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LIFE IN KOREA (2008 Essay contest)
LIFE IN KOREA (2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:13     View: 2376  



Sinsung Elementary School  

 Mathew  Burnett Thomas


Autumn in Melbourne is like Autumn anywhere else that doesn't see snow.  Rather than being a holding pattern, a period of surety before the frost, a release from Summer and a promise of Winter; Autumn in Melbourne is like Spring without the scent of flowers.  Our evergreen trees refuse to drop their leaves, or change their colours and people's fashion changes slowly after Summer.  So it was in Autumn this year, sitting in Goshen Korean Restaurant in Melbourne, that I slowly started to adapt to the cultural difficulties of living in Korea.

"Eat the kimchi, people will be really offended if you don't eat the kimchi", my friend and 'cultural advisor' said.

"No, no, no...NEVER pick your bowl up, that's insulting.  Oh, and don't blow your nose so loudly, or near the table, or facing someone.  Am I older than  you?"  Questions, advice, ideas, and gentle bullying all designed to make my Korean life a little bit easier.

"Um...I'm old are you?" I sputtered, still wondering where in Korea I would go when I needed to blow my nose.

"I'm twenty-seven, but my Korean age is twenty-nine...what's your Korean age?" She asked, in a manner best described as matter of fact.

"Ummm...I have no idea."

"It doesn't matter, you're older than me, I should have poured your makju."



So it was, that with three weeks before I even entered Korea for the first time, I found myself struggling to adjust to a series of rules and cultural expectations completely alien to my own.  I looked around the restaurant and saw that the Korean people weren't blowing their nose, or lifting their bowls, and that their glasses were always re-filled by their companion.  My head was swimming, I needed to lie down.

"So, what blood type are you?"

I slept very, very poorly that night.

        Three weeks later and I was peeking through murky rain and clouds to get a glimpse of Incheon from the window of the aeroplane.  The flight had been very exciting, and I had used the time to taste some Korean food and try to pick up some Korean beyond Anneyong Hasayeo.  It was shortly after disembarking that I had my first, and nearly most embarrassing cultural problem.  I was in the bathroom, attempting to wash my face, but I could not get the tap to work.  There was a little plunger style metallic rod, that I had tried pushing up and down to get some water running...however it seemed to only make the plug move up and down. was all I could see.  I waited, and tried to pump some water out.  I was standing for five minutes before a nice Korean man approached and said,

"They are automatic, just put your hand under the tap." 

"Komsee Homeeeda" I said, attempting to express thanks (incorrectly) in Korean.

"What?" Said the man, with a look on his face that suggested that he thought that I was dangerously insane.


"Ah...kamsa are welcome," said the man, drying his hands and leaving before I could damage his language any more.

        The taxi ride from the airport took a very long time because the driver was clearly lost, however his spirits were high, and his conversation decent.  It was early evening, and as we drove I could see many, many buildings with red crosses glowing on the top.

"Korea has so many hospitals," I said, "I have never, ever, seen so many hospitals."  The driver was quiet for a while after that, clearly unsure of how to respond.  It was a few days before I noticed a red neon cross on top of a building near my apartment, and realised that the crosses did not designate a hospital at all...they were actually churches!  I arrived at my school at half past eight and was met by my co-ordinator Roh Sung Hee.  A small Hyundai (another cultural curiosity is the lack of different car brands on the road here, Australia has so many different types of car)arrived and out of the car climbed a Korean couple.  I had corresponded with Mr Sung Hee (as I had addressed my email) two or three times before I came to Korea, so was extremely surprised to learn that my co-ordinator was not actually a man.  Surprised does not quite do justice to how I felt when my co-ordinator put out her hand and said,

"Hello, I am Roh Sung Hee.  I am a woman, in your email you said Mister."  So...I had been in Korea for less than three hours, but had managed one cultural mistake per hour!  At this rate I was going to make 8,760 mistakes in my first year in Korea...a very alarming statistic, especially when you consider that I had not even taught a class, been to my apartment, or met more than four Korean people.

        In the six months since these three mistakes I have made many more, however, none so memorable or embarrassing in hindsight.  I know now that making mistakes is natural when you live in a new country that is so different from your own.  Conflict is natural also, and sometimes occurs quickly and in situations that surprise a foreign teacher.  In Summer, for example, I was very warm and decided to wear shorts to school rather than my suit trousers, simply because I was very, very hot.  I wore shorts for three weeks when a young male teacher approached me in the corridor and said that I shouldn't wear shorts to school.  I thought this was very strange, in so far as I didn't teach with this teacher, who was much, much younger than me.  Why would he give me instructions?  I said as much, and he said that the Principal had mentioned it to him. 

"So what?" I thought. "Who does he think he is, telling me what to do?"

So, I went to my co-ordinator and talked, and complained and shook my head.

"In my culture, a younger man, who is not my boss, would never, ever, tell me what to do at work.  It's very impolite."  I explained.  My co-ordinator looked very concerned, and explained that the principal had thought that since I was friends with the young teacher, that I would prefer to hear the request from him.  In my culture, a Principal would never, ever have a friend pass on such a request, so I had not even considered that this would be the reason.  I'm glad that I explained my side of things, because now, when I am told that something will happen, it is always by the Principal, Vice Principal, or my co-ordinator.  It's a small thing, but it is how things are in Australia, so it makes me feel much more comfortable. 

        But Korea is not Australia, and I have learnt very quickly to adapt to different ways of doing things.  In my third month at the school, I delivered a speech to teacher's and principal's from nearby schools.  The topic of my speech was 'Differences and Similarities Between  Korean and Australian Schools and Students'.  In my speech I mentioned that in Korea, I am called 'Mathew Teacher', however an Australian student would never, ever, ever call me by my first name.  It would always be 'Mister Burnett'.  The Principal was clearly upset to hear that his students had been addressing me in a manner that would not be appropriate in Australia, and instructed all of the teacher's to notify the students...from now on I would be "Mister Burnett".  This was very strange to me, because I actually preferred to be called 'Mathew Teacher'.  The problem was one of communication.  The Principal heard my speech and thought that I was unhappy with the situation.  In reality however, I had no problem with the children calling me a name that they were comfortable with.  So I was faced with a big I explain to the Principal that there has been a big mis-understanding and have the children go back to calling me ''Mathew Teacher'?  Or did I follow up his instruction and punish children who did not follow his instructions and call me 'Mister Burnett'?  In the end I decided that I would take an approach somewhere in the middle of the two options...I would not encourage students to call me 'Mister Burnett' and I would not chastise students who called me 'Mathew Teacher'.  This approach has been very successful, students call me whichever of the two names they prefer, and the Principal has not 'lost face'! 


        In fact, as a Native Teacher, the best approach is to not be sensitive or egotistical.  If you relax, and try to understand why things are happening, you can generally understand a situation and respond appropriately.  Korean's are a lot more patient than my friend in the restaurant led me to believe, and they seem to be extremely appreciative of the fact that I try to understand Korean culture.  So understanding in fact, that they are kind when I make mistakes!  It is this kindness that makes it easy for Native Teachers, but it is also something that we have to try very hard to reciprocate and not take advantage of.  Because people at my school are patient with me, and my Australian quirks, I try to be patient with their 'Korean quirks'.  Something that has been consistent in my time here, is a lack of notice about things that will happen.  This can be something small, such as a class being cancelled, or something large, such as a television crew filming one of my lessons!  I am often very surprised by what happens, and how little I am told, but I am learning to be patient and to show the same kindness towards my teachers as they show to me.  It is the only fair approach.  I am also very careful not to take the kindness of my Korean Teachers for granted, and I make sure that I give as much as I get, especially when it comes to things such as coffee and morning tea with my fellow Grade Five teachers.  I take great pleasure in bringing them things from Australia to eat, or bringing a box of coffee that they see me as an equal, and not an 아 가!

        Most of my cultural problems in Korea have actually come from sources outside of my school and outside of Korea!  It's something that I hadn't thought of before I came here, but I often find myself spending time with other Native Teachers from countries that use different English to mine, and have different concepts about things such as personal space, and humour.  There are some words that Canadian and American people say in English, that Australians would NEVER say, and there are words for things in Australia, that are used for other things in England.  For example, in England, they say 'trousers' and 'pants', in Australia we say 'pants' and 'underpants', so if I say to an Englishman, "I tore a hole in my pants playing soccer yesterday", they laugh and laugh because they think I mean underpants! 

        Teaching English in Korea is a wonderful opportunity and a fantastic way to learn about a different culture.  It has provided me with an understanding of life that I could not have gained any other way, and I feel that more than anything, it has taught me about who I am.  I plan on teaching in Korea for many years, and see this not as a single year, but rather as an exciting and worthwhile season of my life.  This season of my life is more like an Australian Spring than a Korean Autumn though, for it is warm, sunny, and full of learning and experiences.  It is a season where I still don't know where and when to blow my nose, I never lift my bowl, and I know that my blood type is A...but I still don't know if that's good or bad.  Because of these things, I feel that far more than being a Guest English Teacher, I am a Guest Australian Learner, for I am learning more, and more every day.

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