How Teaching in Korea Changed My Life
A little over a year ago, I moved from New York to Jinju, South Korea to teach English. I placed my stout little legs on Korean soil with a lot of ideas about what my life would be like for a year. A lot of those ideas and expectations have evaporated as I start my second year and now that I’m looking back it, it’s probably for the best. I decided to take some time out of my busy teaching, Korean-learning, taekwondo-doing schedule to sit down and examine how my life has changed in the past year, and I’d like to share them with you.
I made it through the first year, and I liked it so much I’m staying even longer! Before moving to Korea, the longest time I’d spent abroad was the nearly four months I spent traveling Europe while studying abroad in London. I loved it, but when I came home I distinctly remember telling my mother, “I don’t think I want to be away from home for that long ever again.”
Two years later, I graduated from college and only applied to jobs in a country almost exactly halfway around the world for yearlong contracts. I assumed I would only be in Korea for one year and that then I’d come home. I distinctly remember telling my friend, “I really can’t imagine staying in Korea for more than a year.”
Surprise! I’m here for two years! What have I learned from this experience? Number 1: I’m clearly a liar. Number 2: Don’t go to a country determined to leave (unless you have a visa and you need to). I loved studying in England, but I was happy to leave. I didn’t understand all the people who were sad to go. Didn’t they miss their families? Didn’t they want to eat tacos again? I loved London but it didn’t feel like home. Jinju feels like home. I miss my family, and I still miss tacos, but even now, with pretty much a year left, I’m not looking forward to leaving. I really love my life here.
My Korean has gotten 1000% better than when I first arrived here, and I’m still awful at it. As a high-minded twenty-two year old, I thought I could pick up conversational Korean just by living here. NOPE. At least I can’t. I got a Korean tutor and we meet for two hours every week. I’ve improved a ton but it’s still so hard. My reading, listening, and writing aren’t completely terrible, but I’m still very self-conscious about speaking, so I don’t. I’m working on it, but it has been more work than I anticipated.
My students can make or break my day-to-day happiness. They don’t know this, since to them I’m just another foreign teacher asking them to practice English when they’d rather be playing, but they can make my experience in Korea amazing, or they can make it hellish.
My first semester here I was working through culture shock, homesickness, and learning how to be a teacher, while my elementary school students were running amok. They were so out of control I would lie in bed at night and hope my air conditioner would fall on me and break my arm while I was sleeping so I wouldn’t have to see them for a while. From the next semester on, I’ve had amazing students, and they are a huge reason why I decided to stay.
I’m consuming more and more Korean pop culture. As I learned fairly quickly since arriving in Korea, there is way more to K-pop than ‘Gangnam Style,’ and thank goodness, because I’m sick of that song. As of late, I’ve been obsessively downloading K-pop to listen to, and I just finished watching my first K-drama, which was so addicting, I watched the first nine episodes in a day. I don’t know why it took me so long to really get into K-Pop and K-dramas, but now, there’s no stopping me.
I throw up the peace sign in almost every picture. In one of my first photos from Korea, I was smiling and holding up a peace sign with my hands. A friend of mine commented on the picture and said, ‘Oh God, are you really throwing up the peace sign in this picture?’ I answered, ‘Heck yes I am! I live in Korea.’ At home I’d never do it, but here I’ll use the peace sign almost every time and I never regret it.
Maybe in a year I’ll feel differently about these things, but for now I can say that moving to Korea was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I hope it continues to be that way in the year to come.