‘working holiday’ just isn’t possible. Do they really think tourists with no Korean ability will be able to work and travel around Korea on 5000won/hour wages? I would like to see them try. Clearly this program exists with Korea to cash in on the booming Korean working holiday English market but regardless I saw it as the perfect visa for what I wanted to achieve, that is, study a bit, work a bit and just have fun.

In 2012 I was actually interviewed about my experience on the working holiday visa by the Korea Herald. At the time I was one of 23 Australians on the visa in Korea, while a staggering 15,000 Koreans were in Australia under the program. This figure probably best portrays to date the current imbalance in the Australia - Korea relationship. The working holiday visa restrictions in Korea certainly have some issues however - most notably you can't teach English under a working holiday visa, the most obvious part-time job for Australians.

With my working holiday visa ready and cash saved up from my part-time job I was all ready to travel to Korea. It was almost as an afterthought that I researched and then received a scholarship to study Korean in Korea. Through a new government foundation set up I was given $5000 AUD which I used towards my school fees. In my first year in Korea I attended Yonsei Universities Korean Language school and had what can only be described as an amazing year – I met with all of my friends I met in China, I did a homestay program, I even appeared on a few TV shows and Dramas!

However in 2010 after my visa expired and I had to return to Australia I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be able to return to Korea. I had a wonderful time but I was unable to find an internship or save enough money to continue the Korean language program at Yonsei. The amazing trip was over and I had to return home. It was actually a very scary time in my life, I wanted to stay in Korea but I didn’t have the resources, I didn’t want to work in Australia but I didn’t have a choice? With no other option I tried once again and re-applied for a scholarship so that I could return to Korea. Amazingly I was once again granted $5000 AUD from the Australia Korea foundation. It really was significant because without this help I would not have been able to return to Korea. With the funds and a little help from my family I returned to Seoul and moved to the cheaper Seoul National university and lived in a tiny place in Goshichon (Sillim-Dong); I couldn’t afford to live anymore in Sinchon and I was determined to make my limited money stretch out for 6 months until I found an internship opportunity.

I cold emailed and called almost every Australian business and government agency in Seoul, and it was purely luck that one day at an Australian Chamber of Commerce event that I was introduced to the trade commissioner at the Australian embassy. He was from my hometown in Australia (Perth) and he also attended the same university as me; while it might seem common to run into other Australians in Seoul it is very uncommon to run into someone from Perth, let alone from the same university. From this relationship I managed to grab an internship position with the trade section of the Australian embassy which after four months then lead me to a contract with Austrade to work at the Yeosu World Expo.  

Through the time I spent at Austrade I was able to develop good contacts and networks and I was introduced to a CFO friend of my 팀장님 (Team Leader) which eventually lead to my employment as a 신입사원 (Graduate) with a Korean company. And in Essence, I have never looked back since....


  1. Hi. This is Laeticia Ock, a reporter from The Korea Herald. I would like to share your opinion on Korean work culure in the upcoming article if that's okay with you. I would really appreciate it if you contact me via The deadline for the article is tomorrow morning, hope to hear from you soon!

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  3. Hi!! I just found your blog, I have also chosen to go to korea soon hopefully to model, but theres hardly any resources online, and now that ive found your blog posts i have even more questions, i really would like to be a runway model in seoul, but reading your posts i dont know if i can do this without getting married, even if i am signed to an agency. is this true? i am also wondering if you think this is generally a good idea, i am right out of high school and thinking about putting my life savings on the line to move across the world alone without barely having any info on the career i want to do and how it works over there. but.. i am passionate!

  4. Hi 마이클씨, I'm Yoogang Lena Park(박유강), a student majoring Economics from Yonsei University in Korea.
    This August, we're holding a Yonsei North East Asian Network(YNEAN) forum in Yonsei University, inviting students from different countries around Northeast Asia. I was wondering if I could invite you as a guest speaker for our forum, as to provide the third person's point of view on the Cultural (especially Confucian) factors in Northeast Asian society.
    If you could send me your email address, I would like to send you more details.
    Thank you for reading this message. 답장 기다리겠습니다!

    p.s. this is our official email address.

  5. 어흑 영어의 압박... 그래도 부럽습니다.

  6. Hi,
    I think this is second time to visit your blog around after 2 years when I was dragged to your blog by a link in Facebook. and I was impressed by that you are keeping chasing your dream in Korea despite of lots of huddles.
    It must have not been easy to get over all biases and prejudices you might have come across in foreign country . I still believe Korea is the land of opportunity even though I am living in Australia. Hope you enjoy your life over there and will get what you are wishing for ...

    Good on you !

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  9. Hello, my wife and I are currently living in Korea with our job and are in need of learning to speak Korean. You seem to have made a great effort to evaluate the various language programs offered. Our job is requiring us to not to make Seoul our home base. Do you know if there is a way to find if other universities outside of Seoul utilize the popular curriculum's you reviewed? Thanks!

  10. Hi! Just stumbled across your blog and don't know if you'll respond but what you've done (applying for the AKF scholarship to do a year at Yonsei) is exactly what I want to do. I just was wondering it mentions a lot in the criteria about projects and was unsure if me wishing to study Korean language and further my knowledge of Korean culture would be good enough as a 'project'. The obvious goal is to increase recognition between cultures but would this be enough do you think? Love to hear from you and your experiences could really help me out!

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  12. Hi Michael. Not sure if you would still be able to read this comment of mine but here I am still writing it. I was able to read some of your articles written on For someone who's dream is landing a job in South Korea and probably to live there in a long run, I tried searching several articles on how to work in South Korea as a foreigner, and from reading your articles, it brought me here to your blog. For now, I'm planning to read every blog you've written here so I would be able to decide if I'll pursue applying for a job in South Korea. All your articles here would be a great help for me.

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