Where does the time go? I’m sitting exactly three months and 13 days away from the final date of my teaching contract in South Korea. Remember when I’d only just arrived? It feels like a lifetime ago that I was barely three months in. I didn’t know what Udon Noodle soup was or how to eat properly with metal chopsticks. I remember being scared silly to use the buses and needing to fetch a cab at least once a week after losing myself in what seemed like the biggest city in the whole wide world. (Let’s be real: Daegu had two subway lines at the time… definitely not a fearfully large metropolis).
I look back at the last eight months and realize how overwhelmingly fast I’ve grown. The thing about change is that when it’s so drastic, like when you travel or move abroad, you don’t even realize how much it’s impacting you. I think there are two types of affects that a year full of unexpected traditions, adaptation, and experiences can have: the short term and the long term.
In The Short Term
I’ve been pretty open about the fact that living and teaching abroad has been hard for me; at least harder than I anticipated. Some people arrive in Korea and instantly feel at home. They see the warmth in people here and enjoy the fact that life can be pretty breezy for an English teacher. We’re well respected, paid a decent wage, and (for the most part) taken care of. You’re traveling on someone else’s dollar; what’s not to love?
Being the stubborn, hard headed person that I am… Korea took a little longer to grow on me. I wanted to see the beauty in the chaos so badly, I really did, but it was a hard transition. We all have our hardships to overcome, they just happened quite soon for me. I got chosen for a weird and confusing teaching placement, I didn’t like the food half as much as I expected to, and life was more expensive than the Internet lead me to believe – beware future Native English teachers of Korea.
Now that some time has passed, I can see how all these trials and tribulations have just as quickly had a strong positive impact on me and how I react to the world as a whole. I know I’ll carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life.
1. My patience has grown immensely:
I used to get kicked out of taxi’s when I was first got to Korea because I didn’t speak Hangul and the drivers wouldn’t take the time to let me try to give directions. I quickly developed a strategy: Say the general vicinity of my home and then hand them my iPhone with my address written in Hangul. This is still slightly frustrating for them, but at least they don’t kick me out anymore, hah!
This past Saturday I got into a cab and the taxi driver just couldn’t figure out how to use his GPS. He was a sweet old man who seemed to be going blind (Everyone got home safely, that’s what counts). Anyways, I was growing frustrated after his sixth attempt to plug in my address, and I took my phone and tried to jump out of the cab. He kindly called (it felt like a beg!) for me to come back in… I felt so terrible… he was trying so hard… and I forced myself to take a step back and just let him figure it out, even if it meant I’d get home a half hour later. I’m not sure I would have done the same if I hadn’t remembered feeling so awful and hurt that those taxi drivers didn’t even give me a chance.
2. Taste really can be acquired:
Foods that I wasn’t fond of, like red chili paste and bean sprouts, are delicious now. It just took some getting used to.
3. A global mindset must be nurtured:
My, often negative, reactions to many aspects of living in Korea were shocking to me. I think they were so out of character that they almost doubled in strength because I didn’t know how to handle them. Now I realize that I may have been open minded, globally educated, and accepting of other cultures before coming to Korea, but that didn’t mean that those traits weren’t ones I needed to continue working on. I’d never been to Asia, period, and I’m happy I got through the hurdle of acceptance (for the most part). I always knew things were different, but I know now how to overcome those differences and appreciate them. I’m conscious of the fact that there are SO many different people, customs, and things to learn about the world and that they won’t always make sense to me. In fact, they will sometimes be down right frustrating. It’s my job to remember that I can understand if I just open myself up to these nuances.
and most importantly of all…
4. Not all Kimchi is made the same:
I think that’s pretty self explanatory, but just to emphasize: seriously… when you find a place that serves great kimchi, you go back!
In The Long Term
One of my biggest fears going into this adventure was the uncertainty of what would come after. Would I want to stay another year, or maybe forever? Would I love teaching so much that I’d want to switch careers and become an educator? Would I come home and not be hirable because I took a year outside of my chosen profession? Here’s how I feel about all that now:
1. Living and Teaching Abroad Isn’t for Everyone
After being in Korea for 10 months, I realize that I not only don’t want to live in Korea, I don’t want to live abroad anywhere. At least not long term. I love to travel. I come from a long line of travelers. I’ve been a traveler my whole life. I started a travel blog, for goodness sakes. It’s ingrained in me… but the fact is that because I’ve lived as a country jumper my entire life, what I consider to be home is my family. If those people aren’t there to support me and to let me support them, then what’s the point? I love seeing the world, but my world isn’t complete when I’m so far away from the things that really matter to me with no escape or ability to return. I’ll keep traveling. I may even live in a different country again one day, but it won’t be this far away and it won’t be under a contract that has no give. It will be on my own terms.
2. My Future May be in Education… But Not this Way
I’ve enjoyed teaching the youth of Korea. These little bugs are smart, surprising, creative, humbling, and all around cool (Except for the kid who likes to cough on the teachers. That kid and I can never be friends). However, I don’t think I’m cut out to be an elementary school teacher. My patience may have improved, but I’m not superhuman, and that’s definitely a trait that elementary school teachers are required to have.
I can, however, see myself teaching something in the future. It may not be the typical academic curriculum, and if it happens, it would probably be for adults. Teaching in itself is a fun and rewarding profession, and I’m happy to know it’s something I can do successfully.
3. Teaching Abroad is an Admirable Experience for Future Employment
The cool thing about this job is that it teaches you more than just how control children. It teaches you how to engage people, and if you can engage an audience of little ones for an entire 40 minutes in a language they barely understand, then you can figure out how to engage anyone. I’ve done more than just travel in my time here; I’ve learned what it’s like to work in a Korean office setting and how intense the cultural differences are, I’ve learned how discipline works differently in other countries, I’ve learned an immense amount about public speaking, and I’ve learned how to put together a kick ass PowerPoint presentation based entirely around Despicable Me. English teachers dominate.
4. You’ll Learn Who You Are
I obviously can’t promise that this will happen for everyone, because each persons teaching abroad experience is bound to be different. I can promise that you’ll at least be one step closer to finding out. You’re going to spend an immense amount of time on your own, you’ll most likely be living alone, and you’ll probably be around a lot of people who don’t speak the same language as you. The fact of the matter is that you’re going to be with yourself a lot, and that does things to a person. It helps you grow and understand how you work. Not only have I learned what things I need in my life from myself without the influence of other people, I’ve also learned where I want to take my career, and I’ve grown up through the process. I can take care of myself. That’s pretty awesome.
I hope this is somehow helpful for anyone thinking about living abroad. I won’t lie and say it’s a cakewalk or even that you’ll enjoy the majority of it (some people love it, some people hate it), but I will say that you’ll get out of it what you put into it.
What Korea has given me is irreplaceable.