Working in Seoul a lot of my friends are English teachers. Public schools, private academies, I know foreign language instructors in all reaches of the Korean education system. One thing that connects them all however is their knowledge of the infamous midnight run. This aptly named convention is when a teacher or instructor up and leaves their job – and often the country – without any notice whatsoever.
There is naturally a lot of controversy surrounding a midnight run, which I’ve previously explored here, but I wanted to give readers a first hand look at what goes through the mind of someone who’s done one of these runs before. Luckily enough – instructors who’ve done them aren’t too hard to find, and I’ve got a few friends. What follows is an interview with a previous foreign English instructor at a North Seoul hagwon about her midnight run. She’s asked me to redact her name before publishing, so we’ll refer to her as Carly.
So Carly, first, can you tell me about what your working situation was like in Korea?
Alright. I first moved to Korea to teach in the public school system. I really enjoyed my time there even though I didn’t get the chance to meet too many foreigners. I was working in a small town in the middle of Korea so when I finished my contract I knew I wanted a change. I took my vacation and returned to Korea as a private instructor at a big-chain Hagwon (Korean after-school academy). I was working there for about 5 months before I decided to do my midnight run.
What was the working situation like?
Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t the worst but it also wasn’t the best. The thing about Korea it seems it that there’s always another teacher who has it worse than you so you feel obliged to minimize your problems or look at them from a different perspective. Our school was requiring us to do a lot of extra work without getting paid for it. They expected us to come in on weekends, attend seminars, make phone calls, and a bunch of other stuff on our own time. We were salary based, not hourly, but none of this extra work was ever outlined in our contracts.
Another girl at my school and I found out that we weren’t having our pensions or health insurance paid into, which according to Korean labour laws and our contracts is mandatory. When we confronted the school about it, they kept putting it off. We were afraid to push back any more because we heard stories of instructors getting fired. Management was just plain bad. There was no communication between management and teachers, and when there was it was hostile, condescending and degrading. We weren’t allowed copies of our contracts, nor our pay slips.
When did you think something was the matter with your school?
Honestly I should have known day one, when the old instructors were leaving, and on the way out told us all the horrible things about the academy. I thought it would all be different but unfortunately I was wrong. It wasn’t until I started asking for things like health insurance that I knew things weren’t going to get better.
That definitely sounds frustrating. When did you make the decision to leave?
Well it’s a little complicated. I had enjoyed Korea before hand – there are lots of things to see, but I find it’s really easy to get complacent with your goals.
What do you mean by that?
Well I wasn’t born to be a teacher. I’ve got friends who were, and all the power to them, but I’ve got other goals I want to accomplish with my life. It’s easy though, being over here, because you don’t work too much, you make decent money, and the lifestyle can be a bit laid back – so it’s easy to almost get ‘stuck’ in Korea if that makes any sense. Sooner or later you end up in your thirties, trying to start a new career in another country, because you’re burnt out here.
So you wanted to leave before you got stuck?
Yeah, I would say that’s pretty accurate. The hagwon trouble was just the card that broke the camel’s back I guess. I looked into the regular ways of quitting – but according to my contract, I needed to give them more than 2 months notice. The notice wasn’t the problem for me though. I had other friends working with the company who tried to quit with notice, and they all seemed to have a horror story. Some were fired right on the spot for giving notice (without receiving their pay). Others were made to pay back ridiculous amounts of money in addition to not being paid their salary for two months. After hearing this, and knowing what our school had been doing, I decided the only way for me to get out of it was to do a midnight run.
So what were the first steps in planning it?
The first steps were probably planning on what I was going to do afterwards. I didn’t want to stay in Korea, and I don’t think you can anyways. When you terminate a contract with your school, it also terminates your visa. I decided I was going to go work back home for the family business for a little bit so I had a job lined up whenever I got back. I also wanted to do a bit of travelling while I was over here, so I also had to plan that out a little.
In order to make it profitable for me, I had to leave just after pay day. To prevent midnight runs (I think) our school paid us almost halfway into the next month for the previous month’s work so I would lose out on about 15 days of pay (which is not an insignificant amount of money). It was less money though than if the school were to try to seek revenge on me for quitting. The first thing I did was buy my flight to Thailand where I travelled for 3 weeks (beautiful country by the way). I bought it about a month in advance and then started planning everything around it.
What was the hardest part of it all?
Well besides getting everything organized it would definitely be saying goodbye to Korea. I had to transfer lots of money home, sell or throw away a lot of items, cancel gym memberships, pack and send things home in boxes, and everything else. That took a lot of time, but the hardest part for me was seeing friends, and crossing off things I wanted to do before I left.
Would you ever go back to Korea?
No, I don’t think so. I think spending a year and a half there was more than enough for me. The country does have some great aspects to it, but I think at a certain level it’s fundamentally incompatible with my lifestyle. I didn’t really like how I was always treated as a foreigner, and I didn’t like being involved in the hagwon system – it really felt terrible being a cog in the machine. I might visit one day far in the future, but I know for a fact I would never go back and work there again.
What was the actual midnight run like?
So nerve-wracking! The days before it felt almost like a dream, like it had snuck up on me so quickly and there was so much more I wanted to do. The day before was a regular work day. At the end of it I went home, packed, grabbed dinner and told one of my coworkers, and left for the airport in the morning.
How did your coworker take it?
He was super understanding about the entire thing. He didn’t really like it at our school either. My other coworkers were fine with it too (even though I didn’t tell them). They seemed more concerned about me than anything.
Why didn’t you tell them before hand?
I didn’t really trust them to be honest. It had nothing to do with how good of friends they were to me, it was more that reading all the midnight run stories had me scared of what could happen if one of them ever ratted me out.
So you get to the airport, and then what?
Checked in for a flight like normal. I had read a lot about how Korean immigration would detain you, or ask you questions about why you were leaving so early – but it was all rubbish. The immigration agent gave me my alien registration card back, so I had to tell her that I wasn’t coming back. She just smiled, said “okay, I keep” and then stamped the card and I was on my way. I texted my coworkers a “dear john” letter before I left, and then boarded my flight. I was pretty nervous throughout the day, but a few days later, with the sand between my toes, I knew I had made the right decision to leave.
Was there any fallout over leaving?
None whatsoever. I’ve heard stories of schools threatening legal action (which makes no sense, because Korean courts don’t have jurisdiction in other countries) or posting names all over the internet, but I simply never heard from my school again. Apparently they found a replacement within a day – and life just continued on as normal.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering a midnight run?
Think long and hard before you do it. It’s obviously a huge decision to make, and one that needs to be carefully thought out. If at the end though, you’re not happy, then leave. It’s not worth it to stay at a job you hate out of fear.
Alright, well I think that’s all I have for now. Thanks for your time!
Thank you! It feels good to be able to tell my story.
For anyone considering a midnight run – check on my blogs on things to consider before doing it.