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!

On the embracing of music and the acceptance of irrationality

*Edit: So it’s bugging me that I mixed the use of the verb “embracing” and the noun “acceptance” in the title, but I’m not going to change it. I just wanted to note it. In case it’s bugging anyone else.

So here we are in the midst of another week of deskwarming. (Well, here I am. I don’t know where you are.)

Each morning I half-jog through the breathtaking cold to school. I have enough walking time to listen to about 1.3 songs, so I have to choose carefully. These days I’ve been going through Bastille’s “Wild World” album, song by song.

There’s something to be said for learning an entire album by heart and deliberately embracing each of the songs on it, even if you don’t initially like some of them. Not to force yourself to be a “true fan” of a particular group – I dislike that attitude, personally – but to watch and feel how certain songs grow on you. After X number of listens, the lyrics or an inflection in the singer’s voice make you feel something. (You obviously have to start out with an artist you like, though.)

Plus, through repeated and dedicated listening, you get the added benefit of creating a powerful memory capsule embedded in that album, and even if those memories aren’t purely happy ones…

I attempted to write my next sentence several times before realizing that I’m only trying to paraphrase Joe Henry (“God Only Knows”), and he says it better, so:

The worst of life looks beautiful as it slips away in full retreat.

Yesterday I decided to publish my old Yeongju trip post, and I might publish one or two other lingering drafts as I finish up the first round of deskwarming this vacation season.

Next week I have vacation, which I managed to join with the Seollal (Lunar New Year) long weekend to get an even longer vacation.

After that it’s back to school for one of the more absurd aspects of the Korean academic year: the random February week.

The length and purpose of this week varies by school, but for my middle school we will have three random days of class (Thursday, Friday, and Monday in the first week of February) – and not even normal class, but classes that are 10 minutes shorter than the usual time – followed by a graduation ceremony for the 3rd years on Tuesday.

And that’s it. Then we’re back to vacation – “spring vacation” instead of “winter vacation” – until March 2nd.

Why?

WHY, KOREA??

I really can’t fathom the reason for this, as it needlessly breaks up the much-needed vacation time and accomplishes little to nothing in the way of education for the kids, since A) in 3 days with 35 minutes per class, there’s barely time to delve into any topic and B) they literally will not care since these classes have no bearing on their grades and all they’re thinking about is vacation.

I guess I have it easy, since I believe some elementary schools go for a full week or so. And it’s really not the end of the world to teach a few random classes, I suppose.

But I really dislike irrationality, especially when it’s so deeply and stubbornly ingrained in a system.

(If there is a plausible reason for this week being plopped in the middle of vacation, I will stand corrected.)

Classroom woes

Yesterday, I drafted a whiny woe-is-me post.

Today, I’m glad I didn’t hit publish. [nonetheless i will now proceed with summarizing said woe-is-me post, only a bit less negatively]

Every teacher goes through work stress, from misbehaving students to lesson planning to coworker clashes to administration frustrations to fighting the counterproductive stupidities that have been embedded into the “system.” I think I can safely say literally every teacher. As an ESL teacher in Korea specifically, there is another set of frustrations related to lack of communication / language barrier and lack of power (as our role is technically a ‘guest/assistant’ teacher).

Anyway, yesterday was just one of those days.

My classroom TV/computer connection had a freak-out moment and stopped working mid-class, and my co-teachers and I were running around the school looking for an empty classroom every period until the very awesome technology teacher set up a temporary fix by plugging his laptop directly into the TV via HDMI cable.

(I am seriously so thankful for our new technology teacher; since he started working at my school just about a month ago, he’s helped me with SO many annoying technical problems in my classroom, and he’s always super prompt and cheerful, AND he can speak English! If I were the boss of something, I would hire him as my personal assistant. hahaha)

(Also, insert argument about not relying on technology in the classroom here. It’s true, but in my case and the case of many foreign teachers in Korea, using PPT makes it soooo much easier to explain vocabulary or activity/game instructions without bringing in tons of realia or pictures or relying on the Korean teacher for assistance/demonstration/translation.)

Besides the technical inconveniences, I was drained of all my energy by unmotivated students. My after-school class with the 16-yr-olds made me want to drown in a pool of my own tears afterwards. Or maybe to just yell “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WHAT DO YOU WANT?“, as I have now tried a wide variety of formats including non-PPT-based speaking games and activities, a pop song guessing game, Hot Seat (basically Taboo), watching a short animation and making a comic, and – yesterday’s failure of epic proportions – writing a simple “poem” using the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why). I have let them sit where they want and also made a seating chart to separate the chatty ones.

NOTHING. IS. WORKING.

Now that I’ve recovered from that critical hit to my pride, I’ve decided to simplify the remaining lessons as much as possible and just do what every other teacher is probably doing and hurry up and get through it.

As for today, most of it was an echo of yesterday, but at the very end, just before my final class of the day, my buddy the technology teacher saved the day yet again by bringing in a guy to fix the original computer/TV connection.

And not only was I able to use my normal classroom computer for that class, but it was one of my favorite classes, a very cheerful and polite bunch of kids. The lesson was on “I can’t believe it!”, so I showed them some weird facts (did you know the average person’s forearm is the same length as their foot?) and optical illusions. They had a very enjoyable time with those.

Just one class like that is all I need to feel that the rest of it is worth it. So this Thursday is ending happily. Even better, tomorrow is Friday AND it’s Sports Day, which means no classes and the kids will be running around outside all day, doing relay races and jump rope contests and tug-of-war.

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

internet explorer is an abomination

My office computer is awful.

He and I (yes I am personifying my computer) have a cute little morning routine together. And by cute I mean obnoxious.

Me: “Good morning Mr. Computer! Time to wake up!” *power on*

Him: “Okay! Sure thing!”

Him: “Just kidding, I’m gonna freeze up now.”

Me: “No problem, let’s try again.” *reboot*

Him: “Nah, I think this time I just won’t start.”

Me: “Okay. Third time’s a charm?” *reboot*

Him: “Is 30 seconds long enough for you to accomplish something before I freeze again?”

Me: *reboot*

Him: *nope*

Me: *reboot*

Him: *nope*

Me: *mentally banging head against the wall* “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY WILL YOU JUST START”

Him: “Not unless you call the IT guy in here.”

Me: “FINE! FINE I WILL!”

tumblr_lskru2nj0u1qd7bw2o1_500

I’m hoping if I call the IT guy to fix this thing often enough (like every day), he can put in a good word for getting a new computer in the English office.

And then another tragedy befell today: Chrome no longer works. It crashes upon launch, every single time. The Mozilla Firefox download page is completely blocked from my school’s server or whatever.

This leaves me with one option…

Internet freaking Explorer.

I’m sure I need not list all the reasons why this browser is 100% terrible. But just as a reminder… somehow the security settings have blocked every potentially useful site on the internet, including GOOGLE.COM. GOOGLE. They do realize that this in no way makes me inclined to use Bing, and instead sends me into a fit of rage, right?

I had to click a million links and permissions and other crap just to get to my WordPress site to type this blog post.

Also, everything is in Korean (computer interface, Microsoft Office interface, browser interface, all of it).

Also, I hate Internet Explorer’s guts.

beating-head-against-the-wall

 

 

In other (but also depressing?)  news, I was talking about Christmas with some 3rd graders (15 yr olds), and asked them if they will exchange gifts with family/friends on Christmas day.

“No! Teacher, we are not children,” said one girl in mild shock and disdain.

Apparently teenagehood/adulthood = no presents at Christmas. From anyone. Come on, Korea, that’s just sad. You need to up your Christmas game.