I've always wanted to travel to other countries. I've also always had an interest in Asia. So when I first had the idea to move to Asia for a year and teach, it was a rather exciting prospect. But I'll be honest--half of that excitement came from having a legitimate excuse to quit my job at the high school here, a job I was completely miserable at. So not only was it something I could do to give myself reason to leave that position, and not only would it give me an excuse to travel to Asia, but it also would give one last shot towards the whole teaching thing. And it's funny--most people teach abroad first to see whether or not they like teaching and then go back to their home countries and continue there. For me, it was just the opposite.
And what did I learn? Teaching, at least in a traditional school/classroom setting, is just not for me. I love being around and interacting with kids of all ages. That part I'm good at. But when it came to the actual prime duties of a teacher--disciplinarian and educator--I struggle (moreso with the former than the latter). Kids give me energy and are fun to be around, but I realized I would probably be a much better dad than a classroom teacher.
The school I worked at for the last year was good. Like I'd been at for the 3 years prior to that, it was also a low-level/low socio-economic school. And sometimes that was difficult, but it was rarely aggravating. I found I could still moderately communicate with most students and understand what they needed even if I didn't 100% understand the words coming out of their mouths. Though there were quite a few who spoke English very well and could hold full discussions in it. And, yes, there were a lot of students who hated English and struggled with it, though it was really the few who actually rebelled and acted like jerks who were aggravating. But, again, they were few.
There was also the notion of co-teaching, meaning there were 2 teachers in the room (or... supposed to be. There could be a Korean teacher alone, but you weren't really supposed to have a foreign teacher alone unless they taught L7 (the super-smart kids). But I'll get back to this shortly). I worked with three different Korean teachers. All three were different age groups, had different levels of speaking English, and had three completely different styles in the classroom and how they worked with us foreign teachers.
First there was our primary Korean teacher, the one who was put in charge of us (Naomi and I) for stuff even outside the classroom. She was the oldest of the three, spoke the most English (she had lived in New Zealand once), and was the most motherly. But she had her quirks, too, which Naomi and I were quickly able to figure out. We generally knew how she'd react to most questions or favors. She'd also sometimes show a seeming inability to perform even the most basic of tasks. And while she always showed a drive to want to learn the tiniest differences in meaning in the English language, she'd get really antsy about doing other simple things. In lesson prep, she didn't like to take risks, but she also didn't like to say no. So if you had an idea that she knew would blow up in our faces, she wouldn't speak up and suggest something else... rather, she would wait until it did, indeed, blow up in our faces and then suggest she didn't figure it would work. That was sometimes frustrating, but it came to a point you could read her face and reactions to see if you were suggesting one of these such ideas. In the actual classroom, she was disciplinarian and otherwise supplementary. I was to be the sole teacher in the room, and she was to step in only if necessary with something needing translation and the like. In other words, her style was very "hands off." Discipline-wise, it was somewhere in the middle. She was great during actual lessons, but struggled to keep control during games and activities. So we knew not to plan too many major games where students spent the most of the time out of their desks. I only taught with her in the classroom one day a week (and every day during summer/winter camps... which is a whole other thing). She was overall a very sweet (and often pretty funny) woman, and despite any of our struggles together, I'll probably miss her the most.
Second was the Korean teacher I wish I'd worked with more than I did. Naomi had the fortune of working with her more, but I had her--again--only one morning a week. Age-wise, she was the youngest, but language-wise, she was in the middle. But she was a Wonder Woman (though constantly exhausted for it--the only one of the three who I honestly believed was exhausted when they complained). She not only did so much for her classes, but also so much for the school (and I believe ended up with a Co-Teacher of the Year award for it, which she very much deserved). Not to mention a ton for her own family, as well, but that's neither here nor there. She was strict in the classroom, but also silly and dorky. She kept the most control over our classes during games and activities. During planning, she'd ask for clarification if she didn't understand something. If she didn't think something would work, she'd tell you. But if something failed anyway, she would always have a back-up plan or a way to do a quick fix. In the classroom, she made you feel like a partner (you know, CO-teacher). She wasn't just a prop to be used when needed, nor did she do everything or nothing. There was a perfect balance between us. She was nice, goofy, and incredibly hard working. I'd have no issues giving her a Teacher of the Year award.
Third... I'll try not to dwell on this one too long, but I promise nothing. The third co-teacher was age-wise in the middle, language-wise at the bottom. She's generally a nice lady, so I hate saying mean things about her... but she shouldn't be a teacher. Sadly, I spent most of my time in the classroom with her, as did Naomi (every afternoon, multiple classes). She's constantly late to class. Sometimes she didn't show up at all, yet didn't see this as a big deal. Or she'd ask me to start class without her (meaning she'd be like 20+ minutes late), even if it was a lesson I couldn't possibly do without her. She'd bribe the kids with candy and food to get them to like her. She'd get really petty about being liked, too. The kids clearly liked me more, and she hated that, so she'd go out of her way to make them like her and rag on me. And if she saw something silly that the kids liked that I did, she would mimic it to try and get them to like her, too, often to the point of killing the joke (or whatever it was). She had ZERO skills in classroom management. Half the time she'd let the kids run wild. The other half of the time, she'd randomly yell at them for things so little, not even I saw what it was. During games, the majority of it was pure chaos because she wouldn't even try to keep them under control. If I needed her to translate something (if I didn't have to try and translate/explain it to her first), half the time she'd be at the back of the room just sitting there paying no attention to anything or anyone. She would sometimes put focus on the completely unimportant things and waste time expanding on stuff that did not need to be expanded upon. She would act inappropriately with the littlest kids, often patting their butts or kissing their hands (now... this could be a cultural difference thing, but it was something that always caught me off guard). Sometimes she would take over the class entirely and leave me sitting/standing and doing nothing (in fact, with sixth graders, she made sure to have like 10-15 minutes at the end of class for just her, so I'd sit there doing nothing until my contracted time ran out, and then she'd send me away while she continued with the kids). And other times, she was completely and entirely hands off, refusing to do anything. She was impossible to figure out how to work with, and even after a year, I had no idea how to read her from one day to the next. There was no pattern to any of it (her teaching or discipline). And planning? Forget it... she'd take it and put it away and never bother looking at the plan. I could have written "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over for every lesson plan I handed her, and she would have never known. If she was good at anything, it was actually--strangely enough--explaining English grammar. She actually did this incredibly well and often. But outside of the classroom was crazy, too, as she would complain about being so busy, yet she was never doing anything. She sat at her computer all morning as we did everything for her, only for her to disregard most of it later anyway. And believe it or not, this is probably only about half of the issues with her... so I'll stop now before this just turns into an epic rant post. Like I said, she wasn't a mean or cruel person. She was genuinely nice and wanted desperately to be liked and helpful, so I can't fault her too much there.
In short, I had basically every co-teacher experience a person can have rolled into one year. Everything from absent to perfect. And as far as having an experience, it was definitely a well-rounded one. And despite the ups and down throughout the year, whether they were with the co-teachers or the extra activities we had to do or just the sometimes really bizarre cultural differences that could get frustrating if you let them (though Naomi and I mostly laughed them off), it was a great way to end my career as a classroom teacher. Because of the four years I taught, this was the only one where I didn't actually hate going into work every morning (I didn't necessarily jump for joy looking forward to it, but I didn't dislike going).
Okay, so enough about school. How about the culture? At first glance, it doesn't seem all that different from western culture. At least nothing hugely different. But there are millions of minor differences that end up all adding together. Let's see if I can just list off a bunch of stuff.
-Take your shoes off at the door when entering a home (or a restaurant where you sit on the floor). Also, many work places, like our school, have it where you have special "indoor" shoes or slippers that you'd have to change into.
-Over half the toilets are squatters (meaning in the floor rather than the westernized style we use)... no, I never used one.
-When paying, it's respectful to touch your non-paying hand to the paying arm or hold the money with two hands. The same is also true when handing things to someone. If someone is older than you and they're handing you something, it's more respectful to accept with two hands.
-Nodding/bowing does happen, primarily to elders or people in power (like a school principal, for instance).
-Bus and taxi drivers always have the right of way, even if they don't. Never step out into the street when a bus is coming. They will run you over. Those drivers are crazy people. That being said, I loved the transportation system in Korea. The train system in particular was amazingly simple once you got the hang of it.
-Recycling is huge. To the point where not only every single type of material has its own bin/bag, but there are even sub-categories for objects made of a certain material but had been used for specific purposes. For example, most plastic is recycled... unless it was plastic that contained food and has a particular type of label or stamp on it. It gets really complicated and really confusing.
-Saving face affects more than you think. It can be something like hedging your thoughts so you don't really say what you want to say, or it can be like refusing to do something because you don't know how and don't want to admit to it or learn how.
-There's a minor bit of bribery that goes on--gifts can be given to gain favor so that the person can later ask you to do something and you can't turn them down without rightly insulting them.
-People really keep to themselves. Unless they know you, 95% of Korean adults will not talk to you. They'll barely even look at you, much less smile at you. Kids are very different--they're just as bubbly and happy-looking as any other kid. But somewhere in the life of a Korean, something changes, and that smile soon fades from the public eye.
-Many customs come together that might make westerners feel insulted or like Koreans are rude. Some examples... they will not apologize if they bump into you (it's an overcrowded country... they're used to bumping). They will not say Bless You or God Bless You if you sneeze (it's a country that was once primarily Buddhist... why would they?); they just ignore it. Due to language barriers and less sensitivity in their own culture, they will be very direct to you about physical things like weight and looks in general.
-They are obsessed with electronics, particularly cell phones. You think westerners are attached to their phones, you haven't seen anything until you go to Korea. It's absurd. From little kids to elderly, everybody is constantly on their phones in one way or another.
-Music and video games have a lot to do with it. Obviously K-Pop is insanely huge right now, but video games are an unhealthy obsession here. They have 24-hour PC rooms with computers made specifically for hardcore gaming. There are gaming tournaments on regular cable TV. There were even laws that had to be passed to keep kids from playing too many games because it was becoming too bad.
-Plastic surgery is sadly another obsession. Koreans are addicted to looking good, even more than in the US. There's a lot of controversy around it now. But there are kids even as young as like third grade getting nose jobs. A lot of the girls, especially celebrities and K-Pop stars, are all starting to legitimately look the same because they're all getting plastic surgery to have the same general look.
-I've mentioned this before, but Koreans differ in what they can show off in public than the west (at least in regards to girls). In the west, for example, it's fine to show cleavage but a bit inappropriate to show off a lot of leg. In Korea, it's just the opposite. They have to keep their chests covered, but they will wear skirts and shorts so tiny they might as well not even be wearing them (I seriously didn't even know they made skirts and shorts that tiny). Even in the winter, you'll see some girls in those super short-shorts but with stockings on underneath to keep the legs warmer.
-Koreans are absurdly healthy people. Not only is the majority of the food good for it (it's basically the western food that's bad), but you have an insane amount of walking everywhere you go. And not only is it a lot of walking, but it's also a lot of stairs. I've never climbed so many stairs in my life as I had to in Korea. But there are fat Koreans, too, it's just slightly uncommon. Most fat Koreans are just a little chubby, but I have seen some obese here and there. And when they're sick, they wear face masks (which have been proven to be ineffective after like an hour or two, but they still do it anyway). There are even exercise machines in parks and along walking paths just in case you feel like it. Oh, and the healthcare system here is crazy good (which I've already gone into in depth in the past).
-In the US, when you go out to eat, you get pretty much everything on one big plate. And if you ask for water, you get a big ol' cup of it. And a handful of napkins to boot. In Korea, you get a main dish plate and about 10 side dish plates (and side dishes are all free and come with every meal, changing mildly from meal to meal). But if you want water, you get a little metal cup about the size of two shot glasses put together and you fill it up at a station yourself. And then you get a tiny rectangle, super-thin sheet for a napkin. If they do serve you water, it's a kind of rice water. It's a kind of off-yellow color and has a weird taste to it. I never got used to it and always preferred regular water.
-Tea and coffee are huge here. Coffee in particular is treated like some brand new invention that's all the rage, and if you don't like it, you're pretty weird.
-Finally, and randomly... pencils don't seem to often come with erasers attached. They were just rounded at the end and there were separate big erasers like we also have.
I'm sure I missed about 100 other things, but I'd say a lot of those are the main things you might notice.
The hardest thing, by far, was the language barrier. People talk about the culture differences and struggling with those while living in Korea. And I can see some things being annoying after a while. But if you don't let those things bother you, most of them are easy to laugh off or ignore. But the language barrier was much more difficult to overcome. Hangeul--the Korean alphabet--is actually one of the easiest alphabets you can learn, and learning to read Korean is incredibly easy. After a little practice, you can read it fine. Understanding it is different, but reading the words and letters is simple. The language itself is tough, and it's one of those where there are enough subtle differences that can drive you crazy. You can repeat the same exact word somebody tells you, exactly how it sounded to you, and you'll be completely wrong. Mostly because they'll merge a bunch of sounds together into one or say it so fast that it sounds like they're skipping entire chunks of the words when they might not be. In short, while I did learn a few words here and there, I often felt lost or out of the loop because I couldn't understand most of what was going on or I couldn't even ask simple questions if I needed help or was lost.
But on the whole, it was definitely an experience and an adventure. It's something I'll never forget. Being able to experience a different culture (and different world, really) for a year was something very few people get to do. And it also opened me up to so many opportunities to see other things I'd always wanted to see, like Tokyo or the Great Wall.
So while this might have started as an excuse to leave my job, it became an opportunity to change my life. I feel I'm not quite the same person I was just a year ago, and I might be all the better for it. I would love to continue traveling as I get older, as well. This was just a great year full of its definitely ups and downs, fantastic moments and near breakdowns. Would I change anything? Maybe a few things here and there, but I would never trade this experience as a whole for anything.