Korea Month Three: Reality Check and Coming “Home” to Korea

I think I said something a while ago about definitely not posting an update every month, but yet it’s looking like that’s going to happen. But I’m still not making any promises.

Here we are, exactly three months to the day after I landed in Korea. Three months really does NOT sounds like a lot of time but it feels a bit like an eternity.

They say that three months is about when you hit the low point in the culture shock timeline. You’ve passed that honeymoon phase and things are settling into the reality of what life will be like here. The novelty has worn off.

I wouldn’t say that’s exactly where I am right now because I think I was lucky enough to not have that honeymoon phase and so there’s not a high to come down off of.

However. I did have a bit of a rant yesterday evening to one of my other teacher friends about the frustrating parts of being a foreigner in Korea.

Part of me doesn’t want to talk about this at all because I really and truly love Korea. But there are some realities that I’m starting to not love so much. And some realities that a week in Japan brought into the spotlight.

Mainly these two things.

  1. Korea cares about appearances a lot. I don’t want to say “too much” because who can draw that line? But the thing is I wear way more make up now than I ever did in America. I worry about what I’m wearing because I know everyone else around me is going to look so good. And I feel like I’m constantly being judged (whether good or bad) by everyone on the basis of my appearance. I don’t want to become someone who care about that stuff so much. And being in Japan, granted yes it was Tokyo and that’s a very international city, I noticed that didn’t feel like people were judging what I looked like constantly. Not everyone dressed exactly the same like in Korea. Not everyone had the same style. It was refreshing.
  2. Korea, as a country, is not used to having foreigners. People stare at me in my neighborhood, and not necessarily in a welcoming way. Not in a hostile way either per say, but people avoid me. And maybe their feelings are well founded, maybe they had a bad experience with a foreigner once, but most of the time it feels like they’re suspicious of me for no reason. I’m a nice person. I have plenty of issues, but I’m a really nice person. And it’s frustrating to feel like the people I pass in the street think I’m not good for the country or something. Again, I really don’t want to make that kind of generalization because so many people have been so incredibly welcoming, but I also don’t want to deny reality. And the reality is that especially older Korean people don’t seem really like having foreigners around. And I can feel it.

So the three month mark has brought with it some not so pleasant things, but that just means that I’m getting down to the nitty gritty of living here. And I’m in this for the long haul so I might as well get this stuff over with.

Enough of that though. On to some other things that happened this month.

We’ve passed our first milestone at school which was the first round of exams. The exam period threw everything off so it feels like the whole past month has been all over the place in terms of school. Stress levels were high, the kids were tired, and classes kept getting moved around and canceled for various reasons unbeknownst to me.

All I know for sure is that things were wild.

My last two weeks of teaching consisted of my fabulous psychiatrist game, which I’ve written and entire post about, and a Super Mario themed review game that about 70% of the kids absolutely died for and the other 30% couldn’t have cared less about. But that’s pretty much my batting average as it is, so I guess I can’t complain.

It was crazy for me to see middle school students so stressed out about school. Maybe it was just my middle school, but I really don’t feel like there is all that much pressure on middle schoolers in America.

My co-workers were also pretty stressed because, as I found out, they can get a LOT of grief from the parents if the tests are not completely perfect. So I got a lot of questions from the English teachers like, does this sentence sound awkward, is this grammar correct, ect. Apparently even the kids after school academy teachers will get involved if they think some questions weren’t “fair.”

I can’t imagine facing the wrath of Korean mom over a disputed test score. That sounds terrifying.

Anyway exams did finally arrive. Everyone was on edge that day. The students, the teachers, and I felt bad just chilling there. But I tried to be as encouraging as possible to the students at least. And then at the end of the day two of my highest level students came into my office to (almost cry) and complain about how hard the English test had been.

It’s a little frustrating that, despite the face that they’re some of the only students in the whole school who can carry on a conversation with me, they still struggled on the exam. They know so many words, and speak so well conversationally, but when it comes down to it that’s not really important in Korean English education.

What’s important is grammar and reading. Two skills which, in isolation, leave you unable to actually speak the language.

Anyway, I gave them my biggest and best pep talk about how they’re so good at speaking, and how tests aren’t the most important thing in the world, and how the sun will still rise tomorrow morning. And they left feeling a little better, but when I saw them again this morning (after getting their official scores) things were a little gloomy again.

After the exams finished on Tuesday we were officially off for the rest of the week. So me and two other English teacher friends, set off for Japan. I left work around 4:30, left Daejeon at 6:00, and was in Japan by 1:00am.

I’ve written a lot of other blog posts about that trip, so feel free to check those out! You can click here!

The trip was AMAZING and a very well timed break from school and Korea.

But it did leave my completely exhausted and I’ve been dragging this whole week trying to recover from it. Last night I went to sleep at 8:00pm and I still feel tired so that should give you some idea of how little sleep we got on the return journey.

Some other noteworthy things from this month include:

Successfully mailing something to America. Which required me to walk into the post office and wander around until I could find someone who looked like they worked there and ask them what to do. Of course it sounded more like, “How?” and gesturing to my box, but he got the gist of it. And my sister got her package for her birthday so all’s well that ends well. ^^

I also have been pretty good about my re-commitment to studying Korean. I bought the book The Giver in Korean and I’ve been trying to read it. Aka basically translating it because there are so many words I don’t know. But I think reading is a really good way to see vocabulary and grammar in context so despite the fact that it’s the most tedious thing in the world, it’s very good practice.

The pollution. I really did not think much about this before moving to Korea, and especially not moving to Daejeon since it’s not really that big of a city. But the pollution here since I came back from Japan has been horrible. Really horrible.

You know those automated cellphone notifications you get for a missing child or some big natural disaster? We got one about the air quality that said to stay inside or wear a mask if you go out. That same day we had a school field trip to an amusement park and they ended up letting the kids go home early because the air was so bad. I’ve never worn a mask in my life but I picked some up at 7-11 and wore one for the rest of the day.

Only on the very first day did I think I could feel it in my lungs. But since then my skin has gone to absolute crap. I even woke up yesterday morning with one of my eyes all puffed up and red. Which is super cute, let me tell you. My co-teachers think it’s a sty. Maybe it is, but I think I’m just allergic to something in the pollution. Or maybe to Korea.

My mission to learn students names was going pretty well but because of exams and then a week off it’s kind of come to a stand still. I did however talk to one of my grade 3 boys, which is miracle in and of itself, this afternoon and out of the blue he had incredible English. I asked him, “How was your break?” which I’ve been asking everyone to varying degrees of success. And most people have told me, “Good,” or “so-so,” or “not fun” with very little description.

But suddenly he said, “should I say how I felt or what I did?” I was shocked and asked him what he did last week. Then he went into this story about how he just got a new guitar and he’s going to play it at the school performance next week. I asked which song and it turns out to be one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite Korean artists! So then we bonded over that a bit.

All that to say, I now know his name. Every time I have a conversation with a student I write down their name and what we talked about, and that has helped immensely with remembering them.

I was so happy coming away from that interaction, knowing that there’s at least one other person in this school who can actually talk to me a little bit. And I think he might try a little more now that he knows I’m interested in talking to him. But it’s also frustrating that I’ve been able to go three months at this school without ever talking to him.

I do have 700 students, so I suppose I can’t beat myself up too much. But I’m really looking forward to our English speaking tests in the next few weeks so that I can finally get to talk to every single student in the whole school one-on-one. My poor little introvert heart is going to be completely dead after two weeks of speaking tests where every single student says the same thing over and over. But I’m excited nonetheless.

All in all things are pretty good. Life is not easy, but then nothing worth doing was ever easy. I’m thankful for all of it, the good and the bad. Thanks for reading!

 

PS:

(Since writing the majority of that one of my favorite students, not that I have favorites, came into my office to give me this.)

It’s incredible what something like this will enable you endure. Like I said I’m thankful for the all hard things because they make the moments like this so incredibly special. I’m by no means the “world’s best teacher” but I have some really amazing kids that I get to see everyday and that makes my job pretty darn great.

 


8 thoughts on “Korea Month Three: Reality Check and Coming “Home” to Korea

  1. This was a very interesting read. I can relate to so many of your points – the obsessions with beauty, being stared at, the poor students constantly under stress from everything and everyone, and the pollution. I was sick probably more than half the time I was there, plus it didn’t help that I was always, ahem, raising my voice (read: yelling) at my students. Hang in there, and just remember how yummy everything is.

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    1. Thanks for reading!! Oh wow, that’s really rough. I haven’t gotten properly sick yet (knock on wood) but the pollution is going to be an issue that I didn’t anticipate. Thanks, the yummy food definitely does help ^^

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “The pollution. I really did not think much about this before moving to Korea, and especially not…”
    Have you heard of 미세먼지 and 황사 from China? There are news articles about them practically every day in Korea.

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  3. “I also have been pretty good about my re-commitment to studying Korean. I bought the book The Giver in Korean and I’ve been trying to read it…”
    Good for you! You cannot really understand a culture without knowing its language; so much of Korean culture is reflected in the language. I would try to read something that was originally written in Korean rather than a translation though anything is better than nothing. Reading Korean news is good for understanding its society. At Naver News you can even listen to the articles read (albeit by a robot). http://m.news.naver.com/home.nhn?serviceTime=20170514082006

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    1. Yea I think you’re right about finding a book written originally in Korean. Because many of the words seem to be really technical and foreign or Chinese based vocabulary. (According to my friends, not that I can tell.) I’ll definitely check out the news though, thanks for the heads up!

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  4. I’ll be going to Korea at the end of May for the summer and I am increasingly nervous about how I will adapt to the heightened concerns about one’s appearance. Any tips on this topic?

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    1. Ah that’s so exciting! Are you coming as a student or just to visit for the summer? I wouldn’t let it make you too nervous, because there are fun aspects to it as well. You can buy really cute clothes for super cheap in the undergrounds and sometimes everywhere you look seems like people just stepped out of a fashion magazine. I think the most important thing that I’ve had to realize is that I shouldn’t try to force a look that I’m not comfortable in. I know that sounds so obvious, but I really love the look of Korean fashion. I’ve just had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not always comfortable in it. I’m not a super girly person at all, so the bows and floral stuff just isn’t going to work lol. But I think that any clothes that you’re comfortable in, are clothes that you look good in. I know I’m way more confidant about myself in jeans and a flannel than I am in a frilly dress, even if it’s beautiful. And people can appreciate that. Wow sorry that was incredibly long, I just have happened to be thinking about this a lot the past few days. Thanks!!

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