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Gap Year in Korea – My Sabbatical from Life

ITA - Photo LogoMy story of coming to Korea to teach English plays out much differently than most of the 20-somethings that take up this endeavor.  Where many teachers come here fresh out of college or just a few years out, I was in my late 30s when I seriously decided to take the plunge.

In the midst of an economic downturn and a desire to reinvent myself, I finally decided to do something that I had once dreamed about many moons ago:

Travelling abroad.

For nearly 15 years, I spent my days in ways that most foreign teachers leave Korea to pursue.  As I coined on my personal Facebook page…

…I was a “cubical-dwelling, corporate wannabe” in the IT industry

I spent many years working for large companies trying to snag my own piece of the American prize.  At times it happened, at others it didn’t.  Like in 2008 when I was laid off while working as an IT project manager in Florida.  That was a “didn’t” moment.  That event would be the catalyst for what would be the biggest change in my life to date.  Turning away from something that, to be honest, I didn’t even know why I was doing it other than it was a “good career”.  I spent the next two years seeking and begging for a job in IT.  I would get short-term contracts here and there, but nothing steady.  In between I would stay busy either selling cars or tae kwon do memberships.  It was a wicked and tempestuous time.  And for what?  The hopes of getting a job that brought me nothing more than a paycheck?  For me, my line of work was sitting in a fabricated, cubical-laden office space where the highlight of my day was often wondering what was for lunch.  It was a crazy cycle, and I was determined to break it.

For some…for MANY, this is the right path.  But for me, I couldn’t see the light at the end of that tunnel.  And here I was jumping through hoops to try to stay in it.

Fast forward 2010 when I finally decided to take a detour.  I had wanted to travel to Korea or Japan out of college, but it never happened.  At the time it was more for furthering my judo training than anything else and I saw teaching English as a potential vehicle to make it happen.

In 2010, I took a meaningful look at myself and my life and started asking better questions.

Like, what are you chasing, Tom?  What is this amounting to?  Will it matter in the end?  Where is the fulfillment?  I don’t think I have to sell to anybody the idea of what corporate work is.  It is what it is.  The fact is – very few like it.  I would say that most tolerate it.  A promotion, health insurance, or a new car every 5 years is good enough reason for most.  But if you don’t have a family to support or another legit driving force, it can be a life draining endeavor.  For me it was just that.  For 15 years!

So, I fired off an email to an ESL recruiter.

Orientation graduation

Before I knew it I was well into gathering documentation, digging up my criminal history, and selling off a bunch of accumulated stuff that I never really needed in the first place.  Something inside me began to change at that moment.  The hustle of the process, reading blogs(!), watching videos, wondering about how awesome or terrible it was going to be ignited a new flame in me.  I was ready to take off for a year and leave the rat race to the rats.  No offense!

Everything began to happen at breakneck speed and before I knew it I was eating lunch with my brother and his wife saying goodbye.  I remember like yesterday telling him on the phone as I lay on the floor of my empty bedroom in Florida that before we knew it I’d be in Korea.  And so it was.
I’ve been in Korea teaching at the same all girls middle school for about 16 months and I feel like I just had that conversation with my brother.  What’s crazier is that before making the final “go/no go” decision (little IT jargon for y’all) a good friend of mind reminded me to follow my guts rather than staying stuck in analysis paralysis.  Let’s face it, this is a huge step.  Especially when you’re older – set in your ways and comfortable.
The whole notion of “gap year” hasn’t even sunk in yet to be honest.  I’m beyond a year anyway, and I don’t see an end in sight. That is unless they kick me out first.
Here’s to the future!

But getting back to reinventing myself.  Finding out who Tom 2.0 is, I’m looking toward a new future.  Teaching English is becoming a global endeavor now with nations like China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the entire Middle East upping the ante.  Japan remains steady with their JET program and has grown steadily over the years.  Though Korea is retracting their EPIK program, there’s no doubt the future for teaching abroad looks bright overall.  I will soon be enrolling in an online teacher certification program, and possible Master’s in ESL.  It’s all guns blazing to roll out Tom 2.0!

Gap year nothing.  I look at so many of the younger teachers leaving, looking to embark on a career of some sort that will bring them that professional satisfaction.  I hope it turns out just that way for them.  Somehow I think there will come a time, mid-career, where they will wish they were back in a classroom again playing K-Pop Slam with a bunch of carefree screaming kids.  If they have the reason or circumstances to keep them focused and motivated in their profession of choice, they will be fine.

There is no correct answer.  For me though, my sabbatical has come at the right time and given me something I had lacked for many years. Hope.


Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Everything you put down in this post hits home and has certainly got me thinking where I go from here myself. All the best.

  2. Thanks so much.

  3. I think your story is an inspiration. Many are often afraid to leave mid-career and I don't blame them cause, it's not an easy to choice to make. You really took a bold leap cause 15 years is a marriage! Congrats!

    Walking away from my career was hard and not. While I didn't love the bs around it, I loved the job, being creative and that my work found a global audience. Teaching was a new kind of love I discovered mostly upon doing it. Loving it came as a surprise to me. But I can't even compare the love I feel for both- they're so different.

    I think as long as we follow our loves, it opens a good path where we live our joys vs. hates and life is too short to waste on the latter. Bravo to you!

  4. Thank you, Christine. If it weren't for the economy going sour I probably never would've considered it. The downturn plucked me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to other options – and I just went for it. I'm so glad the economy tanked!

    I too have found this new life to be so great for me on many levels. I love the stress-free lifestyle, the students (well, most of them), and the concept of being able to travel perpetually while saving money! What a concept. I'm a little different than you in that I never felt a satisfaction or connection to my work. That too made leaving it a little easier.

    Life is definitely too short to waste on things you don't love. I only think about what country I'll be in for the future!

  5. Hi Tom! I ran across your blog today while researching teaching abroad in South Korea, and I am so happy to have found it! I am also a little older (31) than most of the teach abroad crowds, but a recent experience has reignited my desire to travel and seek out new territory so to speak. I appreciate your blog and hope life is still treating you well!

    Kristin

  6. I think that's great that you're considering teaching abroad. Your age will work in your favor! I'm glad my blog was helpful for you and I do plan on continuing it as long as I am teaching abroad – which will be a long time. Good luck!

  7. Came across a link to your blog on Dave's the other day and watched some of your youtube vids. Your candor comes across in your videos and it's nice to see someone genuine sharing their experiences. I'm in a pretty similar situation and hope to be making the move to Korea this fall. I'm only 30 but have already spent 10 years in the corporate world, and like you said, there's little gratification in it. I've toyed with this idea for a couple years, but due to some recent life events I'm all in now. I'm going in with an open mind and low expectations and can't wait to see where the ESL road takes me.

    Thanks for doing what you do and maybe I can buy you a beer for your efforts one day.

  8. That's probably the best way to approach it. Just take it as it comes and let it happen. The more flexible you can remain, the more you'll enjoy it in the need and not become jaded.

    Maybe you'll never need to go back to corporate work! There are countless opportunities once you get in the game.

  9. Hi Tom,

    Great story. Although I was working in a job I enjoyed as a graphic designer I decided to travel around south east Asia. That was over four months ago and I am now sitting in an apartment in Kuala Lumpur which belongs to someone I met in Vietnam who I have become very good friends with.

    Even before this happened, I knew I did not want to return to the daily grind of UK life so I have been thinking of ways to continue this amazing adventure and make some money at the same time (that old chestnut). Although I have never seriously considered teaching before, I love children and have loved learning bits of language on my travels and this had led me to challenge myself and try and teach my language to other people.

    With the dream talk out of the way, the usual mental stopping blocks of "which TEFL course to choose" and the headache of sorting my documents required for a Korean visa while already abroad had started to bring me down. Reading your posts has reignited the initial excitement I had and I know I just need to get on with it.

    I have a degree so know that technically I am eligible to work in Korea but for my sake and the sake of my future students I really want to get some sort of certification and the sheer amount of information out there is mind boggling.

    What sort of preparation did you undergo before you began teaching?

    Sorry for the essay. Thanks in advance.

  10. That's a great story actually! There really isn't any preparation for teaching in Korea, though a TESOL certificate or something related will make you feel more confident going into it. You just need a good attitude, which it seems you have.

    A TESOL can also help you land a job, even though it isn't necessarily required.

    Hope this helps.

    Tom

  11. Thanks for the reply Tom. That's good to hear. Once I have gone through the headache of obtaining the necessary documents for the visa I can begin the fun part.

    All the best for the rest of your teaching career, but more importantly, your exciting new life!

    Nathan

  12. Hi there,

    You say that Korea is retracting its EPIK program. Could you perhaps elaborate? I plan to be teaching abroad some time next year and Asia is quite high on my list, especially South Korea.

    Thanks!

    • There have been major cutbacks in the past year or so. I don’t really know what the future holds for the program as a whole. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  13. Awww! I absolutely love this post. It is so inspirational and actually gives me hope. As I embark upon my 39th birthday next year stuck in a limbo of not knowing who I am anymore or liking the current trajectory of my life it is time for me to reinvent myself as well. I like the notion of thinking of ESL teaching in Korea as a sabbatical. I am still in the decision making stage but I think I’m close to the edge and almost ready to make my leap into Shanda 2.0 – I have been watching and reading everything about expats in Korea. Thank you for a providing us a small window into your private thoughts and experiences.

    • Thanks so much, Shanda. I think it takes a gutsy, brave soul to be able to break away from the safety of the old life and venture into a new one – especially as we get older. Comfort is our greatest enemy! I wish you the best when the time is right for you.

  14. Reading your posts really inspires. I am in China, barely over 40. Like you, I was an IT (analyst and coordinator) for so long. Had the same “symptoms”. I just embarked in that project of teaching ESL. Will see where it takes me.
    Also enjoy your Youtube videos. Cheers

    • Right on, Nicolas. That’s great to hear. There will be times when you wonder if you made the right choice, or if it’s just a temporary thing. Or in my case, THE thing! In just a few years you’ll have experience to look into other opportunities and you may find that your background in IT will come into play. All the best!

  15. Hi Tom,

    Great blog, it’s extremely helpful. This is my first year in EPIK and I am also placed in Busan. About 2 years ago I started my research into EPIK and getting a TEFL certification…I never thought I’d take the leap either….and after having read this post —- it’s such a relief to know I am not the only one that feels this way.

    I used to be – what you probably loved/hated the most: an IT recruiter. I started off as HR, then recruiting, then finished as a coordinator because my heart was just not in it. The corporate environment and company was stale, fake and depressing. Everyone kept saying how amazing the company and benefits were and all I kept thinking as I dragged my feet to work was how I felt like a slave – chained to my computer, hooked to my headset, with a forced smile on my face. I felt like the life was sucked completely out of me…and I was only in the IT industry for 3 years.

    Although I am only 3 months in – I can honestly say that every day I wake up knowing that the day is going to be a fresh opportunity to make a difference and learn more about myself and my students.

    Your posts and videos are extremely encouraging and I normally never leave comments but I actually really related to this post and just had to reach out. My only question is – how or rather when did you realise you wanted to stay here for longer than a year?

    I know many of my peers and I feel torn – some of us are more of assistants than teachers and some of us would like to stay longer than a year but are having a hard time bridging the gap of communication (we’ve only been here 3 months of course, so this may be a bit premature).

    Anyhow keep up the amazing posts! From all of the new EPIKers who were a bit star struck and didn’t approach you at the GET meeting last Friday (there were a few) – we truly appreciate the advice you lend out!

    • Hi, Roxanne,

      Thanks so much for reaching out. The one thing that keeps me going with the blog and vids is when people comment that they were in some way helpful in one facet or another. Without knowing this, I would’ve fizzled long ago.

      I can completely relate to your feelings. I shared them for many years. I’m glad to hear you followed your heart. In my case, I was in it for many years, and the greater portion of it was spent loathing it. And I wasn’t alone. It would be challenging to find a handful of people that look forward to going to work. In fact, it would be easy to find swarms that despise it. Between those feelings and the meltdown of 2008, I had something that few have. Fuel. I knew that if I could get my hands on something to replace that “stuff” I would approach it with a passion that only I could squash. I think I found it. It’s traveling abroad, teaching, blogging, and hopefully using these as a way to do more meaningful things in the future. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had a shot with this ESL thing.

  16. Hi Tom,
    I just recently started watching your videos and reading your blogs. I finally had the chance to go to college, and for a while wanted to teach in Japan or Korea (my mom is from Busan btw 🙂 ). I was undecided due to being already 31 (also a single mom) and not going to finish until mid-thirties. I thought it would be really hard for me due to those reasons. But it’s good to hear your perceptive and it’s really helpful. Thank you for the informative videos, and hope you keep blogging for a long time. Can’t wait for your newsletter.
    PS. Would love to see more food blogs! 😀

    • Thanks so much, Amy. I do hope to be teaching, traveling, blogging and vlogging for a long time. I believe this is my new life and calling so I’m more than happy to meet the call. I hope you get a chance to teach in Korea someday.

  17. Hi Tom,

    I’ve been reading your blogs and watching your YouTube videos for a few months now, and I want to thank you for putting them out there. It’s in part because of your posts that I’m now coming to Bucheon, South Korea in July to teach. My contract is a year, but with the amount of peace I have regarding this big move, I sense I may be there longer.

    I’m not switching careers per se, as I’ve been a teacher in Texas for three years, but I am a bit older than the typical early twenties crowd, and it means a lot to know there are older ex-pats living in Asia, teaching English. Your stories have been inspiring.

    I know in some of your blogs, you have a cross in the background, and in a recent apartment tour video, you had a Bible that you pointed out. Do you have any advice on finding an English speaking or bilingual church or ministry in South Korea? Any help you can provide would be wonderful!

    Thanks again!

    • Hi. I’m so glad to hear some of my posts have been helpful. I really know the feeling having the jitters so I’m glad to see you’re going for it. I think you’re going to have a great experience.

      Korea has an enormous Christian community. You should definitely be able to find a church with an international group, or an expat church. That will definitely help you through the bumpy times when you’re going through the adjustment period.

      All the best with your endeavors in Korea.

  18. Lielyn Arboladura says:

    It’s unbelievable that I’m experiencing the “gap year” also since 2014 it’s been difficult in going back at the corporate world. I just started teaching ESL last week and I AM ENJOYING IT. I felt the surge of passion and excitement knowing that someone is learning something from me. I will continue reading your blogs and hope I could have the same journey as yours. God bless!

    • It’s been over 5 years for me, and I think it’s safe to say that I will probably never go back to the corporate grind. I don’t even think I could at this point since I’ve been away for so long. Just keep taking teaching day by day, the ebb and flow, and see where it takes you. There is no end to the possibilities with teaching abroad at all levels, so it can be a great path in the long run.

  19. I’m so happy I found this blog! I’ve often thought off and one about teaching in Japan or Korea, but have always stayed stateside, feeling like I would be foolish to give up a really good job in Silicon Valley in my mid-thirties. But I feel burned out. I’m somewhat scared I’ll regret it, but I’ve also always been a risk taker, so here I am again… considering it. Thanks for sharing this story, and I’m so glad to see that while this post is 5 years old, it’s still active with activity. I’ll check out more of your stuff on YouTube. Cheers and thanks for being a resource.

    • Thank you, Jennifer. Everyone has different goals and preferences so teaching abroad is something different to everyone. Most do it for a short time and then return home. It’s a great way to see other countries. Even if you leave for a year or two, you can always get back into your line of work no problem. Then again, not everyone wants to uproot themselves, so it depends on the person. I think you’d enjoy it and then you can always just head back with a new story to tell.

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