Korea: Q & A Edition

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(Haeundae Beach)

Greatest apologies for the two months of near radio silence on the blog.

I’ve been traveling: I visited family in the Philippines and have settled down in South Korea to teach English for a year. (That’s two out of five for the 2014 list!) Korea, in particular, has been such a shock to the system that I’ve only really gotten my footing now, two months after arriving here.

Let’s catch up on those two months with a Q&A (feel free to ask me more questions in the comments/on Facebook!):

Q: Wha? You moved to South Korea? Why?
A: Yeah, I did. I’ve been dreaming about getting to this place for more than a year and now I’m here!

The why is a longer story. As an international studies major, travel and other cultures has always been a big draw for me. What got me to choose South Korea was just the crazy amount of Korea that kept showing up in my life! Koreans were the largest minority at my (American) high school when I was growing up; that part of northwest Washington is now dotted with signs in Korean for restaurants, hagwons, legal services, and even noraebangs. It was almost hilarious to return to the neighborhood in the Philippines that I had grown up in… only to find that the same thing was happening there! Lots of Korean signs and Korean people everywhere.

And then on top of that, my friends liked Korean dramas and K-pop so it was hard to escape. To be honest, it was a bit much sometimes– like, why was this random country/culture constantly invading my life? I like to think of it as the hate-love you often see in romantic comedies where the girl is always complaining about him but she’s head over heels in love with him in ways she doesn’t even understand. That’s how South Korea and I started. What tipped it for me was taking a diplomacy class on the Denuclearization of the Northeast Asian Peninsula. I got to be on the North Korean delegation and became obsessed with North Korea. This eventually evolved into a fascination with South Korean economic history (they vaulted from third world country to the OECD in 60 years, faster than anyone else!), the Korean language, etc. And so here I am, fulfilling on a dream.

Q: How did you get there?
A: I applied to the English Program in Korea (EPIK) which places English teachers in schools throughout the country. It’s really a very interesting program, much more interesting than I previously thought. I was expecting the teaching portion, in which I would explain how new words, expressions and quirky grammar. But I wasn’t expecting to be a window for the students to see out to the rest of the world. There aren’t too many foreigners in South Korea yet, so we’re quite the sight and still get stared at once in awhile.

I also feel that more than anything, we’re here to teach students how to communicate. Some of these kids are going to grow up and never leave the country, so their English language knowledge may well amount to just a squick of trivia. But taking risks, bouncing back from failure, and using your whole body to communicate are all skills that will pay off ten thousand fold no matter where you are in the world.

Q: So where in Korea do you live?
A: I live in Ulsan, a coastal city in the southeastern corner of the country. I chose it for several reasons, namely the weather (it’s not supposed to snow here as much) and the drama Answer Me 1997 (which introduced me to the accent down here and the gorgeous Seo In Guk). It also turned out to be the richest city in the entire country, which is a little annoying: stuff here is more expensive than I had anticipated. (Though that may well be a full South Korea thing: the sticker shock on fruits and vegetables alone was hard to take.)

Ulsan’s money comes from Hyundai which we know in the United States as a car manufacturer but makes most of its money building ships. The part of Ulsan I live in (Dong-gu, or the East District) is pretty much all Hyundai, its auxiliaries, and the various services that support its people. (That would be us, providing English instruction mostly to Hyundai factory workers’ children.)

Q: How do you like it so far?
A: Now that I’m two months in and have found my feet, I can start to appreciate how AWESOME this place is. As previously mentioned, some things were surprisingly expensive. The language barrier too was all at once worse and better than I thought it would be. While you can survive in Korea only knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you,” it can be incredibly isolating and humiliating when even asking for food is such a struggle. (And I say that as someone who probably knows more Korean than most foreigners here!)

It helped a great deal that I was placed at the same school as another lady from my orientation. She lives  in the same apartment building as I do, on the floor below and is pretty much a gift of a woman.

Overall people here are unbelievably kind and quick with the helping hand. Everything from the school supplies to the bath accessories are adorable. (I feel like adorable is to South Korea the way cool is to the United States.) The transportation system is well-developed. I’m still having trouble with Korean food itself, but the options here are workable. I am fully enjoying my time here.

Did I mention that I live next to a beach?

Q: How’s teaching?
A: Oh gosh, teaching’s pretty rough but really rewarding. I teach fifth graders and sixth graders at an elementary school. Language ability is highly variable, but by and large low. This is kind of fun in that I turn my classes into a real language exchange where my kids are supplying me with Korean too. (I’m hoping its heartening for them to see their teacher struggling but still putting 100% into learning a new language.) The gap between the fifth graders and the sixth graders was a little surprising too, in that the fifth graders are still pretty lively and apply themselves to the activities well. Meanwhile, the sixth graders are too cool for school– they’re honestly like the living dead.

I also teach after school classes. Think of it as a government-subsidized hagwon (private after school classes). The students range from third graders to sixth graders, divided into five classes (from lowest to highest):  Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley. (They have kindergarten English classes called Cambridge as well.) The teachers rotate so I’ve only taught the first two grade levels so far. They’re strictly English beginners which can get rough when it comes to explaining games and the like. They also have plenty of energy and can get out of control pretty fast. But they’re by and large enthusiastic, loving, sweet children. I am liable to have a kyaaaahhhh! adorable moment at least once a day. Also, to be so exhausted I can’t function at the end of the day, chasing after them. XD

Q: How’s your Korean?
A: Okay, so part of the reason I moved to South Korea was to turbo-charge my Korean. My goal was to become fluent in Korean by my birthday (which is next week). Ha, that isn’t going to happen. But my Korean has been steadily improving in surprisingly delightful ways. As tongue-twisty as it can get, I love speaking this language as much as possible. (I have to keep remembering that I was brought here to expose my kids to English so I gotta speak English between key phrases and vocabulary too.) I am able to order food and buy bus tickets at the window all in Korean, but free flow conversation is still awhile away and discussing treaties on nuclear weapons feels much much further out. Oh well. I’m enjoying the journey.

I was a bit surprised because I get complimented on my Korean a lot despite operating at less than toddler level. I do know more Korean than most foreigners, but it’s the accent that gets attention. For that, I need to thank my excellent language partners from Seattle, 장순욱, 김윤진 and 유인애 (apologies if I spelled these wrong! XD), watching way too many dramas and listening to way too much Korean radio and K-Pop. I still have a ways to go though, as my students whose names I butcher on a regular basis can attest to.

That’s all I’ve got. Feel free to ask me more questions here or on facebook!


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