Some of My Experiences as an ESL Teacher/ Foreigner in Korea: Part 1

I came to Korea to teach English in February 2018 and it is now September 2019, so I have been living and teaching here for some time now, enough time for me to experience and witness deeper aspects of Korean society and culture that you might miss if you’re just travelling here.

As with everything in life, I have experienced some lovely moments and some not so lovely moments and this has all shaped my experience of being a foreigner here in Korea.

My school has been wonderful and I have experienced a considerable amount of wonderful moments with my students and fellow teachers however, at the end of the day when I’m released into the wider Korean society, I have learnt that I need to rewire my mind in order to tolerate how the general Korean public responds to me. I did not know how to do this for a considerable amount of time here and I feel a little sad and regretful that I was so angry for so long.

I’m going to split this post into three. Part 1 being some of my experiences as an ESL teacher in the Korean middle school I work at, Part 2 being my experiences with my friends in Korea and Part 3 being some of my experiences as a foreigner in the wider Korean society.

Some of my Experiences as an ESL Teacher in a Korean Middle School

Having dinner with school teachers
Try and find me 😛

This is actually where a lot of positive experiences have happened so let’s get into it.

When I first arrived and spent some time working in this middle school, I remember a significant amount of teachers were really eager and keen to say “Hello!” to me and introduce themselves. Science teachers, Buddhism teachers, the Hanja teacher, a Korean language teacher and a few others.

I was really nervous coming into the school and I didn’t know what to expect, but this warm and friendly welcome was a lovely surprise. Their warmth towards me gave me the courage to slowly open up to them, practise my Korean and have short conversations with other teachers in the faculty.

Even though I was the only Native English Speaker at my school, (a lot of other teachers do speak great English too) it didn’t take long for me to feel part of the school family.

In my first year I was invited to A LOT of teacher dinners. The amount of dinners we had, I’m told, was quite rare but I think it was these dinners that helped me bond and become closer to other members of staff, despite not being able to talk to them on a day to day basis.

Even though these dinners were a little burdensome on my schedule at the time, I think they did more good than bad in terms of my overall experience at this school.

This next point was neither good nor bad, it was just a thing that seemed to happen a lot.

My students would always say to me “Teacher, your face is like this!” and they would hold up their fist. No, they didn’t want to punch me in the face but I was a little confused at first as to what they meant. I asked them and they told me it meant that my face was small, apparently as small as a fist.

A lot of my female students have the belief that they have a wide face (due to advertising and beauty standards broadcast all over Korea) so they see my face, a ‘Western’ face, and they immediately think I have a small face.

It wasn’t ostracising or anything, they were just trying to communicate with me in a way they thought I would understand. It did make me think that I would probably never experience this in the UK, so it make me feel a bit different whenever someone pointed it out, but I never thought it was malicious or cruel.

In my first year I was teaching English to a handful of other staff members which over time, allowed me to grow close to them. I added them on Kakao (a Korean messaging app) and we would talk in English and Korean.

In addition to those I would teach, there were also other young teachers at my school who I grew close to and who I would chat with. I now follow some of them on Instagram and keep up to date with them even though they left the school last year.

By befriending these younger members of staff, I felt less and less like an outsider and more like I really belonged at this school. In a way it didn’t really matter that I was different than them, we all could relate in some way, chat about things and laugh together.

It was sad when a lot of them moved on from this school, but I’m still so grateful for our experiences together because they made my first year in Korea so much more bearable.

Another lovely moment of bonding was towards the end of my first year. I was invited to the house of another teacher along with a few other staff members for dinner, a film and to stay the night.

Our all-female teachers group consisted of me, two science teachers and an art teacher. Honestly I felt like I’d made it because I was getting to hang out with some of my faves hehe

The evening consisted of making telescopes, drinking tea from cute dainty cups, eating 전/Jeon (Korean savoury pancake) and fried chicken, doing an impromptu grocery run and watching the 2011 film version of The Three Musketeers.

During this evening I felt like I was just hanging out with my friends and we were enjoying each other’s company. No one was different, we were all equally having a fantastic time. I’m grateful for those teachers for making that evening so special.

Enjoying tea
These filters are hilarious

Moving from the more specific memories I associate with my middle school, to a brief summary of what my day to day life is like.

My general day to day life is nice but pretty tame. I plan lessons, I teach, I write, I do research. My students say hello to me in the corridors and they’re generally really friendly.

It wasn’t like that in the beginning. When I first started, the students were really cautious in approaching me, they wouldn’t really say hello and it was kind of awkward. Compare that to now when I have some students following my Instagram, they will freely come up and talk to me, they ask me all sorts of questions about English. I mean, some of them won’t shut up :P.

Developments like this make me really happy because it shows that I am making some sort of positive influence on their lives, which was one of my original aims and reasons why I came to Korea.

Of course I have had negative experiences with students, but I think all teachers do regardless of if they’re teaching in a foreign country or not. I remember complaining to another ESL teacher to no end about most of the seniors I taught in my first year, and she had similar experiences she would complain to me about. We managed to keep each other sane throughout that year and then my seniors graduated into their futures.

This year I have some problematic students again, mostly in their second year but armed with the experiences from my first year I’m able to deal with the nonsense they like to throw at me from time to time. Honestly they’re (arguably) not as bad as my senior students from my first year, but they do like to test me.

So to sum up, my experience as an ESL teacher isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. A lot of it is and that’s due to the wonderful teachers I work with and have spent time with, and the kind and curious students who I teach. However like I said, there are issues I have to deal with but this is a universal problem. When I look back on all my experiences in Korea, good and bad, I don’t think I would be the person who I am today if I didn’t experience them.

Finally, to everyone mentioned and associated with this blog post, if you know it or not, thank you for challenging me, for embracing me into your life, for welcoming me into the school family, for asking your questions and for saying “Hello” to me in the corridors. You helped me to grow stronger as a teacher and a person, you helped me to become more empathetic and despite our communication difficulties and differences, you made me feel at home in a country that was once so very foreign to me. And for all that, I say “Thank you.”

These are just some of the memories and emotions that I associate with my time as an ESL teacher my Korean middle school. Of course there are many more things I could mention but that is for a different time. Comment below if you would like to read more about my experiences in Korea. I think I have a few more stories to share 😛

If you want to read Part 2 about my experiences with some of the amazing people I’ve met whilst in Korea, CLICK HERE.

Thanks for reading and have a great day.

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