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About Tom Gates

About Me Photo 2

Facebook addict. Cubicle-dwelling, corporate IT wannabe turned ESL teacher. Blogger. YouTuber. Judo vagabond. Bucking the trend and living the life meant for me.

반갑습니다!

Traveling to South Korea to teach English has a long storyline in my case. I am one of the few teachers that are not out of college, or even a few years out of college. I am MANY years out of college! There was a time back when I graduated when I had the desire to travel to either Korea or Japan to teach English. I wanted to use it as a venue to further my training in judo, a sport I once lived and breathed for! For one reason and another, I didn’t take that leap and life just went on.

Fast forward 2008 and an economic meltdown in the United States. As it went for thousands, if not millions, life changed drastically for me in a short time. As I scrambled to find contracts to continue my career in IT, it occurred to me that it was the best time to revisit the option of traveling abroad to teach English. Albeit, not for judo training. In my late 30s at the time, the years of hardcore training were behind me.

So I reconsidered the notion. And it felt right. For the next year or so I hemmed and hawed my way through the application process, gathering up my documentation and struggling with the jitters of actually taking the plunge.

“Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis”

This simple, yet sage advice from a friend sealed the deal and I was on my way to South Korea. En route to find out how crazy I was and come to realize what I didn’t know I didn’t know.

Since 2011, I’ve been an ESL teacher with EPIK (English Program In Korea), the public school system’s tool for engaging students with native English speakers. Being of half Korean decent (North Korean mother), I’ve come to find that there’s more to Korea than meets a blog post or YouTube vlog. I’ve wrestled and grown as a person during my time here, and to my surprise found out more about the Korean’ness that makes me ME.

This is my trail that I share with you. With no rhyme or reason, these blog posts are just innocence laid out as my life unfolds in the R.O.K. My adventures, my injuries, the experiences, and the news around me are here – my diary.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
– Jeremiah 29:11

Comments

  1. Hi Tom,
    Like many others, I’ve enjoyed your informative posts; I landed in korea in the fall of 2008, so right after the economic crash in the u.s., and taught for a year there just north of Busan. I worked for great people, and have thought of returning. I really like your last quote there; love that verse, assuming you’re a Christian? I attended international community church in Busan while there, and met some great people. So important to surround yourself with good community while there. Continue to enjoy your journey! Thanks again for sharing!

    • That’s really an awesome coincidence. You only taught for a year? I assume you went back to work in the US. I think I’ll be teaching abroad for quite some time the way I see it now. I can’t even imagine going back “home” to my old work.

      I am a Christian. I haven’t made it to ICC only because it’s really far. I’m out closer to Hadan – other end of the city. Thank you for sharing.

  2. tom this is linda that you know from manhattan cornerstone preb.i hope this is you.im happy for you.

  3. Tommy,

    I’ve been reading your blog for the past 9 months and it’s fantastic! You have a very good pulse on the Korean teacher market. I lived there for 9 years myself.

    We’re looking for high quality content on teaching in Korea.

    Would you be interested in guest blogging regularly on iloveeslkorea.com. We’ll provide highly visible links back to your reddragon diaries blog site and link your name also back to your website from within your blogs so you can drive more traffic to your pages.

    Let me know if you’d be open to this or not.

    Thanks,
    Paul Hefford
    iloveeslkorea.com

    • Paul,

      Thanks for reaching out. My contact page is currently on the blink, so maybe you can head over to my Facebook page (not shamelessly trying to promote!) and contact me there. At the moment, I’m neck deep in studying for my teacher certification, but maybe in the future.

  4. Logan C. West says:

    Hi:

    I have really enjoyed your videos. They have been a great help to me in getting ready to teach for EPIK!

    I just had a successful interview and am trying to decide my place of preference. I am trying to decide between Ulsan and Busan.

    According to my interviewer, I qualify for a level 2 position in most places, but not for Ulsan because I don’t have the 50 in-class component with my TESOL certificate. however, I would qualify for a level 3 position in Busan.

    My question: Between Ulsan and Busan, which city would be better to teach in?

    I would be paid less in Busan, but I wonder if it has more things to do and see than Ulsan. I have read in some places that Ulsan is heavy in industry and doesn’t have as many things to do, but I am not sure.

    I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

    • Wow – it sounds like they’ve broken things down a bit more since I started with the levels and all. Or maybe I just don’t remember. Busan is a much bigger city than Ulsan. The thing I like about Ulsan is that it is a large city but has a small city feel. it’s located on the water and it’s very easy to get away if you want. That’s just my opinion though. A lot of people go to Ulsan and enjoy it I’m sure. Busan will offer more things to do for sure. No doubt about it. Easy access to Japan as well.

      All the best.

  5. Hi Tom –

    I’ve been enjoying your blog and Youtube posts. I’ve been practicing judo for the last 30+ years and now help coach at Univ of CA, Berkeley(CAL) and at Han’s Martial Arts in Oakland, CA. Master Han (Jiwhan Han) is a 2000 Olympian, 6X Korean National Champion and his father is a judo master at Yong In. Master Han and I have been helping train a -52kg judoka (Melissa Templeman) from USA to compete in the Grand Prix Jeju coming up in early December. I think you should check it out if you get a chance. I hope to come out to Korea in the near future.

    If you’re interested, here’s a link to an article I wrote after my trip to Korea with my father in 2009.
    http://www.koreamonitor.net/bullinfo.cfm?upccode=BG4A20C128-7

    My father, Jin Nok Wi, is a writer and currently in Korea promoting his memoirs. He had a book opening ceremony this past Saturday in Seoul.

    Sorry for this unstructured ramble and hope to hear back from you. Can you contact me through email?

    -Soora Wi

    • That is totally awesome! Sounds like you have a great leader and instructor in Master Han. Sounds like he comes from a great lineage if his father is an instructor at Yong-in. They are the best of the best in Korea.

      Also, thank you so much for giving me the heads up about the Grand Prix in December. I was wondering when another big event would be happening here so I could attend. And I’ve also been wanting to visit Jeju very badly as well. I’m so glad you connected and let me know. I’m going to try to make it to that event so maybe I’ll see you there. Good luck to Melissa Templeton too!

      • Hey Tom –

        Glad you enjoyed the Grand Prix Jeju. As an FYI, the Grand Prix in Korea usually occurs in early to mid-December. You can get the complete IJF schedule at http://www.ijf.org. Happy Holidays!

        • It was an experience I won’t forget. What an epic and professional experience. It really made judo feel much bigger to me even though I always knew it was very popular and wide-spread. I hope I’m still around to go to the Asian Games in Incheon in 2014!

  6. Tom, Thanks for sharing your experiences and imparting advice. I am in the 2nd year of international teaching in Indonesia. I am Korean American and was so close to accepting a position at an international school in Seoul as a 4th grade teacher. I definitely think a lot about the decision to move to the tropics instead–interestingly enough, there are a lot of Korean ex-pats at the international school where I teach now near Jakarta.

    I have visited Korea in the summers for the past few years but I also had the opportunity to visit in the fall. So many incredible experiences–love visiting Mt. Sorak, Busan, and of course, the shopping in Myeong-Dong.

    As a Christian at a non-religious school, working in a predominantly Muslim country, I have appreciated the Christian fellowship in home groups at my church. I will definitely continue to check this blog–I really like how you have organized your links. Now I will have to go back and organize my links. 🙂 Happy Halloween!

    • Thanks so much for commenting about your experiences in Indonesia. That and Malaysia are two of some of the many places I’d like to teach some day. I’ve wondered about how it is being Christian in a Muslim country. Good to hear you can find fellowship well enough.

      Are you thinking of coming back to Korea to teach someday. Would love to hear more about your experiences there. I’ll check out your blog.

  7. Hi Tom,
    Awesome blog!
    Just a few quick questions if you would please be so kind. My wife has picked up a teaching contract in Jeju at the NLCS International School and we will be moving over as a family for September 2014. I am an old dog (44) trying to learn new tricks and as such have returned to Judo after an absence off the mat of about 30 years! I would love to train in Korea when I come over and wondered if you had any information of places to train in Jeju, and also if I would be too old?
    Many thanks for any replies

    • Nigel,

      First of all, you are going to be living in paradise. Did you know that? lol. Jeju is called the “Hawaii of Korea” and I think you’ll realize why once you get there. You’ll be landlocked, but there is an airport there and the ferry from Busan goes there as well. Also easy access to Japan so you can hit the mecca for the realist of real judo experiences. Kudos to you.

      As far as judo in jeju, I have to believe there will be judo schools there for you to attend. Jeju will be hosting the IJF Grand Prix in 2 weeks there. Partially because it’s such a beautiful place for competitors to come and compete. The best way to find a judo school is to ask the locals. I would start with cab drivers, cops, and of course your wife’s students. They will know the area better than anyone. That’s how I find things. A cabbie told me about the judo school where the superhuman master is!

      All the best with your time in Jeju. Keep me posted for sure!

      Tom

  8. Your videos are the best i love to watch them. You are very down to earth and make things so easy to understand. Japan and Korea are the two counties i have a deep desire to learn about your videos are a blessing. Keith in asheville nc

  9. Hello. I would like to teach English in Korea during the summer months. I am a 4th grade teacher here in the United States, and I am already locked in an extended contract, so I would not be able to teach ESL in Korea for an extended period of time. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance for your response.

    • You should be able to find some summer English camps or short term contracts. I would suggest keeping an eye on sites like Dave’s ESL job board, joyjobs.com, and seriousteachers.com. They have a huge list of varying opportunities. I would also recommend contacting a recruiter to let them know you’re looking. You can try Teach Away or Footprints Recruiting as they’ve always been helpful to me. You’ll also come across many more recruiters through your search on the other sites I mentioned. Good luck!

  10. Aly Bailey says:

    Het Tom,
    I just stumbled upon your YouTube posts and now this website. I was thrilled to discover you are already working with Epic, I have spent all day researching the company and after hours of sorting thru data I will be submitting my application Feb 1.
    I get the impression you are happy with the company? Do you have any specific locations you would recommend over others?
    Thanks
    Aly

  11. Hi Tom,

    Interesting thoughts and insights on Korea. I did enjoy reading them.

    I got to see your Youtube vide on on Baby Box because I know some people who are very against that. (They are adoptees and parents who adopted. They don’t like Pastor Lee at all.) And then, I also wanted to see the good side of it. Your video let me see it – like you said, it’s a real world that we are living and the baby box thing that might shed a light on it. It is always nice to see the country with someone else’s eyes. Thanks.

    A great blog. Very enjoyable in catching up other expats’ lives I am a quasi expat. My colleague expat friends will love your blog.

    Happy New Year and please keep writing.

    Sujin

  12. Hi Tom, your website and youtube uploads are very informative. I once taught English in Japan and at the time they wouldn’t hire a foreign teacher if she was older or not thin enough. Is there any of this in Korea? Secondly, I facilitate cross-cultural training of executives when they transfer to other countries so that they are equipped to handle the transition well. Do you know if there is a market for this type of specialized training in Korea??
    Best regards,
    Christy

  13. Bea M Garcia says:

    Tom.
    I came accross your videos while watching Shin Dong-hyuk.
    God bless you on your most-excellent adventure. Thanks for sharing a Korea different from what folks see on Korean dramas. Just back stateside after 10 years in the UK & fighting reverse culture shock.
    Stay warm & keep sharing your stories. You know how to weave a good one.
    Every blessing.
    Bea

    • Thank you so much, Bea. When I recently went back to America I realized how much my outlook on many things had changed. I wasn’t back long enough to notice culture shock, but I could sense it a little. All the best and thanks for the encouragement.

      Tom

  14. Hi Tom! I stumbled across your videos on YouTube. I’m graduating from college this year and I have been thinking about going to teach English in Korea, but I’m worried. First of all, I’m an adopted Korean American, and I’ve heard so much regarding racism (how I found your video), and problems that only Asian-looking foreigners encounter, especially when it comes to the topic of adoption. Makes it worse that I don’t speak a lick of Korean. But I think you could give a better perspective than any TEFL teacher being half-Korean yourself.
    I had a Chinese American friend try and find a recruiter, but she didn’t fit the “foreigner image” and encountered so many problems that she decided to put it off and went on to get her Masters. So I’m worried, obviously. Also, I’ve heard of EPIK or US-based programs like CIEE. I know you did EPIK, so did it go well so far? Any advice would be amazing! Thank you!

    • Oh and also I know you’re into Judo, but would I be able to find Aikido? That is the martial art I practice.

    • Hi there. I wouldn’t worry too much about that. If you do encounter it, just move on to other recruiters and opportunities. Many Asian-Amaericans (like me!) come to Korea each year to teach. Maybe many people of all ethnicities encounter some situations that make them feel uncomfortable and singled out. You may as well, but don’t let it get you down and put you out of the game. Just go for it! There may be some hagwons that look for certain ethnicities over others. If this is the case, just steer clear of them. There are far more that won’t.

      EPIK is Korea’s public school program (as opposed to hagwons which are private schools). You won’t have any issues with them. If a recruiter tells you that you will, they are lying, just find another recruiter. There are lots of them.

      Good luck!

  15. Hi Tom!

    I love keeping up with your videos. You have a really cool demeanor.

    Just out of curiosity- you say you’re half Korean – what’s your other half?

  16. Adam Jessup says:

    Hi Tom!

    I just had a quick question that I was hoping you might have some insight into. What do you know about couples being able to teach in the same city / share the same house? My wife and I both want to teach but obviously we want to live together and work in the same city. I can’t find anything online about how people go about doing that. I’ve read about “joint” teaching positions and about bringing “non-working” dependents over but nothing about how to indicate on your application that you and your spouse would like to remain married. Is this just implicit when you apply? Thank you!

    • Hi. Yes, that’s entirely possible. You just have to look around at the opportunities and have some conversations with the recruiter about that option. I know of a few couples who have done this. Good luck!

  17. Again, back on your blog and I’m sure you know the feeling from when you first started of reading blogs about teaching abroad at every free moment. I signed up for my TEFL certification! I am hoping for China or Korea and I hope to meet you someday along the path! -Amy

  18. Hi Tom,
    You have a great blog and Youtube channel. I was on break from preparing an exam for my homeschool kids and ended up at your Youtube channel while checking out part-time gigs online that I could wrangle from home. I just wanted to thank you for sharing what you’ve learned with the rest of the world. Keep the info and stories coming (highly entertaining stuff, I must say). More blessings to you and your career. ~ Mary

    • Thanks so much, Mary. I do know of a couple companies that look for qualified ESL teachers to teach online. THis way you could do it form home at your own schedule.

  19. Steve Carroll says:

    Hi Tom-
    Like you, I wasn’t fresh out of university when I came to Korea to teach. In fact, I was 46 years old. I’ve been back and forth a few times, and I now live here in Busan. I’ve been teaching for a total of 5 years, and I’ve experienced a lot of what you write about in your blogs. I like your blogs, because you tell it like it is. Keep up the good work mate.
    Steve

    • That’s great, Steve. A lot of people wonder if it’s possible to travel abroad to teach in Korea later in life. I wish/hope many will see your story and be encouraged to take that leap.

  20. Courtney P says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve been following your site for awhile, and am looking into teaching with EPIK this fall. Whats the general attitude about tattoos? I have one of three flowers on my foot that can be hidden pretty easily. I’ve been looking but have been getting mixed info on some other blogs. Thanks for the help!

  21. April Park says:

    Hi, as an International undergraduate student in the States from Korea, I found your Youtube video and blog very interesting. I don’t know how I ended up being on your blog but I guess It is nice to see how North Americans think about Korean and the country itself during their stay in Korea.

  22. Michelle Slaney says:

    Hey Tom! I have been watching your Youtube videos for quite some time now, as I prepare to teach in South Korea. I have really enjoyed getting to know the area through your perspective. I stumbled on to your website by searching for homelessness volunteer opportunities in Korea– it delighted me to see that you too had the heart for that work. Are you still living in Busan? I would like to have the opportunity to meet and discuss teaching methods and the Korean-way of living.

  23. Dude, you’re like my hero. Very ballsy move to walk away from your job and do something different. I used to be a CPA (currently in grad school trying to change careers) so I can totally empathize with the meaningless grind of cubicle life. Thanks for the perspective on martial arts in Korea. I’m a BJJ guy but I just started doing judo and I love it. Appreciated the videos you posted on Sherdog. I know you’re in Busan but I wanted to ask if you happened to know of any good judo clubs for beginners near Yonsei University or SNU. I’m trying to get over to Seoul for a language immersion program this summer and would love to get some mat time in.

    • Hi, thanks so much. I’m so glad I’ve removed myself from that former professional life. I feel as though I’m reaching a point where there is no chance for turning back – meaning I’ve been out of it for so long it wouldn’t be possible to get back in. This is good because it helps me stay motivated into the direction of change so I can continue the path away from IT.

      In Seoul you can always just find a local school where you probably won’t get hurt. If you want to step it up a notch, you can always visit a high school or college team practice. Yong-In is the mecca and Korea’s Olympic training center. Sky’s the limit!

  24. Hey Tom!
    I really enjoy watching your videos. Each month when a new video gets posted I get so psyched! The thing that makes your videos stand out a lot to me is that they’re genuine and chalked full of information. It’s really cool to see someone engage in a discussion with an open mind. You’re like a wise sage! I also like how you bring in a different perspectives to Korea and the fact you’re older than most vloggers on Youtube. My favorite videos of yours are when you talk about serious issues or when you’re showing us stuff. It really keeps me cultured about other societies. I think it’s just awesome how you up rooted your life and started working on your dreams, very inspiring. Your life is so Legen-wait for it-dary! Even when I read that your mom was North Korean I thought that was cool. I don’t know why but I just thought it was haha. Maybe I’ll be able to study abroad in Korea one day. I still have years to come. You’ve opened my eyes to the possibilities. Thank you so much for uploading videos the way you do. I hope to see a lot more in the future. KEEP AT IT!

    Few Questions:
    *You said you were close to seeing that light at the end of the tunnel. How much longer do you think you will be in Korea?
    *Have you ever considered teaching in different parts of Korea or higher grade levels?
    *Do you keep in contact with friends back at home often?
    *What are your thoughts on the recent legalization of adultery in Korea?
    *Any thoughts on when you feel you’re going to settle down?

    P.S. I hear Korean fried chicken is a really good comfort food. Can you validate that?

    • Thanks so much Calvin. I really appreciate that. It was hard to make the decision to change, and then following through to this degree was equally as hard. It’s been absolutely worth it in the final analysis though.

      How much longer in Korea? That IS the $47 million question. If not this current year, one more year come Feb 2016 will be the max.
      The thing about teaching in Korea is essentially all jobs here are similar or the same. I would categorize them as ESL instructors. Even at university level. You wouldn’t be a professor, but rather a university level ESL instructor. Meaning, you won’t be eligible for tenure in Korea in nearly every circumstance. EPIK is shrinking and that leaves hagwons and the occasional International school.
      I do keep in touch with folks back home, but those friendships just go on the backburner. My friends now are traveling wilburys like me now. Things just change.
      Settling down – good question. If I do, it will likely be on the road as I hope to move about in the future. Anything is possible.
      Koreans love fried chicken. There’s some good places here for sure.

  25. Hey Tom. I came hear through Youtube after viewing a video about teaching in Korea. I was looking for some info from my time teaching in Korea to flesh out my LinkedIn profile. I from Iowa and taught in Suwon from 1995 to 1997. It was a great experience, the people were so welcoming and tactile, often holding hands and sitting in each other’s laps. People shared what they had and there were endless opportunities for trips and excursions. They wanted you to try everything and experience everything. 4 years now and I’m sure you’ve have many phenomenal experiences outside of those which you’ve discussed. Watching your videos and reading your posts really took me back. I like your perspective and especially enjoyed your recent post about missing the pain. I moved back to Japan from Korea, where I had taught before, and after two more years there and 7 years in Asia, found my way back home. I wanted to stay longer, maybe forever but it was time to go for me. I went in my late twenties and in my mid-thirties knew I needed to move on but I could see how someone could stay for life because in a way, even though you’re working, it’s like being on an extended vacation. Everyday I woke up there I relished it and knew it was special, fleeting, so enjoyed every second. Now I’m back in my hometown, married, 3 kids, life is good, but that intensity of being in a different culture, of never knowing what was around the next corner is gone. I can’t go back now, even if I want to. I drank in those time as much as I could knowing that at some point in the unforeseen future I would be “locked in” to life like I am now and the opportunity for serendipitous experiences was going to diminish precipitously, and that has come to pass. I look at what I’ve gained, three healthy children, an amazing wife, time back near my family, a 3,800 sqft home, a six figure job, and as I mentally stack that up next to my time there I can see that I’m healthier and ostensibly have more freedom yet in a sense I have less. The further I reintegrate and root myself back into American culture the more I just want to extricate myself and be back on the street in front of the Im-Gwan apartos on January 19th at 5:45am being sliced by a frigid wind in the dark, in negative zero temps knowing that if I don’t get a cab in the next five minutes that I probably won’t have time to stop for sizzling dol sot bi-bim bop in my favorite basement shik-dong. Then I’ll have to go hungry to face my bleary eyed students at 6:30am with just a terrible cup of coffee, still feeling those OB’s from the night prior with my Korean buddy “Johnny”. It’s funny to have so much, and want less. Live it up my friend.

    • Wow. Your perspective really sums it up. Even for me. I think you approached teaching abroad with the right attitude and left at the right time. Your outlook on your current life and life abroad is exactly what I hope it to be for me someday and what I think all foreign teachers should embrace as the goal of it all. Thanks so much for sharing.

  26. Hi Tom,

    My name is Alan and I must have watched most of your videos and I think you come across very genuine and honest about everything you say about various topics in your videos which made me to comment and hopefully you can write me back. I am a Korean-American teacher here in Korea who has been working with GEPIK and various private institutes for many many years and my question is will you ever comeback to Korea to teach again or even to do something different? I like teaching myself so that’s why I’m still doing it and more honestly, I don’t think I have other skills and experience to be useful. Last question is, are you back in the states? Like Florida?? Thanks and best wishes on everything you do and hope to hear from you. Take care~

    • Hi, Alan. Hey, first I’m sure you’ve got many skills. Maybe some of them can expand your teaching options as well. I’m in Hiroshima now actually. I’m teaching at a private elementary school. I’m very fortunate. Will I ever go back to Korea? I’m sure I will to visit but not to teach. I want to take teaching to other places. I’d like to experience what I experienced in Korea, but in other locations.

  27. Just wanted to say I moved to Korea a couple years back and your videos and blog helped me in many ways. You even helped guide me in a direction to finding out about my birth family. I enjoyed our odd chats in the comments of your videos and wish you all the best. I’ve enjoyed my time in busan and some of that was helped by you, by teaching me what to expect and some things not to do. Thanks again , Jaya.

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