Me: "How do you say hello in Korean again?"
Korean friend: “An-yung-ha-sey-o!”
Me: "An- … an-yung … wait, what?”
And so began my foray into the depths of Korean language and culture. Not even the depths—I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface, and it took me several sheepish one-on-one attempts and a couple of sessions with Rosetta Stone to finally be able to say “hello” in Korean. I was never into k-pop or k-dramas like some others who go to Korea to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). Therefore my only exposure to Korean culture was the few Korean friends I made in college and the delicious Korean food that one of them occasionally treated me with.
(I’m referring to South Korea, to be clear. I’ve had people ask for clarification. Even if I wanted for some reason to go to North Korea, I wouldn’t be allowed in.)
In fact, when I finally decided I wanted to teach abroad at the beginning of this year, I had automatically crossed any country in Asia off my list. It was too different, I said. I’ve traveled a lot throughout my life—to 13 countries, if you don't count the US—and have been exposed to multiple different peoples and cultures. Coming from an ethnic background myself, I've never really had a problem with culture shock. But Asia, I thought—now that’s pushing it. The languages there are completely foreign, with new sounds and symbols that, to an English-speaker, seem utterly inaccessible. I knew nothing of Asian culture aside from the fact that it wasn’t European. And though I’m relatively short and have dark hair, I knew that being a foreigner in a mostly homogenous Asian country would make me stick out like a sore thumb.
That’s why I surprised even myself when something in me switched and all of a sudden I decided Eastern Asia was the place to be. Probably not China, but I’d heard good things about Korea and Japan…nice pay, good benefits…a popular destination for ESL teachers...hm. Suddenly the mystery of the place drew me towards it, and within a few months I had signed a contract through Teach ESL Korea (a really fabulous organization thus far) to teach for a year in Daegu, South Korea. After a months-long process of tedious paperwork, bureaucracy, background checks, and driving back and forth to special offices and Korean consulates, I finally have my E-2 visa and a plane ticket for a straight shot to Seoul less than three weeks away.
Am I excited? Of course. Who would’ve guessed a year ago that within three months of me graduating college, I would be establishing a new home across the world? Certainly not me.
Intrigued? I’ve already watched dozens of EatYourKimchi videos and questioned to death some of the current ESL teachers about every possible aspect of life in Korea. (Thank you guys!)
Nervous? It hasn’t fully hit me yet, but I’m expecting it to soon enough. (Maybe in the middle of the 15-hour flight.) Not only will this be the first time I’ve lived on my own, but added to that I’ll be away from my family, in a country I’ve never been to before, and with a new language, new food (I’m not picky but I’m also not too keen on things like octopus), and very different social and cultural norms from what I’m used to in the States. Oh, and apparently an impressive fashion sense…great. The one thing that’s been a huge source of comfort for both me and my family is the network of ESL teachers that I’ve already connected with in Korea, including those who are currently living in Daegu and/or working at my school.
For now, I’m just trying to find clothes and shoes appropriate for my first Big Girl job and to figure out how to cram a year’s worth of stuff into two 50-pound bags and a carry-on.
Wish me luck!