ESL | Why Korea?

I’VE thrown teaching materials at you for some weeks now, and thought it was time to take a pause and talk about how and why I came to be in Korea in the first place. Perhaps you’re looking into Korea yourself, or perhaps you are simply interested in other peoples stories. Whatever the reason, I hope that this is of some interest to you and if I don’t cover anything, leave a comment and let me know.

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WHEN DID I GET HERE?

MY job started on August 1st 2014 (I can’t quite believe that as I write it) and I landed the day before in the early afternoon. I had returned to the U.K. briefly for a family wedding between jobs and the getting my visa through had been a nerve-wracking process. Until the visa came through and was in my hands, I couldn’t settle – I needed to know I was getting out. Now I love Britain, I am proud to be a Brit, I love my hometown and I miss my family, but I also trust my instincts and listen to what my gut is telling me. It was (and still is) telling me that Korea was the place I needed to be.

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WHY KOREA?

I nearly came to Korea in 2012. I graduated in 2011, and I had no idea what to do. To make sure I wasn’t sitting around whiling my time away, I decided to do a CELTA course. It was the most intense stint of learning I’ve ever done in my life, but it was worth every second and I’d do it all over again if I could! But I digress. One of my course instructors was married to a Korean, that was where the interest was sparked, but I was nervous. I’d never lived abroad and the internet didn’t seem to hold much pro-Korea information. So I headed for Hong Kong. This turned out to be a brilliant decision.

WHAT DID I KNOW ABOUT KOREA?

TO be quite honest, barely anything at all. I was so worried about coming here I over prepared. I was most concerned with making a cultural faux-pas. I went over and over and over the do’s and do not’s that in the end I just needed to get out here. All that research made the transition pretty easy.

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HOW DID I PREPARE?

I read so many blogs, and asked my recruiter a ton of questions. I wanted to know what I needed to bring. In Hong Kong, so much was imported and I wasn’t sure what the import situation was in Korea. I only wish I’d joined the expat facebook group for my town before I arrived (I recommend this for anyone looking at coming to Korea!)

HOW WAS CULTURE SHOCK?

I experienced minimal culture shock in Korea. I believe that everyone experiences a degree of culture shock (and reverse culture shock) wherever you go – one time I visited the UK and tried to hand over my bank card to the cashier with two hands; she looked at me like I was mad!

I put my minimal culture shock down to two things: expectation and Hong Kong.

I was ready to be somewhere totally different. I wanted to be in a country that was different to my own, I wanted to be in a different culture. Of course it hasn’t been plain sailing. Of course knowing something doesn’t mean that it’s going to come naturally to you. Even after 2.5 years I forget things (this is where I realise that my Britishisms are way stronger than I ever realised) but I have relished the differences and I enjoy them.

AS for Hong Kong, it was the perfect bridge into Asia. Hong Kong really is half & half city, where Britain and China collide and an independent and tenacious people are born (my love for Hong Kong is strong, if you couldn’t tell!) Coming here first was a bit of a safety net. I am the third generation of my family to spend time living in Hong Kong, it was a known entity. Korea was not. But I was so used to living in a country with a language and script that I couldn’t understand that, if anything, Korea has been easier. I can read Korean and I can speak a little of the language.

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HOW HAS THE JOB BEEN?

I am that person who loves their job. I love my colleagues, my students, the freedom of creation that my job entails (you read this blog, you’ve seen I’m a creator of things). I have learnt so much from all my co-teachers, I have adapted my teaching style and I’ve been determined not to let myself stagnate. I have been fortunate enough to be involved in programs with my Office of Education and I’m constantly developing. My job suits me down to the ground! There were teething difficulties, I was thrown into the deep-end, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

WHAT’S IT LIKE LIVING IN KOREA AS A FOREIGNER?

THIS is going to draw a different answer from every person you ask. There are pro’s and con’s. There’s the personal and there’s the general. In Korea, it appears that foreigners are generalised, the consensus apparently being, we’re not great. On a personal level, Koreans have been nothing but charming and polite towards me – at least those who I have had the pleasure to speak with or see on a regular basis.

A basic fact is, as a foreigner, you will be stared at. My attention is drawn when it is a blatant, accusatory stare from an older male (rare) or a small child, who then invariably tugs on their mothers sleeve; “Omma, Omma, Waygookin!” (hilarious). Stares of curiosity ceased to bother me long before I realised I’d stopped noticing them. I’m very pale, I have red hair and blue eyes. I’m going to be stared at! For a heavily mono-cultural and appearance driven country, that’s OK!

Then there’s people not wanting to sit next to you if you’re a foreigner (even if it’s the only seat) and men asking if you’re Russian (for Russian, read prostitute). There is a heavy bias against foreigners with regards to AIDS, with teachers having an AIDS test in their yearly medical. I believe this is now being expanded to Korean teachers as well, but don’t quote me on that!

I’M really having to dig for negatives. There are good days and bad days, but they are hardly Korea-specific. No country is perfect.

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AM I GOING TO STAY?

FOR the time being, as long as they’ll have me, I plan to stay. Korea is fascinating. It has such an old, ingrained culture, yet in it’s current political state, Korea is the same age as me. I’m living in a country whilst watching it grow and change. I’m witnessing the battles between the generations. The fight for tradition verses the fight for change. I recently started an extra-curricular interview program with High School students. They give me so much hope not only for the youth of Korea, but for the world in general. One said they wanted to marry a foreigner, another wants to be a diplomat. They have hopes and dreams that are bigger than Korea, they are the world, and boy do I want to help do everything I can to give them that. They youth of Korea are opening themselves up to the rest of the world with open arms and coming from a more “open” country, I hope that they never lose that wonder that knowledge of the wider world can bring.

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ARE you in Korea? Are you thinking of coming to teach or work here? Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below.

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