I know some of you are probably wondering “What type of person is willing to pack it all up and move to South Korea to teach children for a year?” Well there’s no true hard and fast answer. So I got together a few of my friends here and asked them a few questions about their time so far in South Korea and their motivations for coming here. I will periodically be posting an interview with a friend here and there.
Where are you from?
Hershey, Pennsylvania…or at least close enough that people will know where that actually is.
How old are you?
Where do you live in Korea?
Ulsan, in a district called Dong-gu that is right along the coast.
What did you do before you decided to become at Korean school teacher?
I was a waitress. Did it for 6 years too long, even after I finished my bachelor’s degree.
Why did you choose Korea?
Honestly, at first it was for the money. I desperately wanted to live overseas after my study abroad experience in college. My first preference was Europe, but they pay pennies in comparison to countries is Asia. A girl’s gotta pay student loans. After a lot of research, I thought I could adjust to Korean culture the best so it became my top choice. However, as the process went along, it became more about actually wanting to live in Korea to experience the culture and language and less about the money (although it definitely helps…)
What did your family/friends think when you decided to move to Korea?
They were all very, very supportive. My dad had a few reservations from time to time whenever American media blew the issue with North Korea out of proportion, but I told him I was going and nothing he could say or do would stop me. He knows how stubborn I am, so here I am.
We’ve been here over two months now(!!!). What do you love about Korea so far?
Um, definitely the food! It’s so different from back home. I mean, granted, there are plenty of things that I’m not quite brave enough to try, but I’ll eat almost anything and there’s been very few things that I haven’t liked. When it comes to food, I really love the sharing culture. It’s just so ingrained into their culture to share, that even in restaurants it’s hard to find a place that just has a serving for one person. It’s usually always two. Whenever my co-teachers bring in snacks, they always bring in enough for all of us to split. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing snacks to share since they do the same for me. It has made me a more considerate person I think. I also, in general, have found Korean people to be very friendly and helpful. Even if they can’t really speak English. They will whip out their phone and use a translation app to communicate with me if it’s necessary. I’ve felt very welcome here.
What do you not love about Korea so far?
The driving. I mean, thank god I’m not the one that actually has to do the driving around here, but it’s so f***ing crazy compared to home. Even by NYC standards. First of all, there’s no stop signs, so people just kind of maneuver around one another at smaller four way intersections. Second, cars have the right away over pedestrians for some unknown reason, so I look both ways like 5 times before I dare cross the street. Also, bus drivers are absolutely NUTS. They hit the brakes so hard all the time that if you don’t have a hold of something you will definitely fall over. The people on motor bikes also like to come drive up on the sidewalks to avoid traffic jams. And finally, jay walking is NOT a thing here. If the red pedestrian light is on, you do not go even if there are no cars coming (unless you’re about to be late to your bus, that’s the only exception I’ve noticed from Koreans).
What has been the biggest challenge for you coming to Korea?
Oh, by far the language barrier. I at least learned the Korean alphabet and a few words/phrases before coming here but it still was not enough. I hear about so many Westerners that move here to Korea and don’t bother learning the language and I’m just like, how? How on earth do you do that? There’s actually a lot of people in Ulsan that don’t speak English so I’ve really had to step up my Korean language learning game. Trying to navigate the bus system when I first got here was also extremely difficult, but now I’ve finally gotten the hang of it.
What is something you believe people back home would be surprised to know about Korea?
Sadly I think the biggest surprise will be that Americans worry about North Korea WAY more than South Koreans, despite the fact that technically the latter has more of a reason to be concerned because of the close proximity. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had friends and family text me multiple times asking if I’m okay, me having no idea why. Only after they tell me what the American media reports about tension with North Korea do I let them know that A…I haven’t heard a thing about it and B. if there was anything to truly worry about then I’m sure I would be told by my co-teachers.
After I made the decision to move to Korea and then told people about it, I would say that at least half of the people I talked to said, “Aren’t you scared of North Korea?” or “Don’t get kidnapped by North Koreans…they cross the border and kidnap Americans!” (I wish I was making this up). Now that I’m here, it makes me sad and angry that American media blows this out of proportion all the time and just puts unnecessary fear and ignorance into the minds of the American people.
5 years ago did you ever think you would move to Korea to be a school teacher? If 5 years ago you didn’t think you would be here, what did you think you would be doing?
F*** no. I had no inclination that I would be living abroad anywhere. At the time I was in a long term relationship (in which I later became engaged), convinced that I was going to just do what everyone else does. Find a job in my hometown, get married, and have children. However, in my senior year of college about three years ago, I studied abroad and it absolutely changed EVERYTHING. After returning home I broke off my engagement and did a little soul searching, ultimately deciding that I wanted to spend some time living overseas again. Best decision I’ve ever made.
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
Hmm, I think I just want to use this time to continue figuring out myself out while doing something with my life at the same time. I’m not sure I will want to be a teacher or live overseas forever, but I’m just gonna take my time and enjoy it. Being a teacher is a much more respected position in Korea than in America…and I get paid well for it. I’m not in any kind of rush to return home anytime soon, so I’m just going to continue to turn my dreams into a reality. Learn and live within new languages and new cultures.
What’s your favorite Korean word that you’ve learned so far?
“Sansengnim.’ (선생님) This is the word for ‘teacher’ and I just LOVE the way the kids say it (probably with their Ulsan accent). Since I’m an English teacher, they usually always say ‘teacher,’ but I secretly love it when they sometimes call me Jessica Sansengnim. Luckily I get to hear it every day!
Any final thoughts? Or anything else you want to share?
There were times when I would tell (young) people about my moving to Korea and I would hear the reply, “Wow, I wish I could do something like that.” Why just wish it? Do it! I feel like there are too many young people that want to travel more but just keep it a dream. If you even remotely feel the travel bug, look into ways that you can make it happen. It’s actually relatively easy to become an English teacher overseas. All you need is any (I repeat, ANY) bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate (which is just like a few months extra schooling and cheap). I mean every country is going to be different as far as what might be realistic to live in, but GO FOR IT. It’s life changing and wonderful. And it doesn’t have to be forever! Many contracts are just for a year. Anyone can try anything for a year! Don’t live with regrets!
You can follow Jessica’s own adventure on her blog “Worldly Misadventures” or keep up with her on instagram: @yessica.oh