Culture Shock in Korea

(Warning, this is more just a stream of consciousness that found its way out of my brain rather than a cohesive thought.)


In a very bizarre turn of events my culture shock in Korea hasn’t been from the food or the language. Most of what has happened, has happened somewhat according to my expectations. I knew a lot about Korea before I got here, so that has helped immensely.
What I didn’t expect was that everyone I would meet at my school would tell me, if not shout at me, about how beautiful I am.
(Another disclaimer, I don’t think I’m some amazingly beautiful foreigner because I look different than everyone else. Not at all)
So if being constantly told I’m pretty is as bad as my culture shock gets, then I’m seriously lucky. But for fear of sounding like I’m complaining about it, let me explain further.
Living in Korea so far has been amazing. It’s a great combination of being both incredibly challenging, in that I don’t speak the language well and don’t know how to do basic things like take out my garbage, and also surprisingly easy. The city is so accessible, and the people I’ve met have been so helpful, and my apartment is so comfortable that when all is said and done I can’t believe how lucky I am.
Living here is easy. It’s teaching here that is going to be the hard part. Because while I really do love teaching, it’s not the teaching itself that I am passionate about. I’m passionate about connecting with people who don’t natively speak English, about showing my students that English is actually a beautiful tool for understanding the world.  I genuinely believe that I can be a good influence on these kids. Not only when it comes to English but also that I can be a window to another way of thinking, another country, and a whole world that’s out there if they take the time to look.
But that’s hard to do when there are 36 students in one class so my one-on-one time with them is almost zero, and their english is low enough that those conversations are just not going to be possible.
They’re middle schoolers. They don’t want to ask me about my culture, they want to know if my face is natural (read; have you had plastic surgery) or what my age is (because they’re trying to feel out who the real authority figure is, me or the Korean teacher.)
They are going to be challenging in ways that I never had to deal with when I was at my other teaching job. But they are also going to be fun in ways that I never had a chance to experience with university students.
I had a grade 3 boys class go not-so-well this afternoon. It wasn’t horrible but they were being rowdy and asking me questions that I know they would never ask to their Korean teachers because they’re frankly a little disrespectful.
Part of it is the cultural difference. Korea understands “beauty” in a different way than the west does. It’s more of a commodity, something to be used or acknowledged at every given chance. And after a few days of doing my introduction lesson, it seems that the main reason I’m interesting to them is because I’m apparently “너무 예뻐요!!!”
When I first start my class I’ve been saying,
“Hello my name is Devon, and I’m your new English teacher.” *Cheering*
“It’s very nice to meet you guys.” *Cheering*
“Welcome back to school.” *Cheering*
“Did anyone do anything special during winter vacation?” *And the cheering continues and I realize that no one has been listening to a word I’ve said. And that makes me a little sad.*
What I want to say, but of course lack the words in Korean and the general guts to say it, is that how I look is not why I’m valuable. I’m a good teacher and a kind person. I’m proud of myself for being smart and thoughtful and crazy enough to up and move to South Korea. 
But I when I think of my “worth” so to speak, I don’t think about my appearance.
But for so many of the students I’ve encountered that is all they can talk about.
And this is the main culture shock I’ve experienced here so far.
It’s hard to know how much of it is the language barrier because, “teacher so beautiful, teacher I love you, teacher boyfriend, your face natural, who is most handsome boy in class?” are all relatively easy questions to ask in a second language. But I get the feeling that they’re not asking those things because they lack the words to ask deeper questions.
I am idealist to my very core and despite every indication to the contrary I will probably continue to walk into every single class hoping for that teachable moment, there one where I can actually show them something they didn’t know before.
But I think I’m going to have to earn that. It’s not going to be as easy as it was in America. The level of English is much lower here and so it’s not really about what I say, but who I am. And that is going to take time for them to see.
It will also take a lot of time for the more shy students, the ones with whom I actually have a lot in common, to open up. I know that not everyone cares about what I look like. They’re just not as easy to hear.
I had two girls come into my office on Friday and give me letters that they had written for me. Today around 3:30, just as school was finishing, I heard running outside the office and then two very out of breath girls appeared in front of me.
They wanted to know if I read their letters.
And of course after that I completely forgot about my silly boys class. The one girl wants me to help her improve her writing. And the other wants to know about what American music I like. I gave them little letters that I wrote back. They asked me how my weekend was, they told me about their day. They didn’t mention what I look like at all. And the fact that they would take the time to come talk to me after school is a much higher compliment then all the “너무 예뻐요”‘s in the world.
It will take time to get a real sense of the environment here. But it’s the hope of more interactions like these that make me excited to go back to work tomorrow.
Thanks for reading.
(Ps: sorry that was all over the place. But thanks for making it all the way through ^^)

3 thoughts on “Culture Shock in Korea

  1. Haha your posts about the new life in South Korea have always been so fun to read! I totally understand what you feel! I mean it’s really sad that especially in Korean culture, or even the whole Asian culture, “beauty”, being defined as “pale skin, big eyes, pointy nose”, has become so important that all the girls care so much about their appearance but not their inner beauty and values.
    While in the west, even though people still care about their appearance, most of the time they will say ” you are beautiful the way you are”. There are also some songs telling people to not just sit still, look pretty, but to be a smart, kind and caring person.
    LOL some day I hope those students will find out that, their English teacher Devon, not only has a beautiful face, but also has a beautiful heart.


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