10 Things I Learned Living and Teaching in South Korea
Currently, I’m in the middle of my last four months of my 1-year teaching contract in South Korea. Throughout that time, I have experienced many ups and downs, “why me?” moments, and “how do I do this?” confusion. I’ve also learned countless things about people, different cultures, and how varied teaching can be. In the list below, I’ve outlined ten things I’ve learned from living in South Korea. You may agree or disagree with some of these points, but hopefully you’ll at least find them interesting. They certainly stood out to me.
1.Education is different all over the world.
This one should be obvious, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of teaching when I came here, but having attended public school, I felt I had a decent idea. Working for a private academy in Korea is a bit tricky, however. Your students hold more power, arguably, than you do. Parents spend big money to send their kids to school each month. That means if one of your students dislikes your teaching style — or just doesn’t like it when you address their neglect to finish their homework — it can be a bad situation. Private academies are all about perception. If a student is unhappy and complains to a parent, the parent can call the school or even bring the issue to headquarters, whether or not it’s the teacher’s fault.
2. Every culture has customs that others won’t understand.
In South Korea, it’s common practice to drive and openly spit on the sidewalk, accept gifts with both hands, and give spams gift-sets. I still remember the first day I that I walked down the sidewalk on my way to school when I noticed a car driving directly toward me on the very same sidewalk. I almost had a heart attack, believing I was about to be run over. It turns out this is totally normal here; everyone drives on the sidewalk, though it isn’t exactly legal.
3. I really can do it on my own.
I’d never lived on my own before moving to South Korea. The culture I was brought up in taught me that it isn’t necessary to move out until marriage, and the practical part of me thought it’d be reasonable to stay with my parents as long as possible in order to save money. When I first told my friends and family that I was moving abroad, some openly stated that I would fail within a few months and run back home in tears. Well, I ended up thriving, and those two months turned into four, and then those four turned into seven. I have learned I truly can make it own my own, despite others’ preconceived notions. Their negativity is not my problem.
4. Appearances can matter more than the work you do.
To expand on point number one, appearance is very important here. In South Korea, looks matter. When you apply to most jobs, you have to submit a picture of yourself for employers to review. This was very strange for me when I first arrived. Plastic surgery is very big business in South Korea — people are constantly trying to improve on what they already have. When you’re a teacher, your students and co-workers — as well as your bosses — will comment on your clothing and appearance. Sometimes, your teaching can be absolutely excellent, but if a student complains that you wear the same clothes too often, you can bet that a phone call to your superior will be made. This is something I really wasn’t accustomed to in the states, but it’s really not that strange. In some ways, we all pass judgement based on appearances. Sometimes appearing competent and professional is just as important, if not more so, than the work you do.
5. Being open to new experiences is important.
Before I moved, I had dreamt of teaching in Korea for years, but something always held me back. Sometimes those reasons were financial. Other times, they were emotional or mental hang-ups. I finally got the motivation I needed to leave it all behind when I thought hard about my long-term goals and realized I wouldn’t have another opportunity to make this leap again. I took the chance, packed my bags, and away I went. While the experience hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, it has been worth it.
6. Embracing feelings of loss and loneliness allows for growth.
Developing new relationships takes a lot of effort and give and take. It is hard to meet people here in general, especially those who speak fluent English. I still miss my friends and my family almost every day. I’ve had breakdowns where I just cried and cried on holidays. At times, my interactions have been limited to once a week phone calls and Facebook status updates. It can be heart wrenching living alone with no friends around, but it is also character building. You learn to appreciate your loved ones so much more and treasure the time you have with them.
7. Everything eventually ends, and that is okay.
In a few months, my one year contract will be formally over. I may or may not be asked to stay one more year. Even if so, time will likely fly, and before I know it, it will all be over. Nothing is permanent. I thought about this concept in depth today. I took some time to walk around, breathe deeply, visit the places I love most, and do my best to remember the experience so I could carry it with me forever.
8. Hierarchy is a strange concept.
Blatant hierarchal structure and its implications can be seen very clearly in South Korean office politics. Men are treated very differently from women, and there is a place for everyone in terms of the power structure. It enforces the idea that if you want to be liked, it is best to not step out of line. I am not sure I agree with this, but it is a real thing here.
9. I’m stronger than I thought I was.
If someone would have told me five years ago that I would end up following through and teaching abroad, I would have laughed in their face. I’ve always been very risk averse. To be honest, it is very unlike my personality to move from place to place or take big risks, which is why it’s so strange that instead of moving across the street, I decided to move to the other side of the world. I am proud of myself for this. It takes a great deal of bravery and faith to be able to pick up and move to a foreign country — it requires working hard to believe in yourself and your personal success. I’ve also learned that I like this strong woman I’ve become. I hope to see more of her in the future.
10.I will miss South Korea.
Once my time here has passed, I will miss South Korea.
I will miss the dog cafes, the city parks, and the numerous palaces. I will yearn for the long trails, the unique food, and my students’ faces. I’ll miss the inexpensive fashion and the mistranslated English shirts.
Have you been or are going on a solo trip on the other side of the world? What will/do you miss?