A Year in The Land of the Morning Calm: How Teaching Abroad Has Changed Me

Teaching Abroad

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.

Monk21. 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.

Korean Kids

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.

Who You Are

What experience have you gone through that has changed you for the better? Tell me in the comments below.

PS: If you’re thinking about teaching abroad, check out these Frequently Asked Questions about teaching in South Korea and Teaching in Korea 101 for everything else.

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  1. Yvan H.
    May 11, 2015

    This is amazing! Although I have never experienced living outside of the country, I have moved to live in a city where I knew no one, had no idea how anything worked, and relied on myself to get around.

    That feeling of knowing how quickly you can learn, adapt, and then evolve is incredible, but learning about yourself is incomparable.

    Keep inspiring!

    • May 11, 2015

      Hi Yvan! I’ve heard this from a few of my friends, and it’s amazing how being out of our element throws us off, but it’s cool that we have the ability to adapt so quickly. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. May 12, 2015

    I respect your views and agree with you. Living and traveling abroad are two completely different things. I’ve been teaching English in Japan for 3 years and it definitely isn’t for everyone. Even after 3 years, I sometimes wonder if it’s for me. I do love being a part of a local community in a foreign country because it offers me different things than I would get as a tourist. However, I haven’t seen much of Japan because I am required to work and pay my bills.

    I’ve lived in Japan for 3 years and I have hardly seen any of Tokyo but I can make Japanese food, speak Japanese, and help my friend who is a first generation Japanese-American understand her parents sometimes erratic behavior.

    Basically, I’d really like to see Tokyo someday, but I am also glad I can make BA sushi rolls too.

    Living abroad and traveling are very different indeed.

    • May 29, 2015

      They really really are, Erin. I love the aspect of the local community, as well. It’s always so tight knit and people have so much in common because, well, we’re all here for a reason, right?

      I’d love to see Tokyo as well! I think I’ll be traveling to Osaka soon. What part of japan do you live in?

  3. May 12, 2015

    Amazing experience and amazing post
    I really didn’t think about my experience in the way you did but if I do this now then I will find that I’m gaining alot and will gain more during my coming few years.
    thanks for sharing this amazing post

    • May 13, 2015

      Hey Abdalla, thanks so much for your comment and for reading. We definitely all experience living abroad differently and I hope your time here has been just as exciting 🙂 It sure sounds like it!

  4. May 14, 2015

    I love the honesty in this post Neysha. It’s amazing how much can happen in 1 year, right? I’m glad that you know yourself well enough to know you don’t want to stay in Korea, without bashing it as you go. I feel like a lot of people either stay here WAY longer than they should because they get comfortable, or they do their year and leave with only negative things to say.

    To each their own, but I found your insights to be a breath of fresh air. 🙂

    • May 14, 2015

      Thanks so much Evan and Rachel! That means a lot. I do my best to keep an open mind because there are also a lot of things I love about Korea!

  5. May 14, 2015

    This is a FANTASTIC post, one that I’ve been thinking of writing myself as I’m nearing the end of my contract too (although I extended for 3 months). I found it interesting how we shared a lot of the same learned points, especially patience. I am NOT by any means a patient person, but I’ve found I’ve grown a lot in that area here, as well. Patience and tolerance for things that are different, because let’s face it Korea is just about as different as it can get. Wonderful post and really insightful words. I think it’s great to be so introspective after such a long time away from home, in a totally different country. I also found settling into Korea a lot harder than I imagined. You’re not alone!

    • May 29, 2015

      Oh I totally feel the same way, Meg! I am SO not patient haha. It’s my latina blood (not that latina’s can’t be patient, too hehe). How awesome that you got to extend for three months! That kind of sounds like the perfect amount of time :).

  6. May 16, 2015

    Love these insightful posts! I too am nearing my year here in Korea and I might have to write about it on my year anniversary. I can relate to most of the points you’ve made. I’m originally from the Philippines and thought, how different can Korea be? Boy was I wrong! The only similarity is that they are both in Asia and the people all have black hair (lol). I’m not a teacher, but having a 2 year old son has taught me some patience. Glad to hear that you are taking more of the positives when you return “home” wherever that may be.

    • May 29, 2015

      Oh you definitely should! I wrote this so I can look back and REMEMBER this year haha. I think I’ll need it at some point in my life.

      Oh man, I think most people who are from the Philippines or have parents who are, are just beside themselves with how different it is compared to their expectations. Korea is just such a breed all its own.

  7. May 17, 2015

    I really appreciate how candid you are in your posts, it’s nice to hear about the good and the bad. I’m glad your experience in Korea has been one of growth!

    Just curious, where’s your go-to spot in Daegu for good kimchi? 😀

    • May 29, 2015

      Haha great question, Nathan! It’s actually a restaurant called “Man Cooking Meat” on BBQ street in Banwoldang. I TOTALLY recommend it, not just for the kimchi, but also because the name is awesome and the meat is amazing.

  8. May 18, 2015

    I’d been living here in Korea for the past 8 years. I’m a stay-at-home and both my husband and I can’t speak Korean. But i have always had good experiences here and with the people here. But of course, I know how Koreans can be tough on work hours. Reading your post is from a totally different perspective, though. From all the complaints I have heard, I just thought that native speakers all have it good here. You still have majority of it going well for you, though. And it’s good to read your positive realizations. Good luck! 🙂

    • May 29, 2015

      Thanks so much Wendy! I try to look at the positive side, for sure. WOW! Eight years! That’s amazing. And still going strong, it seems :). Go you and and your husband!

  9. May 18, 2015

    Such a wonderful summary of a unique experience. I know that a lot of teachers in Korea have similar cultural experiences, but it’s terrific to read a list discussing personal changes and experiences that have been influenced by being in this country. I really enjoy the differentiation between short term and long term changes as well because it does get at the reality of being changed on a deeper level by experienced had while abroad.

    • May 29, 2015

      Thanks so much, Hedgers! I hope I can remember these experiences and they won’t be lost on me in the reverse culture shock process. It helps that they’re written down 🙂 haha

  10. May 18, 2015

    You’re right that teaching abroad isn’t for everyone—I’ve seen it happen to others who were in China with me when we taught English there together and then went back to do something different. But I can imagine them nodding to most of your points (I guess except for the kimchi part, lol).
    I just want to say that my favorite point though was your third point under In the Long Term. I never realized those qualities really until you mentioned them. It’s absolutely true!
    But also I wonder if you would feel the same way as above if you taught in a different country, say Thailand. I say that because the cultural barrier between a foreigner within a Korean group can be quite intense… I experienced that before when everyone would talk about me or speak Korean in a meeting knowing I had no idea what they were talking about, and it was just something people wouldn’t do in MY country. But yea, cultural difference.

    • May 29, 2015

      Yes, Jackie, there are definitely some unique frustrations to working in South Korea, specifically. There’s definitely a lot of differences between this culture and most western cultures that I know of, and that causes a lot of adversity. So, yeah, I definitely think teaching here can help you gain a distinct set of skills as opposed to working in another country.

  11. Nygel Knighton
    June 17, 2015

    Great post Neysha! I don’t usually check out blogs too much but I enjoyed this. I share some of the same sentiments as you when it comes to living in Korea. It is nice to see people reflect on their experiences and share them with the world. For the people who are too lazy for blogs this is a helpful and insightful! Keep up the good work!

    • June 25, 2015

      Thanks so much Nygel! I appreciate you taking the time to check it out 🙂

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