Tuesday, August 31: August 31 marks the halfway point for my time in Korea. I have survived 6 months! 🙂 I have six more months to go until my contract ends on February 28, 2011. Here, I look backward and forward, to what the last 6 months have brought and to what the next 6 months might bring.
At this time last year, I was working as a poorly paid intern at Management Systems International (MSI), commuting a nightmarish 1 1/2 hours each way. Our offices were on 13 boats in a marina in downtown Washington, D.C. and as an intern, my work there was under-challenging, to say the least. I had started working there in March, 2009, and this date (August 31) also marked 6 months there. These first 6 months at MSI felt like an eternity. I worked there until the end of December; luckily my last 4 months there were more challenging as I worked on a big contract evaluating all of USAID’s trade projects around the world for their effectiveness in actually improving trade. It was one of the few contracts at MSI that involved research, which I loved. So the last 4 months went quickly. But finally, I left MSI as it was evident that, for some reason, they were never going to offer me a full-time position.
I really wanted to live and work abroad. Though Korea wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was the only country that didn’t require any teaching experience or the TEFL or that you be certified in your home country. This is why I came to Korea, to get the experience of living abroad, to get the one year of teaching experience and to complete my TEFL while I was here. I always looked at this as a stepping stone to get to where I really want to go: to the Middle East (or now possibly Turkey).
Overall my life in Korea is a fascinating, challenging, and sometimes difficult and lonely, experience. Teaching elementary children is not particularly exciting, but the kids are thrilled to have a foreigner in their midst and I’m happy to be the subject of their enthusiasm. They’re full of energy and sweet and crazy. But. Trying to figure out a way to actually teach them to speak English, that is more of the challenge. It’s frustrating because the children have no place to practice their English except with me, in one or two 40-minute sessions a week. Outside of school, neither their parents nor their friends speak English. There are so few foreigners in southern Korea that they still see us as alien creatures. My friend Kathy thinks that one of the reasons the Korean government imports all of us native English teachers is so people in Korea will get used to seeing foreigners. As Korea is not much of a tourist destination and it is cut off physically from the rest of the world, it is a good way to have foreigners in their midst. I have no idea if this is true; this is just her theory. But it makes sense.
In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve struggled to adapt to a culture that in many ways is vastly different from my own, and in other ways is eerily similar. It’s different in the way the people are. When I happen upon the few Koreans who speak some English, I find them very friendly. They’ll do anything for you; they’ll invite you to their homes, to dinner, to church. But for the vast majority who don’t speak English, they don’t make any attempt at eye contact or any kind of approach at all. I live near Keimyung University, where college students roam the streets until all hours. I know these kids have only recently graduated from a public school system that has taught them English for at least 15 years, yet they all claim to know no English. If I stop on the street and ask someone for directions or if I have any question, they wave me off, say, No English! They are afraid to speak it because they never get a chance to practice. I understand this perfectly, since I have studied a number of foreign languages and am afraid to speak any of them. But it makes a foreigner’s life here difficult…and lonely.
Granted, much of this is my own fault for not making more of an attempt to learn Korean. I should do this, and I do intend to work harder at it in the next 6 months.
There are a lot of differences that I find difficult to ignore. Koreans don’t believe in standing in line. They will shove their way into any place, metro, stairs, ticket offices, toilets, ignoring any semblance of a queue. There are rarely trash cans evident, so people just toss their trash on the street. People spit. Young couples wear matching shirts, sometimes whole matching outfits. Ajumas are always glaring at you or even yelling at you for reasons you can’t understand. People, children and adults alike, touch the hair on your head or the hair on your arms; they will comment on your appearance as if you asked for their opinion. Recently one of Anna’s co-teachers asked her if she brushes her hair in the mornings. Anna, who was taken aback, said yes she does. The co-teacher went on to say, because it looks like in the afternoons, your hair is brushed, but in the mornings it doesn’t. Korean people eat roots and condiments as if they are real dishes. They believe every dish has some kind of health benefit. They believe they are the only country in the world with 4 distinct seasons. They love beef and pork with all the fat still on it (some people love this but I don’t!). They drive on sidewalks. They wear sleeves that don’t attach to anything. They get decked out in elaborate hiking gear to walk in the mountains. They don’t wear bathing suits at the beach but instead wear a full regalia of clothing, including hats, long sleeves, unattached sleeves, and shoes. The list could go on forever…..
Oddly, Korea is somehow not so different from America too. People drive their modern cars (usually Hyundais) down their modern highways to their regular jobs. They go to church on Sunday or to their Buddhist temples (although I haven’t met many Buddhists). They love their families and take their kids to the beach, to the huge water parks, or to E-mart for groceries. They care deeply about their children’s education. It’s weird, sometimes I forget briefly that I’m even in a foreign country!
So, in a nutshell, here’s what I’ve done my first 6 months. I’ve explored Daegu. I’ve traveled to Pohang, Busan, Gyeongju, Andong, & Seoul. I traveled outside of Korea to Turkey. I’ve connected with some really great foreigners here in Daegu who also teach English in Seongju. I have two very close Korean girlfriends. I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve worked on my TEFL. I am learning, by trial and error, how to teach English as a second language to Korean children. I have started writing, which is one of my favorite things. I have been to DVD bangs, noraebangs, and eaten a LOT of Korean food. I have learned how it feels to be a foreigner; I know now how disoriented and scared and overwhelmed immigrants in America must feel. I know how it must feel to come to America speaking only Spanish, and not bother to learn English because you have a community of people from your own culture who can speak to you in Spanish; outside of that community, you can get by with what little English you know. I know what it feels like to be in the minority.
I’ve learned how to be alone with myself. That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned here. As one of the few older English teachers, in world populated by mostly 20- to 30-something teachers, I am the odd girl out. I no longer feel like going out partying until all hours of the night. I’m just no longer into that. I love hanging out, drinking beer and playing games with my more mature younger friends. I’ve learned I love being alone and even traveling alone. I get caught up in writing stuff for myself that not many other people read. But, it’s important to me all the same.
Finally, how will the next 6 months go? I have no idea. I will continue writing as much as possible. I will finish my TEFL. I will continue to explore Korea on weekends. I will visit China in a couple of weeks and hopefully Vietnam & Cambodia over winter break. I will try to meet my best friend Jayne in India for two weeks on my way home to the U.S. in March, and possibly stop in Turkey again as well. I will continue to go to church and I will do a Buddhist temple stay or two. I will try to go hiking in Korea’s endless array of mountains, filled with temples and Buddha statues and many other unknown treasures.
I am losing hope of finding any romance here in Korea, but I will keep my heart open, just in case. And I will continue to read my books, filling my head with crazy notions that will guide my life into places unexpected and surprising.