A young woman’s journey to teaching in South Korea.
As an adopted Korean living in Jefferson City, who had no memory of living in Korea, the email I received while in my design class at Missouri State about a job in South Korea struck a chord. To have a year teaching English, rent free, flights paid and the opportunity to learn about my cultural heritage was golden.
Within a month after meeting a representative from Green Heart Travel, a recruiter for English Program in Korea (EPIK), I was confidently telling my parents on the phone that I was planning to move to South Korea. They were worried, understandably. Their questions were lengthy: Is it safe? Is the company reputable? Are they really going to pay for your flights? To all of these answers, I quickly fired back positive responses, even though I wasn’t a 100 percent confident myself. Still, six months later, I quit my jobs as a production seamstress and barista and booked my $1,300 ticket to South Korea.
To my and my ever-concerned parents’ relief, EPIK is a reputable, government-run program that focuses on bringing native English speakers to Korea to provide a real English experience for its students and teachers. When I arrived in Korea, I was thankful EPIK provided a 10-day orientation for me and other new teachers. The orientation included a brief introduction to Korean culture and to other EPIK teachers who would be living in the province. After the orientation, I met one of my Korean co-workers. In true Korean fashion, she took me to my apartment and did her best, through broken English, to make the transition as easy as possible.
Visiting and living in a foreign country are two very different things. Living in South Korea was no vacation. I went to work every day, and I had bills to pay. However, seemingly simple tasks such as ordering takeout, getting from one place to another via public transportation and even taking the trash out properly were substantially more challenging. I experienced a frustrating level of dependency on people who spoke both Korean and English. For example, someone would tell me to get off the bus at Dong Young Il Bo, but the difficult part is that the sign reads 동영일보 (even Google Maps was in Korean!). I’m happy to report that after four months and an embarrassing number of bus rides in the wrong direction, I was able to easily navigate alone. Successfully mastering the most mundane tasks was a small, yet empowering victory.
A typical day for me in Korea began with a 30-minute walk to school. Upon arrival and throughout the day, I was greeted with an informal bow and an excited “hi” and “hello” from the students. I shared an office with six other Korean teachers who basically taught me how to teach. These women became like sisters to me. We ate lunch together with the students. After school, we often enjoyed one of the many adorable coffee shops Korea has to offer. Dinner was rarely eaten at home alone as eating with others is a key cultural aspect in Korea. The restaurants in Korea are truly something to write home about. To give you a taste, side dishes are unlimited, food is fresh, you ring a bell for service, floor seating keeps you young and there’s no tipping! Weekends were filled with hiking in the mountains, soaking ‘in the buff’ in public spas, shopping in underground malls and picnicking on the beach.
In Korea, I missed small things such as a good ol’ hamburger and bigger things such as the inherent individualistic nature Americans possess. Now that I’m stateside, I miss trivial things such as Korean private karaoke rooms featuring unbelievably ostentatious furnishings of crushed velvet couches and disco balls and the more important aspect such as automatically being treated as family by my co-workers. I didn’t realize until I was in Korea how lucky I was to have grown up in America. English is my main language. Across the globe, English is the common denominator and thus a powerful advantage. Also, as Americans, we are encouraged to choose our own direction in life, to dream big and jump fearlessly. It took living in one of the most conformist societies to realize how fortunate I am to have been adopted into a culture that allows diversity.
People always say in your 20s you should travel, see the world, meet new people, have crazy experiences; do it while you can. I was fortunate to get such a chance and took it with full speed, never looking back, and I jumped into a life adventure I’ll never forget. My next venture, combining my fashion design degree and teaching experience, is to run my own sewing studio where I can instruct and help others as well as provide a space for people to create together.
Not until I received the life-altering email did I entertain the idea of visiting South Korea, much less think it was possible to live there. Little did I know, two years later, I would have moved to South Korea to teach (and later fall in love with) more than 700 Korean students, made friends from all around the world, learned the Korean language and traveled to 15 countries. I’ve eaten sushi in Japan, experienced a goldfish market in Hong Kong and lost my passport in Taiwan (I’ll keep that one as a learning experience!). Now, here I am, at Dunn Bros Coffee in Jefferson City, reflecting on how two completely different cultures have created who I am today.