I like to tell people that I decided to come to Korea on a flip of a coin, because my final deciding factor was getting a Korean coin in my change back from buying a coffee when I was still in the U.S. Of course, in reality I put a lot more thought into it than that, as should anyone who is considering it. I was graduating from college, and the small taste that I’d had of working in an office quickly assured me that a cubicle was NOT the place for me. I started looking into teaching English overseas, and after comparing the benefits, cultures, and standards of living in several countries, I decided on Korea, with a little silvery 100 won coin being the final catalyst!
In some ways, South Korean culture and American culture seem very much the same, and in others they are polar opposites, which was part of the fun of living in the ROK, for me. Consumer culture is definitely big in Korea. You can’t walk down the street without being enticed into a restaurant or shop with some kind of mildly obnoxious signage. (NEON SIGNS FOR EVERYTHING. ATTACK OF THE CRAZY INFLATABLE ARM MEN!)
Other things about South Korean culture were really different, though. Respect for ones elders and superiors takes a totally new level in Korea. Initially I was always worried about accidentally offending someone, but soon I got to reap the benefits—as a teacher, you are in a position of authority over your students. They will actually listen to what you say and…wait for it…bring you little presents!
My students used to bring me stickers and candy, and when they discovered that I like to eat healthy foods, they started to bring me fresh fruit. One even brought in his mom’s homemade kimchi! Holy guacamole—errr—holy fermented cabbage! Some things about Korean culture were tough for me. Image is big, so I had to get used to the fact that make-up would actually help me be perceived as more professional. I also did not like some things about fashion in Korea—you can wear skirts the size of a washcloth (not that I suggest this) but tank tops are frowned upon. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but wait for July in the ROK. Phew!
The hardest parts of my Korean experience were being so far from my family and feeling very dependent on my employers. Sometimes the schools can be kind of unpredictable—they might totally change your classes without consulting you and then expect you to adapt over a weekend. The cool thing is—you’re not alone. You can reach out to your recruiter, and they can help you mediate the situation if it’s necessary. They are there to support you, and if your school is like mine was, there will be other foreign teachers and Korean staff or teachers who will help you and support you with anything you need. A secretary at my school even wrote out a whole card for me that explained that I didn’t eat any meat, fish, dairy, or eggs…yes…being vegan in South Korea can be done! It’s just extremely difficult and expect to accidentally bite into meat or get a swig of fish broth in your noodles at least once. It will happen. Just roll with the punches. That said, I made some AWESOME friends, made memories that totally changed my outlook on life, and had a fun job where I had fantastic benefits. What’s not to love?
Say Kimchi Recruiting and Lisa
Say Kimchi Recruiting was there for me anytime I had a problem at work. On top of that, the mixers and dinners with other Say Kimchi teachers were a great way for me to meet people. The Say Kimchi blog gave me great ideas for what to do during my year in Korea and helped me navigate my way through foreign waters. I have only good things to say and more of them to say than my fingers have the energy to write.
Be sure that you want to go before you leave. Once you’re there, get involved. Go places on weekends. Meet people. Hike mountains. Take classes. Save money. Rinse and repeat as needed.