codea in Korea: Fall 2015


Things That No One Told Me About Teaching English in South Korea

Learning a language is a matter of persistence and motivation.

English is an extremely difficult language to both teach and learn. By teaching it, I’ve learned just how many exceptions to rules, irregular verb changes, and difficult words to spell and pronounce there are. Korean students are required to learn this language, and not all of them want to. Unless a student has a reason or inspiration to learn English, my class is not much of a class for them at all.

Korean is also a difficult language to learn. I’ve never had serious difficulties with the language barrier here, but I have learned that when you take language away, you are forced to interact, form bonds, and learn through the most basic form of communication—body language. Once I could read, write, and use basic verbs in Korean, my study of the language was put on hold until I realized that I’d never reach my goal of fluency unless I persist in practice.

Making Korean friends is harder than you’d think. 

Most Koreans are shy in personality, and shy to speak English. If they’re not either of those things, then you got lucky and should keep this friend for life. I have very few Korean friends, and I value the insights to their culture I get from our friendship.

Koreans can be very judgmental.

Physical beauty standards in Korea are very high, and many won’t be afraid to call you names that would be considered offensive in the U.S. Although Koreans often tell me that my “face is beautiful,” they don’t leave out that my “arms have hair,” my “skin is too tan,” or that my “feet are big.” They also think that I “eat too much ice cream,” but…isn’t there no such thing as too much ice cream?

Your mindset will evolve.

This is one of the most beautiful lessons I have learned since moving to Korea. From little things like my sense of fashion and my perception of beauty, to more significant ones like my taste in music and beliefs about people and the world, I have changed notably within my first few weeks of living here. I don’t judge people based on looks or fashion in the way that I used to, and I can now understand how or why people act the way they do. I have come to understand the phrase “To each his own” in a new light. Living in a society that was so different from the one I grew up in gave me insights to people’s choices, personalities, lifestyles, and principles that I never had before. The longer I live here, the more I find that the farther away I get from what I know, the more beautiful the world becomes.

Every single day will keep you guessing.

There is a thing we foreigners here call the “Korean surprise.” This is where totally unexpected things happen, in and out of school. From cancelled classes and surprise classes, to being forced to sing karaoke songs for the principal and teachers at my school, to strangers stopping you on the streets to speak English, the “Korean surprise” is very real. Each new day in Korea has something in store with the element of surprise.

Laziness is a terrible trap.

It’s easy to set goals, make to-do lists, and plans to explore and discover Korea, but it’s also easy to fall into the weekday rhythm of going to work, coming home to nap, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, and going straight to bed. I had ambitious goals of learning Korean, teaching myself to code, reading books, running, practicing yoga, and writing blogs left and right with all of my free time here. Soon, there were days and weeks that were exhausting and it required real motivation and a conscious effort to reach these goals. With the right balance of work and play, I can proudly say that my to-do list is slowly getting done, but it took some time to get here.

These kids are crazy.

“Korean students are very respectful,” they said. “Korean students love learning,” they said. “Korean students are very quiet,” they said. Yeah, well, they lied.

You will own a selfie stick, and your selfie count will skyrocket.

On our first weekend trip after moving to Korea, my friends and I kept asking people to take pictures of us in front of the sights we were visiting. At first, this felt very natural. I mean, how else do people take group photos while traveling? Throughout the day, as we kept asking people, we felt weirder and weirder each time. No one else was doing that—they all had selfie sticks. Within a matter of days, we each purchased our own, and before we knew it, that “Selfies” folder on our iPhone albums had more pictures in it than we ever wanted.

The black hole of music also known as K-pop will suck you in.

I remember watching my very first K-pop video during orientation nine months ago. It was BigBang’s “Fantastic Baby.” I looked around the room and wondered why so many people loved this. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t listen to music sang in a language I couldn’t understand, and that it was strange that the guys wore makeup and outrageous outfits, and that they weren’t even attractive. A few weeks later, there I was, singing, dancing, and screaming my favorite member’s name in Seoul’s Olympic Arena, one in a sea of thousands of BigBang diehard fans. I have listened to only a handful of English songs ever since.

The Korean education system that is so highly praised outside of this country is, in reality, quite flawed.

It’s hard to keep this short and simple, because there are so many aspects to Korean education that would be difficult to understand unless you witnessed it yourself. Around the world, Korea is known for breeding the brightest students, but what’s often missing and ignored is that these students are put under extreme pressure to succeed in school. For people aged 15-24 in South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death. This is not to say that school and education is to blame for this statistic, but I do believe in the correlation between them.

Korean students, beginning in middle school, go to school for the majority of their days, sometimes not going home until 8-9 p.m., and even later for high school students. In my classes, kids are sleeping with their heads on their desks left and right, and sometimes they tell me lunch is their only real meal of the day because of their hectic schedules.

I once did a two-week lesson about high school in America, and after my first class I regretted it immediately. Seeing the shock and longing in my students’ faces when I asked them for their opinions about the differences between our educations systems broke my heart. Korean kids grow up very fast. By high school, their maturity level is that of American upperclassmen. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s my opinion that they should have more opportunities to have more fun, more free time, and more chances to feel young. Instead, they spend 12+ hours in classrooms turning pages and not feeling good enough or smart enough to pass their next test, or get into the school they want. With these things in mind, I’ve made it a goal in my English classes to give them a unique way of study—a little less bookwork and a little more fun and human interaction when possible.

It is not easy.

Before coming to Korea, I read countless pieces of advice from current and former teachers here. Many times, they would talk about the motivation that Korean students have to learn English, and how this would naturally make teaching classes feel more like an easy and fun experience than an actual job. I was lucky enough to be placed in a great all-boys middle school where the teachers are extremely strict, resulting in the forming of very respectful young men. However, students are students, and they are the same around the world—some smart, some sleepy, and some disrespectful. Every class has its own set of geniuses, its own attitude, and ultimately, its own troublemaker. Some classes are quiet and nonresponsive, while others are madhouses. Picture kids standing on desks and water bottles flying across the room. That was once my reality.

The blogs and testimonials I read also talked about how much easier it would be thanks to the help of the Korean co-teacher. Surprise! I have 7 co teachers and none of them stand in front of the class with me to “co-teach” with me at all. Two of them sometimes step in to help, and the keyword there is sometimes. Imagine how difficult it is to teach English when your students don’t speak English and you don’t speak Korean, all while there is a Korean teacher in the room who absolutely can but just does not stand up to help at all. It is, as they say here in Korea, no jam (no fun).

The bright side of this is that, by the end of each class and each day, there will always be certain students that I reached, classes that were successful, and moments in which I looked around and smiled because I do love this job. Despite the challenges, I feel like I have a unique power to teach these kids about worlds they don’t know, and I have strong hopes that my lessons inspires them to explore those worlds.

수능! 화이팅! Korean SAT Day!

Today is Suneung Day in Korea, aka the day where high school seniors take the Korean equivalent of SATs. Many say that this test decides their life.

After working in the public school system in South Korea for the last 8+ months, I’ve seen the immense amount of pressures that Korean students face on a daily basis. In America, the SAT is a test that students take seriously and a test that has a significant power in the college application process. However, American students can take the test multiple times, on multiple test dates, and with the option to use your highest score.

Here in Korea, this Suneung test happens ONCE every year, on the 2nd Thursday of November, from 8 am to 6 pm. The government implements a number of policies on this day, such as later opening hours for schools, stores, and businesses, and special traffic controls and systems. Even airplanes are prohibited from taking off or landing during the English listening comprehension section of the exam. Police on motorbikes and some taxis are dispatched in and around test sites, and are available to give students rides if they are running late. Public transportation or those who are going to test sites are also given priority on the roads.

A day or two before the exam, students find out their test locations, usually another high school or their same high school. On the day of, school gates close at 8:10 am. Parents, family members, and younger classmates greet the test-takers with candy, rice cakes, snacks, posters and signs of support. Suneung day is a big day not only for the test-takers themselves but also for their families. In my opinion, many Korean parents put too much pressure on their kids to do well in school, and as a result the pressure on the students to do well on this one test is pretty unbelievable. For some, it is literally life or death. Each year, suicide is committed by high school seniors who feel too much pressure before taking the test, or feel inadequate after they receive their results.

Just thinking about how much pressure Korean students must feel makes my eyes water. It’s not wrong or bad to feel pressure to do well, because it’s natural. And it’s not wrong or bad for parents to expect good academic results from their sons or daughters, because they work hard to provide that education. And it’s definitely not wrong to believe that education is a fundamental key to success in this world, because it is. But Korea’s way of filling their youth’s lives from age 10 through 18 with the belief that this single test determines your future is ineffective and cruel.

High school hours in South Korea are from approximately 7:30 am to 10-11 pm. This means, that for their 3 years of high school, they spend around 30-40% of their time in a classroom, with a pencil in hand. The rest of their time is spent sleeping, eating, and having fun, I hope. Outside of this country, the education system here is praised and the students are seen as the best and brightest. But, those who are in the education system itself seem to be desperate to get out. Working in South Korea and witnessing the hardships and pressures that students face firsthand makes me hope more and more that with time, change will come. I hope that the value Koreans put on education never goes down, but that their empathy for students goes up. I think fairness and second chances are two ideas that could take a significant amount of pressure off of students, and as a result, on the country as a whole.

Yesterday, all I could think about was how all of the high school seniors in Korea must be feeling. Stress, anxiousness, pressure, and an overwhelming overload of so many senses came to my mind, and I realized that it was only my imagination. For more than 600,000 18-year-olds in this country, it was reality. And today I am sending every single good vibe I can to each of them. 화이팅!!

Mount Fuji and Tokyo, Japan

This is one of my favorite videos that I’ve made so far this year. I proudly watch it often if I have a few minutes to spare – Japan is pretty easy to miss once you visit! I remember having a lot of trouble choosing which clips to take out of the video so that it would all fit within the time of the song. Every clip was significant and memorable to our trip, so the ones that made this final cut are truly the cream of the crop.

Chasing Magic and Building Bridges

Let me start by sharing something that I wrote to myself a few months ago in my iPhone notes. I had a rough day of teaching and on that Friday night, I was so happy and relieved to arrive in Seoul and see my friends. Around midnight and after our first few shots of soju, I was overcome with an urge to write these words to myself:

Hey Christine.

Lately, a lot of people have been telling you that you are “living the life!” but you know that’s not true, right? Today, you had an okay day. So this is a reminder: you’re not living the life. You’re just…living life.

Maybe people think that living abroad is easy, but you know more than anyone that it’s not. Moving to South Korea to teach English isn’t your average college grad’s move, and while it is an incredible experience, it doesn’t make your life “the” life. In fact, nothing makes any life “the” life, because every life is different. Don’t forget that. Just remember to put your money towards experiences. You are a twenty-something, with dreams of one day having a job you love and a family you love even more. But for now, you deserve to see what and who the world has to offer before you settle.

You were not given the life. You were given a life. And you have the power to choose what to do with it. Your time, your energy, your money, your love, and your feet can go where you choose. No matter where you go, you’ll find that you’ll have some so-so moments.

It’s not always easy to be surrounded by what you don’t know, but I urge you to continue to make a life outside of what you do know. By the end of it all, let’s see if you lived more of “the” life than you dreamed, or dreamed more of “the” life than you lived.

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At the end of a bad class, I read that note to self, and I’m reminded of what’s good. For four months and counting, I wake up with a smile on my face. And every day, I say to myself, “Christine…You are in South Korea.” Then I smile, turn my alarm off, get out of bed, and have a great day.

I don’t know how to describe what life is like here; I just know that not one day has gone by where I woke up or went to sleep feeling anything but happy. And sometimes drunk. But the bottom line is that I know I’m happy.

A few days before New Years’ Eve last year, when I was sitting in a New York City diner at 4 am, I found out that I was accepted into the EPIK (English Program In Korea) Program, and that in a few weeks I would be on a plane to South Korea, where I would spend the next year. It has been four months since I first stepped foot in this country, and every day since has been eye-opening and mind-stretching.

I came here for a reason. I was (and still am) chasing a certain feeling that inspires me each time I feel it. When I was ten years old, I moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, and I don’t remember a thing about the flight or any part of the trip, except for one moment. We landed in JFK airport late at night and on the drive to our new home in New Jersey, I discovered a little place called New York City. All I remember about my first moments in America is looking out of the car window and up to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The city of dreams, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. It was a fantasy land that I thought could only ever be just that–a fantasy. But there I was, at ten years old, lost and speechless in the magic of New York.

Years later I would discover the magic of so many places. Washington D.C., London, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Madrid, and Sevilla. The beaches of the Bahamas, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Niagara Falls, the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Switzerland, and even the three largest cathedrals in the world. In each and every one of those places, I got the same feeling that I did when I found myself in New York for the first time. It’s the feeling that I get every time I step foot on foreign ground, and every time I see something that I have only ever seen on pages and posters and screens before. This knowledge that it was worth every cent and sacrifice it took to get there, just to see it with my own eyes; that no high definition flat screen view of this would ever come close to the real thing. A simple feeling that tells me: I’m here, in the world. I’m in it, and I’m breathing it and walking it and touching it, and that this is no fantasy. And it’s not something I can easily describe, and surely I can’t say that this feeling is the same for everyone. Maybe you get this feeling from an entirely different living experience. But I know with certainty that some of my best moments happened in places that I might never be again.

It is a great blessing to me that my life’s memories and stories are set all over the world. I have seen more of the world in a decade than most will see in their life, and I am only constantly wanting more. The world does a great job of making me feel small, in the best way. It humbles me, and it makes me honest somehow. The more of the world I see, the more I can understand what it needs to grow better. Whether it’s honesty and truth, or understanding and strength, or kindness, or opposition, rebellion–I hope that I can hear the message loud and clear, and I hope that I can spread that message to the next place I go and to the next person I meet. This is the feeling that I chase; a sense that somehow I’m helping to bridge gaps between places and people.

This year, I came to South Korea because I wanted to expand my boundaries and challenge myself–in work, in language, in culture, and in any other way that I felt the world could test me–and believe me, I’m being challenged every day. I also came here because I wanted to prove to people (including my own friends and family) who were skeptical about this move, that ignorance is only ignorance until someone shows you the other side. I’m happy to be the person who proves that, and I hope that I can be that person for many of those whose minds could stand to be a little more challenged and a little more opened. I also hope that I can continue to meet people who will do that for me.

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I have never been the type to want what’s easy and I certainly don’t want what’s comfortable. That’s why I’m here. My passions for international education and travel and people and language and learning has led me down this path of opening minds and building bridges, and I am confident that this field is already doing just that, even with the so-so moments in between.

Living abroad is hard. I know this because I leave my house every day and it reminds me.

Teaching English is hard. I know this because I have days that remind me.

Learning English is also hard. And I know this because I have students that constantly remind me.

But these daily reminders don’t stop me from spending five days a week in Korean classrooms teaching English to kids who might not like it, because I know that one day they might make a difference, whether big or small, in their families or for their countries, or in our world. I am constantly hoping that learning English and interacting with foreigners will open their minds, or inspire them to chase their own magic and to build their own bridges. And with over 1,000 students, I might have a pretty good shot.

I’ve only just started planting seeds. Stay tuned.