Third year’s the charm: Reflecting on culture shock and expat life in Korea

I spent my first year in Korea being totally enamored with the country – fairly typical for most expats when they arrive in their new home. It would be quite unfortunate for you if you didn’t experience this honeymoon phase, since that’s what makes everything so exciting and cool as you start learning the customs and culture. I was also so busy with my new job, my new students, my new relationship, and trying new things that I didn’t have time to sit back and critique.

I spent my second year in Korea sitting back and critiquing a lot. To be honest, I was frequently stressed out and angry at various things that I deemed cultural shortcomings and flaws. I let the things I couldn’t understand and the things that were different than Western culture get under my skin and bug the heck out of me. Why do it this way when there is clearly a better way (aka my way)? Why do people say this? Why can’t they do that? I let my students stress me out. I let my co-teachers stress me out.

Now, in my third year, I’m adjusting. I’m accepting what it means to live in Korea as a foreigner with a well-rounded, more matured perspective on the good and the bad.

In fact, the anger and frustration I had in my second year are textbook symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock is commonly misconstrued as the initial feelings of confusion and floundering when you first enter a new country, but actually, there are multiple stages, and that honeymoon stage is just the first part.

Culture shock is NOT just “Whoa, Koreans take their shoes off before they enter their homes!” “Whoa, Koreans eat rice, kimchi, and mildly-to-very spicy soups every day!” “Whoa, Koreans bow to each other and they want me to bow too!”

It happens after you learn all that stuff. It happens after you think you know what’s up. It happens after you think you’ve got this foreigner-in-Korea thing all figured out, no problem.

It happens when you realize that you think X, Y, and Z aspects of the culture are annoying or unnecessary or weird. It happens when you encounter (insert somewhat-irritating cultural phenomenon here, e.g. good ol’ street-spitting ajeosshis, or even something as trivial as botched “Italian” cuisine) for the 1,859,374th time and you’re like “Why does it have to be like this?”

After all, how many people can go through an experience that flips their life around and just immediately be and stay happy about it (even if it was a change they wanted in the first place)?

It takes time.

It takes a gradually-developed, ever-growing, rational understanding of the realities of life in this culture as a foreign person.

Some people get stuck in the anger and frustration stage, though.* Some people get depressed. Some people start loathing everything about the country and culture, as unfair as it may be. It’s understandable; adjusting isn’t easy, especially for English teachers in Korea, where quality of life can be so totally dependent on students, co-teachers, the school-provided housing, etc.

But if you do get through it, you emerge on the other side. You enter the final stages of culture shock: adjustment and acceptance.

For me, and perhaps for many expats in Korea specifically, acceptance means accepting that in this homogeneous culture, I will always be a bit of an outsider – but this doesn’t mean I can’t have really good connections with Korean people.

It means accepting that there are cultural things that irk me – but I don’t have to let them irk me, and that perhaps they aren’t that irksome anyway. Maybe I’m just blaming my stress, which I would experience from time to time no matter where I live, on the external cultural things around me instead of placing the blame within myself and finding ways to overcome it.

It means accepting my role here:guest English teacher. No, I don’t have the power that a regular Korean teacher has. I can’t discipline and control my classroom the way I did as a taekwondo instructor in America. I can’t form the same bonds with my kids that I could with my students back home because of the language barrier.

Sometimes that hurts. But it’s okay. My job is to give my kids a positive experience with a native English speaker. My job is to teach them things about Western culture that they might not otherwise know. My job is to make English less boring. My job is to spark their interest in learning the language.

I can still show my students that I care about them and their progress. I can still try to inspire them. I can still have a positive effect on my school and my students, however small it may be.

I can still make a difference.


*From what I gather on forums and such, a surprising number of people seem to stay in the country even though they’re stuck in the frustration stage. Maybe they need the money, maybe they just feel trapped or unsure what direction to take next. But conversely, it certainly doesn’t mean that people who only stay in a foreign country for a year or two leave because they’re bitter about the culture. Obviously.

Also, if you’re an expat and you skipped from honeymoon to adjustment and acceptance, well… go you!

Advertisements

here today, gone tomorrow

Well, here today, gone next week anyway.

Yesterday the school halls were echoing emptiness back at my footsteps. Today there were stamping feet, loud voices, the whir of heaters doing their best to combat the cold. And soon – in a few days – we will return to the emptiness.

Maybe the purpose is to make all of us remember what our responsibilities are lest we get too lazy during break. To stop us from feeling too relaxed. Get that cortisol flowing again, you know.


The night before a stressful day, I try to cope by making some kind of mantra for myself, typically involving the formula “No matter what happens tomorrow, by [X] time I will be at home doing [Y].”

Yesterday, it was “No matter what happens tomorrow, by 5:00 p.m. I will be at home eating spaghetti and cheesecake* and watching The Office.”

It really does help. With practice.

*Not, like, mixed together. Ew.


The day wasn’t as dreadful as anticipated.

Classes have been shortened to 35 minutes. I waste spend the first 10ish minutes on a group memory game (they memorize the picture, then I hide it and they try to remember all the items). Honestly it really isn’t that much of a waste of time since they often seem to be mute after not speaking English for over a month. I consider it a nice easy way to remind them what English even is.

Then we talk about New Year’s Resolutions. I have them guess the Top 10 most popular resolutions for Americans (based on an article I found) and if we have time they write their own resolutions for this year.

Yes, it’s February, but talking about the new year isn’t that belated in Korea since the Lunar New Year was just last weekend.

Anyway it hasn’t been too bad. We all know no one cares what goes on in class during this mini semester, and the kids were as nice as could be expected in the circumstances. Except for the one truly evil class in today’s crop, who were consistent with their general behavior throughout the year (evil).

But all that matters is I survived it for the very last time, and since they’re graduating to high school next week, now I can truly say:

tumblr_mxx24a7wmc1qa3pfso1_400

 


There were a few other nice things about today as well.

  • The science teacher came to my office – “Maddy, I have present for you. Name stickers!” She ordered every teacher at school a personalized sticker set as a little new year’s gift and she didn’t forget me!
  • Before I started one of my 3rd grade classes (not the evil one), their homeroom teacher came in and requested a few minutes of my class time (purely with eye contact and body language, that is). She had just received their high school placements, which made them cheer and gasp in anticipation. I guess it’s kind of like getting into college, since they have to apply and might not get the one they want. Anyway, it was cute to see some of them get excited about their new school.
  • Two 1st graders came in at the end of the day to deliver some traditional rice cakes. Another boy popped his head in and said, “Maddy… Maddy? Is it really Maddy? Oh my God. We again meet.” Apparently he’d been convinced he would never see me again after the end of the semester.

I suppose the best part is that after we grind through these few days, there’s more vacation until March!

Language

Of course we all know it’s essential. How else would we communicate with each other? Yes, there is body language and eye contact and gesturing and tone and all that, but words are still pretty darn important.

I’m really making an effort to use Korean these days, particularly with my boyfriend (to alleviate the burden of communication that he upholds every day by speaking in English with me). In doing so I’m realizing just how scary it is to attempt to produce your own thoughts in another language.

Even though I encourage my students to “just try,” to put themselves out there and just say something in English on a daily basis, it’s… much easier said than done.

As a teacher, of course it’s easy to be delighted by the outgoing, bold kids who just shout out whatever they feel in English, even if it makes no sense, because it’s still an attempt at communication and it helps the student to make progress (plus it’s cute). Of course it’s easy to be frustrated or disheartened by the shy and quiet ones who don’t want to say a single word, even though they actually know enough vocabulary and grammar.

But I am that quiet student who doesn’t want to speak for fear of making a mistake. For fear of embarrassment, of saying something wrong, of the awkward confusion that could result from an error in pronunciation or grammar.

Logically I know that it’s better to just make the effort and let the grammar mistakes roll off my back, to just push through and improve by doing – I know this because I’ve seen the benefits in action countless times – but the fear is really a big obstacle.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that Korean is less forgiving than English (in my opinion) in terms of pronunciation, and less exposed to a variety of sounds since so few foreigners actually speak it.

But mostly it’s fear on my part.

To get back to my original point, I’ve been frustrated as I recognize that the words I choose in Korean (and I have a very limited selection to choose from before resorting to Naver Translate (more accurate than Google)) might have a different undertone or connotation than their English translation. But I have no way of knowing unless I constantly ask, “Is that right? Does it sound natural? Is it too formal? Too stiff? Too casual? Rude? Blunt? Standoffish?”

Do I say “교장선생님이 나한테 얘기했어”? Or “교장선생님이 나에게 말했어”? Technically they both mean “the principal said to me…”, but which is politer? Which is natural in context?

Is it 맞아요, 맞죠, or 맞다? By definition they all mean “Right/Right?,” but there is an appropriate context for the use of each.

HELP.

Not to say that English doesn’t have a similar mess – sure, English is even more confusing in many regards (I’m sure most of us have read “The Chaos“), and uses a ridiculous amount of slang, borrowed words, and cultural context (almost like inside jokes among all native English speakers), perhaps more than any other language.

But still, Korean is particularly troublesome, where you have a bewildering and treacherous interpersonal minefield of the ‘levels of speech,’ ranging from 반말 (banmal, casual language only for friends) to 존댓말 (jondaemal, polite language) with a million levels in between which make it downright terrifying for a non-native speaker to navigate.

I do think personality can have a lot to do with language learning as well. Extroverted people are more likely to put themselves out there in an effort to get the human interactions that will energize them. For me, and I’m sure many other introverts out there, I’m pretty good at listening, reading, and writing in Korean on a basic level. It’s the speaking that can be overwhelming (so basically exactly the same as English… heh heh).

It’s going to be an uphill battle. Wish me luck.

bright spots on a gloomy monday

On Mondays, I fear for my vocal cords.

(vocal nodules are sometimes called ‘teacher’s nodules’, you know)

But there are always bright spots, and today there were these:

  • A very small, very brief smile from a very sullen girl who hasn’t given me the time of day all year
  • This interaction during an offering/asking for food lesson:

Me: What would you like?

Girl:(wraps both arms around my hips from her seated position) I would like a boyfriend.

(turns to her male desk mate) Will you marry me?

(upon no response from him, turns to her other male desk mate, completely unfazed) Will you marry me?

Maybe that kind of unshakable confidence and hopefulness is what we all need on a Monday.

sunset.jpg

from my office window, 5:28 p.m.

stamina

I’m feeling rather like this today:

Just pushing through.

It’s been an extremely bumpy week.

The lows:

Monday is always a difficult day, but especially because it’s my busiest day and a day with some of my worst-behaved classes. It’s particularly frustrating for me, as someone who used to have a teaching role with total authority in the classroom and the ability to appropriately discipline students who were misbehaving, to now have almost zero power in that area. It’s unfortunate that my co-teachers often seem to have a higher tolerance for bad behavior than I do, but because their status in the hierarchy trumps mine, I can’t do anything about it.

On Wednesday I was gifted with a Korean surprise – initially I was told we were having a school-wide “open class” in the afternoon, and I foolishly assumed that meant other teachers in the area or an open house deal for the parents (which wasn’t a crazy thing for me to think since we held that type of thing last year for the parents). A bit stressful, but not that big of a deal.

BUT THEN after lunch on Wednesday I found out that it was actually a school inspection. People from the city’s office of education were coming to check out the quality of our teaching and such. This did make me feel more nervous, because by luck of the draw, the open class period happened to be one where I’d be teaching the lesson for the first time ever (i.e., no “practice” with another class).

And of course, this was the one class this semester that my planned activity totally flopped. I had wanted to just try something different, and usually even when I do try a new idea, it works out okay – but this was just that internal panic mode, rapidly-spiraling-out-of-control situation that every teacher dreads. The kids weren’t into it, they were getting restless, and I realized a couple of the questions I had prepared as part of the game were convoluted, leading them to give the wrong answer.

Thankfully, the class wasn’t filmed, and the inspectors only stayed in the room for a couple of minutes in the beginning, so no one was really witness to said disaster.

Still, it was completely and utterly demoralizing because I knew that that wasn’t my best, and even though no one actually saw the crash and burn (besides my sympathetic co-teacher), I was so disappointed and frustrated that I was near tears afterwards.

I had a double period after-school class today to make up for a missed class 2 weeks ago. The 15 kids in my class (16 yr olds) are such a mixed bag of high and low level, wanting to be there and not wanting to be there. A few of the kids spend half of the class telling me “I no English” while others are getting bored with the simple material. It’s so hard at their age because I want to / sometimes can relate to them as adults, and they have the maturity to grasp and discuss bigger topics than the 14 yr olds, but at the same time they are still kids and they just want to go home.

I’ve honestly had my hands full all semester trying to think of activities that I can modify for different levels or things that will engage all of them, with moderate to weak success. It’s freaking HARD to please a group of teenagers, man.

Today was particularly difficult due to the double period and the fact that while outside is cool, inside is sun-baked like an oven. It was okay in the end, because I purposely saved a K-pop/American pop song game for the end of the second period when I knew their patience would be wearing thin, but overall it was just a draining and soul-sucking experience. (heh heh, kidding, mostly)

The highs:

There are two boys assigned as greeters this semester, so they stand at the gate every morning to say hello to every student and teacher that enters. They are two of my faves for their cheerful attitudes in and out of class (in spite of their English skills being quite low). Every single morning, I turn the corner past the gates and am met with a boisterous “HELLO MADDY TEACHER! WELCOME TO [OUR MIDDLE SCHOOL]!” and occasionally an “I love you.” Today, one of the boys added, “Eat breakfast?” It’s very cute and it means so much to me to be able to start the day like that.

I discovered this note on my desk when I entered my classroom a few minutes before the bell. No clue as to who wrote it, but it made me smile. Also, I should really teach the kids how to spell my name, as so far I’ve only seen “Meddy” and “Mady.”

20161007_180024

(Yes, that is an earthquake disaster information sheet beneath the note. Korea got a bit freaked out by the chain of earthquakes in September.)

 

I played a ‘Family Feud’ style game with the 1st graders, in which they guessed the top survey answers for questions like ‘favorite food,’ ‘favorite movie,’ ‘best drama,’ etc. (Back in August, I think I mentioned I had surveyed all the students at my school with these questions, compiled them, and created this game, because it’s more fun for the kids to guess their peers’ answers than random strangers’ answers.)

Anyway, we didn’t have time to finish all the questions before the bell rang, but a few boys lingered behind and asked if they could click on all the remaining questions to reveal the answers. It was just a cute moment as one boy clicked away and a few of his friends crowded around the TV, laughing, scoffing, or exclaiming in surprise as the top answers were revealed. Any time one of them gives up their precious break time to linger and interact with me or ask to see what we didn’t have time for in a game is touching to me.

So now here I am, 5:50 p.m., about to leave work and so, so, so thankful that it’s Friday.

Life takes stamina.

Physical stamina, yes, but also mental and emotional and spiritual stamina. It’s certainly important to build those up as much as you would your physical stamina. Push through those hard times the way you would push through a tough workout, and have faith that on the other side, you’ll come out stronger, and things will get better.

I’m not saying my own problems are so horrible; for the most part, I’m just being a baby. But I want to remind myself that all these small hurdles and frustrations and fears are chances to build my stamina, not as a body, but as a human soul.

So, to close out the week, I’ll just leave this here. Song of the week (month? year?).

Don’t give up, I won’t give up

I got stamina

Courage

Proud of my kids. We had a speech contest today (part of Global Week, which is really just English Week… although I suppose it works, since English is considered the global language).

Our high-level 1st graders (13-14 yr olds) were the only participants, and I the only judge.

I’d been under the impression that a few of my co-teachers would also be judging and we would come to a consensus afterwards, but at the last moment I was handed the scoring sheet, list of names, and my CT said joyfully, “Maddy, actually I’m not going to score. You can choose the winners,” and proceeded to take photos during the whole event. LOL. She’s a cool person, so it’s okay.

I did find myself scrambling a bit at times to correctly identify the current speaker and match their name on the scoring sheet (the names on the sheet were completely out of order with the order of speakers) while also listening to them begin their speech. My Korean reading skills are good, but not that good.

Topics ranged from “My Future Dream” and “Why I’m Proud of Korea” to a handful of quite serious speeches about the terrorist attacks in Paris and what to do about ISIS. One student talked about the Anonymous hackers as well.

Speakers ranged from those who simply read what they had written in Korean and translated (or maybe a teacher/parent/Google did the translating) into English to one extremely bright girl who spoke without notes, naturally and earnestly, about working for peace following the terrorist attacks. (She was our clear winner.)

But regardless of their speech content, delivery, or English ability, I was so proud of all of them for having the courage to stand up and deliver in front of their peers and teachers. Personally, when I was in middle school I would’ve been a terrified, red-faced, stammering mess when speaking to a crowd – let alone in a second language!

They worked hard and put themselves out there, even some of the not-quite-as-high-level kids, and I think that’s awesome.

Yay for my students!

IMG_5776

These are just 7 of the 20 kids who participated (oh, and me). Photo taken and cute-ified by my CT.

In other news, we also finished up our English Market today (held in my office), which meant students could come in and buy candy, stationery, socks, and other trinkets using the fake “money” they received in class. We had an English-only rule, and my CT promised them discounts and freebies if they spoke lots of English, so we had a lot of “Teacher, beautiful. I love you. Wow. Discount plees-uh” being thrown around.

Also, I had one of the best moments of my teaching career thus far (haha, not really. but kinda) when I single-handedly taught three of my VERY low level 3rd graders that the word “cool” has two meanings: “chilly, refreshing” (시원한) and “awesome, neat” (멋있어). (I’ve found that both my CTs and my kids solely use “cool” in the sense of chilly or refreshing and are often confused when it’s used to mean “awesome.”)

My CT was busy with something else, so she wasn’t around to translate, but I managed to explain to the three of them in a mix of English and Korean, and then I know it was understood because one of the kids then repeated it (correctly) in Korean to his two friends. And then they correctly used “cool” as in “awesome” in a sentence.

And to that I say:

woohoo