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Metamorphosis (2008 Essay contest)
Metamorphosis (2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:18     View: 2909  


Mulmae Elementary school

Vanessa Temple


My name is Vanessa, but my Korean name is Han Nabi. I’m not Korean, I’m a Canadian who came to Korea five years ago and decided to make a life here.


My first year in Korea, I worked at a Hagwon (private learning institute) and noticed that all my Korea students had English nicknames. What a better way to relate to my students then to choose a Korean nickname for myself. With the help of some the older kids I taught, they helped me choose the name Han Nabi. My name, Vanessa means Butterfly, the name Han Nabi means One Butterfly, and I loved it.







During my time in Korea, I have found many small ways to adapt and to make my life more comfortable, such as mentioned above. I have a lot of stories. I have had amazing, wonderful, eye-opening experiences and I have also had time when I have asked myself “why am I in this country?” So I am writing this essay for people who have wondered about what it’s like being a GET (Guest English Teacher) in Korea and who wonder what it would be like to live and work in another country.

The title of this essay is Metamorphosis, which is the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. It’s kind of cheesy I know, but that’s sort of what happened to me……


After I finished my degree, I did what most people do- wonder what’s next? Which is of course how I ended up in Korea. Loaded down with the heavy ball and chain of my student loan and my handy Lonely Planet guide, I boarded the plane to Incheon knowing only how to say “hello”, “thank you” and “where’s the bathroom”. I was ready.




Everything was brand new, exciting and shiny, with an emphasis on the shiny. A new world filled with neon lights, singing rooms and red peppers. When the Honeymoon phase and the Soju eventually began to wear off, reality set in that I was not here on vacation, but was in fact living here, and working.


The first six months were rough, I won’t lie. I was stressed, I was sick; I was a minority for the first time in my life. I was angry, I was annoyed and frustrated. I got stared at, pointed to and whispered about just for being a foreigner. I couldn’t understand what was being said to me, and I couldn’t express myself any other way than through exaggerated hand gestures and ridiculous body language.


At my hagwon, for my second day in the country, I was launched into a classroom on of teenagers and asked to pick up the lesson where the last teacher had left off. WHAT? “But I didn’t know the last teacher or where she left off! I’ve never taught English before!” with a calm smile my director said “you’ll figure it out.”


I called my mother almost everyday, most times crying. I talked about how Koreans were so weird and how Canada was so great. And my mother, who has never traveled outside of Canada before asked me “why are you fighting everything so much? Why does everything have to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when maybe its simply just DIFFERENT.”

The next day I swallowed my pride, bought a book and taught myself how to read and write Korean. Things didn’t get better overnight, but I now knew what I was ordering from the menu.


Swallowing my pride was something I had to do a good many times, as I learnt the Korean meaning of “Saving Face” Being a Leo, Humble and modest were not two of my best traits. In western culture, being a strong, assertive, independent woman would be considered an asset to many, in Korean culture, knowing when to bite your lip, showing complete and utter respect to anyone older than you or with a higher social status, no matter how annoyed you are inside, will gain you BIG brownie points in the long run. Like, say, being 24 and charging into your 35 year old directors office to ‘demand why my classes have been changed and didn’t know about it until now’ doesn’t fit into the “saving face” category.


You might be seething mad, but showing attitude, raising your voice, using sarcasm, or starting any kind of confrontation at all, were all thing that go me no where I wanted to go, except more frustrated.

Adapting to any new culture is difficult, but as I learned the language more, I also understood the context a lot of it was used in.


I learned very quickly that in order to survive I had to avoid the negative people floating around, which could be said for life in general I guess. I made some great Korean friends who taught me about the culture and
showed me little things that helped me in a big way.




I also met lots of foreigners, who just like me, were trying to make a go of it in Korea. I clung dearly to those who made my days seem brighter and helped me manoeuvre through the mysterious new land. After five years, I am still close with many of them and I will always be grateful for their friendship.


By the end of my one year contract though, I was more than ready to go home. To see my family, be in familiar surroundings, eat my favourite foods and see old friends again. But something had changed, things felt different. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be happier to be back home. But there is something quite unsettling about feeling like a visitor in your own country.


I was confused I had experienced culture shock to the fullest extent while in Korea, yet I was feeling the same way in back home.

When I started to miss Kimchi and potatoes on my pizza, I got worried. It was then that my friend informed that I was experiencing “Reverse Culture Shock” which can sometimes be as bad or worse than culture shock itself.


All the really “bad” things that had happened to me while I was in Korea, now didn’t seem all that bad. I know this can happen with any situation you are away from for some time, but I really started to see all the things I had learned, especially about myself.


I started to remember the unbelievable generosity and hospitality of Koreans, the family like way they treat, address each other, and sometimes to a visitor in their country. I remembered my students and the bonds I had created even through language and cultural barrier. I and remembered the little things like how grateful the Korean people were when I made even the
smallest attempt at their language no matter how bad.


 Within 9 months of being back in Canada, I was once again packing up my life, and this time with a friend heading back to the land of naked saunas, more side dishes than you could want with any meal, and slippers you only wear in the bathroom.


This time I was ready! I smuggled as much cheddar cheese and deodorant I could fit in my bag, and signed a contract to work at a public school. I also was much more aware of what I was walking into, this time decided to instead compare everything to how things are done in my own country, to
just simply be an observer, and ride the Korean wave.


 The years to come also had their ups and downs, as I was still learning something new everyday. On the days that I felt like I didn’t want to deal with “them”, instead of complaining about my situation or getting frustrated about something that seemed totally ridiculous in my mind (ie. Climbing a mountain in high heels- I’ll still never get over that one) I would dive into something that made me feel happy- a hobby. Any hobby will do, but for me it was getting back into photography, something my father had taught me with his very old manual Pentax when I was about 11.


All of a sudden, instead of seeing things that would normally annoy me, I saw beauty in the everyday living of the Korean people. The outdoor market that I bought my groceries at, wasn’t just a market anymore, but colorful tents full of colorful people with colorful stories to tell.



 With my broken Korean, and their broken English, I would sit with the ajummas (aunties) while they fed me herbs and berries and poked at my tattoos and blond hair, listening to them tell how I should pour soju for someone older than me and how I should hold my glass when it was my turn to receive.I also took the time to capture my students on film, when they weren’t expecting it, seeing their true characters through my lens helped me get to know them better. I also made a point of not just being a teacher, but also being a friend to some of my students. Maybe because I was a foreigner it was easier for them to tell me things they wouldn’t
normally mention to their Korean teachers.




 We sometimes met and went out for ice cream, or just for a walk to the park to play games. What mattered most to me was not whether they got an A or D in English class, but for them to know that I cared about them and their efforts.





They also started a game to help me learn Korean. Their homework was to write 2 English diaries every week. So, as an incentive, they thought it would be fair for me to have to write two Korean diaries as well, and they would get to correct it.





As my years in Korea went by, I felt more at home. even thought I was a foreigner and would probably always remain an outsider in many regards, My korean friends assured me that I must have been Korean in a previous life because of my "Korean Heart" which meant my understanding and acceptance of Korean culture event though it was not my own.


 The more I learned about the people, their relationship to one another and the history of their country, the more Korean friends I made, and the more I appreciated the culture around me.


Now after five years, and several different cities throughout Korea, I am now here in Jeju with my Korean Fianc?. This may be my last year in Korea, or maybe I will be back again someday. Whatever the future holds, Living in Korea has helped me learn about myself and grow as a person. It has taught me to have an open mind as well as an open heart. It was taught me patience, acceptance and understanding for what is different than I am used to. For this, I am thankful for the "metamorphosis,” the transformation that living and teaching abroad has given me.


 My life in Jeju; my life in Korea.

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