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The Korean Experience (2008 Essay contest)
The Korean Experience (2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:10     View: 4226  

The Korean Experience:  A Danielle Henderson Perspective



 Eumseong Girls Middle School

Danielle Henderson


I like to think that my Korean experience is a unique one, in comparison to those of many other Native English teachers residing in large, urban areas.  Living in the small, rural community of Eumseong, I have been exposed to a typical, yet interesting, Korean lifestyle. From an agricultural perspective, I was able to witness how crops grow and they are harvested.  My house actually overlooks farmland, consisting of rice paddies, red pepper plants, and persimmon trees, to name a few.  From a social aspect, I was able to observe how people interact with one another in restaurants, at the market, and on the streets.  My first week was exciting, yet uncomfortable.  I was unfamiliar with the language, food, customs, and manor of which the chopsticks should be held.  Being a qualified teacher and having experienced both the Canadian and American school systems, I often compared the Korean education system and the students’ behaviors, and noted the differences.  


The Language Barrier


In the beginning, I was so embarrassed by my inability to speak Korean.  I did not know how to say thank you or the magic word please!  My decision to teach in Korea was, however, rather last minute, which made it difficult to learn Korean prior to my arrival.  Even if you are an English teacher, having knowledge of Korean can not only help you when out and about, but it will also impress your students and your school’s staff, thus gaining their respect.  I wish I had at least a weekend crash course in the Korean language.  I was only given a few travel brochures and tourist maps of Seoul and Cheongju, which were of little help for me, since I live in neither of those locations. 


             Most of the time, I play the game of charades in order to communicate. The use of facial expressions and body gestures are vital, especially when the ability to speak the Korean language is lacking.  Considering I live in a country that is foreign to me, I often thought to myself:  I need to learn how to speak Korean!  I knew how to read Korean characters; so, the next step was being able to learn what it was that I was reading.  The most important advice that I can give, in relation to learning a language, is listen to others around you.  For example, listen to people when they order food, or to your students when ask your co-teacher a question in Korean.  I am the only foreigner around, so I often do things alone.  As a result, I picked up some Korean.  For instance, I am able to order food at a restaurant, rather than having to point at the pictures or random words on the wall.  For a while I often had no idea what I ordered, but it was always something delicious.  After being here for nearly eight months, I can not only order food, but also use a taxi with ease and start a short conversation with the locals. 

The Food:  What to Expect


I love spicy food; so, adjusting to Korean food was no sweat!  That week I must have been warned about a thousand times that Korean food is much too spicy for me.  It wasn’t until after my fellow colleagues watched me lick my lips after consuming a large amount of Kim Chi, which I served myself in the school cafeteria, and heard that I had tried the infamous, spicy chicken feet, they knew that I had no problem with Korean food.  For a while, the cafeteria ladies watched me eat, I must say it felt a little awkward at first, but I was informed that they were impressed, and somewhat shocked by how much I enjoy Korean food, especially Kim Chi.  Now, the cafeteria ladies put a large bowl of Kim Chi on the table where I eat.  One of my co-teachers even made Kim Chi for me.  I was so thankful, especially having known how much time and effort goes into making it.  I was told that it takes hours to prepare.


Those preparing to teach in Korea should know that many Korean dishes can be quite spicy, especially if one in not accustomed to eating spicy cuisines.  Some foods may also be a bit on the salty side; however, I was told that rice is ideal to eat with such foods.  I quickly learned that a meal is not fully complete without a serving of rice.  I thought that I would get tired of eating rice practically everyday, but I actually feel incomplete without it!      


Market Day:  A Variety of Items, Including Sick Dogs


                     Market day in Eumseong is always an interesting event.  The main street is blocked off to enable vendors to set up their kiosks.  It is a great place to eat some dokpokki or sundae, and purchase household items, clothing goods, and a variety of foods.  It is not, however, a good place to purchase a dog.  I bought one and it died a few weeks later, from a serious life threatening disease.  I now have a new dog, which I bought from the market, but I was sure to take her to a good veterinarian for vaccinations and such.  I could not help it, she was so cute!  


Socializing With the Locals


             I have to admit, I felt alone for the first two or three weeks.  Apparently this feeling is referred to as being home sick.  I was the only foreigner in my town, and the only people who spoke English were my co-teachers, who I rarely associated with outside of the classroom.  In my town there are no western establishments, shopping malls, or movie theatres.  So, I decided to join a health club to pass the time, where I had the pleasure of meeting some friends who spoke English quite well.  They studied English abroad and were eager to be my friend.  My new friends introduced me to Norae Bang, a room where friends can sing their favorite songs, games such as Go Stop, as well as Korean style night clubs, where I learned about ‘booking’, an interesting concept of meeting people.  During the warm months, my friends and I had a few barbeque parties on the rooftop, Korean style, complete with samgyupsal and soju.  My knowledge of the poker game Go Stop came in useful when a few of my elementary students made a surprise visit to my house.  We played Go Stop together with my set of cards, given to me as a gift. 


Couples:  Purses and Couple Tees


             A popular Korean trend is the couple tee.  Many couples coordinate their outfits to the point that they may wear the same tee shirt, watch, ring, shirt, shoes, or pants.  One time I saw a couple wearing the exact same ensemble!  I have also witnessed on several occasions a man carrying his girlfriend’s purse.  This is never seen where I am from; but, I think that it is cute.  I have been dating a Korean for a while now.  When we go out he carries my purse and if we are not wearing the same tee shirt we make sure our outfits coordinate. 


The Korean Sauna:  Scrub Scrub Scrub!


             When I am having a stressful day I usually indulge in a bubble bath; however, most housing accommodations in Korea are not equipped with a bath tub.  The alternative is the Korean sauna, known to Koreans as a jjimjilbang! Jjimjilbangs are large, gender-segregated public bathhouses, complete with hot tubs, showers, steam rooms, dry saunas, and massage tables.  In another area of the building, usually located on a different floor, there is a common area for both genders, usually with a snack bar, a heated floor for lounging, TVs, and sleeping quarters with sleeping mats.


The first time I went, I was accompanied by one of my Korean friends.  If I went alone I would have felt uncomfortable.  I didn’t really know what to expect.  First she and I took off our clothes and entered the bathing area.  The first step is to wash our bodies before using the facilities. The shower set up is a little different.  We sit on stools in front of a mirror and use the shower head, which is located next to or above the mirror.  Then, after a thorough washing we can relax in the hot tubs, steam rooms, or dry saunas.  When we are done soaking in the tubs, we return to the shower area and scrub, scrub, scrub!  We use a washcloth to grind away the outer layer of dead skin.  My friend helped me scrub my back and I scrubbed hers.  I must admit, it felt a little strange at the beginning.  Afterwards, we put on the t-shirt and shorts provided for us, and relaxed some more in the common area.


The experience overall was a great one.  My skin felt softer and looked younger.  My body was fully relaxed, as was my mind.  I now make an effort to go at least once a week.  I truly recommend going to one!  Now, I consider myself a regular.  I sometimes bump into people I know in the community at the sauna.  I do not feel quite like an outsider anymore in Eumseong, I feel as though I am a member.  My teachers and my associates even say that I am practically Korean now!   


My Students, My Hanbok, and Dressing as a Student


             Overall my students are innocent, respectful, and kind, in comparison to students in western societies.  The students, however, can be rather chatty.  They also have the tendency to assume that since my class is conversational English, they need neither a workbook nor a writing instrument.  I want my students to be prepared at all times with paper and a pen.  I may assign group work, in which they need to create a dialogue, which needs to be written down first before they can present.  They may also need to write down grammar points.  I like to correct my students when they speak, so I usually instruct them to write down the corrections.


             Get to know your students.  Ask them questions.  Do your research.  For example, find out what music groups or singers are popular.  I did just that.  When I told my students that I enjoyed listening to Big Bang and the Wonder Girls, not only were they impressed that I knew of these groups, but they were proud that I took an interest in Korean music.  Finding a commonality can also open many doors, in regards to mutual understanding.


During Chuseok, the three day harvest festival, also known as the Korean Thanksgiving, I wore a beautiful pink hanbok to school, which I bought custom made.  I actually drove my pink scooter to school while wearing my hanbok!  I must have been a sight to see for many of the locals.  My students, along with the teachers at my school were not only surprised, but also very happy to see that I have been taking an interest in their culture.


For Halloween I decided to dress as a middle school student.  I purchased a black wig, black contact lenses, and borrowed a school uniform.  I went to school dressed up.  My students appreciated my costume and the teachers enjoyed it as well.  I like to make learning fun.  Many students are nervous to speak English.  Making the students laugh or smile takes the edge off things a bit and increases their confidence level.   

The Classroom


             Lessons are expected to be planned by the individual native English teacher.  This allows for some freedom.  I like that.  Choosing a theme, providing students with vocabulary, and having students, in pairs or in groups, create a dialogue are great ways to enable students to speak. 


             More often than not, I am in the classroom alone.  My co-teachers are often busy, so they trust that I can teach alone and communicate my ideas to the students.  When teaching alone, body gestures, along with pictures on the blackboard, are a must!  Patience is also vital, when teaching English, because it may take some time for your students to grasp the concept, which you are trying to portray.  Having knowledge of a few Korean words or phrases can be quite convenient, especially in terms of discipline. I learned to use the phrase:  “Stop it!”  The first time my students heard me use it, not only did they listen, but I also gained their respect.


My Co-Teachers


             My co-teachers are great.  They speak English well and are very helpful in and outside of the classroom.  When I need my instructions to be translated into English they are more than willing.  I am also able to call them when I need some assistance when out and about in the community.  For example, they helped me get a phone, locate great travel deals, and direct me to wherever it is I need to go.  They are approachable and hardworking people.  If I have a concern I can discuss it with them.       

The School:  What to Watch Out For


             In regards to schedule changes and exam dates, it appears that the last people to be informed are the native English teachers, in my case anyways.  For example, I would go to class and either it would be empty or my students would have a confused look on their face.  I would then return to my desk in the office and my co-teachers would find me and inform me that the schedule had changed.  There was another time when I arrived to school only to be told to go home because the students had an exam and that my classes were cancelled.  I soon realized that things are done differently here.  So, I had to adapt and expect that my schedule may change at any moment. 


             Winters are cold in Korea, just like they are at home; however, unlike home where I take my coat of in the school, I keep mine on while I teach.  The teachers’ room and classroom are heated; but, the hallways are not, so I can never seem to get warm.  One time, I actually saw the front door open!  Dressing in layers is ideal in the winter.

A Suggestion for Recruiters


             I have had a positive teaching experience in Eumseong.  I am fortunate to have good co-teachers who, not only teach well, but are also kindhearted people.  I do not regret coming to Korea, in fact I recommend people come and teach.  As I have heard many times before, there is always room for improvement.  I do, however, have one suggestion.  Before I came to Korea, I knew very little about the culture and what to expect.  I am a versatile person who can adapt well and quickly in any situation, but I cannot say the same for all people.  Being properly informed of what to expect may be a great idea for those people who may complain later for not being fully aware of the teaching or living conditions.  Watching a short video containing the possible teaching locations, such as Eumseong, Chungju, and Cheongju, a look inside some accommodations, schools, and so forth, is an ideal way to have teacher prospects have an idea of what to expect.  Perhaps a short book comprised of essays from native English teachers recanting their experiences, and lists of what to bring or what to expect can be provided to teacher candidates.  


A Happy Ending to be Continued


             Overall, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to live and teach in Eumseong.  I will always have fond memories to keep with me for a life time, and be able to share them with my friends and family back home.  The benefit of living in a small town is that you can observe how Koreans go about their everyday tasks.  I know that my students have learned a lot from my teachings; little do they know that they, along with the people of Eumseong, taught me so much about Korean culture, as well as who I really am.  I truly am thankful.  I plan on continuing my teaching career in Korea.  When in Korea, do as the Koreans; trust me you will have a great experience and many fond memories if you follow this rule!         





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