My Time in the Land Of Kimchi

My Experience living and teaching in South Korea

Before I dive in, let me preface this by saying, this is my own individual experience teaching in the land of Kimchi. Everyone has their own experiences and impressions when they live and work abroad, these are mine.

Landing: It’s Not Japan

My first week in Korea was a startling realization that I had not in fact come to live in a country that was twin to Japan. I lived in Japan as a child with my mother and even went to a public elementary school in Chiba. I had applied to a job in Japan but didn’t get it, Korea was always plan B. After missing out on the job in Tokyo, I was desperate to get any job after that and luckily, Korea said yes.

Because of my lackluster aspiration to work in Korea, I was incredibly lazy when it came to researching anything about the nation. And I certainly had no idea of the turbulent history and resentment that some Koreans held toward Japan until arrival.

Moreover, I certainly had a dream like vision of what South Korea would be like. I didn’t know they had snowy winters until, well, it got really cold and people said it would snow.  I thought I’d be met with a smorgasbord of Asian cuisine options, chiefly sushi because I thought since they’re neighbors to Japan…whoops.  I thought I’d pick up the language as I had picked up a few Asian tongues in my time living in Asia during high school. I imagined, even after finding out Korea snowed, that it would be nothing in comparison to the miserable Toronto winters I endured during university. And most of all, I envisioned myself teaching a class of eager high school students who would fall in love with me and the English language – like one of those films about amazingly inspiring educators, think Freedom Writers, Dead Poet’s Society, Lean On Me…

Now, I completely own up to the awful ignorance I arrived with, as none of my dreams of Korea even came close to the reality of my time here. My bad.

The Weather – A Country Of Extremes

I’ve lived in countries with four seasons, as I was born and raised (mostly) in New Zealand and I studied my English BA in Toronto, Canada. I know snow; I hate the icy mush – unless it’s on a postcard. However, Torontonian winters in comparison to Korea’s were actually easier to get through.  This is chiefly because many schools in Korea don’t believe in heating the classroom at all times, sometimes, at all. Travelling in the snowy cold and taking the public transport can be gruesome enough if you’re not a fan of the chilly season. But to work your 9-5 also in the freezing air, is a miserable inducing factor.

Culture Shock – Not Just Getting Used To KimChi

This was possibly the first instance of culture shock I really, didn’t take well. I could understand the energy saving during the humid summer months, as the air conditioning was turned on seldom but we had windows and fans. By the way, it gets HOT in Korea – think humid, tropical heat. However, I could not understand why we chose to freeze during winter. The students showing up to class in full winter attire, with blankets and hot pockets, sometimes even gloves… I never could wrap my head around it. It’s hard enough getting them to focus in class on a regular temperate day, now they’re shivering and trying to focus. Thankfully, my first co-worker seemed to be the main reason for suffering as a staff shakeup meant she was transferred to a new school and behold! We had heat for more than 30 minutes a day! – Like a whole hour or two instead!

Pro-tip: Invest in heated slippers and a mouse pad that’s powered by USB. No, you can’t plug anything into the wall; the school won’t allow you to consume the energy.

Settling: It’s Not Easy Being Foreign, It’s Not Easy Being Multi-Cultural

Like anyone who moves to a country they know very little about, I went through more than a few stages of culture shock. However, not the typical living with a language barrier shock or trying non-western food shock, eating on the floor, wearing separate shoes indoors and outdoors, etc. I had already lived in Asia for a big chunk of my life by the time I came to Korea. As a child I lived 2 years in Singapore, a year in Japan and 4 years in Brunei. I was also raised by an English teacher who taught ESL, so living with a language barrier wasn’t new or something I greatly feared. I was used to being the new girl in a new culture and language. I had friends from around the globe and I’m married to a second language English speaker – I had no qualms making an extra effort to communicate with people. I was there to teach English, after all.

So the culture shock I went through was quite different to my fellow foreign teachers who had for the most part, never lived abroad and some hadn’t ever lived without their family either. I experienced my personal culture shock moments slowly and randomly during my time settling in to Korea.

The Most Culture Shocking Frustration about South Korea, According to Me:

The Xenophobia. There are countless articles, even essays and PowerPoint presentations about South Korea’s problematic xenophobia online. I know this because my husband did his research project on South Korea’s xenophobia for one of his university classes that studied societies and cultures.

“Xenophobia; noun

intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.”

As someone who is biracial and in an interracial marriage with an Afro-European man, perhaps I’ve experienced more xenophobia than some or I’m definitely more sensitive to it. I’ve also been fortunate to live in countries of vast multiculturalism and as a daughter to immigrants I love and appreciate the variety of cultures we have in the world. However, I must with great emphasis express that my husband and I have never faced a hateful racist moment in Korea. For the most part, South Koreans are more curious about foreigners and may say some innocently ignorant things but, in our experience actual hateful or bigoted attitudes have not been displayed directly to us. That’s the good news. South Korea though, still has a lot of development as many countries do, when it comes to accepting, tolerating and embracing other people and cultures.

With the devastating outbreak of Ebola in 2014, South Korea panicked and racist blunders were everywhere. There was even a bar in Itaewon, Seoul that had to make a public apology for a sign they put up that read “We apologize, but due to the Ebola virus we are not accepting any Africans at the moment.” The foreigner community was outraged, and rightly so. It was indeed ironic that soon followed the MERs outbreak in Korea and it was handled quite terribly. Many of us foreigners cheekily pointed out how ‘Africans’ weren’t banning any Korean’s from their bars and restaurants in Seoul.

A Bittersweet Teaching Moment

Moreover, the stigma that xenophobia brings has sadly trickled down even to the youngest of the population. A lesson I’ll never forget was a recent one, were I created a Power Point that featured my family and friends from around the world and also taught students about the different foods from their homelands. I decided to do it with more than one grade level because we were all on a lesson that involved food. The first lesson with my grade 3 was an absolute success and very touching as it was an incredible bonding moment for the students and I.

In my PowerPoint I had a chance to explain my ethnicity as it’s often been confusing to my students that I have dual citizenship and my mother and father both look very different, my father is white with British and Dutch ancestry and my mother, Samoan. Using the PowerPoint I showed them a Canadian food and introduced my father, the chef as well as informing my students he’s from Canada. The next slide, I introduce Samoa, a country they’d never heard of and a Samoan food (Pankeke) along with a photo of my caramel skin-toned momma. Lights went off around the classroom as I explained in very basic English that I was made up of two countries, two backgrounds (didn’t get into the specifics of my father’s ethnicity, that’s too advanced) and the little grade 3 girls got really excited. I soon found out that MiYeong was Cambodian and Korean, Ayeong was Filipino and Korean and Inhee, Chinese and Korean. The class was one of my most memorable experiences as an educator as they celebrated their biracialism through my lesson.

Tearing Up In Class

I’ve never teared up in a class before but that day I did. I repeated the same lesson to my grade 4 students. Grade 4, a little older perhaps a little more exposed to the xenophobic attitude of Korea…the PowerPoint started, I introduced my father and then mother and soon I felt uncomfortable. The last class, a great experience for the students and I; bonding over multiculturalism. This class, sniggers around the room when my mother’s picture appeared on the slide. I moved on, thinking it was an inside joke I’d missed out on. Next, a slide of my Nigerian friend and Jollof Rice, the snorts and whispers got louder. Soon after, a slide with my African American friend and corn bread, full-blown laughter I do not understand. Pointing, giggling, and asking about her hair. Last, a slide of my husband and Feijoada (a stew) from his African nation – Sao Tome and Principle. More laughing as his photo comes on screen, pointing and gesturing a large nose and lips. I stopped the presentation. It’s difficult enough to communicate to some adults why such behavior is unacceptable and that’s even in English – but to have to communicate this in extremely basic English, with the help of an online translator is even more problematic. The kids soon wore guilty faces as I explained that they were being mean and rude. And I repeatedly asked in broken Korean – why are you laughing at my friends and family? What is funny? No answers. I moved on to another activity but had to excuse myself for a quick bathroom break so I didn’t tear up in front of the students.

Settled; I’m Still Thankful For The Experience

You may certainly read my last experience as a hugely negative portrayal of South Korea. And yes, it was an upsetting experience for me but I grew from it and so did my students. A few students after class came to apologize, realizing I was upset.

On the other hand, that has been one of the very few troublesome experiences I have had in the classroom. The majority of my time teaching in Korea has been, really, amazing.

Enjoying the Job; Be Ready To Teach Alone

Once I found my groove at work I started to really enjoy it. As time went by I was paired with more and more open minded co-teachers. In South Korea you are supposed to “co-teach” with a Korean teacher. In government contracts we are employed as “Native Guest English teachers”, the key word here is guest. We aren’t supposed to run the entire class but moreover share it , and be the ‘feature item’ so to speak, who speaks with a native English accent (preferably North American) and we’re sort of like an interactive doll for students to fully experience a person of the English speaking world. Conversely, some schools don’t do the co-teaching thing at all. They leave us all alone and trust us to teach the textbook and survive the language barrier. I prefer it!

If You Want To Be A “Real” Teacher One Day, Do It

After university I had the usual, colossal sized student debt (still do, but less) and I needed to work before rushing back to school. Unlike a lot of the foreign teachers I’ve met in Korea, I want to be an educator. My plan since high school has always been – become a high school English teacher, like my mother. And after graduating with an English Specialist degree from university the logical step was to attend teacher training college to receive a proper teaching license. But, making some money came first. Which is why I have stayed in Korea for 3 years and I am fully thankful for the financial freedoms it has allowed me but furthermore, the 3 years here, is by no means a waste as I have gained a heck of knowledge and experience teaching and the resume has flourished. I am in the application process of enrolling as a post-grad student for a teaching diploma in NZ. I am on my way and Korea has helped me get there a million times over.

Leaving; I’m Ready To Go

When I leave South Korea I will do so with excitement for multiple reasons. I’m traveling to a few South Asian countries as I make my way back down under. I’m embarking on a new adventure as I’m first visiting my mother for a few months in paradise – the Cook Islands. I may start my post grad as soon as next year, I love to study, and I’m a geek.  I get to spend much needed time with my long distance husband. I’ll spend Christmas with my mother – I haven’t been able to since 2009. I’m thrilled to have a break from work – as most people would be. Having said all that, I will miss many things from living and working in Korea, mainly financial independence as I am going back to student life – which is by no means glamourous. But I will also miss the great friends I’ve made here and I’ll miss of course the students I leave behind. I’ve already had two goodbye parties and they’ve been both touching and sad. It’s unfortunate that you can’t transplant certain people and places to other parts of the world for your convenience.

My final thoughts, leaving this place will be a mixed bucket of emotions. I know my time here should come to an end, I know in order for my career to grow, I need to move on. I need to take a break from teaching ESL as I am passionate about literature and must have a chance to teach lit to native English speakers. I also need to be back in a multi-cultural environment, desperately, because I miss Polynesian culture, art, language and my family. Overall, I appreciate my time in Korea but know its best I leave. Thank you for the memories and lessons – hard and small.