Before I even start, one thing needs to be made clear. I do not in any way regret coming here. I have made a life for myself here and love it. I'm happy. There are days I hate it and there are things I struggle with but I would not change where I am today for anything. That said, let's get started :)
Things I wish I knew before coming here
People will try to prepare you. You'll Google everything you can about Korea; speak to friends, strangers, read blogs. I remember looking at pictures and thinking 'wow, this will be my home'. But nothing you do can fully prepare you and that's part of the adventure. Depending on whether you come with EPIK, TALK, privately or to a hagwon (there are many options) your first few days will be different. If you have an orientation they will try to teach you in a week what we need months to learn. How to teach, survival Korean, how to deal with the culture shock. Again, although helpful these lessons cannot prepare you for actually being thrown into it all. There are many things I wish I knew before coming, although maybe learning this all has made my journey here that much more exciting. But here are some anyway...I wish I knew just how far I was placed from the girls I came over with - it's not the 30 minute train ride I was promised. I wish I knew exactly where I was placed BEFORE coming so I could do some research, get in touch with people and prepare myself. You might not have a coteacher and so translation in class is not always possible - cue your charade skills. I really wish I knew more Korean (I advise anyone thinking of coming over to seriously get the basics down). I wish I knew how hot the Summer would be :) I wish I had thought to change my plugs before coming as it was a lot harder than I thought it would be on this side. I know that nothing could have prepared me for coming here. It seems so obvious but the thing that I didn't seem to really have thought about at all was the language barrier and just how hard it is to communicate and find your way around, especially in the beginning. Some people are lucky and are placed in areas and schools where English is used more. That's not the case with me. So just be aware that it is possible to be placed in a situation where it all comes down to you and how well you can get your point across using little to no English ;)
I honestly think that if I HAD known exactly how it would be here (especially in the beginning) I may not have come. And what a pity that would have been. You are stronger than you think you are, and that's one of the biggest things I've learnt while being here. So maybe it's better to close your eyes, hold your breath and take a leap, hoping you land on your feet but never really knowing. Guess it's personal.
Impressions of Korea
Busy. Dirty. Smelly. Beautiful. Overwhelming. Friendly. Curious. Naive. Carbon copies. Proud. Stubborn. Different. Warm.
I sat down and typed the words that came to my mind when I think 'Korea'. Of course there are so many more that my hot and tired brain can't think of now but it's a good way to get my ideas out freely. I have found Korea to be the most exciting place. I've learnt so much about the people, about how things work here and really feel that although I came here to teach, I'm the one being taught. I don't even know how to put all my thoughts down so let me try break it up a bit.
1. People. Koreans can be so warm and inviting. This week alone I have had a teacher invite me to her house for dinner where she told me I can come anytime I want. Her mother-in-law is apparently very concerned about me and has told Mrs Baek to make sure she looks after me. My teachers always make sure I'm fed; they give me ice-cream when it's hot and let me have the last piece of fruit. They tell me I'm warm and have a nice smile. They apologise for not being able to talk to me. The local restaurant owner where we frequent always has a smile for us. Sometimes bus drivers seem really happy to help us and taxi drivers try hard to speak to you. People are curious; they want to know where you're from and what it's like there. Koreans in general have not traveled much and because they are not a diverse country, we are SO different to them and that makes them curious. Of course there's the bad side too; the men can be idiots, the people may stare, avoid you, shake their heads, get frustrated when you can't understand them or answer them. Again, they are a proud and stubborn people and so sometimes they struggle to let a foreigner in. You have to take it your stride.
A quick note on the foreigners: the people I've met so far are generally awesome!! We stick together here as outsiders and everyone is always so willing to lend a hand. My experience here would definitely not have been what it is without the friends I've made. One funny observation is that in general, small town foreigners seem to be a little more open and friendly because we understand what it's like to go days without seeing another English speaker. Big city people sometimes forget what that feels like (major generalisation here I know!!). One thing I can say is that I look forward to going back to the diversity of South Africa!
2. The culture. Culture shock did not really hit me all that hard until about a month ago. In the beginning everything is new and exciting and you get caught up in the adventure of it all. However once that wears off a bit, the reality is that you need to be able to live with this culture for a year. There are beautiful parts about it; the way the elderly are respected, how family is so important, the community of it all. But there are other things too like their being so head strong in their ways that any deviation is hard to accept. The patriarchy is hard to deal with...the spitting in the streets. The lack of emotional displays (although sometimes good) and their focus on education to the extent that many children never get a proper childhood but instead spend their lives in a classroom. The way they speak about you right in front of your face (more a language thing) and the excessive drinking and very public drunkenness. Fan death. Sitting and sleeping on the floor. Bowing and accepting things with 2 hands. The hierarchy meaning you always need to smile and wave and not complain. These cannot all be neatly separated into 'pros and cons'. They're just my observations.
3. The places. Korea can be beautiful. When you're in the cities, even one as small as Jecheon, they can be dull, smelly and ugly. But all you need to do is walk 20 minutes to the outskirts to enjoy the beauty of mountains and endless rice fields, rivers and lakes. I am lucky in that my drive to and from school each day is filled with green scenes and mountains because Jecheon is so 'rural'. But places like Seoul and Daejeon draw you in with their big lights and loud music - they are bustling with energy. Busan has it's pristine beaches and coastal vibes. The islands are awesome little getaways where the sea is calm and the beaches are hot. Cherry Blossoms and Apple trees. Temples are places of such serenity you cannot help but be taken in by them. Korea has so much to offer in terms of scenery and entertainment that it feels like I'll need years to fully be able to experience it all. I love that my city is big enough to provide me with everything I need but small enough to force me to explore.
4.Teaching. This is the main part of my life here and because I have no experience as a teacher other than in Korea, it's hard to compare the experiences and school systems between countries. Koreans place a huge amount of emphasis on education. Children are in school or hagwons or at tutors till all hours of the night. I'm lucky in that because my school is so far out, very few of my students attend hagwons and so still have the childish innocence and energy (although this also means their English level is very low). English classes are more of a time to entertain the children and drill very specific phrases rather than actual teaching. Some GETs (Guest English Teachers) are mere parrots, there for pronunciation. The school schedule changes and we're often only notified at the last minute. You are expected to be prepared at any moment for any change, be it a cancelled class or an added class. School dinners are an excuse for free food and booze, some norebang and a very drunk Principle to be taken home at the end of the night. The Principle is the silent head who is rarely seen and the Vice-Principle is who you need to suck up to. You should never argue or make a scene (also a cultural thing). Basically my motto as a GET in Korea is this: Smile and wave, don't complain and get shit done. Seems to be working just fine :)
5. Everything else. Transport is a breeze here. Everything runs on time, smoothly and safely. The food is amazing, although sometimes incredibly spicy and still alive. Dog is also not as common as people assume. Korean babies are the cutest thing in the world. Men carry their girlfriend's handbags. Everyone is on their phone/iPad/Galaxy tab when not actively doing something else. Things are not as cheap as I thought they would be here. This is something that seems to depend on where you're from but as a South African, some things (fruit, meat, alcohol - not beer, cleaning stuffs) are expensive. Utilities, transport, anything technological and often eating out can be cheaper. But all round it's very similar to the costs back home - I just have an awesome salary to spend now ;)
What do I miss? I'm tempted to say everything ;) My family and friends. My house. English. Being able to hop in my car and drive anywhere I want - I actually really just miss driving. Walking into a restaurant/shop/hair dresser/pharmacist/anything and being able to tell the person what I'm looking for and have them understand. Being in a shop and actually knowing what I'm buying or being able to ask for help. I miss my area, the shopping malls and night life. I miss diversity and always having opportunities to meet and communicate with new people. I miss just being able to tell someone I liked their meal or I'm sorry for bumping into them. I miss being a student more than anything in this world ;)
But I'm young, life is an adventure and I know I'll miss Korea too when I leave.