The Challenge of Communication in Korea

by Christopher Kwarciany, Greenheart Travel Teach Abroad Participant in Korea

The positive news about teaching abroad in Korea, is I feel more students are opening up outside of class and trying to speak English with me.  This is great.  I really enjoy talking with the kids like this.  The only downside is they don’t feel comfortable coming to the English office for a simple social call, so I have to be outside during lunch time.  It’s getting cold.  But as long as it’s somewhat comfortable I will try to get out there for the students.

Some students make fun of me.  I am OK with this.  They make fun of the other teachers too, just not so openly.  Personally I’d rather have things out in the open.  One student would mimic me in class to the point of obnoxiousness.  One day he saw me drinking green tea outside after lunch.  Apparently he really likes green tea.  So we had a brief conversation about tea (He thinks “Ceylon tea is not delicious”).  Another student drew a caricature of me.  I saw it, asked if it was me.  She sheepishly said yes.  I nodded and moved on (Personally I think my nose was too big).    Since then he’s not been obnoxious in class.  So even the moments that are not always nice, still are nice.

This a very enjoyable cultural exchange for me though. The kids are just so interesting to me. I especially like seeing how they’re similar in many ways to how I remember being at that age. I’m sure if I knew what they are saying, I would soon get tired of what’s undoubtedly teenage angst and drama.  But it just cute chatter to me now.  And I think the kids respond to this appreciation.

Interacting with students outside of class is the upside of cultural exchange.  The challenge is my professional relationships.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with how my co-teachers treat me.  By what I understand of their cultural values, they treat me very well.  I probably confuse and fluster them just as much as they do me, especially when I have the audacity to ask them to justify their opinions (for diplomacy sake, this is a bad idea).  It’s interesting to note that the teacher I feel the most open with has studied abroad in England, thus I feel she has a better understanding of Western culture and  the pressures of being in a different culture for an extended time.  So my relationship with my co-teachers really is an issue of cultural exchange rather than personal conflict.

I think I’m in the second phase of culture shock  where everything seems awful (the first being the honeymoon where everything is new and fascinating).  The basic tenants of American culture and Korean culture are different.  The U.S. values the individual.  Ideally, you treat everyone as if they have worth on their own merit (of course this is a biased view since I’ve grown up in such a culture).  If you don’t do this, you’re considered a jerk.  Korean society is collective and hierarchical.  Everyone has their role.  And as a new teacher, or a young person in general, my role is to do what I’m told (again, I’m obviously biased).  This is very difficult for me to handle since I feel it ignores my own worth.

On a closing note, I will address cost of living issues that I have been forgetting to mention. I live in a fairly inexpensive town.  Plus my apartment is paid for.  So my monthly cost of living is around $500.  I expect this to go up slightly with winter heating and all.  Regrettably I can’t give too much details since I’m not too good at keeping track of money beyond knowing “I still have X much money in the bank.”  Seeing how I get paid around $1,800 a month, and only pay about $500, I can save a lot of money.   It’s great not having to worry about money.  As one foreign teacher said, you have to try hard to go broke here.  But  like I said, I live in a fairly expensive town.  I’ve heard bigger cities like Busan can be two to three times as expensive, and Seoul can be 5-10x’s as expensive!  I don’t know for sure though.  I think if you want to save money, being in smaller cities is a safer bet.

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