Max’s timeline in Korea and how he got to where he is now.
Max’s story; his experience studying, working, and living in Korea from college to now and what he has learned along the way.
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Special thanks to Max, the editors, writers, and DIOKOS team for making this interview possible. We grow together.
Speaking with Max Abrams was an absolute pleasure. His warm personality and kind heart was apparent as soon as we hopped on that Zoom call. Max’s journey in Korea started in 2017 when he came to scout out the country before returning in 2019 as an exchange student at Yonsei University.
After spending 6 months in Korea, Max returned to the States for college and graduated during the pandemic, returning to Korea after a teaching gig was offered to him on Jeju Island. Somewhere along the way, he started posting videos on TikTok, changing the course of his life.
Starting with storytime skits about his experience as a teacher in Korea, Max’s content has evolved to now center around his experiences in Korea and food reviews. Moving back and forth between New York City and Seoul, Max’s life has changed beyond his imagination.
During our time together, Max talks about what brought him to Korea, his favorite parts of Korean culture, and his experiences being a student, teacher, and now full time content creator in Korea.
Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your time in Korea?
Hi everyone, my name is Max – I am a full-time content creator also known as MaxnotBeer, also known as 맥주아니고 맥스. I am a sucker for dad jokes and I thought it was cute. The dad pun came from my first time visiting Korea in 2017, I had been studying Korean for about a year and a half at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. I came to Korea because I wanted to see if studying this language was something I wanted to devote myself to throughout the course of college. I loved my experience and so I went back to Korea in 2019 as an exchange student at Yonsei University. I spent about 6 months there, went back to college, graduated during the pandemic, then very luckily got an English teaching gig on Jeju Island. So, I packed my bags and moved to Jeju at the end of 2020. Now, I move back and forth between Korea and America as a full-time content creator. That’s the abridged version of my story.
How was your nursery school job?
I remember meeting with the recruiter, and she apologized to me and told me that the only teaching job she had for me was in Jeju Island. The world was in total chaos at that time due to COVID, and I wanted to have a new, almost healing experience in a place I’d never been before. I have worked with kids my entire life so it all came very naturally but teaching English on an island in Korea would be a completely new experience. They actually translated 유치원 (preschool) as an Elementary school during the application process, so I think we had a bit of a cultural miscommunication. I was under the impression I would be teaching 3-5th graders, but I showed up and my kids were four years old, and some of them were not potty trained. They were adorable and hilarious and did not speak any English. I had a class of eight raucous 4-5 year-old boys, and I had so much fun trying to teach them. They were like “who is this Ogre” and what is he trying to teach us? I think to this day, my experience in Jeju has been the most memorable experience I have had in Korea to date.
What are some of your experiences being a teacher and a student in a foreign country?
The best part about being a student, as I’m sure any student can understand, is that, while of course, being a student comes with a degree of pre-professionalism, you get to just enjoy life. It’s one of the only times that you’ll have where you get to learn unencumbered by the stresses of adulthood. You get to just be and exist, and decide what you want to experience. Studying in Korea was similar. Historically, exchange classes are not too difficult, so I got to be fully immersed in the language, which was what I enjoyed during my time in college. I remember not having too many inhibitions or long-term goals. I was very present and I enjoyed each moment I spent with the college community in and around Yonsei in Sincheon.
I remember my experience as a teacher to be very different. COVID certainly exacerbated that, coming off the heels of graduation certainly exacerbated that, but there was always an element of, “Is this what I am going to do for the rest of my life?” or “Is this my passion?” I was certainly less present, but, it’s hard to be too unhappy when you’re surrounded by four-year-olds. It was almost refreshing to them being so unencumbered again by the woes of COVID.
I mean, they were four, and they were told to wear masks of course, but it was so heartwarming to see them playing together and hugging each other and befriending one another in a way that only kids can during a global pandemic. It really calmed me down when I was feeling sad and futile about the state of our world. They were just so happy, and it was impossible not to be happy when I was around them.
Did you ever run into your kids outside of school?
Jeju is very touristy, there are certainly quite a few hotspots where most foreigners go. Interestingly enough though, my school, as well as most English schools in Jeju is in a very remote place. There are a few international schools, then a few residential areas with nursery schools. I tried my very best to avoid running into parents outside of school. If you have ever been a teacher of young kids, you know that parents will eat up your time as they love talking about their kids and their experiences and asking questions. But, there was one time when my teachers and I were doing 회식 so we went out for 치맥 (Chicken and beer). We were all walking home in a drunken stupor when we ran into one of the parents with her daughter on a scooter. We were all confused and nervous, but luckily, one of our Korean colleagues went to her and spoke formally so we could hang out in the background and feign ignorance.
I know that you are a huge fan of K-Drama and KPOP yourself, do you have any favorites?
I spent my whole life performing, so when I discovered KPOP as an industry and when I really started to understand how that industry worked, it was hard for me not to fall in love. The music is so rooted in performance. The days of American pop artists performing live on MTV with choreography and background vocals are long gone, and they never went away in Korea. So, as someone who loves choreography and vibrant images and colors and chaotic music videos, watching GG’s I Got A Boy, I mean what more could you want? It’s just so dynamic and amazing, and if you love that kind of controlled chaos then you will certainly love the industry as a whole. So that was certainly one of my gateways into Korean culture. Girl’s Generation was near the tail-end of their mainstream hype. Just last week, my friend from Korea came to visit me in New York. We went on all these road trips and we would listen to I Got A Boy as loud as my car speakers could physically handle.
Very few things strike me in the way that this song resonated with me. It is so hard to explain, but if you’re into this kind of music, you know exactly what it feels like. The way the song changes seven times in four-and-a-half minutes is just extremely dynamic. Now, in this era of two-minute songs with two verses and a hook, I Got A Boy is just different; it’s more of an experience than a song and I love every bit of it. TWICE also debuted right as I started learning Korean, so I feel like I sort of grew up with them in this new era of Korean learning; I would watch their variety of programs as a way of studying. They’re kind of my real ones. And MONSTA X as well. I do not listen to a lot of guy groups, but I went to a concert of theirs and I am a die-hard.
How did you build relationships as both a student and a teacher in South Korea?
I should preface this by saying I am the sort of person who can get into a conversation with anyone. When it comes to meeting strangers or doing small talk, I am, for better or for worse, a person who loves it. I was the only person from my American University doing the studying abroad program in Yonsei, so, surprisingly I found it to be quite easy making friends as a student in Korea. The first reason is that there are so many on-campus programs that want foreign students to join. There are also so many English exchange programs that are designed solely for you to practice Korean and for Korean students to practice English. I also joined a dance team while at Yonsei and really enjoyed making friends there. Dance was fun because even though we didn’t get to talk much because we spent our time dancing, we were still getting very very close to each other. I really treasure that opportunity. The best part about making friends as a student is, people have to remember, if you are going to Korea to study abroad, more often than not, everyone else is going through a similar desire and experience. Either they really love the food, or they are a consumer of Korean cultural products: Kpop, Kdramas, etc.
I think there’s a stigma against people admitting they went to Korea because of Kdramas or KPOP. I don’t get that stigma entirely. I think that everyone has their favorite TV shows and their favorite cultural products, and if you can get closer to or connect with that culture, it is a very valid reason to want to study abroad. I think the issue comes when people want the entire nation to look like their cultural products. I think you can strike up a conversation with someone pretty quickly and ask, “Oh, how did you end up in Korea?” “What’s your story?” “What about this place brought you to Korea?” I encourage people, especially if they’re introverted to strike up a conversation and reach out through your organization. You can only really study abroad once and chances are you could do the whole experience and go home without anyone really knowing who you are. So make a fool out of yourself, and you’ll probably make some great friends in the process.
Being a teacher was really different. I mean, we were all on a remote island together, and we were kind of in the trenches together as well. It was one of those cases of we’re gonna love each other or we’re gonna hate each other, so let’s just decide to love each other. Thankfully, my co-teachers were exceptional and I loved each of them authentically. We had a great time while we were there, and I felt very supported.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time studying abroad, teaching English, and creating content here?
Yeah, I have so many takeaways from my experience in Korea, but the one I always fall back on is that there are no absolutes in life. I went into study abroad and my career decisions thinking that I knew exactly what I wanted out of them. I tried to live a lot of my life with intention and planning. But, basically, every single time I made those decisions, life would end up rebounding like, “Actually, we’re going to hit you with all the stuff that you didn’t expect and it’s going to teach you so much about yourself in the process.” After graduating from COVID, I remember I wanted to be part of 7 different career paths in college, and I wanted to join this business club and be part of this Yonsei dance team and go to Korea on this government scholarship and pursue my Masters, I got rejected from that but got this teaching job instead on this island that changed my life and helped me go viral. I just think that there is no replacement for working hard, so if you’re a person who works hard at the things they care about, everything else will fall into place. Life is too short and expansive to squeeze into a box you think you need to make for yourself. Ultimately, things are going to happen, global pandemics are going to happen, and things are not going to go the way that you want. It’s how you bounce back from those experiences that will prove what success is going to look for you. That has been true for me during all of the times I have been in Korea and I have found a lot of solace in it. I think I live a much healthier, more sustainable life now that I try not to overthink things and, instead, keep my head down, work hard and let the universe work itself out, which sounds like such a trite thing to say, but it’s what I believe.
The other thing I want to add to this is, by nature of studying, working, or living abroad, you can’t possibly try to author what life is going to look like. I was the type of person who would do such intense studying about what opportunities would look like there,
or how I would optimize my time. I think it defeats the purpose of the experience to put that much stress on yourself. Ultimately, you’re opting for an experience that comes with unknowns.That is probably the reason why you are going to it.
You’re excited by the unknowns. You want to engage with the unknowns. So there is an irony to trying to overplan an experience that is meant to be beautifully spontaneous. It took me a while to realize that things will be okay. Let me just go, make friends with the people I vibe with, and steer clear of the people who I don’t. My friends feel the same way. Over time, you will find a circle that works for you. And you will never know that circle existed before you went, that’s why you just gotta go and do it. Be excited to go and live authentically while you’re there. The rest will fall into place.
Are you still excited by the unknowns?
I don’t know. TikTok changed my life. It wasn’t even remotely on my radar, then I graduated during a global pandemic and thought it’d be funny to make silly little videos inside my house. It changed the entire trajectory of my life, and I am not so naive as to think that there won’t be more things like that. There are going to be new apps, new businesses, new social phenomena. I really do believe that when something works, I should dedicate myself to it. TikTok works for me right now so I am going to put my head down and work hard and build this portfolio for myself that I can be proud of. I am sure somewhere down the line something will resonate with me, or someone will see this portfolio that really accurately reflects who I am as a professional and as a creator and it is going to usher in some new experiences. I can’t possibly anticipate those. The only thing I can do right now is my best and hope that people, or the world, or someone sees that in a meaningful way.
Tell me a little bit more about TikTok, how has your life with it changed?
It’s important to preface the TikTok conversation by saying, I am the type of person who has loved attention their entire life. Ever since I was a young kid, I would have these stories that I would tell. I had this one group of friends that I have grown up with my entire life – and they all can recite certain stories I have told throughout my life. They can recite them word for word, just because, as a kid, all I wanted was to have an audience and to tell stories and engage. All to say, there is an energy there that funneled so well into TikTok. I mean, the first thing I went viral for really was a story about my experiences at the Korean nursery. The first ever trending series I had was: “Today at the Korean Nursey I work at, this happened…” and I would do little skits acting out what the kids would do and how I would react. I just think how serendipitous and sweet it is that this thing that has been true for me my entire life, became the thing that fueled my virality. I just really appreciate it. TikTok is not perfect, but it really equalized what it means to perform, entertain, and create. It allowed everyone to entertain the world and tell the world something. I am going to keep at it.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in Korea? And is there anything you’re craving now that you’re back from New York?
Oh gosh, okay. I have so many restaurants in Korea that I am obsessed with, most recently I was living in Pangbae (팡배), in Seocheo-gu (서초구), and it has some of the best tasty restaurants 맛집 I have ever eaten. There is one place called Pangbae Tsundaeguk (팡배 순대국), it’s a dish that you either love or you hate but I think you should love and it is essentially blood and intestine soup. I love that place and I miss it dearly. There is also this place in Sincheon (신촌) that I used to go to all the time when I was a student called Seo-chin-i-so (소신이쏘), and they have cream kalbi. It’s one of the only places I take every friend who comes to visit me in Korea. It’s kalbi and it has glass noodles in it and cheese and tteok and this creamy, savory, rose-esque sauce. It is luxurious, and after you eat most of it, they put fried rice on top of it and they mix it with the remaining sauce, and they flatten it. Oh my god, it’s so good.
Do you have any plans or goals for the future?
I will tell you this, I have steered clear of YouTube over the past three years because it, as a medium, just really overwhelmed me: the idea of making long-form content. I think I only wanted to do YouTube when I felt like I knew exactly what I wanted out of my life – which, in hindsight, if I had listened to my own advice, probably wasn’t the best move. Now, I could see this new era of Max being more pronounced on YouTube and I would love to, out of everything the past three years, make this content coalesce with the food content and the storytelling content I’ve been creating. For example, on my dating profiles, I always put that my job is that I am an aspiring Guy Fieri. I really love the show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I love how he travels across the country finds these little divey places and meets the owners and learns about their recipes and their history. I would love to sort of combine that with the essence of the Chicken Shop Date, where the host meets with random people and gets to know them, and has these more awkward conversations. I would hope that mine would be more wholesome and a little less awkward but still capture the essence of that sort of divey, atmospheric, food content.