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Culture Shock... It's about more than Chopsticks!
Culture Shock... It's about more than Chopsticks!
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:01     View: 1382  

(2007 Essay contest)


 Govan, Charlotte

 Uiseong Middle School(경상북도 소재)



Culture shock is something I have felt at many times throughout my stay in Korea. I first arrived 14 months ago in August 2006, having graduated from University in the July of that year. I remember my first few days in Korea: I was daunted by everything and everyone I saw around me, knowing that a year’s contract was hanging over my head and wondering whether I would be able to complete it. The people I met at my Orientation seemed to have all either traveled extensively, or been trained as a teacher, so as my first trip outside of Europe, and with neither training nor experience in teaching, I was very doubtful of my ability to thrive here. Now, I look back on the challenges I faced and the different examples of culture shock that I have experienced, and I can see that this is what has made my time in Korea the adventure I was always looking for.


During the early days of my time here, the biggest challenge for me was something so simple…being able to eat a meal. During my EPIK Orientation, we were taken to a galbi restaurant to eat some traditional Korean food together. This was my first real encounter with chopsticks, and while I’d like to say it was a success, the reality was quite different. Picking up pieces of meat and delicately placing them in the leaves looked so graceful when other people did it, but for me there was meat falling in my soup, my rice, anywhere other than onto the leaves. I performed so badly with the chopsticks that the Korean bus driver who had taken us to the restaurant couldn’t help but laugh at me, though of course I was already laughing at myself.

During my first week of school too, there were no knives and forks to rescue me, and on the several occasions I was invited to lunch with the Principal I was a mess of chopsticks falling into my soup and rice flying everywhere. One occasion is now famous with my teachers and students alike as a piece of fish actually flicked onto the tray of my Principal, who was too polite to comment but who delicately removed it to the side. At times like this, it was easy for me to think that this was a culture I could never settle into, and that I would never feel at home here.

These days using chopsticks doesn’t faze me, and while I still have days where for no apparent reason I am totally inept, I can usually pass a meal without too much hilarity. Since my early difficulties, I have often taken my ability to eat a meal as an indicator of how adapted I am to Korean culture, but adjusting to the Korean way of life is about more than being able to use chopsticks, and to truly adapt to life here, there were many more challenges I would have to face.


One adjustment I had to make was being comfortable living in a small town. My hometown in England has a population of 53,000 people, and I am quite contented living in a relatively small place. After finding out that my new town of Uiseong has a population of around 15,000, I was quite scared, and I wondered how such a small town would receive a foreigner. There has been a Native English teacher at my school for several years now, but there is no doubt that I am still unusual here, and even the other two foreigners who live here have not changed the curiosity I am faced with on a daily basis. At first, the lack of anonymity was a big challenge for me, as I felt it to be a little suffocating, and I longed for the days of walking down a street where I was considered normal enough to avoid strangers staring at me, and stopping me to speak in a language I couldn’t understand. Like many things here, I learnt that the best thing to do was participate, and these days I will happily walk home greeting the farmers at the traditional market and encouraging the elementary school children who are too shy to speak. I recognize that the stares I met with were not in any way unfriendly, and now I can understand a little Korean I know that the words I am greeted with are those of astonishment, and of care. Last week a grandmother stopped me on the street near my apartment to ask if I lived here alone or with my family. When I gave her my answer, she was sad to hear that my parents are far away in England, and hoped that I felt comfortable and welcome in the town that had been hers all her life. Living in a small town has definite benefits, and I found that I could adapt to Korean culture more quickly than those in larger cities. The Western presence here is minimal, in terms of people as well as culture, and even food. There are no cinemas or DVD rooms to watch English­speaking films, and for Western food here the choice is chicken or pizza. Had I lived in a large city, I know that when I missed home I would surround myself with Western things to attempt to feel less homesick. In Uiseong, that is not an option for me, and transport difficulties mean I must stay here during the weekdays. While this is something I have often been frustrated by, it has meant that I have been forced to adapt to Korean culture more quickly, and as a result I have Korean friends and even a surrogate family here to help me understand Korean culture better, and feel more ties to my town. Coming from a town I had lived in all my life, and a famously friendly University town where I had lived for three years, I felt a little stranded without ties and links within Korea. However, living in such a small town meant that these links were fostered quickly, with people who saw me each day and who were eager and keen to welcome me here, and as I walk through the town now I can meet students, and their parents, who all provide me with that connection to Uiseong, and more roots in my new home.


Not each interaction with Korean people has been friendly of course, and sometimes, I have been treated badly because of my foreign status. Only this weekend I went to a Korean restaurant with some foreign friends and was surprised to find the owners quite unfriendly to us, despite our polite greetings to them in Korean and quiet behaviour inside the restaurant. The service we received was much slower and begrudgingly given in comparison to the Korean group that arrived later, and we found it a little unsettling. We talked about this, and while we were unhappy to be treated this way, we tried to remember that this may have been because of some bad feeling towards foreigners caused by past experiences. Not all people in any country are good, but with so few foreigners living in Korea it’s easy for some to give a bad reputation to us all, and affect how Korean people feel about all foreigners. With that in mind, it’s so important for me to remember that I’m not only an English teacher in Korea, but I am a guest here. If I am the first foreigner that a Korean has met, then I am not only representing my country, but all foreigners, and if I behave badly, then it may make that Korean person feel scared about speaking to a foreigner in the future, and feeling unhappy that foreigners are here in their country.


This all speaks of my experiences outside of school, but of course the reason that brings me here is that I am, first and foremost, an English teacher. Luckily for me, I am blessed with co­teachers who are supportive, encouraging, and very understanding of my situation as a foreigner in a new place, but this does not mean that culture shock does not continue into the school environment. Though my co­teachers have never used it in my presence, corporal punishment is still used on some occasions in my two schools, and I have witnessed some students being punished in this way by other subject teachers. At first, I was shocked and upset to see this, but as I spent longer in Korea I could understand more of the meaning behind the actions. Korean teachers use love as a guiding philosophy of punishment, and will punish the student with love and a hope that they will do better in the future. Now that I can understand this, and have seen the words of encouragement given by the Korean teacher after the punishment, I can put this experience down to cultural difference, and while this does not mean that I will use this technique myself, I am no longer uncomfortable with it being used by others.


As I mentioned earlier, when I first arrived in Korea I was an inexperienced and untrained teacher, and I was well aware that to many people, this meant that I was destined to fail as an EPIK teacher. When I arrived at my school, I was further challenged by the complete freedom I was given to choose teaching methods and materials. While some EPIK teachers are given specific areas, materials, or even textbooks from which to teach, I was, like many others, told that ‘anything is ok’. Having been given some ideas during my Orientation, I could set about creating a programme of work that could co­exist alongside the students’ studies and encourage them to see English as a fun and rewarding subject. My Orientation group set up an email network to share ideas, thoughts and worries about any aspect of our time teaching and living here, and for many of us this was a boon that gave much support and inspiration. Where foreign teachers gather, there is an inevitable sharing of ideas on teaching subjects, discipline ideas, and any number of teaching advice being distributed, and I have found it to be a vital part of surviving, and being happy here. From such conversations, I have garnered useful information on subjects from how to build a good relationship with a co­teacher to the best place to buy Mexican food!


Another popular conversation topic among many foreign teachers is how to motivate students, and various reward systems that have been incorporated into school life to encourage good behaviour in class. After quickly deciding that giving candy was not a good way to motivate students, I worked with some suggestions from a co­teacher and created a system where students would be given a stamp for good behaviour and contributions in class which represented one pound. The students saved these ‘pounds’ in an English Class Bank Book, and each month they could visit the English Market to spend their money. This gives the students control of their own rewards, as they can choose stationary, or chocolate, or other things to buy, and, as English Market has a strict English only rule, their reward also requires them to practice their conversation skills in a realistic environment. This system is very popular with students, and now my co­teachers also give money tokens in the English classes they have without me. Having one reward system across the entire subject has been very successful, as students are working towards the same goals in all their English classes. Furthermore, having a fun opportunity to use real English in a real situation encourages the students to think of English as a valuable resource and a skill, rather than something to be studied solely in order to pass a test.


As I mentioned earlier, when I first arrived at my school, I was given free­reign in my classes while some teachers were told to teach specific topics. In many ways, teaching English here is a gamble, as some are lucky to be placed in schools with great co­teachers, good support and a welcoming atmosphere, while others may not be so lucky. Each province has different rules and regulations about so many aspects of school life that it can sometimes foster discontent between teachers. Some provinces will pay overtime to teachers for English camps, whereas others will not. Some provinces will give generous additional holiday time whereas other teachers are required to go into school even though they have no work to complete. If a teacher is told that they cannot receive additional pay for an English camp, then that is something that they will accept. But, if they later discover that a teacher doing the same amount of work does receive pay, then it will cause the first teacher to be a little unhappy. This lack of cohesion across all parts of the EPIK programme is something that I would suggest can be improved. My contract is the same as that of someone in another province, but for us both life could be very different, and I think that at least in areas of pay, overtime work and vacation time, EPIK could give each province more definite rules to govern our situation. If there were the same rules across all provinces, then these are resentments that could be prevented.


Another suggestion I would make is to encourage more training of teachers when they have begun teaching in Korea. The Orientation I received when I first arrived was very helpful for me and really prepared me for my time here, but when I left I felt very alone, and this was actually the time I needed the most support. The in­service training I received recently was very helpful to me, as I think training together with my co­teacher is the best way to improve our teaching to students. I hope that this will continue in the future, as I know myself, and other teachers here learnt many things from the weekend. In terms of providing other support, it would be a difficult and expensive task to follow up each EPIK teacher after they go into their school environment. However, if policy were made to mandate each province to provide additional support to teachers shortly after their arrival, then that would definitely improve the situation without causing too much difficulty or expense. Introducing new teachers to more experienced teachers living in the area, and email or telephone contact with the new teacher to ensure there are no problems with school or living arrangements can make a big difference to the lives of a teacher just beginning their contract, and I think this could mean the difference between a struggling teacher deciding to stay and complete their contract, or break it by leaving early. Similarly, I think that peer support is a vital key to the improvement and continued success of EPIK. As I have mentioned, my Orientation group set up an email network to share ideas and resources, though this is something that has been used less and less as teachers from the 2006 intake have moved to other areas, or returned to their home country. If EPIK officials were to set up a website to which all teachers have access, we could share these ideas and concerns with other teachers who have experience and other advice to give. By encouraging EPIK teachers to support each other, it will alleviate some feelings of isolation and helplessness that I think many teachers feel, and again it would be something relatively easy and inexpensive to establish.


As I mentioned earlier, though I have experienced some difficulties during my time in Korea, these are what have made my time here such an adventure. Moving 6,000 miles away from my home to a country where I understood neither culture nor language was a completely daunting prospect, but it has been a time that I will cherish forever. I have been constantly overwhelmed by the beauty of this country, and the kindness and generosity of the people I have met here, and to anyone considering asking my opinions about EPIK, I would have nothing but positive things to say. I have been made to feel more welcome here than I ever could have thought possible, and I will always regard my experiences in Korea as some of the best of my life. I will always be grateful for how much EPIK has enabled me to do, and I am sure that the future will see the scheme go from strength to strength. In short, to all officials and staff who work so hard to keep EPIK running smoothly, kamsa hamnida!


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