Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Life of a Guest English Teacher.

A few people have asked to read the essay I wrote for a competition this year through EPIK. Here it is, in all its 2nd place glory (yes, yes; there's my charming sarcasm again).

On a more serious note, I am so thankful that my essay was chosen, and thrilled to see that I have so many people supporting my efforts abroad, including my school, who helped me to give my plain paper essay some finishing touches in the most Korean way possible (aka: completely without my consent but utterly appreciated!). 

Thanks for your kind words, positive vibes, and endless encouragement.
And for anyone who reads this in its entirety... you're rad.

Lessons Learned from the Life of a Guest English Teacher

I don’t think I can express just how different every foreigner’s experience is when they move to a new place. In fact, the one thing every foreigner likely does have in common when they think about their life in Korea is that it’s nothing like they imagined it would be. Talk about room for personal and professional growth! Here are some of my own stories from this transition to Korea so far, and the lessons I’ve gleaned from them:

Expect adventures in Korean dining.

I’ve had some interesting experiences just trying to eat in Korea. I love Korean food, but had to give up some of my own stubborn eating habits in order to truly enjoy it. When I first arrived in Korea, I was a vegetarian and wanted to maintain that dietary standard. However, after a few strange encounters with restaurant food, I decided a little meat in my diet wouldn’t be the worst thing after all. This first comedic incident occurred before I even left EPIK Orientation, and it‘s one I‘ll never forget:

Sitting with my friends in a Korean barbeque with virtually no knowledge of the Korean language, no readable menu, and my dietary needs... we defaulted to the other foreigners we saw in the restaurant, and enlisted their help. This resulted in one of the most awkward experiences I've had to date. Soon our fellow foreigners and the Korean servers were in what appeared to be a discussion over why someone would willingly come to a barbeque when they don't eat meat. If that wasn't enough, they all began pointing at me from across the restaurant so we could clear up this debacle. It was hard not to sink in my chair from this point on, especially when they came over and laughed when I verified that I really couldn‘t eat anything on the menu.

The lesson I would like to pass on from this night is that one should always come prepared to dine in a foreign country. The Korean culture is very hospitable and the women working that night definitely didn’t let me go hungry, but I certainly could have been more helpful if I was aware of some options to ask for in advance. Of course, there is always the possibility that the etiquette of a new culture will provide enough of a challenge. Here are some feelings from my first experience dining out with my school:

It’s my first staff meal and I feel completely lost. In the United States, I would be contributing to the conversation and making jokes. In Korea, I’m not even sure when I’m supposed to pour the water, which way to put my chopsticks, or even how to eat many of these dishes! These factors, in combination with the language barrier, make me about as comfortable as sitting on the floor does. Both I’m going to have to get used to. For the first time, I felt so socially out of place I thought I might begin to spill tears in the middle of lunch; not the impression I want to make on my new Principal and staff! Fortunately, one of my co-teachers told me not to worry. “We’re all very nice, don’t be nervous” she said. Those few words were enough for me to keep trying to cut fish with my chopsticks.

Although I still can’t cut fish properly with my chopsticks, I have learned how to act socially-presentable on a variety of other levels since moving to Korea. A few days after this lunch, I had a private meal with my co-teacher and took the time to ask her about proper eating manners in Korea. At first, I was a little embarrassed to ask her which way I should place my chopsticks between bites, but she seemed more than happy to help me adjust to Korean culture. Now that I see how eating together is an important part of social and professional life, I sometimes wish I had received a lesson on manners in Korean dining from the EPIK Orientation. It certainly would have helped to boost my confidence when taking those first few meals together as a school!

Learn some of the history.
Upon arriving at EPIK Orientation, it was made abundantly clear that learning some history of Korea would be necessary to our understanding of the culture. I gave each lecture my full attention but didn’t understand the magnitude of their importance until one night, heading home:

I’m in a taxi and the driver begins to speak to me in English. He seems very friendly and comments on how much he loves American baseball. We speak in broken English and Korean for a few minutes when he begins to share his extremely negative views toward Japan with me. I sit and listen, remembering the history lesson on Japan and South Korea I received at EPIK orientation.

Understanding history helps us to see the way culture is shaped. The two concepts are intertwined. One teacher at my school is very dedicated to my learning of Korean history and culture, and is kind enough to take me and other foreign teachers I know around our area to show us more about the country we live in now. The more I see and learn about Korea’s past, the more I can understand and find meaning in the present culture I live in. It is useful if I want to work professionally with other teachers, relate to my students, or hear a taxi driver’s story with an enlightened perspective.

Trust the system.
Sometimes, we are truly tested in another culture. One of the most obvious times in our lives when we depend on a system to work is when we are ill. Here’s a short account of the first time I was sick in Korea:

This past week, I've been feeling a bit low on energy and recently have begun to experience dizziness when I wake up. What made this situation even more interesting was that this was my first encounter with Korean medical practices. The nurse gave me some pills, all labeled in Hangul, and sent me off. No better time to start really trusting another culture than when you have to get medical attention!

I was really nervous to go to the doctor in Korea. In American culture, people generally have a bad habit of waiting until the illness becomes serious to go to a doctor. It wasn’t until one of my foreigner friends gave me some words of encouragement that I decided to put my health in the hands of the Korean medical system. “You need to trust the doctors here,” she said. Sure enough, all I had to do was let the medical system do its job (and let my co-teachers help me to and from the doctor), and I was healthy in no time! As with many cultural differences, sometimes it’s difficult to let go and try something a different way. However, it’s usually better to let go and let it happen. In this particular case, I couldn’t have put my health in better hands.

Honor your native culture.
I came to Korea with the humble perspective that this opportunity was going to be solely about Korean culture, but I was only half-correct. Although it’s true that on a daily basis, foreigners adapt to a new set of customs and habits, it doesn’t mean that their own culture isn’t of interest to Koreans! I learned this very quickly after starting my job. Being a foreigner in an elementary school sometimes feels akin to being a celebrity: everyone wants to know about your life! If I had thought about my teaching job with this perspective before moving to Korea, I would have brought more artifacts from America for the students to look at, which I now know to be a useful learning tool in the classroom. It would’ve been nice to see something like this on a packing list from EPIK, encouraging us to be just as ready to accept this new, Korean culture as we should be to share whatever we can from our native, English-speaking one. 

Remember with culture, it’s not better or worse. It’s just different.
As a foreigner, understand that there will be times when you feel ridiculous or out of place. The best way to counter this is with humility, not embarrassment. Culture is a far bigger and more powerful force than our own prides, so take every stumble as a learning opportunity and move along. Occasionally, you will feel completely lost. You may hear your name in conversation but not know what the conversation is about, and you may not know how to eat half the food you are served on any given day. To deal with these factors gracefully take on a sense of trust and adventure in the people you surround yourself with. If you can look at the big picture, it’s easier to trust this new system. Keep in mind that this won’t happen overnight. For a long period of time, you may not know things you once considered basic, such as where, or even if you can buy shoes in your size. There are things for every foreigner that makes them feel a little more at home. Recognize what those things are to you and figure out how to fulfill those needs. Even if it’s internet shopping.

As with any life experience, the outcome and lessons you gain from them is a choice. With new cultural experiences, this is no different. Every experience, good or otherwise, has the potential to enrich your life. All it takes is humility to realize that you’ll never know it all, but the courage to learn from whomever or whatever comes your way.

If you are considering teaching English in South Korea, make sure to check out EPIK's site: www.epik.go.kr . You will also find the winning entries from this year (including my essay) on EPIK's site soon!
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  1. Insightful! Nice job pro-writer of essays, hopefully you didn't have to use APA:)

  2. I really enjoyed reading your essay! I can totally relate with everything you said in it!!

  3. not that i need to say it but well done!! you make it easy to understand your experiences even though few of us reading this are over there !

  4. Awesome job Laura! I love reading your blog and catching up on what fun adventures you go on :)

  5. Thanks everyone! It's nice to know my experiences over here are share-worthy. :)