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!

Beauty and Korea

It’s not exactly a hidden aspect of modern Korean culture: looks matter here. Even more than in the Western world, beauty is favored and beautiful people enjoy elevated social status, the admiration of those around them, greater leniency around making mistakes, and various other benefits. (Seriously.)

Having a “high nose” (meaning, basically, a Western-looking nose with a higher bridge) is considered beautiful.

Pale skin is considered beautiful.

“Double eyelids” (the extra fold or crease over the eye, as opposed to the “monolids” that Koreans have naturally) are considered beautiful.

Hair that is naturally a color other than black and eyes that are naturally a color other than brown are considered beautiful – mostly because they stand out in a largely homogeneous culture.

It’s sad that so many of the traits that are considered ideal are ones that Koreans are not naturally born with (i.e. the “high” nose, the double eyelids, the hair and eye color), which leads to the high rate of plastic surgery for things like nose reconstruction and creating “double eyelids.” (That’s not to say that natural Korean traits are not considered beautiful, but there is this prevalence of idealizing a more Western look.)

It should also be noted that I fit the bill as a Westerner, and traits that get me no attractiveness mileage in America (such as rather large nose and pale skin) earn lots of compliments here.

As a result, sometimes, it’s like we’re having this conversation from The Swan Princess… every. single. day. And not only with my students, but sometimes even with adults.

is beauty all that matters to you

Derek (Korea): “You’re all I ever wanted! You’re beautiful!”
Odette (Me): “Thank you. But what else?”
Derek (Korea): “What else?”
Odette (Me): “Is beauty all that matters to you?”
Derek (Korea): “What else… is there?”
Me: *internal sigh of despair*

5 things I can’t wait to do when I visit America

As my short & sweet 8-day visit approaches, I find myself getting more and more excited for the following things. Beyond the expected “see my family,” “see my friends,” that is.

1. See my dermatologist. This is not #1 by chance. I have informed my family with about 93% seriousness that if I could choose one American to come live next door to me in Korea, it would be my dermatologist. That man is a miracle worker and the number of times I have bemoaned the fact that he is halfway across the globe in the last 2 years is incalculable.

2. Drive a car. The freedom, control, and relaxation of using a car to get around is so underrated.

3. Stand in a Target. I won’t even need to shop*… I’ll just breathe in the endless possibilities of shopping that exist around me. So many choices. So much useless yet adorable stuff. So many overpriced and delicious Archer Farms snacks. There’s just nothing in Korea that can quite measure up to Target.

*Who am I kidding? I’ll probably buy more than I can bring back with me.

4. Eat cereal. Wait, just eat. Western food in Korea is bound to be disappointing. Some of the cereals taste different or just don’t exist (hello, I need my Multigrain Cheerios okay?). Mexican is rare. “Italian” consists only of overcooked spaghetti drowning in sauce. Once I ordered “lasagna” for nearly $12 and received a shallow circular ceramic dish of meat sauce and cheese, with a single layer of limp, boiled-to-oblivion lasagna noodle in the middle. It was a travesty.

[Disclaimer: Yes, there are authentic places serving really good food in Korea. For example I’ve found a couple of really good Indian restaurants here in Daegu, although one of them has since closed (likely because only foreigners were interested). And Seoul is a whole different story. But the average restaurant in my area claiming to serve a particular country’s cuisine is typically awful.]

5. Shower in a real shower. My current bathroom is quite an improvement from my first in Korea, since it was new when I moved in and therefore I’ve been able to keep it clean and mold-free. Plus the hot water actually works here. But again, most Korean bathrooms are wet rooms with a shower head installed on the wall and a drain in the floor, and mine is no exception, which leaves me longing for the luxury of a separate shower that doesn’t get my toilet, floor, and everything else completely soaking wet.

And a bonus…

6. Be reverse culture shocked. It’s always strange and funny to me when I first step off the plane and hear the chatter of English around me and can make small talk with strangers. The different smells and sounds, the English commercials on TV, the vast, beautiful spaciousness of suburban neighborhoods, the colorful cars (as opposed to the sea of black, white, and silver vehicles here) all contribute to a feeling of reverse culture shock. I look forward to being surprised by other things too.

Noobish mistakes in Korea

While I’m sure I continue to commit cultural faux pas on the regular here, there are a few particularly embarrassing ones that I thought I’d share to perhaps help other noobish expats out. Or just for your amusement.

Most of them occurred very early on in my time here, so don’t judge me too hard.

I shall omit the Getting Lost Incident, which has been previously documented.

1. The taxi incident.

I was taking a taxi to an open class observation at another school which was pretty far away from my own. After managing to get the driver to understand my feeble “[school name] ga juseyo“, I was feeling quite empowered by my clearly amazing Korean abilities. So when he asked me something in Korean to the effect of “do you mean THIS school or THAT school,” I confidently replied 몰라요/mollayo,” which means “I don’t know.”

The driver chuckled in a surprised way and repeated, “몰라요?” “네,” I said, feeling oh-so-proud of myself.

(Luckily for me, the driver knew where the correct school was anyway and dropped me off there with another little chuckle as I handed him the money.)

What I found out MONTHS later is that there are two ways to say “I don’t know” in Korean. 모르겠어요 (mollegesoyo) means “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out/I’m sorry that I don’t know.” 몰라요, which I used, has a connotation of “don’t know don’t care.” LOL. Sorry, Taxi Driver Ajeosshi. Didn’t mean to be rude. At least he found it funny.

2. The bus incident.

I still cringe when I think about this one.

In my first couple days in the city, I decided to attempt to take a bus that I had been told would stop near my school. I wanted to prepare myself for how I would get there come Monday, my first day of teaching. I knew the general area but didn’t know exactly how to get there from my house.

Can I just say that Korean buses. are. terrifying. I can take them now, but I prefer not to for fear of being thrown into the windshield before I have a chance to grab onto something after boarding.

So I got on this bus, and after a couple of stops I realized I was now the only person on the bus. And it seemed like we were going the wrong way (not that I really had any way of knowing).

Worried that I would end up in like another city, maybe, I cautiously approached the bus driver in this empty bus and said in Korean, “Chogiyo, ajeosshi (excuse me, sir),” and then said what I now realize is the Korean equivalent of “Bus go [school name]?”

The gruff bus driver responded with a few grunts and then energetically waved me off at the next stop. He probably thought that I thought that he was some sort of taxi driver who would take me exactly where I wanted to go. Obviously I was just trying to figure out if we were going to get close to my school, but I must’ve seemed like an extremely clueless and/or entitled weirdo with the language skills of a two-year-old.

Anyway then I took a taxi and found my school and was able to work my way backwards to figure out a walking route and it was all fine.

Come to think of it, taxis saved my life more than a few times in the first couple months.

3. The Olive Young incident.

Olive Young is a makeup/beauty products chain and my go-to for buying BB creams and facial masks.

Whenever you check out they’re required to ask a series of rapid questions including “Do you need a bag with handles?”, (if yes) “It costs xyz extra, is that okay?”, “Do you have an Olive Young rewards card?”, and “If you want to return anything, you have to do so by this date.”

Nothing out of the ordinary, but the first time I experienced it, I only understood the “do you need a bag” part. When she said the part about the price, I had no clue what she was saying and just stared at her helplessly, which led to a series of even more confusing attempts at communication as I didn’t know whether to say “yes” or “no” and she didn’t know how to explain it any differently, apparently, so eventually she just charged me for it. Of course, it just so happened that half the population of Daegu was behind me in line, witnessing the whole thing.

Not that this is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen or that it’s the only awkward communication issue I’ve had, but it just illustrates how frequently you can feel completely stupid when you first arrive and don’t know much of the language yet.

Incidentally, I recently had one of the Olive Young cashiers do her spiel entirely in English for me, which impressed me greatly since the location I go to probably doesn’t get many foreigners. I know Koreans have no obligation to speak English to foreigners in Korea, so I always feel warm and fuzzy when they do. Especially in grouchy Daegu.*

*I love Daegu but it’s a little bit of a crusty old man sometimes.

4. The co-teachers incident.

I guess it sounds worse than it is, but it’s still a bit of a faux pas. When I first met my co-teachers I tentatively addressed all of them as, for example, “Kim Seonsaengnim” or “Park Seonsaengnim” (“Teacher Kim”/”Teacher Park”).

Yeah… don’t do that.

I was trying to be respectful, but it just sounds really clumsy and awkward and will probably make your co-teachers feel weird.

Honestly, you should just ask them “What should I call you?”, since some like to go by an English first name, others like to be “(Korean Name) Teacher,” and some (rarely in my experience) like to be “Mister/Miss (Name).”

Personally, when I’m referring to them to the students, I use “(First Name) Teacher” in English, or just the Korean way of referring to other teachers, which is “(Full Name)쌤/Saem.” However ‘saem‘ is technically slang and is a casual, borderline too casual way to say ‘teacher’, so don’t use it right away / unless you hear other teachers using this method. English is the safest bet.

5. The paying incident.

This one is an ongoing cultural muddle for me. In Korean culture, when you go out to eat, traditionally the oldest person pays for everyone in the group (part of the Confucian hierarchy, and I suppose the only beneficial part for younger people, is that older people are supposed to take care of and look out for them). If there’s a round of coffee or dessert after the meal, the younger person can then pay for this smaller bit as a way to say thank you.

There is a “Dutch pay” concept (a.k.a. splitting the bill; somehow “going Dutch” got Konglishified into “Dutch pay”), but it depends on the circumstances and who you’re with.

However, deeply ingrained Western norms about splitting the bill when out with friends or coworkers plus confusion about what is expected from me, as an often-younger yet also foreign person in Korea, make this such an uncomfortable situation for me.

I’ve had many an awkward half-conversation, half-skirting-around-the-topic with my Korean co-teachers, something like “Oh, I can -” “Oh, next time -” “Can I -” “I invited you -” “Half? -” “Don’t worry -” *awkward silence*.

I honestly still have no idea whether I’m supposed to keep completely quiet and just thank them, offer once and then shut up, or continue protesting. I suppose I should try to figure that out.


Okay, there are my Top 5 Embarrassing Moments in Korea. (I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting at the moment.) Thankfully these days I’m a bit better at remembering to avoid most of the faux pas.

Also, though I’m grateful to all the taxis that saved me in the early days, I now avoid taking any form of transportation that is not my own two legs whenever possible. Walking is the one method of getting around that is guaranteed not to stress me out.

Before Korea, after Korea

I’ve been thinking lately about all the things I can do now that I couldn’t do before I came to Korea / when I first arrived here, and also all the habits I’ve formed since coming here.

So without further ado, let’s begin the list.

How has Korea changed me?

I can now…

  • Fly internationally alone (I don’t like it, but I can do it).
  • Understand most basic Korean conversations around me – to the point where one of the P.E./head teachers has befriended me at lunch and taken to conversing with me where he speaks mostly Korean and I answer in English, which is entertaining for everyone. “I’m funny guy,” he laughed confidently the other day, to the amusement of all.
  • Ride the bus without freaking out (much). (To be fair, if you can’t get a seat and have to stand, you’d best secure a death grip on the nearest object within 2 seconds of boarding because it’s gonna be a wild ride.)
  • Eat very spicy foods like a pro – i.e., no more watery eyes, runny nose, or uncontrollable coughing. In fact, I now prefer for most Korean dishes to have a kick to them. In the same vein…
  • Eat all my Korean food groups like a good little expat. My taste buds have totally transformed in the last 2 years, narrowing my “can’t do it” foods to a very small list indeed. I find that Koreans often strongly connect certain foods with certain events or feelings. Hot, nasty, humid day? Mul naengmyeon (cold soup & noodles). Birthday? Seaweed soup. New Year’s Day? Rice cake soup. Feeling sick? Juk (porridge) or samgyetang (chicken & ginseng soup). Rainy, gloomy day, or feeling sad? Samgyeopsal (bbq pork belly) and soju. Stressed out or angry? Super spicy food and soju. Just climbed a mountain? Jeon (savory veggie pancakes) and makgeolli (rice wine). (Is there a pattern here? Koreans love their alcohol, man.) I’ve come to really enjoy this aspect of Korean culture, and have begun craving specific dishes based on particular emotions/circumstances myself. I’ve even conquered my nemesis, fish jjim, in spite of my former assertions that I was giving up on liking it. It, like everything else in Korean cuisine, has its time and place to be eaten. Namely, after a stressful day when you need something mega spicy to get rid of your stress and frustrations. With soju. Speaking of which…
  • Drink half a bottle of soju.

I cannot now…

  • Make small talk (disclaimer: not that I was necessarily great at this to begin with)
  • Greet people without a head bow
  • Speak without pausing every 2-3 words and monitoring my own sentences to make sure they’re not too long or complicated. I’ve heard this called “riding the brake” among foreigners here.
  • Use articles correctly. It deeply perturbs me how many times I’ve caught myself saying “This is dog.” “I will go to supermarket.” A and the are falling out of my vocabulary. Even worse, this week I caught myself failing at subject/verb agreement- “They are zombie.*” “These are apple.” send help. quickly.

*Halloween week, you know.

And so it begins

This was Day 2, Semester 2, Year 2.

Yesterday my stress-and-heat-induced headache was way too strong to allow me to blog, and when I got home around 6:30 p.m. I literally collapsed into bed and only ventured out of it to get sustenance from my kitchen (so, about five steps).

But today I’m feeling much better and more energetic, perhaps mostly due to the fact that I only have two classes on Wednesdays, which is lovely because every other day of the week is pretty packed (and bottom-heavy, so I’m usually teaching back-to-back classes after lunch straight through till last period).

There have already been ups and downs. The blistering, record-setting heat (apparently the hottest summer in Korea since 1994!!!) is not helping anyone’s back-to-school spirit, but we’re trying.

Among other activities, we’re playing People Bingo this week to talk about our summer vacations. (There was no way I was going to make my kids study the textbook in the first week; I’ve learned my lesson from previous semesters. It’s completely counterproductive.)

The kids have to go to other students (or teacher) with their Bingo sheets and ask questions like “Did you eat ice cream during summer vacation? Did you visit another city? Did you go to a museum?” If the answer is “yes” they can write that student’s name in the box.

Well, a boy came up to me within 3 minutes, confident that he’d achieved BINGO. I glanced at his sheet.

Me: “Did you ask different people?”

Him: “…”

Me: “You have to ask different people each question!”

Him: *taking the Bingo Sheet back in defeat* “Oh, Jeejus. Jeejus.”

Apparently he thought asking a couple of his friends over and over until he got BINGO was acceptable? Not so fast, kid! It’s a mingling activity, not a cliquing activity.

Because the cafeteria is under construction until November, all the kids have to eat lunch in their homerooms with their homeroom teachers. As a result, when I go down to the teachers’ cafeteria at 12:30, instead of a hallway filled with ravenous, squabbling, play-fighting children, there is silence and emptiness. The teachers’ cafeteria room is like a funeral room of hushed voices and silent head-bow greetings as the handful of non-homeroom teachers (teachers on shorter contracts like me, for example) eat together. It’s not necessarily a bad experience. I kind of prefer it, actually.

One of the other activities I’ve been having the kids do is a “favorite things survey.” I have a series of questions like favorite food, movie, music, K-pop group, city in Korea, superhero, sport, candy, color, etc. etc. I’m letting them write their answers in Korean if need be (but encouraging the ones who can to use English wherever possible) – and the reason for that is that I really want every single kid to be able to participate, because I plan to compile all their answers into an Excel spreadsheet, find the top 3-5 most popular answers, and play a Family Feud-style game with all the classes later this semester based on our school’s student opinions. It’s an idea I’ve seen on Waygook and other sites in various formats, but of course it’s more fun and engaging for the kids if they’re guessing the opinions of their own peers and not some random strangers.

Beginning to compile the answers* has tested my Korean handwriting-deciphering abilities, which I’ve discovered are markedly improved but nowhere near great. The process has involved a lot of googling my best guess until something viable pops up.

On a personal note, it’s nice to see what my kids are actually into. Sure, some of the 2nd grade boys have trolled me with their answers – a few have done things like put the name of an erotica drama down for “best TV show” (which I only discovered after googling the title) or “North Korea” for “country you want to visit.” But for the most part, it’s helping me see what they’re interested in (and what candy to buy if they deserve a treat).

Fortunately there have been no Korean surprises yet (other than a few last-minute co-teacher switches), and we can only hope it remains this way.

And we also hope that the air con holds up because yesterday it was struggling to cool the entire school and kept cycling off and on.

Fall, please hurry up and get here.

Love, Maddy

*For anyone interested in Korean pop culture du jour, here are some of the top survey results so far:

  • K-pop (boy group): BTS, EXO, Big Bang
  • K-pop (girl group): TWICE, iOi, Mamamoo
  • Foreign band/singer: Maroon 5 (overwhelmingly so, probably because it’s basically the only Western music they know), honorable mentions for The Beatles & Michael Jackson
  • Movie: Train to Busan (recent Korean zombie thriller), Suicide Squad
  • Game: Overwatch (it’s beating out League of Legends, amazingly)
  • Subject: P.E. (so, so, so many votes for P.E.)
  • Superhero: Ironman far & away in the lead, with Captain America a distant 2nd and a few stubborn votes for The Joker and Harley Quinn
  • City in Korea: Daegu (Daeguites are a loyal bunch), followed by Sokcho (because it’s the only Korean city where Pokemon Go is available)
  • Animal: Two-thirds dog, one-third cat. 1 vote for armadillo.
  • Country to visit: Japan at the top, followed weakly by the U.S. and then Brazil (no doubt influenced by the Rio Olympics)
  • Baskin Robbins flavor: “My Mom Is an Alien” (pretty sure we don’t have this flavor in the U.S.!? But apparently it’s really popular here)
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Behold “My Mom is an Alien”, which contains dark, milk, and white chocolate ice cream and is studded with (I think) malted milk balls. I think I need to try this. For like… research purposes. To see if my kids are correct or not, you know.

End of the semester

And so ends the first half of Year 2. Finally!

I bought probably way more snacks than my students needed for our movie time – chips, the Korean equivalent of cheese Ritz Bitz, fruit snacks (splurged on the expensive imported Welsh’s), choco pies, and juice boxes. But they were excited and appreciative, and that’s good enough for me.

I’d never actually seen Bridge to Terabithia, only skimmed review sites to make sure there’s no weird or inappropriate content. [I’ll be honest- I totally confused this movie with Race to Witch Mountain – hey, they both star AnnaSophia Robb – and spent several minutes wondering when The Rock was going to show up.] Hence I didn’t realize (**spoiler alert**) that one of the two main characters dies towards the end. I was sitting in the back, so no telling whether any of my girls were crying. Nevertheless, they seemed to enjoy it.

I also handed out mini, colorful 90-cent notepads to the team that had won the Tongue Twister challenge. For such a tiny prize, I was touched that the kids oohed and aahed when I presented them.

Then I let them all come back for seconds at the snack table, because goodness knows I don’t want to lug all those boxes back to my apartment.

One of the girls ran back after all the kids had departed and shyly handed me a coffee. (That girl knows where it’s at. heh heh.) But seriously, it was really sweet. She probably picked it out and bought it herself.

Then I went to eat the dreaded fish jjim in the main teachers’ office for lunch – but because it was with my favorite co-teacher, I didn’t mind so much. I only accidentally crunched like 5 fish bones and only had to extract about 20 more while eating. Not too shabby. I also learned that apparently some people actually just eat the bones. wow.

And this is a true measure of how I’ve adjusted to Korean food – I don’t find this particular jjim spicy at all anymore, whereas the first couple times I ate it, I could barely handle two bites without extreme eye-watering, nose-running, and tickly-throat-coughing. Sometimes I think, “wow, they sure have lightened up on the spice factor in this dish” and then I’m like “you big dummy, they aren’t changing the recipe, your taste buds have changed.” Whoops.

Following lunch, I had a lovely hour-long chat with my co-teacher, since today she was assigned to deskwarm in the main office alone because the other teachers had other responsibilities. She suggested that we check out the cooking class in the cafeteria (this was another week-long class like mine, but was offered solely to the low-income students of the school).

When we entered the cafeteria, a bunch of the kids turned around and lit up, “Hi teacher!” They were eager to show me their sandwiches (have I ever mentioned that in Korea, sandwiches can include one or all of the following [usually all]: fried eggs, coleslaw, jam WITH meat, spam, various fruits… sweet sandwiches are very popular, whereas I feel they wouldn’t go over that well in America).

I also inwardly groaned at the “New York style” hot dogs they were making, which consisted of: hot dog, mayonnaise, green leaf lettuce, American cheese slices, and dumpling-style ground beef mixed with sweet chili sauce on top. This is why Koreans don’t think American food is all that great!!! I’m sure if they were visiting America, they wouldn’t trust an American to make authentic Korean food, so why do they trust Koreans to make authentic American food? In my entire time in Korea, I don’t think I’ve had a single meal at any restaurant that actually tastes American (and yes, American cuisine honestly does have its own set of flavors which you maybe can’t really appreciate until you can’t quite find those flavors ANYWHERE). Mind you, I live in Daegu and there is a shortage of foreigner-run restaurants here. I know there are some authentic foreign places in Seoul, but I never go there, so too bad for me.

Anyway, whatever! Minor annoyance.

Bigger annoyance: the weather has been in the upper 90s all week and will continue to be so all next week, seemingly. I got very angry while walking home from work today because NO HUMAN BEING SHOULD HAVE TO SWEAT WHILE STANDING STILL DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. In the 7 minutes of walking home, I became disgusting. Unacceptable, Daegu. /rant

Anyway, weather aside, TGIF and TGIVacation!

Owning the label

I spent years of my life running from and denying this term. Getting angry and annoyed when people used it to describe me (which was often). Thinking that it was such a bad thing for a person to be. Wondering why it was so hard to avoid being labeled with it. Hating that I was it.

Shy.

Yes, world, I am shy. Okay?

For some reason, living in Korea has helped me to embrace the term. Until recently, I’d never even considered that “shy” doesn’t have to be a negative thing.

Why is shy so bad, anyway?

First definition on Google:

  1. being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.

And this is bad because…?

Personally, I don’t feel nervous when I’m with other people (and I assume I don’t look nervous… hopefully), but if I don’t know the people very well, the words reserved, quiet, and even timid definitely apply. And I just don’t see how that earns a negative connotation.

We’re not talking about social anxiety here, which is NOT the same thing as being shy and is, arguably, objectively a bad thing because it creates discomfort or pain for the person experiencing it. Maybe people who have social anxiety are frequently called “shy” by other people, but social anxiety goes deeper than that – but that’s a whole ‘nother topic (and I’ve already done an anxiety/mental health post this week, so for the sake of this post we will talk exclusively about non-anxiety-driven shyness, so everything in the definition except “nervous” because nervous can have a negative meaning).

Anyway, shyness is neutral, people.

A few months ago, I had a lesson on personality with an after-school class. After teaching them a variety of personality trait words (kind, lazy, funny, shy, honest, mean, etc.), I told them to circle the positive or good traits and put a square around the negative or bad traits. When it came to “shy,” a lot of them didn’t know what to do. I told them it’s not good or bad.

I think if I had done this activity with American students, most if not all of them would’ve labeled shy as negative. And that’s sad.

As a child and teen, I had this notion instilled in me that shyness was like an illness or a bad habit. Something I needed to grow out of. Something that would impede my attempts to be successful as an adult.

Well, guess what?

It’s not. It wasn’t. It hasn’t.

I may never be that person networking and getting great job opportunities through my social connections, but that was never a big goal of mine anyway. I want to work doing something I love and enjoy (which, ironically, involves working with people), and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half, and for 10 years before that in America.

I may never be that person who goes to a new place or event or party and comes away with dozens of new friends and contacts, but that was also never a big goal of mine. I like having my small group of close friends. Do I need friends and family? Absolutely, 100% yes. Please don’t equate shy or reserved with antisocial or hermit. I need people in my life. I want to be social sometimes too. But my social bar fills up more quickly than some others.

I may never be that person who, after meeting someone for the first time, leaves a fantastic first impression and makes the other person think “Wow, what a hilarious, amazing, cool person!” But that’s okay. Do I sometimes wish I could be like that? Of course. I see these vibrant, outgoing people and think, Their social skills are so fluent. I wish I could be so smooth when meeting new people! But again, it’s okay. There are all kinds of people in this world, and we can’t all be outgoing and super friendly and funny – just like we can’t all be introverted and reserved and shy (thank God! no one would ever talk to each other ever!).

I guess I started thinking about this more because since arriving in Korea, many coworkers (English teachers and other teachers/school staff) have mentioned my shyness. But it doesn’t seem to have the same connotation here as it would in America. It’s just like “Oh, you’re shy” in the same way one might say “Oh, you have brown eyes” or “Oh, you’re tall.” The only reason they seem to think it strange is that I break their stereotype about all Americans being boisterous and outgoing. Heehee.

Anyway, if you are a shy person and you want to work on not being shy, I will cheer you on. If you are miserable about being shy, then definitely go for it, challenge yourself to be talkative and outgoing and meet new people. I’ve met really, really outgoing people who have admitted to me that they used to be shy and really worked on it and overcame it. So don’t despair! You can change certain aspects of your personality.

But my point is, shyness shouldn’t be seen as something that must be overcome. It’s not necessarily a problem or a negative. If you’re like me, content with being reserved and quiet in certain social situations, then don’t let other people make you feel like it’s a bad thing. Because IT’S NOT.

If someone accuses you of being shy or quiet (the dreaded “You’re so quiet!”), just own it. You don’t have to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable (easier said than done, I know), because you’re not doing anything wrong. And you don’t need to explain it to anyone. Does an extroverted person ever have to explain why they’re outgoing and like to chat? No? Then you don’t need to explain why you’re quiet.

Best of luck on your arduous path, fellow shy people. And for those who enjoy being outgoing and extroverted, I hope this can give you a little insight and understanding for us strange shy ones.

Things that still throw me off (re: English communication in Korea)

1. “I see” as a response.

In Korean, you can use “알았어” (alasseo) to mean “Gotcha” or “Okay, sounds good” or “okay, I acknowledge and acquiesce with what you’re saying,” whereas in English (at least in my experience), “I see” as a response to someone typically has a connotation of “I’m uninterested” or “I get what you’re saying but I don’t approve/I don’t care” or “I’m annoyed with your words. Let’s end this conversation.”

So when Koreans say or text “I see” to me, I can’t help feeling strange at first, like, Did I annoy them? Was what I said boring? WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? Then I remember that in their minds, it’s the equivalent of 알았어, a.k.a. “oh, gotcha” or “sounds good!”

2. Misuse of the word “embarrassed.”

I’m not 100% sure, but I guess the Korean translation for “embarrassed” is a word that includes connotations of “shocked/surprised,” or “taken aback/caught off guard” – things that have nothing to do with feeling humiliated, mortified, or ashamed, all of which are certainly synonyms of “embarrassed” in English.

Therefore, I’ve had several instances where, after explaining an unexpected situation to a Korean acquaintance, they respond with “I think you were embarrassed.” And even though I now kind of know what they mean, it still throws me off, like Wait… why would I be embarrassed? Did I do something embarrassing? Should I be humiliated right now? I actually question my behavior for a second before I remember it’s a translation issue.

3. Misuse of the word “maybe.”

“Maybe” is supposed to mean “possibly,” “it might be,” “potentially,” right? Well, not in Korea. People say “maybe” but they mean “definitely / you must / you should / it will happen.” As in, “Maybe you will teach this class” means “You WILL teach this class, and you don’t have a choice.” “Maybe you will come with me” means “Come with me now.” “Maybe he is not at school today” means “Yeah, he’s definitely absent.” I still sometimes hear the “maybe” and think it means “maybe” (silly me), then realize (perhaps minutes or hours later) that it wasn’t a “maybe” at all.

(A somewhat related misuse is “You should.” For some reason, some Koreans seem to use “should” when they mean “must / have to,” like “I think you should come to the meeting” might actually mean “you must come to the meeting.” Or “You should teach a 3-day camp” probably means “You have to teach a 3-day camp.” I’m not quite sure why this happens. It’s not everyone, but just some people.)

4. Incorrect question syntax.

Countless times I’ve been caught off-guard by conversations like this:

Co-teacher: “You are doing XYZ.”

Me: “Oh, okay.”

Co-teacher: “You are?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t know!”

Co-teacher: “I don’t know either; I am asking you!”

Or

Students: “Teacher, [XYZ Korean Teacher] is more than 30 years old.”

Me: “Oh, more than 30?”

Students: “OH! TEACHER, REALLY?”

Me: “Wait… what? Nonono, I don’t know! I thought you knew!”

To ask a question in Korean, you simply use a rising intonation with your statement (e.g. “There is a meeting” and “Is there a meeting?” uses the same words, but you make your voice higher at the end for the question). We do this in English too sometimes, but I think we use certain facial expressions or tones to make it clear that it’s a question.

Since the question format of starting with the verb (“Do you / Are you / Is she” etc.) is more complicated, I find some Koreans just use rising intonation to ask questions in English – but when they do it, it’s barely noticeable (to me at least!). Thus it ends up sounding like a statement, leading to much confusion for everyone involved.

Communication is an endless quest (or struggle, depending on the day). The end.

Pleasant surprises

Not ALL Korean surprises are bad, you know.

For example:

1. Early in the semester, I scheduled my open class for Tuesday, May 24. Today is Tuesday, May 24. Surprise! No cameras showed up. I realized that my big open class  a couple months ago (the one for new NETs) “counted,” cancelling out my regular open class. Yesssss! It was an especially great feeling because this particular group of students are not the ideal “open class” kids – they tend to be quiet and look like they’re not having fun even if they are. I was kind of worried about it, but all that pent-up nervous energy dispersed into happiness when I realized it was class as usual.

2. No air conditioning is allowed until at least next month, even though the temperatures have been climbing into the 80s with a relentless, scorching sun baking the classrooms every day. Today it’s raining, which is great – no sun (and as someone who is legitimately allergic to the sun, I’m loving that) – but it also means it’s crazy humid inside. My hair is literally reaching new heights of frizziness and everything feels sticky and damp.

The Korean surprise part is that during my last class of the day, the air conditioner in my classroom was mysteriously turned on. None of the kids would fess up, and my CT and I certainly didn’t turn it on, but we decided to quietly accept the boon. I mean, it probably takes just as much energy to turn it off right away as it does to run it for 45 minutes, right? Right?!

So we had beautifully dry cool air for 45 glorious minutes.

3. It’s mid-year self-assessment time for the NETs. Does anyone like answering these questions meant to trap you into egotism or low self-esteem? Rate yourself high on too many things and you look like a freaking narcissist. Rate yourself low and you look like a failure with no self-worth or confidence. Where is that balance? How much of a gap is there between “5 (very true)”, “4 (generally true)”, and “3 (true)”? Just how true can a statement get? True isn’t true enough? I’m confused.

The pleasant surprise was that my principal happened to walk into my office as I was balking at the task. He asked how my Korean is coming along, and I sheepishly explained that speaking is difficult but I can understand some.

[long tangent incoming ↓]

(wince… I know that question will only become harder and harder to answer the longer I stay in Korea if I don’t light a fire under my behind and actively study! I’ve been passively learning more and more vocabulary and grammar structure just by paying attention, and I can frequently understand the ‘classroom Korean’ / simple conversations that my co-teachers and students use, especially with contextual evidence. I can understand what is going on in the conversation in the Level 5 listening test from Talk To Me In Korean (the highest listening test level), even though I can’t understand every sentence. And that’s with zero studying!

But my confidence in speaking is so low. I get frustrated with myself – how can I expect students to put themselves out there and try to speak English if I’m too embarrassed or shy to try speaking Korean?

However, it’s kind of confidence-shattering to attempt to speak Korean and the listener has no clue what you’re saying. I think it has to do with the fact that English speakers are accustomed to so many different accents and ability levels, whereas most Koreans have only ever heard native Koreans speaking Korean. They have a very low threshold for pronunciation or intonation mistakes. Plus, some might not expect to hear Korean coming out of a foreigner’s mouth.

But I’m pretty much awesome at saying “Can I have a trash bag, please?” Sseuregi bongtu juseyo. I do this every time I go grocery shopping. Rolls right off the tongue. I’m a total pro now. So, you know, if any tourists out there ever really need a trash bag in Korea, I’m your woman.)

[/tangent]

Then he asked, “How long will you stay in Korea?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I’m thinking about staying longer.”

He smiled, “I think you should stay longer and longer and longer!”

Knowing that the head of the school values me as a teacher gave me the confidence boost I needed to fill out the “list 3 strengths,” “what aspects of your work attitude can be improved?”, “list 3 goals,” etc. etc. on the self-assessment.

4. My CT informed me that the kids are all out on field trips and extracurriculars tomorrow. All day. No classes. These are the days when I can bring in my morning coffee and yogurt, pop in my earbuds and get a ton of work done in uninterrupted peace and quiet. I’m so looking forward to it.