It is said that culture shock settles in at about the second or third month in a new culture, but it is also said that sometimes people's adjustment process can vary considerably. Approaching my third month into my South Korean teaching job, in the remainder of my year contract there are of course still another ten months left of potential ups and downs. I don't know what I'll have to say next month, but my darkest moments haven't ever really been that dark. I came here with an open mind and fairly low expectations. Like my skills with metal chopsticks, life and work have been slowly improving.
Anyone who has used the internet for the main information source about living and working in South Korea knows the range of exisiting opinions and experiences. I hadn't quite finished my BA when I began noticing the job postings in Korea via my university back in 2008. At that point, it would have been impossible to liquidate my worldy belongings and jump into it without much thought. For a while, I spent a lot of time traveling to South Korea via the world wide web.
My sudden interest in South Korea was mindboggling to most of my friends and family. Since I designed my own multidisciplinary degree program via the 'Bachelor of University Studies' program available at my university, I found it was too difficult to explain to most people just what exactly I was hoping to do with my life when it was all over. Upon explanations of my plans, after encountering variations of the old 'KISS' addage (keep it simple stupid), with most people I decided to at least keep the explanations simple enough to avoid the conversation about how my *plan* didn't make any sense. In order to be accepted into the university program, I had to designate an upper division course sequence that combined up to four disciplines and write up a statement demonstrating that I had "realistic expectations." How would my program help me with future career and higher education plans? In addition to designing the program, I had to consolidate it all with a name. Back in 2004, I decided to call it 'Teaching English as a Second Language in Diverse Settings.' The University of New Mexico bought it.
Why didn't I just get a teaching certificate via the UNM College of Education? Well, that's another long, difficult to explain story.....already into my 20's without a 4 year degree, some creative delusions it was suggested that I'd be a good teacher and that I explore the profession and apply my random college credits towards a job as an 'educational assistant' in the public schools.
Though I made much more money waiting tables, I found that I felt at home in the classroom. The high school I last worked at, Highland High School in Albuquerque was famous for inspiring Mike Judge's 'Beavis and Butthead.' As much fun as it was to read 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' in a special ed classroom with emotionally disturbed and behaviorally disordered students, I was fascinated by the linguistic and cultural diversity in the school outside of my classroom. My first day on the job, I learned that there were some 170 languages represented by the students at our school.
I was with my students at Highland, when together we all watched the broadcast of the airplanes fly into the World Trade Center...The funny thing was that summer I'd interviewed for an airline job and made the cut into employee pool, meaning when there was an open position I had the job. Part of the allure of teaching was possibilty for travel during the summer time....alternately the allure of an airline was the possibility of free travel. In either a teaching job or an airline job, I saw the potential to satisfy my wander lust. On 9/11, of course I had other thoughts besides "oh well, there goes my airline job...." but in the subsequent months with all that happened in the world economy I felt so glad that I'd found a career path that agreed with my inner motivations.
A few months later, I was surprised and conflicted when I received the call from the airline. Getting in with an airline was supposed to be difficult enough before 9/11....what to do now? In the business environment at the time, I imagined that if I didn't like it I would probably be layed off in a matter of six months anyhow. I took the job. The date of hire on my airline badges, ironically was 3/11/02.
I spent the next seven years at the airport on red alert, under constant threats of terror and downsizing. Airline schedule permitting, I stayed in school..if i could stand the service industry long enough maybe someday I'd figure out how to combine my travel benefits with teaching internationally.
In December of 2008, when I finally finished my 165 hour BA, many people asked me if I would be practicing law or medicine....ha ha very funny. Since the beginning of my 2001 relationship with the airline, with the addition of the US mortgage and banking crisis the world economy had further gone to crap. My fellow airline employees frequently made fun of my nonstop studies...."by the time you finish your degree, you'll be making too much money here to ever find anything better."
What was I supposed to do with my inexplicable degree program? Besides courses such as 'developmental psychology' and 'educational psychology', and 'teaching linguistically diverse students', it turned out to be quite difficult to take relevent courses within the confines of the college of education. Getting departmental approval wasn't hard, but the course sequence coincided with the student teaching component of the regular program. The degree I ended up with most closely mirrors a Spanish/Latin American studies degree. When I started talking about South Korea, most people wanted to know where Spanish fits into the random Asia plan and furthermore what the hell is wrong with me. As much as I would have loved to leave the airlines and find a well-paying position in somewhere in Latin America or Spain (well paying enough to survive and pay American student loan debt) without any relevent experience even studying abroad, I couldn't figure out a creative solution to place me where I wanted to be.
Just as I was devising a plot to leave my job and the US the other direction with a free ticket to South Korea, as a result of the recession, my employer began offering incentives for employees to leave voluntarily. Now that I finally had a college degree it wasn't difficult to take the money and run. I was already at the point where I could not continue working there in that capacity even if they paid me $1000 an hour. I ran off to Guatemala to coast through life on my voluntary seperation package and ponder the next step. The four months I spent there is another story with a clearly defined honeymoon phase.
After some awkward moments as a volunteer teaching English without many resources or any special training, I found that if it was that difficult to explain why I can and you can and they can do anything, and why I speak you speak, but he or she speaks, runs, or sleeps but if he or she *cans* it usually involves 'latas' and fruits, vegetables, and certain meats....I knew South Korea didn't require a TEFL certificate but after finding out what a challange it is to teach English even with a knowledge of my students first language, I thought it was a good idea to get some TEFL training. I was originally against an online program, but people I met from all around the world in Guatemala gave me the idea that an expensive onsite program wasn't particularly necesssary to work in South Korea or Latin America. I don't think anything could have prepared me for the hagwon experience, but it's been a valuable learn as I go experience. Even in the midst of some annoyances, every day I realize how lucky I am to have ended up at this particular hagwon...more later!
I started writing this post wondering where I am according to the culture shock/cultural adjustment schedule. I don't have any idea. Between the four months in Guatemala and now two months in South Korea, I only spent two months in the States. Beyond the fearmongering of friends and family and the horror stories I encountered on the internet, I continue to be pleasantly surprised about different aspects of my South Korean life....again more stories to share later...
How could I survive in a country without knowing the equivalent of the ABC's or even the equivalent of *donde está el baño?*....? Though there are certainly some challenges, I've been enjoying the shift of my continental perspective and how a tiny reservoir of Korean language and culture is accumulating in my Western mind.
At this point, I have no regrets. I'm so glad that I never caved into anyone elses doubts about the validity of my plans throughout the course of my educational and career adventures to date!