Teaching abroad as an unmarried couple

Moving abroad by yourself and leaving your roots behind to try something new can be great. I did it when I was 21. But that’s not what we’re doing in Korea. We are building a life and we want living and teaching in different countries to be a part of that. In order to build a life, in the way we want anyway, you need to have some control. When I was moving by myself, and I had no teacher training or experience, I didn’t have any control.  My choices and my options were limited. This time around things looked a little more hopeful.

Getting here

Our first full day in Korea

I’m going to jump back a year, to when Ryan and I were first moving here. From the start we had agreed that we would probably turn a job down if it meant living apart. We were happy when our recruiter told us we would be living together. It seemed set in stone, she could tell us the distance of the apartment from both of our schools. The schools knew we were not married. We signed a JLP contract.  We headed to Korea. We went through orientation. We queued up on the last day, ready to go on stage in our suits, introduce ourselves in Korean, meet our co-teachers for the first time, and head to Boseong. It was while we were nervously waiting in this queue that she came up to us and told us that we couldn’t actually live together, but it’s all fine and the apartments are close together and we could probably just live in one of them. I asked how close. She didn’t know. I hid in the stairwell and cried.

By the end of the day, we were taken to our apartments. They were meant to be furnished and yet both were completely bare. No beds or futons. We decided to get a cheap motel and sort it out the next day, when luckily someone would offer to lend us an inflatable mattress until they got furnished. That night, in a shitty motel, we felt like the rug had been pulled from under us. I think we probably talked about whether or not we had made a mistake in coming here. I also think that there was an apartment that we were meant to get, that would have been furnished in time and was the correct distances from our schools that our recruiter told us about. I think someone along the line changed their mind.

I don’t want to get into my opinions on whether this is “ok” or not. I just want to tell you that this is how it went.

We signed up for a second year, so you can probably guess if what our recruiter said about the apartments turned out to be true.

To these big organizations that deal with a gajillion teachers, you’re either single or you’re married. Whether or not that’s reasonable is its own debate, but it’s not likely to change any time soon. This means that being an unmarried couple in the world of teaching abroad leaves you with very little control.

But here we are! We’re doing it! It’s not impossible!

Going through a recruiter (Quality Teaching) really helped. Although the separate housing spanner was thrown in the works last minute, being able to get advice made things so much easier. She put our application forward to towns rather that prefectures because it gave us a better chance of getting schools close together, and she answered our questions about EPIK and JLP.

Being here

I was quite worried about preparing for the different attitudes towards relationships, but apart from some specific incidents, it hasn’t been a big deal. We are a white male/female couple which means we don’t have to face the issues or prejudices that a lot of other couples unfortunately do. But here are a couple of things you can prepare yourself for if you’re in a similar position.

Prepare for people to view your relationship in ways that you’re not used to, but don’t expect a uniform response. We had a middle aged Korean woman tell us that Korean couples never touch in public. That is not true. What she meant was that she, a conservative, middle aged, Korean woman thinks that it is inappropriate for couples to touch in public. The countless Korean couples we see walking around, touching, holding hands, kissing, cuddling aren’t being any less “Korean” than she is. They don’t really care if some of the older generation judges them. You should be aware of the wider social expectations of the country you’re in, but that doesn’t mean you have to bend to every single person’s individual moral judgements.

Another partially generational difference is the idea that you are just “dating” until you’re married. Ryan has encountered this lot more, where people assume everything we do together is a “date” and adults come over all giggly about the fact that he has a girlfriend. There are upsides and downsides to that, but it’s definitely a big change for us. On the other hand, plenty of other Korean people see being in a serious relationship but not married as a completely normal and obvious thing. It’s not wise to trust big sweeping statements about how a country views something, even if it comes from a native person of that country.

If it’s something that makes you awkward, pre-prepare an answer to this exchange. “Are you married?” “No” “WHY?”

The students will probably be very interested in your relationship, which I love! They see us around town and tell us how beautiful and handsome and cute we are. Sometimes they’ll tell me at school about how they saw me getting pizza with Ryan. It’s just a good excuse for them to talk to me about something they’re interested in and something I’m happy to talk about.

A classic activity for couples in Korea is photo booths., where you can take charming and adorable pictures like these.

The system may not be built to accommodate unmarried couples, but once we got past our rocky start, it was completely worth it. If you’re thinking of teaching abroad as a couple, feel free to comment with more specific questions!


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