Originally from eastern Canada, I was placed in Jeollabuk-do, a province in south-western South Korea, in a small city situated near Jeonju, the province’s capital. On my first day, I ate lunch with my vice-principal, fellow teacher, and mentor teacher. They got to know me, just as I got to know more about them. They then helped with bringing my luggage to my new room and connected my phone to my apartment’s Wi-Fi (as I did not yet have a phone plan with data). Afterwards, I was given a tour of the school and then shown how to get to and from my workplace. Luckily, I am one of the scholars who is within walkable distance, therefore saving me the hassle of figuring out the schedules for public transportation. To boot, I live right next to a grocery store. My apartment’s placement is lovely, and so is the room itself. And although the lack of an oven took some getting used to, it enabled me to gain inspiration for cooking a lot more rather than relying on simply baking. For my baking needs, I have gotten a toaster oven delivered to my apartment because, really, how can I forego making cookies?
I have been here three months by now. I have learnt which shops I enjoy going to, have gotten a chance to see cherry blossoms bloom, have visited some of the many cafes and pastry shops available in my town, and have visited the local tourist spots. I know which snacks I like, and which store I should buy it from. It’s familiar to me now. When I leave my house, I make sure to wear a mask, but that reduces nothing of the experience. I think it somehow enhances it instead. I am not the only one wearing a mask; we all are. It makes getting ready in the morning that much easier, to be quite frank. You only have to worry about one half of your face, though I do fear the tan-lines that may occur if the sun gets any stronger (and trust me, I could feel the sun be pretty hot since early April!). Although it’s still considered to be spring, the temperature in mid-April resembled that of June back in Canada. I may or may not fear when summer truly starts, and the idea of using my umbrella as a makeshift parasol has crossed my mind more than once…
Jokes aside, the country feels safe: the government has handled the covid19 situation well, making sure to follow up with cases to prevent as many outbreaks as possible. My city has been unaffected up until now, having no cases. When I speak to friends and family back home, they seem more affected than I am here. Life is normal, as normal as it can be in the midst of a pandemic. Sure, I would have expected to have visited most of the major cities by now, but I still have plenty of months to go. Although I may not have travelled outside of the city since I got here, it has allowed me to learn more about my city itself: its history, its people, and its streets… though I admit I’m still working on that last one, having needed to look up a map more than once. I apparently don’t have as good of an instinct as I thought I did: when I choose which street to turn onto, it often curves away from the direction I was expecting it to go (and since I’m too prideful to retrace my steps… well, you can guess the rest).
It’s not always fun and games though. There are moments of loneliness. There are moments of doubt, especially when the skies are grey for days and time-zones make it hard to connect with friends back home. Fortunately, we scholars tend to create group chats at orientation so we all stay connected in South Korea, and you can also make friends here to talk to and hang out with. Keeping connected with fellow scholars and going outside, taking a breath of fresh air, can help refresh your thoughts. Take a trip to your local convenience store and grab a snack and a drink. Remember to take care of yourself. Thinking back on my three months here, I think some of hardest things I have gone through up to date have been dealing with going grocery shopping the first time and buying garbage bags. Although mundane, grocery shopping was and still is a slight ordeal. I now know where most things are, but I remember going around in circles multiple times, just trying to find garlic… (in my defense, I’m used to garlic being stored with the other produce in the middle of aisles, not in a bag in the refrigerated section). I learnt a lot by watching others grocery shop, especially when it came to picking produce I was unfamiliar with or when dealing with sales. As for the garbage bag story: I looked in the grocery stores, in the convenience stores, even in the Daiso fifteen minutes away… just trying to find the garbage bags in the aisles like I’m used to doing back home. I learnt the hard way that they’re actually… right next to the cashier at the grocery store when you go to pay. You see, lots of people use them to bring their groceries home, so their double usage is pretty convenient. Furthermore, the bags seem to be a city-specific thing, so the colour can change from one place to the next. For example, in my city, they’re pink (which may make you wonder how I managed to miss them, but I can’t think of a good excuse). If you want one, you ask (pointing works) and say the quantity you want (or use your fingers to indicate the amount you want). Hand motions to explain works with all age groups. Good luck stopping the habit in casual conversation though!
On that note, for those worried about the usage of Korean… don’t be. It’s not something you should stress out over. Not to say it won’t be difficult and intimidating, but you will learn the basics at orientation, and some more as you start living here. Although pretty much everyone at stores has spoken to me in Korean, they make sure to repeat and motion to ensure that communication occurs properly. In my opinion, some of the verbs I use the most are: 필요해요/필요 없어요 - I need/I do not need, and 주세요 - please give me. Some of the words I frequently use (and hear) from cashiers are 봉투 - plastic bag and 영수증 - receipt. Of course, there are also the greetings (안녕하세요, 어서 오세요), the ways to thank (감사합니다, 고마워요), and ways to say goodbye (안녕히 계세요 - for when you are leaving, 안녕히 가세요 - for when they are leaving), but those four words I initially mentioned may (hopefully!) be helpful addition to the beginner lesson you get. I’m still in the process of learning, and some of those key words have helped me understand what cashiers were asking, or helped me ask them for things I need. As you gain confidence, you will be able to more effectively communicate with your surroundings. You will make mistakes, but that is often the best way to learn for languages (seriously. I have never forgotten the mistakes I have made, as I refuse to make them again). I definitely suggest learning the language, as it is a wonderful way to connect with your surroundings, especially in your work environment. It’s important to remember that… as intimidating as it is to speak Korean to your coworkers or other, it is as intimidating for them to speak English to you!. Don’t be afraid to practice greeting them in Korean or speaking small sentences (I’m always happy when they initiate a conversation in English, so I assume it goes both ways!). You will also get plenty of opportunities to practice speaking and listening skills at any organized lunches. These learnt language skills will also allow you to better understand the signs that surround you in the streets. And trust me, it is really satisfying to recognize words you previously learnt on your way home or at stores (bonus: quicker reading skills makes your search in grocery aisles much shorter).
As for teaching, schools are unfortunately still mostly online as of I am writing this, but it is slowly resuming. I am only teaching 3rd to 6th grade students, and my duties as a teacher have been unexpected, but enjoyable. Although most of my first few weeks’ preparations will need adjustments, I get the chance to speak to my students on a weekly basis through phone calls. Although a tad awkward at first, I get to learn their voices, slowly associating their voices to their names. I get to focus on what they are saying, how they are saying it, taking notes on quirks they each have. I tailor my responses and my script according to their level, remembering to be flexible, but still aiming to attain the goals set out at the beginning of the phone call. I think this set up will make the whole experience of classes officially starting that much better. The students are excited for classes to resume; I’m excited to meet them. It’s a whole chain of enthusiasm which hopefully will lead to motivation in the classroom. I have met my coworkers more than I have the students, and have gained wonderful experiences that way, both in terms of eating lunch together or even playing volleyball with them (however, I will admit it was slightly intimidating to play on the same team as your boss…), and thus I look forward to getting along with my students, even if the first weeks are likely to be tougher due to the need for distancing (and therefore some of their favourite games may not be possible). I should get the opportunity to meet my 3rd and 4th graders... and let me tell you:
I. Cannot. Wait.
As for my parting words, all I will say is that my experience so far is not one I would trade. Yours may differ in one or many ways, as experiences are something you make for yourself. And my experience in South Korea is one I do not think I will forget anytime soon, especially as I believe it will only get better as the time I spend here grows. I think… my journey here has merely just begun.