An Alien in Gunsan
The person standing beside me, negotiating a contract on my behalf, is someone I’ve only just met. Other than her name, all I know about her is that she has become one of the most important people in my life as of this minute. She will know perhaps every detail of my life in Korea as I depend on her to translate my mail, help me to understand my bills, be at my side if I need medical treatment and hopefully explain any concerns accurately so that I don’t end up having my organs harvested instead of a routine check up. Like it or not, I have to trust that this total stranger, who I’ve known for approximately one hour, has not just sold me into white slavery as I sign the contract in the box shown to me.
Moving to a foreign country where I cannot speak the language and only a very small percentage of the population can speak my language is perhaps one of the craziest things that a person can do. Commit to this for a minimum of a year, by myself, knowing no one else in this country whose culture and very being is remarkably different to my own and it’s surprising that EPIK didn’t require me to first undergo a psychological evaluation before offering me a job as a Guest English Teacher.
I’ve been in Korea for only six weeks and the challenges posed by the language barrier seem to grow with every passing day. Every day tasks that take only a few minutes back in South Africa suddenly seem insurmountable, and the rare occasions where the language barrier is lessened are cause for celebrations to rival a golden wedding anniversary.
Shopping has become a bit like gambling…with someone else’s money. E-mart and Lotte mart are suddenly a feasible evening or weekend excursion for many foreigners. Finding every day items is a bit like a scavenger hunt while searching for less common items can be the start of a long, potentially dangerous and usually unsuccessful quest. Online shopping may be popular and ‘easy’ in Korea but factor in that most sites are in Korean or offer incomplete translations coupled with moving pictures and it can suddenly become target practise for the weary English-speaking foreigner.
In stores, I regularly find myself guilted into buying things I neither need nor want simply because the salesperson was friendly and helpful. Finding an unexpected item from back home, like South African wine, almost always results in an impromptu ‘happy’ dance in the aisle while other customers back away or simply stare in amusement. Paying for purchases is not the end of the gambling as those packages now represent multiple lucky packets to open at home; that’s when I really discover that what I thought I bought and what I’ve actually bought are not always the same thing and that ‘quick’ trip to the store means another two to three hours in a day as I start the process all over again.
Searching for food that I recognise or can pronounce is just as difficult. At least half of the groceries in E-mart are unfamiliar to me and a large portion of those that I do recognise are all, naturally, in Korean. Throw certain food allergies and personal preferences into the mix, and buying food suddenly seems impossible at times. My local bakery is probably thrilled that I’ve moved to Gunsan since I’ve taken to doing most of my shopping there thanks to their bilingual signs. Foods that I wouldn’t normally consider eating at home are suddenly staples in what is a very unhealthy and unfulfilling diet.
Similarly, an innocent taxi ride can turn into a panic-inducing experience as me fly through the streets of the town, through red traffic lights, over pedestrians and several blocks past my destination because of a simple mispronunciation. Living in a small town near the countryside, where few people understand English or me limited Korean, and there are suddenly only fields around me, it’s enough to make me start thinking that the white slavery ring my co-teacher may have sold me into when signing that contract is still a possibility.
No matter how well-prepared you think are for the move to Korea, you’re surprised to discover things aren’t always what you expect. You can have a 20 minute conversation with someone and walk away feeling more confused than ever before by what has just happened. Even more confusing is that each time you encounter that person in the street or the market after that initial ‘conversation’, you’ll probably find yourself engaged in yet another conversation that you don’t understand. Before long, you find that you’re no longer ignored by everyone in the street as many people will start to greet you like a long-lost friend even though you’re not entirely sure you’ve ever truly met most of the people with whom you now have weekly conversations.
Despite the increasing number of waegooks in Korea, if you live in the countryside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many English speakers. ‘Foreigner-hunting’ is a legitimate sport among the waegook community and successful ‘hunting’ trips are those that end with rapid friendships forming between two waegooks who probably have little in common with one another aside from sharing a first language. Being good at charades is a basic survival tactic in this country as this is a game that will be played daily as you attempt to communicate with those around you.
As a Guest English Teacher, I’m fortunate to have a fantastic co-teacher who is both able and willing to help me as I attempt to navigate the daily challenges of understanding Koreans and living in Korea. I’m grateful for her support, particularly since simple tasks have generally become more time consuming. Arranging a simple doctor’s visit can involve more negotiations than peace treaties when I consult with everyone who will need to be present just to find out that my chronic sore throat and headache are simply from talking to myself too much.
Crawling into bed at the end of yet another exhausting day, I find myself wishing that language could be acquired overnight and via osmosis. In a childlike manner, I hear myself saying that one day, when I’m big, I’ll be able to understand Korean and I won’t need to phone my co-teacher to ask her, once again, to tell the taxi driver where I live so that I’m able to get home at night. And maybe, if I learn enough Korean, I’ll finally be able to convince my Korean colleagues that I really am happy here, and have every intention of staying in Korea for at least a year even though I sometimes cry with frustration when I can’t communicate with them properly.
Know Your Predecessor
Forget the language barriers, forget the cultural barriers, forget the occasional difficult situations with students, and don’t worry about not knowing what you should be doing most of the time or how to find English speaking doctors if you’re not in Seoul: The most unexpected challenge that you might encounter at your school is the previous GET.
I didn’t get off to the best start at my school. Sheer exhaustion, coupled with frustration at not being able to communicate with 95% of my Korean colleagues, led to a cultural misunderstanding between me and another teacher within my first week. Although easily identified as a simple cultural misunderstanding, it didn’t make the situation any less frustrating for an emotional person like me. Despite my best efforts, I ended up in tears – mostly tears of frustration but tears nonetheless for my Korean colleagues who saw me crying but couldn’t understand why. Fast forward a few weeks, and a few more misunderstandings, and I can now see that my greatest challenge at school is not my students or the language barrier but rather changing the perception my colleagues have of foreign teachers – particularly female teachers!
There are currently three GETs at my school – one of whom arrived five weeks before me and has been welcomed with less hesitation than I have. The GETs who have broken their contracts at my school, for various reasons, have always been female teachers. The result seems to be a general suspicion that all female GETs will, inevitably, follow this pattern – me included. It was then that I truly understood that what one GET does in Korea, and particularly at a school, is how future GETs will most likely be viewed too.
My predecessor left after only three weeks: Over a weekend, she notified my co-teacher, via email, that she would not be returning on Monday. Her predecessor left after six months. Neither seems to have left the school on good terms. Consequently, the frequent questions from my colleagues about whether or not I have friends here, if I like the students and the school, if I’m happy, what I do on weekends and if I now have internet at home now make more sense.
I still need to prove myself. Convincing my colleagues that I intend staying for at least the first year is no easy task. I tell them that I’m very happy here and I truly love my school but, at some point, they’re going to have to start believing me – my co-teacher says that this will probably happen by Christmas (three months into my contract). I’ve already stayed longer than my predecessor so the next milestone is six months. Unfortunately, six months can become a very long time if I’m still being ‘tested’ by my colleagues. Even the students seem to believe that any change of teachers for a lesson is the result of a GET leaving Korea – an embarrassment for the school and a personal disappointment for our co-teachers who really do go out of their way to help us. Furthermore, being the fourth GET that some of my classes have had this year has made it difficult to build a relationship with my students – some of whom have already lost all interest in English as a result in the lack of stability with GETs this year.
I try to look at the situation from their perspective. For my colleagues, I’m not married, I’m considerably younger than the other two GETs at my school, this is my first trip to Korea, and I came here alone, not knowing anyone else here – it would be easy to leave Korea before the end of my contract. For my students, I’m just another English teacher who will soon tire of trying to adjust to (very different) local customs.
Attempts to follow Korean etiquette are always appreciated and my co-teacher jokes that I’m slowly becoming a Korean. Similarly, letting my colleagues know that I’m actively trying to learn Korean also seems to suggest that I’m different to my predecessors. Ironically, having three large boxes of things from home delivered to my school instead of my apartment seems to have convinced most of my colleagues that I intend staying here. My Vice-Principal waves when greeting me now, and even some of the shy teachers have started greeting me. As for my students, they’ve started actively engaging in my lessons, asking me questions in and outside of class, and stopping me in the street to persuade me to taste whatever food they happen to be eating which shows they’re slowly warming up to me – or trying to poison me. Of course, handing out candy in class helps too.
What the Websites Don't Really Tell You
Korean culture is fascinating! Built on Confucianism, the basis of the culture seems to be harmony and hierarchy. These principles work hand in hand with one another in almost every way and it’s important to understand the importance of these principles in order to gain some insight into Korean culture. Hierarchy is fairly self-explanatory so I’ll try to talk about harmony and its apparent contradictions from a western viewpoint.
Harmony is highly valued in the workplace – and, presumably, everywhere else in Korea. Therefore, it is permissible to tell a small white lie if the intention of the lie is to spare the feelings of the person concerned. As a result, it’s easy to become somewhat deluded about things, like your appearance, only to be crushed and insulted in many other ways. Before you think me very pessimistic, allow me to clarify.
Modesty is considered a good personality trait here. It’s somewhat ironic given the apparent propensity of many Koreans to constantly praise foreigners both in and outside of school, and foreigners need to try and remember to refute the compliments, which can be a rather strange approach for many westerners. For example, it’s not unusual for a complete stranger to walk up to a foreign woman and tell her that she’s beautiful or to suddenly start stroking the arm hair of a western man. Western culture has a very different view of beauty and, hearing random strangers / colleagues / students tell you on a sometimes daily basis that you’re beautiful can be a little disconcerting at first. As great a confidence booster as it is, it’s easy to find yourself believing every word that is said and forming a rather unrealistic view of yourself. Consequently, when it comes to practical things like clothes shopping, the harsh criticism of “Big Size Opseoyo” (ie. We don’t stock “Big Size” clothing – US size 10 or larger it seems) can be a devastating blow to your overall self-confidence and, in some instances, your overall impressions of Korea.
Similarly, having colleagues openly comment about your weight (particularly for women) can be crushing, embarrassing and depressing for most foreigners. That doesn’t mean that it will happen to everyone but bear in mind that western and Asian women, in particular, are built very differently. You need the skin of a rhino and the courage of a lion to enter clothing stores here at times if you’re larger than the average Korean woman. I’ve never heard – or rather, ‘understood’ – my colleagues discussing my weight and they’ve certainly never commented on it to me directly but I have heard dozens of such stories from my fellow waegooks. Most of us try to just let the comments pass over our heads as much as possible – it’s important not to sweat the small stuff at the end of the day if you want to remain sane throughout your contract.
The ‘small white lies’ that are accepted here can vary greatly in size and importance particularly when viewed from the perspective of an individualistic culture. The important thing to remember is that the intention is generally good and that the tone of comments is changed significantly in the translation of the idea. It’s so easy to get upset and be offended by small and inconsequential things here and yes, sometimes the comments do seem a little too personal or hurtful but that’s probably because something, somewhere, got Lost in Translation.
Almost all of the GETS I’ve met so far seem to have approached their new life in Korea in a similar manner: Get online and read as much as possible about Korean customs and what to expect in Korea prior to departure. We all seem to have anticipated a certain degree of culture shock and some of this is realized while other scenarios, some more unexpected than others, occur during the year.
I had a year to prepare for my stay in Korea and thought that I had a pretty good understanding of social etiquette, Confucianism, hierarchical structures and how these influence the language, and even a basic grasp of simple Korean phrases. Having attended boarding school, growing up in a country that is famous for its multicultural / multilingual rainbow nation (South Africa) and generally having a flair for languages, the greatest shock I anticipated was the different food in Korea and even then I managed to convince myself that I would simply have to accept that Western food was more expensive but still easy to find. With seven years of teaching experience at various levels in both the public and private sector in South Africa and having recently completed my Masters degree in Second Language Studies (a branch of Linguistics), I was perhaps overly-confident that the teaching aspect of my new job would be the easiest adjustment. It never occurred to me that all of the above, while seemingly simple in theory, would all be combined to create a situation I could never have imagined.
It was perhaps with a bit of arrogance that I began my contract. I teach at a very elite school, which shall remain nameless for several reasons, and I perhaps thought that I’d finally managed to get a job at a school that really appreciated me and where I could be best utilized. All of this – and more – is true to some extent. I was quite confident in using Korean greetings and attempting to insert myself into this fascinating culture. That is, until I discovered just how little I knew and still don’t know.
The first thing to rattle my confidence was that I wasn’t introduced to all of the staff simultaneously as is the custom in South African schools. The main reason for this was the timing of my arrival at school and that my vice-principal was away from school for the first three weeks of my contract although I’m still not entirely sure how this is one of the reasons. I was introduced to every teacher my co-teacher and I passed in the corridor on my whirlwind tour of the school so the names are still a blur to me. Consequently, there are still adults at my school who I’m not entirely sure are teachers or just ever-present parents. As for my principal, I’m pretty sure I’ve greeted him inappropriately on several occasions and am only now starting to recognize him around school.
The second was my initial reluctance to eat in the school cafeteria since I’m a fussy eater. Although my colleagues reassure me that it’s okay to bring my own lunch to school and to have lunch with the other two GETs at my school, in retrospect, I’ve shot myself in the foot! Food is such an important part of Korean culture and it’s only now, nearly three months into my contract that I finally understand just how important a role it can play in developing new relationships.
The third unexpected arrangement is one that is still very odd for me. When I finally met my vice-principal, it finally sank in that my desk is in the main office of my school. Although my school has an international department – in other words, being a foreign language high school, all of the international staff is generally grouped in the same office – there wasn’t a desk available for me in this office at the time of my arrival. I didn’t mind the arrangement initially because we have an internal messenger system at school and the international office is only two floors above me. Being in the busiest office in school is a bit like trying to work in Grand Central Station as it’s a constant hub of activity. That’s also okay even though the initial adjustment was tougher than expected. What freaks me out the most is being in the same office as my vice-principal!
In South Africa, the principal and deputy principal almost always have their own offices. Even Heads of Departments often have their own offices although this can differ from school to school. I have never had to spend so much time on a daily basis in the same room as someone who is so senior to me at work! Doing so in a country where status and rank are such an important part of the culture is like living with my foot permanently in my mouth. It should be noted, for the sake of fairness, that my vice-principal has been nothing but friendly, accommodating and polite to me so I shouldn’t have any reason to feel uncomfortable. Be that as it may, it is an unusual environment for me and one in which I feel that I am constantly under scrutiny even though I’m assured that this is not so – at least, no more than any other GET.
For all my planning and preparations, the one thing that had never crossed my mind was the possibility that I wouldn’t have my own classroom as I’m used to having – and as some GETs do have – and that I would, on a daily basis, be so uncomfortably aware of just how formal a work environment can be. As a result, I’m secretly looking forward to the new school year when we all change desks and offices!
JFLHS: A Great School
In preparing to come to South Korea as a Guest English Teacher (GET), I spent hours reading websites and books for information about Korean customs and what to expect in a country where both the language and the culture are so different from my own. The reality of just how foreign Korea is hit me only when I stepped off the plane at Incheon International Airport. The now familiar sights, sounds and smells were initially so overwhelming that I suddenly found myself wondering what exactly I had committed myself to for the next 365 days - and if there was an immediate flight back to South Africa.
I’m the first to admit that my first two weeks at Jeonbuk Foreign Language High School (JFLHS) weren’t quite as successful as I’d hoped, and I don’t think many people expected me to stay very long. I had anticipated some culture shock and knew that I would have to adjust to several new things in Korea but my first month was truly an eye-opening experience. Some of the differences between schools in Korea and schools in South Africa are far greater than I had expected, and taking over classes that had already changed GETs three times in nine months was a challenge that I hadn’t even considered.
It used to frustrate me that students often sleep during lessons until I heard that they’re at school from 7:30 until 23:00 and then often continue self-study in the dormitories until the early hours of the morning. When I actually took the time to ask my students how much sleep they get, I realised that, as lousy as I feel on six hours of sleep, my students generally sleep far less than that.
High school students in South Africa are usually at school from 7:30 until 16:00 but lessons end at 14:30. We don’t have breaks between classes and students move between the different classrooms. As a result, we expect students to stay seated, stay awake and pay attention during lessons – something that seems more flexible in Korea. In addition, we have a series of final exams rather than a single CSAT which determines our university entrance. Although there is pressure to do well in these final exams, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the pressure that final year students experience in Korea.
Another big difference is the attitude of both the teachers and the students. Korean students are far more disciplined than South African students where most of the lesson time is spent disciplining poor behaviour rather than teaching. I’m constantly amazed at how students here just ‘get on’ with whatever work they need to do in addition to all of the extra murals and club activities they seem to do. With such a diligent approach to education, it’s difficult not to enjoy teaching in Korea where even the most challenging lessons are extremely rewarding.
The teachers also continue to amaze me every day. Seeing how involved, dedicated and enthusiastic the teachers are is really inspiring; seeing how well students respond to so many of the teachers is also fantastic. One of the highlights for me so far was seeing the teachers get just as involved in the December festival as the students. In my seven years of teaching in South Africa, I never once saw teachers perform in a school festival or concert; seeing groups of teachers so involved and having so much fun dancing and recording a music video was a truly memorable experience and it’s actually one of the things that I respect most about the staff here. I think that South African teachers could learn a lot from the teachers here.
JFLHS is unlike any school I’ve ever worked at and I consider myself very fortunate to be a GET here! As a linguist, I would have loved the opportunity to attend a specialized foreign language school such as this where students have a unique opportunity to master foreign languages. As a teacher, JFLHS is the best working environment I’ve ever experienced and I’m grateful that, every day, I look forward to coming to school – even when there’s a lot of work to be done. As a foreigner, I love being able to tell my fellow foreign teachers just how fantastic my school is, how much fun it is to be here and how incredible the students and teachers are.
People often ask me if I like Korea, if I’m happy here (particularly in Gunsan) and how long I plan to stay in Korea. My answers tend to get longer each month: I love Korea! I’m very happy to be living in Gunsan where people take the time to speak to me and teach me about Korean culture, customs and language. As for how long I plan to stay in Korea: I work at a great school with amazing students and teachers, and have the best co-teachers a GET could hope for so I hope to be here for several years!