Adapting to Korean culture as a foreign teacher
Finding Equilibrium in the emotional paradox
Naehwang Elementary School
The fear of the unknown, the excitement of the possibility, and the quest for adventure consumed the mind of English teachers upon arrival in Korea. For Native English Speakers (NETs), many in Korea for the first time, the magnitude of change and adaptation was not fathomable. Each one of us arrived with preconceptions, which would rapidly be changed, of the culture, the school, and the adventure. We quickly learnt that obtaining a full understanding of the opportunities and challenges we would encounter would only, and could only, be learnt through each day of life in Korea regardless of how much or how little preparation each of us put forth prior to arrival.
Adapting to life and culture in Korea has been an exhilarating, frustrating, and daunting task. It’s within the most difficult of challenges that fear, frustration and anxiety emerge, but is with the most difficult of challenges that hope, optimism, passion, and a thirst for knowledge are born and encouraged. The challenges presented on a daily basis are not those which had been predicted prior to moving to Korea having preconceptions that the most challenging of tasks would be the adaptation to food, friends, and transportation have proven to be but the simplest of hurdles to jump over. It is the emotional paradox from the barrier of language that has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of adapting to life and culture in Korea. It is within the emotional paradox of the most daunting challenges that the Native English Speaker must find equilibrium.
One of the first and most shocking adaptations to life in Korea came with the instant celebrity status we were awarded upon arrival. Coming from a country which prides itself on multiculturalism, the idea of pointing, staring, grabbing, touching, or saying "foreigner, foreigner!" to someone of a different race was unheard of. This extreme difference in the perception of foreigners between Canada and Korea has been both exciting and exasperating. The attention drawn from being a foreigner, for the most part, has always been attention in a positive light; the attention awarded appears to be derived from a genuine curiosity and concern to learn more about people of different races and cultures. It is with great appreciation that NET’s accept this overwhelming attention, but in the same vein such attention can be somewhat frightening and often seems unwarranted. Everywhere an English teacher ventures he or she is pointed at, stared at, poked at, grabbed at, petted, followed, and spoke to, or spoke of. There are rarely moments free from the observation of others, free from scrutiny, and free to conduct life without being placed the watchful eyes of others. It has been a challenge to accept and become accustomed to such attention, but has also offered a sense of welcoming.
In the workplace the celebrity status was at first both welcoming and daunting. The attention offered by students was overwhelming as they swarmed towards us upon entrance of the school; they screamed like rock star fans, begged for autographs, and flashed cameras from every angle like the paparazzi. It was wonderful to see so many students and teachers excited and eager to learn English, but confusing to an individual from a multicultural society, to be praised and held on a pedestal as a corollary of race and culture.
The celebrity status dissipated after a few months, and has been downgraded from ‘A list’ to ‘B list’, which offers a nice equilibrium for a sense of belonging; the attention offered has created a sense of community and a sense of belong in a country so far away from the familiarity of home. The dissipation of celebrity status has enticed a feeling of acceptance as a teacher and no long as just a foreigner.
As Korea further develops and expands its English programs, a further understanding of different cultures and races will emerge and the celebrity status of every foreigner who enters the country will dissipate; this will assist Korea in further becoming a key global player for it will offer a broader perspective for dealing with partner countries and cultures. The emphasis on learning English will be beneficial for the youth of Korea in the future as language is key to understanding culture with understanding comes compassion and with compassion comes progress. The growth of a foreign population in Korea due to the emphasis on English will also have positive influence on the global perception of Korea for it will spread further an understanding of the Korean culture and history to the rest of the world; this again will be beneficial for international and diplomatic relations. As a result adaptation into Korean culture will be better understood.
For a Native English Speaker, who has little to no understanding of the Korean language or culture, every day is a challenge and a learning experience whether it be at the workplace, in a taxi, on the bus, in the streets or in a store trying to buy food. It is with the difference of language that culture shock truly rears its head. Basic survival skills have had to be altered and adjusted in order to ask the most basic of questions "how much," "where is_____?," "When?" "How?" "Please?" Alternative methods such as pointing, gesturing, and drawing have become the Native English Teachers source of salvation for communication, essentially a NET must become a master of charades and an adherent to patience.
Despite frustrations of nominal understanding, moments of bliss arrive with erudition of the language and culture. Simple tasks such as giving a taxi driver directions or ordering 김밥 have become momentous occasions as each word learnt acts as a leeway to a wealth of understanding and appreciation. Small successes are pivotal and can change a day filled with doubts and anxieties into a day filled with hope and optimism. These momentary glimpses at the possibility of communication seem to erase an entire days worth of frustration and offer hope at a deeper understanding of Korean culture.
It is clear to see that Korea is a country rich in culture and history. As outsiders to this ancient and rich culture, we strive to learn more and hope to someday indulge ourselves in the wealth of information that lies beneath the surface of language. At present we are simply sitting on the edge of Korean society, trying to learn trying, trying to understand, wanting to know, wanting to see, and wanting to experience all that Korea truly has to offer. The cultural outings, performances, and classes offered by the Office of Education have been helpful in giving us a guiding hand into the deep vault of history and culture that is Korea. It is with the opportunities presented and the desire to learn more about the culture, the history, and the people, that Native Teachers find solace in the daily troubles and challenges of life in a foreign country.
The challenges of language seem to be the most daunting of all, and this is especially present in the workplace. The inability to effectively communicate thoughts, wishes, and hopes for the school and students weighs down on the spirit and makes being a good teacher a challenge. Here again raises the challenge of finding an equilibrium in the paradox of the language barrier. The desire to get to know and befriend coworkers can be sometimes over ridden by the angst that communication now brings. The simple act of conversation, which once rolled smoothly in the workplace at home, has become a daily challenge as each sentence, each phrase, and each expression requires explanation and repeated repetition. This same struggle rears its head in the classroom when dealing with students. As a foreign teacher we are teaching more than just the English language itself, we are teaching means of communication when words do not suffice, for this we are both teachers and students. As a teacher it is our job and responsibility to care, to be compassionate, and to be passionate about the development and wellbeing of students. One of the most challenging aspects of being an English teacher in Korea is seeing a student who is upset or hurt, and having extremely limited capability for offering a solution or for simply offering compassion. It is moments like these that culture shock strikes, that we miss home, and miss the ability to show empathy, to show concern, and the feeling of making a difference, but it is with this challenge that we strive to understand, strive to learn, and strive to find ways to overcome the language hurdle and become a better teacher. As with every aspect of life in Korea, a day filled with frustration and anxiety can be made all worthwhile with the smallest of accomplishments. Watching a light turn on for a student when something clicks or being offered a simple smile bestows the strength and energy to continue to strive to be the best teacher one can be.
Within the school system another challenging aspect of cultural differences, without a doubt, is the means of punishment for students who have misbehaved. Coming from a country where a teacher is not permitted to touch a student for any reason (not even and encouraging pat on the shoulder is permissible) to a country where physical punishment and physical contact in a positive light is prevalent has been a shock. It is obvious that Korea has been developing rapidly in terms of social development over the past few years and drastic and that positive changes have been made. As a student of development studies it is clear that ways of the past will not, and cannot change overnight. It is also evident that new policies, laws, and norms can only develop with time and persistence and cannot instantaneously been effective, so it is with the understanding of development that culture shock in this vein has been manageable, yet it remains a challenge to the adaptation of the life of a Native English Teacher in Korea.
Despite the many challenges faced whilst living and working in Korea, the kindness and generosity of the Korean people never ceases to amaze. They have inexorable concern and interest in our well being. This genuine concern for has made many other challenges less daunting; issues such as cockroaches, floods, lack of air-conditioning in the scorching heat, and lack of heating in the freezing cold, and daily troubles of finding food, visiting the doctor, and conducting business at the bank have all been manageable thanks to the prompt solutions and alternative options that Korean co-teachers and fellow teachers have presented. Their concern for our health and well being has demonstrated a beautiful aspect of Korean culture. The overwhelming generosity at the workplace from fellow teachers has been one of the most lovely aspects of working in Korea. Despite the language barrier, simple smiles, offerings of treats, and friendly nods of encouragement have demonstrated an understanding of compassion which seems to be within each and every Korean. The invitations to countless dinners, parties, and home visits have truly contributed to a further understanding of the culture in terms of food, custom, and language.
It thus lies within the emotional paradox of challenges that Native English Speakers must find equilibrium for life in Korea. Korea can, with the continuation of helpful programs and continued education of foreign cultures and languages, make Korea a highly desirable country for more foreigners to visit and move to. It is with the continuation of these programs that Korea can encourage prompt adaptation to life in this country. As for a foreign teacher finding equilibrium, in the emotional paradox of intrigue and insecurity, each must do so individually through persistence, perseverance, and the passion for knowledge, understanding, and progress.