1. You‘re bankrupt. Not morally bankrupt, but financially. Unlike American employers, South Korea doesn‘t have any interest in your credit score or financial history. Whereas you may get turned down here for a managerial position if you have bad credit, no one cares in Korea. If you can do seven years overseas, you will have a clean slate when you get back home.
2. You are in the insurance gap. Despite the strides towards universal health insurance in America, there are still folks who can‘t get Medicaid and can‘t afford health insurance. We really ought to just have universal healthcare, but fuck no, because rich Republicans need to make more money for pharmaceutical companies. South Korea has universal health insurance and great health care. Dental is still sort of iffy: you can get x-rays at 10 different dentists and be told 10 different results, so you may need to get one filling or 14, depending on who you see ( or go to Dr. Gina Sohn at Tufts Dental in Yongsan if you want to avoid this problem all together).
3. You need to save up thousands of dollars in one year or pay off credit cards fast. If you are frugal, you can easily save over $10,000 teaching at a hakwon in Korea, closer to $15,000 in some cases. If you can manage to send as few transfers back home as possible and wait until the exchange rate is the highest, you can send home $12,000-$15,000 each year, if you finish your contract and collect your bonus. Be sure that wherever you work has been open for at least a year, if not two. There are many fly-by-night schools that will close in the middle of the year and leave you high and dry.
4. You are a white American and want to find out what it is like to be a minority. No, you will never, ever know what it is like to be black in America, or Hispanic, or Asian, but you will have an experience as a minority in a country that is otherwise overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous (#2 in the world; #1 is North Korea) and it is interesting. If you understand that your experience as a minority is unique to the circumstances, it can make you more empathetic towards the Other when you get home.
5. You don‘t want to do/can‘t do Americorps, Teach for America, Peace Corps, and don‘t want to get your teaching experience in an inner city school. Granted, you will miss out on the graduate school scholarships from not doing these programs, but you can also save money in Korea to make up for that. Of course, you can‘t defer school loans while in Korea like you can if you do one of these programs. I have often thought that volunteerism on that level is really the privilege of the rich, because who else can afford to not work for years or months at a time in order to make a difference? You have to eat, too.
6. You want to reinvent yourself for a while. Going overseas where no one knows you from Adam can really help you change. You can be all sorts of people and try on different masks. Chances are that you will also rarely, if ever, meet again any of the foreigners you worked with if you don‘t make the effort. Being in a new place can give you the drive to do new things, like start a diet, make a plan of action, etc.
7. You need to jam. Sometimes, you just need to jam, to break out and go away for a while. Might as well go to Korea. If you hate it, you can skip on over to tons of other countries.
8. You want to move, but have no furniture. Your apartment ought to have furniture.
9. You didn‘t go to a good college and don‘t have a good GPA. While this can make it difficult to find a job in America, especially if you are just starting out, there are lots of schools in Korea, and the people running those places don‘t know the difference between Columbia University and Columbia College. You can have a 2.0 GPA and still get a job at a hakwon just with your charm (and by charm, I mean whiteness). In fact, all you need is a 4-year degree, which you could have gotten online through a community college extension program. You could have majored in pretty much anything, not just education, teaching, or linguistics. You needn‘t be a great student either, or involved in school activities, or even have a work history, so long as you have the diploma. You may not get the best jobs, but you will get one. Hell, you not only don‘t have to have any teaching experience, but you don‘t need to know anything about English at all: you can be a terrible reader and a terrible writer, because the curriculum is laid out for you, and all of your end-of-month comments will be translated into Korean anyway. Fuck, you could have even gotten your 4-year degree at DeVry, where there is little to no work in language arts or humanities and you don‘t even come out with a real bachelor‘s degree, and still get a job teaching English in Korea.
10. You want to move to a big city, but can‘t afford to do so in America. In America, you need thousands of dollars to get a decent apartment in the city. You need a job. You need to make friends on your own. It can be difficult to get a job in a new city without a place of residence there. If you have never lived in a big city, Seoul is actually a pretty decent option. You get a free apartment, and it is relatively safe from violent crime. Also, if you‘re parochial, you have default friends in your co-workers if you work for a large school.
11. You want a starting point to go traveling. Some people do this: teach for six months, peace out on a midnight run, then go traveling. Don‘t do this. If you don‘t have a compelling reason to pull a midnight run, don‘t skip out. You just increase the workload for your co-workers. However, being in Asia certainly does make it cheaper to travel in Asia. You don‘t get a lot of time off, and you‘ll be lucky if you get time off the same times your friends do (I once worked for the only hakwon in Seoul that had their winter and spring breaks the week AFTER everyone else. I couldn‘t travel with my friends. My Korean bosses were baffled: I had friends OUTSIDE of the school? Who? WHO?) But you fly to Korea for free (only sign a contract that gets you a flight there on their dime; do NOT accept reimbursement when you arrive), and you get a plane ticket back. WARNING about that: the school will find you the cheapest option possible. If you switch schools while in Korea, expect to get a plane ticket reimbursement of a fraction of what it actually costs. I know someone who got $200 reimbursement on her flight back to New York because apparently, the school discovered a cargo rate of $200 from Seoul to New York and figured it applied to people as well.
12. You‘re a drug addict and/or an alcoholic. No, Korea doesn‘t want drunks or junkies as English teachers. They specifically try to avoid drunks and junkies. You will be drug tested when you get here, so ideally, you will want to have been clean for a few weeks. You won‘t be able to find most of your favorite drugs in Korea, so if you want to go cold turkey, this is the place. Since they have little understanding of alcoholism and even less of drug abuse, most Koreans will never know your secret, or your not-so-secret. But this doesn‘t mean that some of your fellow foreign teachers won‘t know, at least the street-smart ones. I have worked with people who look like people who drink a lot or have done hard drugs for quite a while. Of course, there are a lot of sheltered people who go from the cornfield right to Korea, so there‘s a good chance that many won‘t notice that you have a substance abuse problem so long as you don‘t do anything too outlandish, like vomit all over your kindergarten class. I‘ve worked with someone who was prematurely wrinkled from hard drug use and was the only one who picked up on it. It was obvious to me. The Koreans assumed that she was wrinkled because she was so mature, taking on so much responsibility as a young adult. Of course it was that, not the drinking and the hillbilly heroin she‘d been doing since she was fifteen. I had a foreigner boss at one school I worked at demand that we give him money to buy booze that night. While neither would fly in the US, it all goes right over the heads of Korean employers. There are lots of American and Canadians with puffy, red alcoholic faces teaching kindergarten all over Korea, and no one seems to notice. I suppose you would have to show up to school with full-on jaundice for anyone to raise an eyebrow. So, if you aren‘t employable in the US because of your drug and alcohol problems, there is a place for you in Korea (if you‘re white).
13. You really need to be told what to do all the time, but don‘t think the military micromanages enough. Some people really thrive in Korea, and many of those people are people who just don‘t like to think hard. I guess there is nothing wrong with that as long as you accept it and you‘re not suddenly in charge of anything important. If you work at a hagwon, you will be micromanaged. You will be handed your work, told exactly what to do and how to do it and when, and you will be expected to do it as they like it. You will even be on camera and subject to surprise inspections from supervisors and parents. Some people thrive on this lack of personal empowerment, or more exactly, this objectification. If you don‘t like to think hard and just want to do your job and go home to your distractions, Korea is for you. I was literally told by a supervisor in Korea that it wasn‘t my job to think (who would later complain that I was overpaid because I did pretty much stop thinking at my job), and I was hired for a specialized position at the school, so if I wasn‘t paid to think, the average teacher can sleepwalk through a year. If you like knowing that you never, ever have to make a decision or create something on your own, and you get a sense of accomplishment from making your superiors happy in a weird, servant-like fashion, you will love working in Korea.
…of course, this is problematic, because if you‘re like that, there is a good chance you have no teaching experience, let alone any professional experience managing children. Or even a degree from a solid institution of higher education, where you are supposed to learn to think critically and independently. Anyway, see #9 again.