The turn over of a new month means saying good-bye to the new friends you’ve made. Working as a teacher in Korea is like a revolving door. People come and go and when it’s your time to go, you tend to reflect on your life for the past year. Life in Korea is different for everyone, and if you are thinking about coming to Korea, then it’s good to hear from many different people’s experiences.
This is a Guest Post by a friend who recently left Korea after his 1 year was up. *Names have been changed.
1 year in Korea, was it enough? I’m not sure. When I first got to Korea I didn’t know what to expect and by the third week I was ready to go home. Culture shock, anxiety, depression, and loneliness hit me like a massive storm. This probably isn’t the best way to start telling the story about my time in Korea is it? But that’s what happened to me. There is hope though so please read on!
Hi, my name is Josh and I’m from Orange County, California, USA, North America, Earth, etc. etc. I am the first born son of an immigrant Korean family. Only a few days ago I was in Korea as a Guest English Teacher for the Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education and today I’m a business consultant and entrepreneur getting ready to launch a small business. Why Korea? Why teach English? Being Korean and really only experiencing my culture through Korean television shows that my family would watch and through traditions my family would have, I really didn’t have a true experiential understanding of my family’s culture and heritage. No wife, no kids, no job? Great! Let’s go! Teaching English made sense that if I wanted to experience and understand Korea, there was no point in just using up saved money to go through it. Why not get paid to do it? My friend Derek was hanging out at my apartment and I threw the question, “Hey dude, how would you feel about going overseas, to like Korea, for a year and teach English?” Without hesitation Derek responded, “I’m down.” And the rest is history.
We got our TESOL/TEFL certifications and the school we went through offered job placement; however, in reality it was more of a “We’ll hook you up with a recruiter(s)” kind of service. Derek and I both ended up applying to the same area. Went through the process of getting ALL of the paperwork done and ready to mail. That was a pain and a half to do. We got our interviews and eventually “Congrats Josh! You’ve been accepted!” Then the craziness began of packing, ticket purchasing, and more packing. We were total newbs at the packing game.
1 Year Reflection Point #1: Korea is NOT a third-world country, for the most part you will be able to find whatever you need. Pack with your MUST-HAVEs and only a few more things that you feel like you really need. Like, deodorant.
Derek and I got to Incheon International Airport and then took the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) down to Changwon where we needed to report.
1 Year Reflection Point #2: Save you money, take the express bus. $50+ for KTX tickets vs. $20-$23 for the express bus. Trust me, the express bus has REALLY nice seats and is very comfortable.
We waited for our placements/locations and then it felt like we were being deployed. My best friend, Derek, and I didn’t have an opportunity to really say good-bye and the next thing I knew, I was in the car of my co-teacher headed to a little town called, Changseon.
My placement was in Changseon, a small town in the island of Namhae. My assignments were Changseon Elementary School, Changseon Middle School, and Gyeongnam Hye Yang Science High School. What the hell just happened? My first time teaching and they throw me at three schools. Lord, have mercy. Changseon is so small that there is really only 2 “modern” apartment buildings. The school thought it wasn’t going to be a good place for me to live so they put me about 40 minutes out, by bus, in another town called Samcheonpo. I was provided a studio apartment known in Korea as a “one room.” We went furniture shopping and more administrative stuff. So ended my first day in Korea.
1 Year Reflection Point #3: For those who have trouble with adapting to new environments, immediately begin creating routines. Even if it’s just writing down everything you need/want to do the next morning. Knowing you have something set in place will help you keep the stress down a bit.
So here we are, or at least I hope you’re still reading, the start of a new day and first teaching day. Time to take everything I learned in my 100 hour teaching course and put it into action. I wake up, get all done up, and walk to the bus stop. Well, it was hot that morning so sweating was problem number one. Then, because I didn’t know how to read the bus schedule, what I thought was a departure time of 6:40am was actually 7:50am. So sweating and way too early. Great! Keep smiling. I eventually make it to my school and I’m early. So I have no clue where I am supposed to go and there is no one at the school to help me. Great! Keep smiling. Finally I get settled in and I start teaching. Kids staring at me because I look Korean. Fourth period ends and now it’s time for lunch. I hate cucumbers/pickles. What’s for lunch? Rice – OK, kimchi – OK, cucumber soup – FML, cucumber kimchi – FML, and cucumber mixed with noodles – F.M.L.S.M.H. Cheers! Great! Keep smiling. WAIT no smiles, I’m a teacher – EXTRA PORTIONS. (Note: Some schools serve your lunch tray and typically give you more food if you are a teacher, especially male teachers.) The day came to a close and I got on the bus home. I, like a good newbie English teacher, stayed up a few extra hours prepping for the next day.
1 Year Reflection Point #4: If you don’t want to eat it, it’s ok. Just eat it. Because at my school on Wednesdays, you’re not allowed to throw ANY food away.
Ok, let’s go back to the beginning. Remember how I said I was ready to go home at week three? Let’s talk about that. My first three weeks were really just trying to get acclimated to everything, get routines down, know my town, know where to go, etc. and I’m not the best person that deals with change. So one Saturday evening I started to panic. Culture shock hit me really hard. Now, the only real way for the describe how I felt was that everything was familiar, yet unfamiliar. I grew up hearing Korean and reading too; however, because I wasn’t 100% fluent in it, it all still felt VERY foreign. I have a few friends from back home who were instrumental in keeping me strong and of course those in Korea as well. (Thanks Andrea!) And so then days went by.
1 Year Reflection Point #5: It gets better as long as you want it to and make it better. But just remember not to flush your toilet paper, that’s why where is a trash bin next to it.
Many of my friends think I didn’t do much because I never went out much. But when I look at back I can truly say I accomplished quite a bit. I ended up taking violin lessons and on my second lesson my violin teacher, Hye-Lim, said to me, “By the way, next month we are having a recital. You’re in it.” Uhh what? Recital? Violin? Next month? Yeah, so there was a very intense month of non-stop violin lessons and practice. My piece? Moon River. “Josh, you will have an accompanist.” What she failed to mention was that my accompanist is one of Samcheonpo’s more renown classical guitar players. Pressure? A little. So I did it. The recital was, in my opinion, a total disaster. Friends said, “Josh! You were AWESOME!” Yeah, but I missed 3 notes in the piece and the violin projected my nervousness. Oh well, done and done but in hindsight proud of myself for going through with it.
I’m a martial artist, been one for over 16 years. Was looking for a Judo school ended up at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school. One training after another and then my instructor asks…err…tells me, “We have a competition coming up next month, you’re going with us right?” “Uh… Uhh… Yes sir.” Damnit! Not again! Another month of training. And made it out to one of Korea’s biggest BJJ competitions. Came home with a silver! Cheers! Beers on me!
1 Year Reflection Point #6: Don’t be afraid to try something, you only fail if you don’t try. I think I read that in a self-help book.
The city of Sacheon asked me to work alongside Derek at the Wa-Rong Festival. This is a festival celebrating a dragon? To be honest, I’m still not sure what it was about. My job? Take photos of foreigners while Derek made balloon creations for people. That was…an interesting experience. From there they wanted me to post up my photos on my blog. It was agreed that they would pay Derek and I and that debacle turned into a 3 month issue. But we eventually got paid and learned a huge lesson. Just say no.
Beyond all the daily teaching and the administrative stuff, hanging out with my students was my favorite part. Students really opened up to me when they realized I spoke Korean, shhh don’t tell the schools I spoke Korean with my students. A lot of students said that I was the first “adult” that they were openly able to express what they truly wanted to do in the future. One student wanted to become a race car driver but he said he couldn’t tell anyone because he was afraid they would ridicule him. The number one job most of my students wanted? Pro gamer.
I really don’t know how I wanted to transition from the “pro gamer” thing. Anyways, When I look back at my year in Korea I accomplished several things. I spent time with myself. Spending time with myself allowed me to really explore my feeling, thoughts, and situations. Giving me time to not run away from issues but to address them methodically. Prior to going to Korea I went to counseling for a while due to anxiety and I always felt that, for as much as I had grown and learned from it, there was something incomplete about many of the things I still needed to understand and process. Korea gave me a lot of time for that, which in turn made me an introvert for the majority of the year. But, that’s ok.
1 Year Reflection Point #7: It’s ok to be alone, just maybe not in the dark corner of the bathroom with all the lights turned off.
Being in Korea also opened my eyes to my heritage. Celebrating traditional holidays like Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving. Spending time with some of my relatives informed me so much about my parents’ past and really brought some meaning and understanding to why my parents are they way they are. And it brought a real sense of pride to who I am as a Korean. Though at times it conflicted with my sense of being an American as well. Though it’s not fully “there” yet, I’m learning to balance and understand who I am as a Korean American.
1 Year Reflection Point #8: In America, I’m considered Korean. In Korea, I’m considered American. What does that mean? I have no place in the world.
For the first time in a very long time, I can look back and truly say that it’s been a good year. And that is a powerful thing for me. The years past have been full of let downs, broken promises, disappointments, break-ups, and all the other stuff that life throws at you. None of which were really appreciated for in terms of how it shaped me as a person. Having time to experience another culture puts your views and understandings into perspective from a global standpoint. Living abroad helps you see what goes on back home from another point-of-view. It’s been fun, it’s been challenging, it’s been hard at times, and it’s been easy at times. It’s been a good year.
1 Year Reflection Point #9: Make your bed every morning. When the rest of the world, or at least just your day, feels like chaos, at least your bed is in order. Unless your pillow is slightly off centered, then all hell has broken loose.
Would I do it again? Yes. Was one year enough? For me, yes. The friends you make, the people you meet, the foods you eat, the things you see, and the places you find make every moment worth the growing pains, the homesickness, the stress, and the struggles worth it. If you allow yourself to experience, to learn, and to grow, even a year living abroad will make you a different person.
1 Year Reflection Point #10: I don’t have any regrets about the things I did and even the things I didn’t do. Except that one time…