Disaster Abroad: Traveling Solo to South Korea

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel

The bus came to a halt. The driver turned and looked back at me, a mixture of frustration and confusion crossing his face. I stood, looking around in confusion. Grabbing my bus ticket from my shaking hand, the driver shouted in my face “you missed your stop.”

It was my first night in Seoul to teach English in Korea. What on earth was I doing here?

Let’s back up.

Six months prior, I’m sitting in my apartment in Los Angeles staring despondently at indeed.com. It’s February 2012 and I’m 23 years old. I’ve got a newly minted Bachelor’s Degree and it’s feeling pretty useless in the spare job market of the early 2010s.

As I scroll through each entry-level job available in Los Angeles, I feel my will to live slipping away from me. With each click on yet another mundane job description (“Must be flexible, self-motivated, and willing to cope with just a touch of sexual harassment”), my desire to get a job in America withers.

Street Market in Seoul

Street Market in Seoul

What was I going to do? I had no money, no skills, and I doubted I could convince anyone that I was a driven and organized person with great communication skills using only a cover letter and my rather empty resume.

I was never going to get a job. Never.

Then I saw the ad. It was one of those paid-for things that pop up on the side of a search result. The sort of thing your eyes pass over, reading the information without storing it in your brain.

Only, this one stuck out to me.

“Want to try something new? Apply to teach English Abroad! Positions available in Japan, South Korea, and China!”

Well, I thought to myself, why not?

I sent over a copy of my resume, cover letter and a photo of myself. In less than a week I had a reply asking me if I was available for a phone interview. I agreed quickly, afraid that if I hesitated they might realize they’d made a mistake.

Over the course of the next four weeks, I had two phone interviews and was asked to send a few writing samples. Shortly afterward, an email arrived in my inbox offering me a position teaching English in Seoul, South Korea.

A sense of relief washed over me so intense I nearly sank to my knees like an actor in an old Hollywood film. Someone actually wanted to pay me for my time. My job search was over.

Needless to say, I accepted immediately.

The fact that this job was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in a country I’d never seen where they spoke a language I had never heard was something I didn’t want to contemplate. I shoved the facts of the job deep down, hiding them from myself as best I could.

Had I ever contemplated living in Asia before? No, absolutely not. Had I ever lived abroad before? No, don’t be ridiculous. I hadn’t even traveled by myself before.

It’d be fine. I’d moved from Boston to Los Angeles for college and that was pretty tough. How much harder could South Korea be, really?

Time passed by in a flash and before I knew it, I was back in Boston, picking up my visa from the Korean Embassy and making last minute trips to Target to buy shampoo and conditioner because who knows if they even sell that in Seoul. (Spoiler Alert: they sell shampoo in Korea).

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul

Traditional Village in Seoul

The night before I left, my parents took me out for a final dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine and to be perfectly honest I was so nervous about moving to Korea I barely remember the dinner at all. I know they asked me lots of questions and we laughed a lot, but mostly I was focused on not feeling anything, not thinking too much about anything. There was a flood of emotion waiting somewhere in the depths of my soul and it took everything I had to keep it at bay.

Having drunk probably a bit more wine than I should’ve, I got home that night, threw my clothes into the washing machine, and promptly fell deeply asleep. I woke up at 5am when my dad knocked on my door, “You all ready to go?”

No, I wasn’t ready to go. My clothes were wet and in the washing machine. My bags were not even a little bit packed. Those shampoo bottles and razors I’d purchased at Target were still strewn about my bedroom in white plastic bags.

It was 5am, and my flight took off in 3 hours.

That’s when the adrenaline kicked in. I grabbed my wet clothes and stuffed them into my bag, hoping they wouldn’t grow too much mold on the flights from Boston to Seoul. I shoved the target bags on top and sat on the suitcases, yanking the zippers closed.

Packing light was still an undiscovered art form at this point in my life. I had my two suitcases and two carry on bags filled to the absolute brim. That’s four fully-packed bags.

As the adrenaline receded and my hangover came to the fore, I stumbled downstairs and into my dad’s car. We were off.

Arriving at the airport, I pulled my bags out of the car and arranged them so I could handle all four at once. Then I looked up to say goodbye.

Tears were streaming down my mothers face. My heart came to a shuddering halt.

What the hell was I about to do?

My mom reached out and pulled me into her arms. We aren’t the most emotional family in the world, so this was one of less than five times in my life I’ve seen my mother cry. As I started to sob into her shoulder, she pulled back, reassuring me that, “it’s going to be great.”

I gave my dad a hug, squeezed my mom into an embrace one more time, then laboriously maneuvered my four bags into the airport.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Royal Palace in Seoul

The first flight went from Boston to San Francisco. As the plane landed at SFO, I looked out the window longingly at the California hills rolling into the distance.

“You don’t have to do this,” I told myself in a moment of weakness. “You can get off the plane here. You could make it work in San Francisco. You could stay in California.”

I almost did it.

What gave me the bravery to continue onward into the unknown, I have no idea. Perhaps stubbornness, a sense of adventure, or just a fear of letting other people down. Whatever caused it, I got onto my plane bound for Seoul, South Korea.

“Boarding my flight to Seoul. Adios America.” I cavalierly posted to my Facebook wall, hiding the fact that I was being slowly overwhelmed by a cascade of fear that I’d been keeping at bay for months now.

That flight from SFO to Seoul, I barely remember. I know they gave us some meals. I don’t think I watched any movies. I’m not even sure if I slept. I was so highly strung you could’ve played me like a guitar. Time simultaneously flew by at light speed yet crawled like a tortoise. It was the longest and shortest 14-hour flight of my life.

Off the plane, through security, got my bags, and bought a bus ticket for Seoul National University of Education. Because that’s what the email from my new employer said, “Buy a bus ticket to Seoul National University of Education from the Airport Bus counter. We will meet you there.”

Street Market in Korea

Street Market in Seoul

It was all incredibly organized and easy. In no time I was on the bus and getting my first view of Korea. I gazed out the window hungrily, determined to soak in as much as I could of my new home. I knew that the airport in Incheon was an hour away from Seoul so I was prepared for a long bus ride, but I hoped to get a sense of this foreign land from the bus window.

After about five minutes, I fell asleep.

An hour later, I woke with a start as the bus announced our arrival to the city. I hadn’t missed any stops. I was fine.

Each stop we passed through, the bus announced the name in Korean and English. Excellent. There was no way I could mess this up.

Please keep in mind, I had never traveled by myself before. Ever in my life.

We passed stop after stop. At each one, I looked down and double checked my ticket. I listened studiously but didn’t hear anyone say “Seoul National University of Education”. So, I stayed on the bus.

And then the bus came to a stop. We were at the end of the line and I was still on the bus. This situation was not ideal.

The bus driver ferociously informed me that I had missed my stop. He didn’t speak English but just kept pointing behind us. I tried to ask him what I should do but he just shook his head and got back on his bus. The whole ten-second interaction was a real crash course in intercultural communication.

It was about this time that the flood of emotions I’d been keeping at bay was unleashed. Triggered by this one missed bus stop, months worth of tension, worry, stress, and fear came gushing out of me. Standing on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, in the center of Seoul, South Korea, I cried my heart out. I felt as if I were facing the greatest challenge of my entire life. College? Fine. Get a job? Fine. Get off a bus at the wrong stop in Korea and get back to where you need to go? Forget about it.

Teaching English in South Korea

What was I doing in this country? Why had I thought that this was a good idea? I should’ve stayed in LA, I should’ve tried harder to get a personal assistant job. I should not have gotten on a plane, completely alone, and flown to this strange country with a writing system I can’t read and a language I can’t speak. What was I thinking?

Just as I was caving into despair, I heard a young Korean woman’s voice behind me say, “where do you need to go?”

Wiping my eyes and trying to stem the flow of salty tears, I turned and showed my ticket to the young Korean woman.

“Oh,” she replied, looking at it, “Gyo Dae. That’s just a few stops back.”

Gyo Dae is the Korean name for Seoul National University of Education. The bus had announced the stop for Gyo Dae. I remember hearing it. Relief and horror poured through me in equal measure. I knew why I’d made the mistake now, but still didn’t know how to fix it.

“I’ll help you get a cab.”

The young woman stuck her hand out and pretty soon a sleek silver car had pulled up next to the curb. She leaned in the window and said a few phrases in Korean to the driver then turned back to me. “You’re all set, he’ll take you to Gyo Dae. Have a good year!”

Surprised, I thought about asking her, “how can you tell I’m here to teach English for a year? Then I realized, Koreans probably see this sort of emotional circus show all the time.

I hopped into the cab and within a few minutes, was standing on the sidewalk at Gyo-Dae, shaking hands with Adam, a representative from my new job. He grabbed my bags and led me into my new life.

I had made it. I survived the journey to South Korea.

The real adventure was about to begin.


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The tale of the time I decided to teach English in South Korea and the travel disaster that followed.

Life In Urubamba: The Beginning

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

Ok, It is now the start of my second week living and working in Urubamba, Peru. My brain is a little tired from using Spanish, even though I am able to use English at home. Every day, all around me is Spanish. This is good, this is great. I can feel myself learning every day. But it is an exercise in patience. I want to learn faster, to see myself improve faster. I want to be fluent now. But with patience, and hard work, I will gain close to fluency. I hope.

Many of the people here, even the tourists, they speak Spanish. Though at least two of my fellow teachers are at a low Spanish level, much like I am. That helps, because I am human and I do compare myself to others. When I am only around fluent Spanish speakers I feel that I have so far to go. But really, I am able to communicate… most of the time. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to express an idea and not having the words to do it. Imagine human life before the development of language. There is a chicken and the egg debate for you.

My ability to speak Spanish also impacts my teaching. Right now I teach 3 classes, and will be adding a private this week. My first class is hotel English. This is fairly simple because the employees at the 5 star hotel that I am working with already have a high level of English, so what we work on together is more like troubleshooting. For example we explore how best to give a sales pitch for their membership program, and how to reply to guest complaints. Things like that.

Next I teach a class por los niños que tiene 5-7 años. So far my attendance has been spotty so I have only had one kid at a time. This makes it quite enjoyable because normally I’m not so fond of working with little kids. I prefer preteens and teenagers. I’m strange. I know. Anyway, the kids and I have mostly been working on numbers and colors and shapes. We do a lot of coloring, and then I read one of the Dr. Seuss books that I brought with me from my parent’s house in the States. I mostly use Spanish to communicate to the kids, but I am trying to include more and more English as the weeks go on.

Then there is my adult class, Basic 2. This is by far the most challenging and the most rewarding. I really need to use Spanish to make sure they understand what I am asking them to do, but in reality I try to use only English in the classroom. This makes it very challenging for them, I can see this, but in the end it will earn the best results.

The style of teaching is completely different from what I learned in Korea. The atmosphere in my classroom and my style of classroom management is the same, but the material is different. So, what I love about teaching, that stays, and what I disliked, has changed. Now I am teaching more grammar. Yesterday we worked on Can/Can’t. The students really enjoyed learning that unlike in Spanish (yo puedo, tu puedes, él puede, nos podemos, ellos pueden) in English it is actually simpler, I can, you can, she can… etc. Always can! Then by contrast we went over Do/Does. He does. Megan does. Everyone else do hehe.

Anyway I really enjoy it. I love seeing the moment in the student’s face when something clicks and they hurriedly scribble down a note to themselves. Also, now in the second week the students are getting to be more comfortable with me and as a result are asking more questions. My absolute favorite part of teaching is when students get engaged enough to start asking tough questions.

What else can I tell you about my life in Urubamba? There is so much to tell!

Overall, I feel happier and healthier and more centered here than I have since.. well… childhood really. I know that sounds extreme but I’ve been thinking about it and it’s true. For the first time since I hit 13 years old and noticed I was a female human and not some fairy creature from Narnia, I am happy with my body and not critically examining every inch of myself. I eat what I want, and eat healthy. Am I losing or gaining weight? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is liberating.

My meditation and yoga practice has become effortless. I wake up with the sun most mornings between 5-6:30. I know that is a big window but there it is. I practice meditation for 20 minutes and then go through an asana practice. A few mornings I have felt no desire for asanas and I did not punish myself for this. For example this morning I have woken up with a touch of a parasite and I know that my body needs rest. I also knew I wanted to focus on writing, and so instead of meditation and asana, I am writing this. And it feels right. I feel no guilt.

Hippies will say that the Sacred Valley of the Inca (where Urubamba is located) is one of the energy centers of the earth. A chakra, if you will. If you don’t believe in that sort of thing then maybe you wouldn’t feel it. Or maybe you would. I feel so in tune with myself, and as a result, so in tune with everyone around me. I try to remain skeptical about things that cannot be observed but there is something about this place…

And I’m not the only one that feels it. I have accidentally stumbled into a hippie enclave, and I love it. All of the expats here are of the earthy-crunchy-burning man variety. Last weekend I went to a little festival during the day where people were exhibiting their own projects, I bought a handmade crystal wrap, some Maras salt mixed with Andean herbs, and cerveza artesano. The best part? There actually is a mixture of locals and expats in this crowd! So it doesn’t feel completely like neocolonialism (just a little bit…) And everyone speaks Spanish. Or at least tries to. So different from Korea…

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Looking bewildered on the day I moved to Urubamba

How about some of my adventures since getting to Urubamba:

First off, I am living with Elise, the young woman who founded El Arte Sano, the NGO that I work for. She lives in a really charming house in the countryside outside of town. The house is four rooms and a kitchen, and all of them open onto a courtyard that would be more accurately described as a whimsically overgrown garden. There is a vine with habañeros, or some kind of spicy pepper, strawberries growing out from under the stones beneath your feet, mint everywhere, and even an apple tree. It is quite wonderful and I am truly grateful to be staying in her spare room. Though at the same time I am excited to get my own place and begin the nesting process.

The first weekend here I was invited to go on a hike with Elise and three other teachers from the school: Jessica and Shane, both from the US, and Henri, a Spanish teacher from Cajamarca. Also on the hike was Ho, a guy from Urubamba who runs mountain bike tours, and a woman from Lima whom Elise had met at a workshop in Cusco the day before.

Anyway, we took a combi van 20 minutes away from Uru, towards Ollyantay and stopped next to the Cervezeria. We began walking on some paths that ran along corn and potato fields. Before beginning the meat of our hike, Ho stopped, took out 3 coca leaves and offered them to Mamapacha, or the Incan mother earth, as a prayer for a good day.

Sidenote: coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, are common as dirt here. You can literally buy them from every stall in the market. It isn’t taboo in the least.

Ok back to the hike. Our first stop was an Inca ruin in the mountainside. At first glance it was just traditional terracing, with none of the monumental stone architecture that the Inca are so famous for. But we climbed to the top of the terraces and there found a cave. This cave was undoubtedly a sacred space. A large alter had been carved into the rock facing the valley while a false door was carved into the side of the cave, facing into the mountain. I felt as if I were standing in an ethereal portal at the top of the world. The serenity of the space compelled all of us to have a meditative moment of silence. It was a beautiful welcome to the Sacred Valley.

From there we headed up, and up, and up, and up into the mountains towards a waterfall. Ho, our guide for the day, kept insisting that we were almost there, for nearly 2 hours. That said, I really did enjoy it. The hike took us along more farm fields, through a few indigenous mountain villages, and then up into the craggy mountains. I love the mountains so much, and the Andes are truly spectacular. They compare favorably even with the Himalayas. And the variety of the ecosystems is something to behold. Over the course of 4 hours walking we crossed a river and farm fields, through arid near desert low bush covered mountains, and up into a densely forested deep green chasm between two huge craggy peaks. Increíble.

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At long last we made it to the waterfall, a 30 meter tall crescendo. Sorry America, I do metric now.

Speaking of which, Urubamba exists at an elevation just below 3,000 m (above 9,000 feet). I’ve been here a week and a half now and I feel as if I have adjusted to life at this elevation. Unless I try to do difficult aerobic exercise. Like walking up hills.

Okay one more adventure. THIS Saturday that just passed was Urubamba day, or Urubamba’s 175 anniversary. The party in the central square went on all night. There was a huge stage set up with Peruvian bands playing and I danced and danced and danced. One old man taught me some traditional peruvian dance and he twirled me around on the dance floor for ages. The cerveza was flowing generously and dare I say… dangerously?

The Peruvian style of drinking should be approached con cuidado. Someone buys one grande cerveza and one cup. Both are passed around and everyone in the circle fills the cup and drinks before passing it on. So you think you are only drinking a little. Well lots of a little is a lot. So let’s just say it was a good night, and leave it at that, hmm?

And then I discovered that my wallet (with my debit card) and phone (which was also my camera) had fallen out of a massive tear in the side of my $1 purse I had bought in Thailand last year.

Oh well, I still have another way to access money and my person is fine so all is good. These are just material things.

Overall I am happy and healthy and looking at an option for an apartment in a few hours!

If you love mountains, architecture, archaeology, the intersection of ancient and modern cultures, spiritualism, South American Andean culture, or well.. if you love exploring, I can’t encourage you enough to make Peru a priority. I know I am in the honeymoon phase but seriously, WHAT a honeymoon. I am so in love with this place.

Okay. Until next time,

 

Ciao!

Skiing in South Korea: High 1 Resort

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

 

My first winter in Korea was my first winter in 5 years. The initial adjustment was difficult, dare I say bordering on traumatizing. But thankfully my 18 years in New England came through for me and I adjusted. Buying some thermal leggings and knock-off ugg boots helped as well. But god damn it was awful at first. Los Angeles, I hope you realized how very blessed you are.

Aside from trauma and freezing cold feet, winter does have its benefits. Primarily: SKI SEASON!!

Yes there is tons of skiing in Korea. Like, tons and tons of it. This whole peninsula is covered in mountains so it makes sense that they’d cut some trails into a few of them. I managed to get out skiing a couple times, which was pretty miraculous considering how exhausted I was after a week of teaching Korean school kids how to speak English.

The first weekend I went to a smaller resort in western Korea. For those who do not know, let me take this time to illuminate for you the geography of Korea.

635px-South_Korea_location_map_topography_with_taebaek_mountains_marked
Map of Korea with Taebaek Mountains in Red (wikipedia

In its western half  Korea is more “flat” which by Korean standards means peppered with small mountains. Then as you drive east the mountains get bigger and bigger and you enter the Taebaek Mountain Range. In there the towns are smaller, you finally lose sight of the army of huge apartment buildings that cover this country, and the landscape becomes breathtakingly beautiful.

So the first weekend I went skiing in the west. The resort was tiny, 6 trails and about as many lifts. Only one real expert slope, and to be honest it was an east coast (of the US) blue square. Still, I had a BLAST and in 3 hours of skiing I got in so many runs and was exhausted the next day.

 west korea ski
View from the Top of the smaller Resort (Western Korea)

By the way, skiing in Korea is ridiculously easy. Many resorts have free shuttles to and from Seoul, you can rent all your kit for less than $30, and you can rent pants, a jacket, and goggles if you need. It’s really absurdly easy. And Korea is so crowded and overpopulated that they are GREAT at dealing with crowds. Even at a small resort there are almost more lifts than trails, so you never really have to wait in a long lift line. And you can buy lift tickets for just 3 hours, instead of purchasing a whole day and wasting half of it in the lodge!

So then this past weekend, I made a longer trip out to a resort in the Taebaek Mountains in the East called High1 Resort. I stayed in a hotel nearby that was really nice. Check out the view from my 11th floor window!

east korea ski

I was lucky enough to have a friend at work take my only Monday class, so I stole a 3-day weekend for myself. I traveled on Sunday, and skied in Monday, so there was almost no one at the resort!

 me ski
Me rocking rented jacket and goggles

The lodge of the resort was located in between 2 mountains, and there were lifts going up both and trails coming down on either side of this valley. On the one side were some advanced and intermediate trails, and that lift was slightly crowded. But on the opposite side there was a lift that only accessed 3 expert trails. They weren’t very long but they were super steep, wicked fun, and there was nobody on the lift. I almost had the trails to myself!

 east ski 2
View of the other mountain, from the top of the expert zone

I spent the entire day on those 3 trails, only going on the other side once, decided it was boring, and went back to my private expert only zone. It was amazing!

Just to be clear: Skiing in Korea is hassle free, and awesome fun.

  • You can easily rent all your gear, including snow pants, jackets, and goggles, for less than $30.
  • You can buy a pass for the number of hours you want to ski, or for a whole day.
  • There are free shuttles from Seoul to the nearby ski hills.
  • There is night skiing.
  • There are no lines, even when there are crowds.
  • It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Alright so there is a recap of my skiing experiences. I have one more story to relate. High 1 Resort is also the location of Kangwon Land: the one and only Casino in Korea that lets in Korean Nationals.

That’s right.

There are casinos all over Korea, but they only allow in foreigners like me.

Except at Kangwonland. So of course I had to check it out.

First shocking fact: no alcohol. So in Korea, you can drink to excess, and you can gamble, but you cannot drink to excess and gamble at the same time. I even had to blow into a breathalizer before they let me in!

Once inside, no pictures allowed. So unfortunately I have no pictures for this part of the post.

The atmosphere inside was kind of dark and tense. Picture hundreds of Koreans all packed around tables looking really intense and losing all their money. If you know Koreans at all, you know that they are really tight with their money. It makes sense when you think about it; the nation only became wealthy recently. This is a people who are used to poverty and hard times. So they all seemed angry or at least upset, but at the same time… they weren’t cashing out.

Then on top of that, I was the only foreigner in the place. I was traveling with a Korean. My daily life includes people staring at me everywhere I go. It has become normal now and I don’t really notice it anymore. But being in this Casino was like my first week in Korea all over again. Every time I turned my head I made eye contact with a curious and possibly hostile Korean.

But the upside of this strange experience was that I gambled for the first time in my life. I played a slot machine and won the equivalent of $5. So ha ha, Korea, I win.


me garden

Megan xx

four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


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The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.