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Discovering Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
Discovering Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:19     View: 2579  


Discovering Korea

Sybil Dejonge

Haknam middle school(Daegu)

Every person who writes this essay will have their own individual story about what they have experienced while living in Korea. My name is Sybil and this essay is a collection of what I have discovered while living in Korea. So let it begin. After finishing years of learning, studying and applying at University I came to terms with one of the toughest questions people my age have. The question was "What do I want to do with my life now?" Fortunately I knew teaching was what I wanted to do and eventually it would become a major part of my future. After graduating with an Education Degree I was unsure of what steps to take or in what direction I needed to take them in order to begin my future teaching career. I knew teaching jobs in Canada and more specifically South Western Ontario, were few and far between.

After endless hours of researching, interviews and sorting paper work I came to the conclusion that teaching in Korea would be an incredible opportunity. My reasoning for heading overseas to teach Englishwas that globally English is becoming the most sought after language to learn. If I know how to speak the English language why not take action and teach those who want to learn. Before I knew it, I was flying half way around the world to a place I knew only minor details about. I promised myself to have an open mind to any and all situations I would encounter throughout the next year. Even though I had no idea what to expect, I felt great excitement at the thought of going into something unknown. I was prepared to experience endless opportunities while living in a new country with an entirely different culture, a new language, new customs, new food and of course a new educational system.

I am returning for my second year now and all though I am more prepared than last year I continue to keep an open mind. I welcome each new opportunity that provides me with further cultural experiences while living in Korea. Because I have kept an open mind I have been blessed with many great experiences in Korea. These experiences include making new friends, travelling, getting accustomed to the education system, learning the language and the daily routine of living life in Korea.

I noticed a few things in my first year teaching in Korea that make it difficult for teaching or adjusting as a foreigner living in a foreign country. I would like to share my knowledge and feelings about the issues I encountered throughout my first year in Korea and the solutions to how I overcame them. A few of these issues include: the language barrier, miscommunication between Native teachers and Korean teachers, students in their classroom atmosphere, opportunities for Native teachers, and finally experiencing Korean culture such as food, fitness and friendliness.

I will begin with the first and probably most common issue, which is dealing with a language barrier. When we come to a new country we expect that we won’t know a lot of the language or won’t be able to communicate effectively. But really who would have thought that communicating in Korea was going to be this hard. I tried to learn the basics from my "Korean for Dummies" books at Chapters. But really 안녕하세요 and 감사합니다can only get you so far. It is easy to use body language and it helps for simple things like ordering food from a menu with pictures or getting directions or going to the bathroom but if you don’t know how to say your address properly you could end up in the wrong city.

One example I have is from when I was first learning the bus system. I live in Daegu, actually I live in Chilgok which is an outer suburb of Daegu; the bus ride to downtown Daegu is about forty five minutes. I had never taken the bus back to my apartment, only taxis so far. On this day I decided I needed to learn the bus system and knew I might make a few mistakes along the way. My co-teacher had written down the bus number in Korean to help me; it seemed very simple to take the Rapid Express Bus #2 until the very end of the line. I stood in line and got on the bus with all the confidence in the world but two hours later when I didn’t recognize any of my surroundings I skeptically asked the bus driver …"Is this Chilgok?"I could tell immediately by the look on his face that I was just another lost foreigner on the wrong side of the city. What could I say, it wastrue! The bus driver said a bunch of things to me in Korean and then pointed to where all the other buses were parked. I figured I would have to get back on the same bus and ride it the two hours plus forty five minutes in the direction I had just come from. Good thing it was a Sunday afternoon and I had some time to waste. Besides, the bus was air conditioned and there was beautiful scenery and mountains to help pass the time. Later I learned that I obviously got on the bus on the wrong side of the street. The funny thing is that when I was waiting for the bus (on the wrong side of the street) I saw some of my students across the street (on the right side) and they waved to me.

 Let’s get back to the issue, which is talking about a language barrier, and how I overcame it. The next week I decided to sign up for Korean classes at the YMCA. I am still taking them a year later and even though I am not fluent yet, I can definitely get by. I now know the bus route like the back of my hand. I can also have short conversations with taxi drivers, order food at restaurants, buy groceries and do my banking. 자는 한국말을 조금 할수 있습니다. I realized that attempting to learn the language was the least I could do. I came to this country to teach my language and I wanted to be respectful in return by learning a little of their language too. I found that one of the simplest ways to overcome this language barrier is to learn the language. Everyone has a Korean teacher or a Korean who is working with them and I know from experience that Koreans are more than happy to help foreigners learn Korean. If you have a little extra cash another option is to sign up for a Korean language course. I found out about my Korean course through word of mouth and I am sure there was a posting on the internet or downtown somewhere; there are definitely lots of opportunities available to learn Korean. A final idea that helped me a lot with learning the language faster was carrying around a notebook. Every time I would eat a new food or learn a new word I would write it in my book and it would help me to remember and retain the information quicker and better.

The next topic that fits in with the language barrier is miscommunication or lack of communication between Korean teachers and Native teachers. One thing that really irritates me is how everything in Korea is done completely last minute. I will use today as a perfect example. Today I was supposed to teach five classes. I had come to school prepared with a game and some candy for prizes. Yesterday the students had midterms so I figured today they could have a little fun and would enjoy playing a game. It turned out the thirty dollars I spent on the candy and the game I prepared were completely useless because all my classes were cancelled (hence why I am starting to write this essay). For me it is not that big of a problem because I can prepare other lessons and materials for the weeks coming. However the fact that I found out I had no classes till about five minutes before my first class was supposed to startis what was upsetting. I understand that the Korean teachers needed to go over the midterm tests with the students because the students had questions about their tests or their marks, but why did no one bother to tell me my classes were cancelled when I first came in at 8:15? I could have used my preparation time for something else. There are also other examples such as school activities or meetings that I have had with the teachers and didn’t find out until the last minute. Overall, I think it may not be quite so bad. Next time I will just ask when I come into the office, if there is any change in the schedule for the day or week and then I can plan my lessons accordingly.

I understand that things change and can happen last minute. A positive way to look at this situation is, as a teacher I always need to be flexible. Things are not always going to go exactly the way I want them to because classrooms are not perfect. I should go into a class expecting things to go wrong or expecting the unexpected and then deal with it when something does go wrong and learn from it in order to do better the next time.

Speaking of classrooms and situations that happen in the classroom the next issue I want to discuss involves the students and their classroom atmosphere. Oneof the major differences between Canadian and Korean classes is the classroom size. In Canada the classroom size is twenty five maybe thirty students at the maximum. In Korea the class size is forty. It was my first time teaching in a class with that manystudents and on the first day when I walked into the classroom I was completely overwhelmed by how many students there were. How was I going to remember all their names, how would I be able to control them and how would I be able to teach them and ensure they understood what I was teaching. I was also overwhelmed by the size of the school because there were over one thousand students. In Canada my entire elementary school, consisting of kindergarten through eighth grade, did not even have six hundred students yet it was considered a big school. The classroom size was not as big of a problem as I thought because after the first semester all my classes were divided into three levels A, B, and C. This meant that for every two classes of forty students there would now be three classes with about twenty or twenty five students. Since the class size decreased and I learned to read the students’name tags, the number of students in the class wasn’t such a big issue after all. Besides I always have a Korean co-teacher in the classroom to translate and to help keep the students behaved.

One thing that really shocked me about the classroom atmosphere was the first time I heard and saw the ‘Stick’. Everyone who has been in Korea knows what I am talking about. Most teachers will carry around a stick with them to their classes and occasionally THWACK it against the students. Yes it is true. Do not be shocked, it happens. Smacking on the hands, smacking on the back and smacking of the stick against the board does get the students’attention. Talk about harsh punishment. In Canada these actions would never be acceptable. If a teacher even touched a student the teacher would most likely be sued. I would never feel right hitting a kid, especially hitting them with a stick. I ama very big joker so when it comes to punishing students, I would rather embarrass them than physically harm them. Personally I think embarrassing a student has a greater effect on them than hitting them does. The student understands what they did wrong and in the future know not to do it again; at the same time the student won’t be scared or intimidated to come to class. To me violence is not the answer and instead of using a stick, teachers should be able to control their students’ behaviors in a more pleasant manner. 

The fourth issue I want to discuss is a few of my thoughts on Native teachers and opportunities or experiences that should be available for us. I take my job very seriously and the reason I am here is to gain experience educating and teaching English in a foreign country. I think it is necessary for Native teachers coming to Korea to have a University educational background and/or teaching experience before they come. Examples of this would be the TESOL/TEFOL certificates as well as having arecognized teaching certificate or Bachelor of Education respective to their own country. Even though teachers can be highly educated or experienced, I think it is beneficial to be constantly striving to maintain and improve our teaching abilities. One thing that needs to be offered is a course for Native teachers to better improve their teaching abilities and to learn about resources and materials that can be incorporated into their lessons.

After a year in Teachers College I learned not all students arethe same, nor will they all learn the same either. As teachers we need to be able to adapt our teaching styles and abilities to suit the needs of our students. Not all students are going to learn by strictly memorizing. Some students need visual stimuli such as colourful pictures and posters; some students need audio stimuli such as listening to music or tape recordings; some students need kinesthetic stimuli such as doing hands on activities where they are physically practicing tasks. As teachers it is imperative that we learn how to best use these techniques in our classes. We could be better educated if there were courses offered to help us learn and maintain these teaching techniques. Coincidentally there was a presentation last week at my school for teaching to the ‘New Generation’. Even though it was in Korean I understood the main message, nowadays teachers have to be constantly looking for ways to entertain their students and capture their attention for the short time period they are teaching.

Another idea to help Native teachers is to have a website where teachers can send in lesson plans and talk about materials they used in their lessons that worked well or didn’t work well. I know there are many ESL websites but none of them reflect on lesson plans that didn’t go well or really share experiences that can be helpful to fellow teachers. It would be useful to have a meeting place for people in the same city and set up organizations or weekly clubs to talk about lesson plans, classes and materials. If EPIK organized seminars for teachers to come together and share their work experiences it would be motivating to listen to other Native teachers experiences. Having open classes in the school has been another helpful resource. During an open class at my school I saw different teaching techniques other teachers in my school use and found some of their techniques useful for my own classes. Even though there were a few open classes at my school, there were never any Native teachers present. I think more Native teachers need to be made aware of open classes and letters should be sent to their schools inviting them to attend.

With all things considered the main focus is on the students and meeting their needs. At my school there have been plenty of opportunitiesfor extra curricular activities in English. My school offers after school classes for the students and last semester we even had an after school conversation class for the teachers. In a few weeks our school will also be putting on a play in English. These types of extra curricular activities help students to break free from their regular school routine where they would normally be sitting in a classroom feeling bored. Students who are involved in extracurricular activities begin to feel more confident and comfortable practicing their speaking skills and don’t worry as much about making mistakes. As teachers we have to constantly look for opportunities that are best for our students and it is great to share the opportunities we have experienced with other Native teachers.

One of the final issues I would like to talk about is Korean culture and customs. This topic ranges from food, fitness and friendliness in Korea. I will begin with my favourite cultural aspect of living in a foreign country, and that is the food. Before I came to Korea I had no idea what to expect when it came to the different types of food. I had only heard stories from my friends and their experience with the food. Some friends had good experiences and some friends had unpleasant experiences. However I promised to keep an open mind when experiencing Korean culture also, I am the type of person who is willing to try any food once. After trying various types of Korean food like 떡뽁이, 삼겹살, 비빔밥, 된장찌개, 김밥, and of course 김지 my taste buds seemed to have fallen in love.

Some food I don’t love though and often times I will refuse 번데기(silkworms). I have tried them at the market but they just didn’t have that much flavour to me. It is amazing to see such a wide variety of breads, fish, snacks as well as fruits and vegetables when I go to the weekly market. I love watching the Ajummas at the markets peeling potatoes or chopping peppers and making a living by selling their crops. This is definitely something very rare to see back in Canada.

One of my favourite foods here in Korea is 해장국which is basically a spicy pork bone soup. Most Koreans look at me like I am crazy when I say it is my favourite food because it is spicy and it smells. I had never eaten a lot of spicy food back in Canada andnever had the opportunity to try so many different assortments or flavours of food. Eating Korean food has definitely given me a variety of delicious options. I noticed how food seems to bring people together. Koreans are always getting together for lunchor dinner or to have coffee. Whenever my teachers and I go out to eat, it is never quick or rushed. We take our time sitting, eating and having conversations about school, life or entertainment. During the meal there always seems to be a positive energy surrounding us and most often I find myself leaving the meal very satisfied and smiling.

The next issue related to Korean culture I wanted to discuss is my experiences with fitness. Koreans are very fit people and very rarely have I ever seen an obese Korean (a major difference from the majority of North Americans). It is easy to see why Koreans are so fit because they are always hiking, biking or doing some type of fitness activity. I noticed that it is not only young people who are exercising but older people as well. I quite enjoy fitness myself and recently decided to take a Hapkido (합기도) class. Taking part in the Hapkido class seems to encompass most of the issues I have been talking about including the language barriers, miscommunication and students. My Hapkido master does not speak English and even though I am in a class with ten year olds, it is easy to learn the different techniques from body language or by watching the students practice moves on each other. It is amazing the different types of movements and skills these kids use in a matter of seconds or milliseconds and how quickly their opponents end up on the floor. I enjoy my Hapkido class very much and even enjoy taking the shuttle bus with all of the kids. I think a shuttle bus that picks up kids and drops them off for their activities is the greatest mode of transportation. This is an especially great mode of transportation for younger kids because it is safe, saves money and is great for the environment. I think to gain an appreciation for the fitness aspect of Korean culture all Native teachers should experience or try some type of Korean fitness activity.

The last thing I want talk about is the friendliness of Korea and Koreans. When I first arrived in Korea I was welcomed with open arms by my school. It was comforting to know that in a completely foreign country people were willing to reach out and help me even if they couldn’t speak my language. I believe Koreans to be the most kind and generous people because they are always offering a helping hand and giving gifts without expecting anything in return. For example the first week I was here I was trying to find the immigration office and of course I got lost. I stopped a few middle school and high school students to ask for directions. The students did their best to speak English and help me. Their English was not perfect but it was easy to understand. I headed in the direction that the students told me to go, but still felt a little uneasy so I decided to ask the next person I came across. The next person I asked for help was an older gentleman. I was a little skeptical but he spoke amazing English. Again I started off in the direction he told me but soon I was walking into a University campus. I stopped one of the students nearby and asked her if she knew where the immigration office was. She walked with me across the entire campus and showed me the exact building behind the campus where the immigration office was. Even though I was a lost foreigner, it was not hard to find someone who willingly offered their help. To me the help I received created a great first impression of how kind Koreas are.

The same kindness and generosity has been demonstrated at my school. Whether they could speak English or not, all the faculty members at my school welcomed me during the first few weeks. I have my main co-teacher to thank because she was like a mother to me in the beginning weeks. She looked after me and took care of me with a maternal charm, making sure that all my needs were being met. She helped me buy a cell phone, hook up my internet, took me grocery shopping and showed me how to use the bus. One of the main reasons I stayed for a second year is because of the great relationships I have formed with a majority of teachers in my school. EPIK has done a great job making sure Native teachers have a Korean to act as a guide and help them adjust to living in Korea

After living in Korea for the past fifteen months I feel honored and blessed to be a part of my school’s family. Coming to Korea was a big step in my life and I was unsure of what to expect. I have now discovered there is a language barrier, miscommunication and differences of opinions; however, I also realized by maintaining an open mind and positive attitude there are ways to overcome and adjustto these issues. I welcomed everything that came my way as a learning experience and will continue to welcome each new learning experience daily. I am open to any and all new learning experiences because ‘poor is the teacher who does not learn something from their students every day’.

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