Some of My Experiences as an ESL Teacher/Foreigner in Korea: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a three part post about some of my experiences as a foreigner in South Korea. If you missed Part 1 or if you just want to recap my experiences as an ESL teacher, CLICK HERE.

Me at Seoul Queer Culture Festival 2019

My life as a teacher and my life out in the wider Korean society are quite different. For one, I don’t think my students think I have a life outside of school because whenever they see me walking around, their eyes widen in disbelief, they act suddenly awkward and make all the ‘shocked’ noises Koreans make like “오모!” which sounds like ‘Omo!’ and means something like “Oh my God!” and they frantically whisper to their friends.

Also, I’m perceived differently by the wider Korean public compared to how I’m seen at my school. In school I’m seen as a mentor and a friend. Outside I’m see as something different, an anomaly.

In this post I’m going to recount some experiences hanging out with my friends around Seoul throughout my time in Korea. This is going to be a great walk down memory lane for me and I hope you too will enjoy reading over these experiences.

In Part 3 I will discuss other experiences in the wider Korean public, how that affected me and how I worked through it.

Some of My Experiences with My Friends in South Korea

Whilst living in Korea, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and hang out with some really nice people. Most of them are other ESL teachers and some are Koreans living and working in Seoul.

When I first moved to Korea I was told that and I’ve learnt that it really helps to have a great selection of friends who act like your support group, because between hellish classes and being and looking very different to the Korean public, it can get tough living here in Korea.

It’s been such a relief sharing my troubles with other ESL teachers and ‘Western’ friends because they can relate to my own struggles with struggles of their own. We’ve all had nightmare classes, we’ve all experienced some kind of culture clash between our own cultures and Korean culture and we understand how sometimes it’s difficult to find food and ingredients for a dish we want to make.

All these little things can add up and weigh on your mind but it’s been so nice to talk about them with people who can also relate. It bonds you together through shared experience and shared hardship. It’s something familiar when you’re living in a country that’s so different.

I also have a handful of Korean friends I like to hang out with. They know the area way more than I do so they can take me to hidden gem restaurants, cafes and outdoor areas that I would not have known existed.

If I get confused with any Korean language they’re always there to help and guide me through with patience and kindness, plus they’re just generally nice people who I thoroughly enjoy being in the company of.

I’m honestly really grateful to have met these people who grew up half the world away from where I did. We can chat about our lives, social issues, have a laugh together and have fun. It shows that perhaps we, us humans, are not so different from each other after all.

So, without further ado, here’s some of my experiences with my friends around Korea.

When I first moved to Korea one of the first people who I met up with was one of my Korean friends. She and I met during a summer school my university (The University of Manchester) held in 2016 and have kept in touch ever since.

When I visited Korea for travelling in 2017, she was one of the people who I met up with and who showed me around many places in Seoul.

A year later and again, here we are enjoying a delicious lunch together. We’re in a dumpling café in 명동/Myeongdong and I remember the food being delicious. There is frequently a queue outside the shop but because the service is so fast, the queue usually goes down quickly.

This was a nice welcome to Korea on a cold March day.

The next month I was able to meet up with another Korean friend who I had also met at The University of Manchester 2016 summer school. He told me that he was bringing his girlfriend to introduce to me so we could meet for the first time.

We all went to a Japanese restaurant in 홍대/Hongdae which had some delicious food, and the afternoon was lovely. Both my friend and his girlfriend were so nice and kind and we all had a great chat together.

Afterwards we walked around Hongdae and got some Gong cha bubble tea together before we all departed and went our separate ways for the rest of the day.

They’re actually getting married in 2 weeks from the time I post this. I’ve been invited to the wedding and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I hope they enjoy married life and I hope they make each other happy.

Here’s another time when I met with my Korean friend. This time we went to 인사동/Insadong to see the artsy, hipsterish streets and to enjoy some 부대찌개/Budaejjige (Korean Army Stew) in an underground art market.

In that same month I went to a Vegan Festival held in Seoul (the specific place escapes me). It was a lovely day with some delicious vegan food. When I first entered the festival I managed to run into a few YouTubers based in Seoul who were also attending.

There was Megan Bowen, Carson Allen, Ida, Namu Kwon, Sharla and a few other women. I politely bothered them for a quick picture before moving on with the rest of the festival.

Me and some YouTubers

Throughout the rest of my time at the festival I ran into various other ESL teachers I hadn’t seen since orientation three months earlier. We all caught each other up on how we had been settling in and how we were liking (or not liking) Korea so far.

It was really nice to hear that some of the other teachers had already gotten involved with charities based in Korea and that they were really enjoying themselves. It was also reassuring to hear that some teachers were having some of the same struggles I was having so we could relate and share each other’s burden.

I remember having to leave early because I had other things to do that day but it was a fantastic time with great food and thankfully, some familiar faces.

With a teacher friend
More fellow teachers
Even more teachers

Shortly after the day of the vegan festival I met with another teacher who I had befriended at orientation. We met in 홍대/Hongdae, went shopping together and had some amazing Italian food in the little place in a back alley. We talked about our time so far in Korea, what we were enjoying and what we were both struggling with.

Throughout the rest of the summer in 2018 I met up with my teacher friend again and her Korean friend in 강남/Gangnam to enjoy some delicious Tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) with some fancy creamy garlic ramen.

Plus I also met up with one of my Korean friends again to walk around the 광화문/Gwanghwamun area and to eat some delicious food from a 김밥천국/kimbap cheonguk. This is a simple, no frills place to eat offering basic but delicious, cheap Korean food.

Fast forward to Christmas and due to other people having plans, it was just me and one other teacher who spent Christmas Day together. Christmas as a season isn’t really celebrated in Korea. So when people in the UK are celebrating Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, here in Korea we only get Christmas Day off.

During this time the lack of decoration and twinkling lights in my town did bring me down a lot. I’m used to celebrating the Yuletide season all throughout December with hearty food, the Christmas markets, beautiful decorations and family time but here where I live in Korea, it was just cold, grey and dreary.

So I did what I could to cheer myself up. I decorated my small one room flat, I put a Christmas tree in my classroom and decorated it, I sent cards to other teachers, I went to see the city decorations in Seoul and had a small but lovely Christmas lunch with another teacher who lives near me. I also Skyped my family in the evening to wish them a Happy Christmas. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the end.

We have now made it to 2019. After I visited my family back in the UK at the beginning of the year, I flew back to Korea and in February, met up with two other teacher friends.

We had lunch together at this great Mexican food place called Taco Loco in an area of Seoul called 신촌/Sinchon. Basically around the Hongdae area. Afterwards we went to an arcade where we played games and sang in a coin 노래방/noraebang, a coin operated karaoke booth. It was such a fun time.

Enjoying our Mexican food

My next meet up with a friend was about 4 months later. We were both craving some BBQ food and had decided to go to this place called Austin’s located in Hongdae. It was legitimately the best BBQ food I’ve ever had in my life.

The brisket was so flavourful and tender, the ribs were juicy and falling off the bone, the dipping sauce was rich with complex flavours and the wine I had was sweet and well rounded.

It was insane how good it was, and it was in Korea, which I did not expect.

Last but by no means least I finally met up with a girl who I’ve known since my first year of university. We bonded over our mutual liking of Korea, the fantasy genre, reading and books, knowledge, musical theatre, diversity and countless other things.

I like how my friend frequently offers fresh perspectives on ideas I have, and social commentary I think about. I love our honest conversations with each other and how we can confide in each other about problems we have. She inspires me to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. I really do cherish what she adds to my life.

I think I found a keeper haha

Honestly, I hope we can keep in touch in the future, although I know we both live separate and busy lives. For example, she moved to Korea at the beginning of 2019 but we couldn’t find time to meet up until August of the same year.

When we did meet up, we went to 이태원/Itaewon around the area where she lives and went and got some pizza and beer together. We updated each other on our lives, what had been happening since we moved to Korea, our jobs, what we’re thinking about for the future, politics, world issues, all the things.

It was a lovely evening and I’m sorry that it took so long for us to hang out again. If I’d had known it would be this good, I would have made more of an effort to meet up sooner.

I look back over all these experiences and it reminds me of all the fantastic people I’ve met whilst here in Korea and all the amazing memories we’ve made together. It is true what they say and what I said before; you need to make and have friends here in Korea. Even if it’s just to be around a language you’re familiar with.

I remember discussing this when I was first meeting up with these people; how I was so relieved to be around someone who I could speak comfortably with, in English.

As the months and years went on, our topics of discussion changed to what we were struggling with, what we thought of Korean society (good and bad), places we would like to travel to, what our plans for the future were. I have honestly met some amazing people throughout my time here who have opened my mind to new thoughts and ideas.

If you are someone from ‘the West’ coming to live in Korea, I would advise you to go out there and make friends. You’re going to run into some cultural ideas in Korea that make you feel uncomfortable, which you might need to discuss with another person to get a different perspective on your experience. You might struggle to find food you’re used to, so you might want to mourn over this with a friend 😛 If you are an ESL teacher, you will certainly have challenging classes you’ll want to problem solve with other teachers, who may have some new tactics and approaches for you to use.

Additionally, I advise you to find some Korean friends. My fantastic Korean friends have been so helpful, warm and accepting. They have given me hope and showed me that younger generations of Koreans are and will be more accepting and compassionate to foreigners in the future. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say, I’m glad that this is the trend.

So there we are, a smattering of some of the adventures I’ve had with friends here in Korea. I hope you enjoyed reading about them and I hope this cheered your day up a little.

If you’re struggling here in Korea, know that a lot of people are. There are a lot of good times I’ve had here but there are also bad times. That’s why we need to be there for each other, to offer a different perspective, to discuss advice or just to have someone to explore and have a laugh with. So good luck out there, go and find your friends and don’t worry, you’re doing great.

Thanks for reading. If you want to read more about my experiences and journey of accepting how to be a foreigner in Korea, click here for Part 3.

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