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Surviving in Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
Surviving in Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:27     View: 2378  


Surviving in Korea

Adam Waechter

 Duksan Middle School(Seoul)

"Speakers who talk about what life has taught them never fail to keep the attention of their listeners."

- Dale Carnegie

According to my contract under article 3, I am "responsible for conducting English classes in joint cooperation with a Korean English language teacher". I must "prepare teaching materials for my class", "conduct a summer and winter English based camp", and "assist in extracurricular activities, and conduct conversation classes".

At first, I thought this was a little overwhelming. After reading on, I found this, under article 8: "I will work eight hours a day and teach for twenty-two hours a week." This sold me on the job.

When I graduated from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I felt like I really accomplished something great. I worked all through my years at school, doing various jobs from mopping floors to selling clothing. Although I was self-sufficient through my career as a university student, I still had to rely on a student loan service to assist with a portion of my tuition. After graduating, I had big dreams of seeing the world, but these dreams were quickly crushed by my debt. Where is an inexperienced film student from Toronto going to find a job? He is going to teach English in a foreign country!

A year ago, I landed in Korea with a round trip ticket, keys to my own apartment and 300,000 won in my pocket. A couple months prior to, I was cramming for finals, and now I am preparing students for finals. It was a shift I wasn’t anticipating. It was a culture that I knew nothing about. It is a profession that only requires English as your native language and a university degree. I had no idea what I was getting involved with. I do not have a degree in English, Masters in Education, or a TOEFL certificate. I do however; have common sense, enthusiasm and a great personality which have helped me survive a year of teaching English in Korea.

I wish to share what I have learned, not from a textbook, but from the raw reality of living and working in a homogeneous society. These experiences and survival skills have been made possible partially due to one particular book called "How to Win Friends and Influence People"by Dale Carnegie. This book opened my eyes to the little things that are often overlooked in everyday life. They can be applied to all cultures and societies as it teaches the basic principle of how to deal with people. With the help of this book, I will share my experiences in adjusting to Korean culture, overcoming cultural barriers and dealing with conflict in the classroom.

"If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive."

- Dale Carnegie

Coming to Korea was the first time that I had been to Asia. I didn’t know anything about the culture, the language or the food. When I stepped off the plane and left Incheon International Airport, I found myself in a new world. While walking around my new area with my vegetarian girlfriend and two empty stomachs I quickly found myself completely overwhelmed with the new language. Upon arrival to Korea, we took a vow that we wouldn’t eat western style food for one month. The harsh reality of that vow kicked in an hour after moving in to our new home.

We took our chances with pointing at pictures, speaking basic English, and drawing pictures. Meal after meal we found our enthusiasm dying with our appetite. Our ignorance led us to believe that we are here to teach English; to be Ambassadors of the English language. However, does the server at the local Kimbop restaurant really care to learn English? No. It took us about a month to realize that not everyone knew how to speak English, or even cared to learn it. We discovered that most of the population only knew lyrics from Wonder Girls songs or the most popular phrase ‘Nice to meet you’.

After about two months, our egos simmered, and we decided to bring a halt to our ignorance and indulge in the language of the culture. My co-teacher was kind enough to buy me a book for Christmas. It was a beginner’s guide to learning Korean. I had helped her pass her exams which allowed her to become an official English teacher. She thought a fair trade would be to help me survive in Korea.

At first I thought, ‘How am I supposed to become fluent in 6 moths? That’s ridiculous!"However, on one relaxing weeknight, my girlfriend and I pulled out the book and decided to take a look. Within about 2 hours we were able to read Korean. This concept still blows my mind. After only 2 hours I went from an illiterate, ignorant foreigner, to a literate Canadian living in Korea. I no longer felt like I was in a foreign world. I didn’t understand what I was reading, however being able to read basic Korean, gave me the confidence and the security to live comfortably in Korea. Dale Carnegie’s quote at the beginning of this paragraph summarizes my feeling with coping with the language. If you want to become comfortable in Korea, don’t reject the language.

"Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise"

- Charles Schwab

 With the excitement of learning to read a new language, and feeling comfortable in my surroundings I was eager to learn more. I have been very fortunate to have the most amazing set of co-teachers. I have heard some very terrifying co-teacher stories from other native English teachers; however it is only half the story. I can’t praise my co-teachers enough when it comes to sharing my experience in Korea. Although praising my co-teachers has very little to do to the premise of my argument, it has been their enthusiastic, warm hearted, giving nature that has made me do so.

Everyday, I eat lunch with my co-teachers in the lunchroom. During my first few months in Korea I sat quietly while I listened to them laugh and chat in their native tongue, none of which made any sense to me. Although it was easy to sit in silence, I found myself becoming curious about what they were actually saying. My curiosity turned to frustration, andstubbornness soon got the better of me. I continued to sit, not only in silence now, but in bitterness as well. A wall, much like the DMZ was beginning to build around me as I sunk lower and lower in my chair during lunch.

One day I decided enough was enough. I understand that English is their second language, and it must feel great to talk in your native tongue so I used this to my benefit. During a break in one of the lengthy discussions they were having, I summoned up whatever confidence I had left and said, "I want to learn to count."My co-teachers directed their attention towards me with looks of confusion. I could see there might have been a bit of confusion considering this comment was probably completely off topic. "In Korean," I added. Their sighs of relief were quickly replaced with smiles.

Day by day I learned a new word, or a new number. Each day I grew more confident ordering food and shopping at the markets. I learned basic phrases, along with the associated inflections of the voice. Till this day I have yet to master ‘conversational’Korean, however I will be the first to ask for a cheaper price in the local market. I learned from this experience and began to apply it to my class.

"People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing."

-Dale Carnegie


At first, I thought I would be able to discuss literature and film theory with my students, much like I did with my peers in university. However, after I completely failed my first week of classes I had to reevaluate my lesson plans. My school was very liberal when it came to planning lessons. I was responsible for 100% of the material and content of each lesson. Looking back at my resume I didn’t have any experience coming into this job whatsoever. I fulfilled the requirement of a university degree, and even passed the medical check, however, lesson planning was a problem because I had never done it before.

I had two preconceived notions about English in Korea. I assumed that every student a) knew basic English and b) wanted to learn English. I was proven wrong on both accounts. The levels were mixed across the grades. I could communicate in full conversation with some students while others fit in the same column as the Kimbop restaurant waitress. I had a plethora of teaching ideas that were easily destroyed once I realized these realities.

At first I got mad. I had the attitude of believing that if a student didn’t understand it was their own fault. I soon realized that I couldn’t pass the blame, and that I should instead accept it as a challenge. I decided to put myself in my students’shoes to help me understand what they might be experiencing in my classroom. I remembered back to my days in middle school, when I had to learn French as a second language. Canada has two official languages, so I learned French just as Koreans learn English. I remembered that I detested French with as much passion as some of my students detest English. Learning verbs and vocabulary was so boring. I tried to look back at some of my memories in class, and began to remember the games we played and songs we sang. These memories came back to me, not as dreadful moments, but as fun activities through which I enjoyed French class. I knew that it was time for a change in my own classroom, and I began to devise lessons that I hoped would elicit enthusiasm in my classroom.

With my new direction in motion, I quickly felt a shift in students’attitudes towards my class, and inevitably, I believe, towards English. Students began to participate in language activities, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They were using English without the dreaded focus of having to distinctively "study English."When they came to my classroom they were no longer learning English, inasmuch as they were learning in English. We would discuss world issues, popular culture, learn POP songs, and learn about ourselves. By focusing on interesting subject matter I was able to engage the students in an English environment.

The proverb "It’s like killing two birds with one stone" (which most students relate to as"one shot, two kill") can describe the format of my now productive English classroom.

 It didn’t take me long to realize the vast cultural differences between Korea and Canada. Over the course of the year I have entertained many guests, including my parents, my brother and a friend, all whom are from Canada. Within a day of being here they were all able to identify the major differences within everyday life. Whether it is the pushy ajuma (old lady), spitting ajushi (old man) or the lack of personal space, Korea has a fair share of annoyances. The only remedy to this solution is the Golden Rule: "dountoothersas you would have themdounto you." Any other way would build hostility, lead to resentment and put a massive damper on your experience. Just remember there are plenty of things ‘Westerners’ do that are unacceptable to Koreans including eating or drinking in public areas, women showing their shoulders and public displays of affection.

There are plenty of cultural gestures that you can use to your advantage. These will help you win friends in the work place, especially where there is a language barrier. Eat with your staff and participate in staff activities. It seems simple, but it is important. You will be surprised at the amount of smiles you will get in the office when they see you participating in their culture. Share your food. Again it may seem strange for westerners however, the culture considers it greedy and extremely rude not to do this. Even if it is a small mandarin orange, make sure everyone is given a slice. Become a "Yes Man."The Korean workforce is the hardest working society I have seen. My staff shows up before me and leaves after me. Your staff will ask very little of you, so the least you can do is help when needed. Use this within reason, for example violations of your contract, etc.

My final piece of advice is to take everything with a grain of salt. I have been told on more than one occasion that I look "tired and pale". Teenage boys call me handsome and teenage girls tell me they love me. My peers have been told they look pregnant, and large. I have had students ask my age, height, weight and every other juicy question that might seem inappropriate from a western mindset. Koreans are very forward with criticism and asking personal questions, however are reserved and roundabout in the way they express a request of someone. Do not get offended; simply remember this is an experience that will not only reward you with a stronger resume but also a stronger perspective on others and yourself. 

 At the end of the day, I work with what they know and build students’ confidence by sparking interest in the culture that surrounds the language. Classes are short and students’attention spans are shorter, so it is important to find motivation in your content to keep them engaged. I have come to realize that they aren’t all going to be the next Ambassador of Korea, nor will they become 100% fluent English speakers in the course of their school years. My job is to facilitate the learning of English. Teach them ‘survival English.’ Outside of school, I’m just another wagugin (foreigner) working to pay the bills and looking for a challenge and a new experience. Embrace the culture but don’t lose your identity, be friendly, be creative, and most of all as Dale Carnegie says "if you want to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic." It doesn’t get easier than that.

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