What is it like being a foreigner in Korea?
A while back, a friend asked me if I could write to someone she knew who was thinking of teaching in Korea, and tell her what it is like to come to Korea as a foreigner. This friend had taught in Korea herself, but she is Korean-American, speaks Korean, and the experience is very, very different.
This was what I sent her friend. It is primarily for someone coming for a public school position – the experience of teaching at a hagwon is different, and something I don’t know a lot about.
Anything specific? I spent a year with the TaLK program, never missed home, then went home for a year and missed Korea like crazy. Now I’m back with EPIK.
Before I came, my biggest fears were not speaking the language, living somewhere really isolated, and not making friends. Probably you’re worried about similar things.
None are things you need to worry about. Regarding language: nobody expects that you can speak a word of Korean. If you do speak a little Korean, they will answer you in English anyway, and tell you that you speak good Korean. They will say this even if you only know how to say hello. They will apologize for their terrible English. They will say this even if they speak English fluently.
If they don’t speak any English, or are embarrassed about their English, they’ll pantomime their responses. They will do this even if you do speak some Korean. If you ask them the time, in Korean, they may answer you by holding up fingers. For many Koreans, the idea that foreigners can’t speak Korean is immutable.
Having said that, you should make some effort with the language. It’s good for you, and besides that, coming to Korea to teach English without trying to learn Korean makes you look like a douche. It’s worthwhile learning the alphabet before you come. It’s very simple and you can learn it with a few hours study; or make yourself some flash cards and learn it leisurely over a week or so. It will help with menus and catching busses. Simple greetings also go a long way. After that, you can study the Sino-Korean numbers and 얼마에요 (How much?), which will make you less clueless when shopping.
You might end up somewhere rural; even if you’re assigned to one of the main cities, there are rural areas within those cities. But at worst this means a longer trip to school, and you might have to save your socializing with other foreigners for the weekends. It doesn’t matter too much; you’ll be working during the week. And it will encourage you to make friends with the natives. It’s impossible to be too isolated in Korea: the public transport is amazing, it’s very easy to take off for any city and meet your friends. There are also many benefits to being rural – the schools are more laidback and will be more appreciative of you coming to teach there. In regional Korea, you’re likely to be treated as somebody more special than you actually are; in my experience people in the city tend to be more blase, or ever-so-slightly prejudiced against, foreigners.**Quite understandably. They’ve seen more asshole foreigners.
And regional Korea is beautiful.†
†Seoul isn’t beautiful…
Korea is very densely populated, so even small cities and towns tend to feel much more urban than you’d expect based on their populations.
As for friends, if you have friends at home you shouldn’t have any trouble making friends here, and orientation gives you a great chance to meet people. The thing people forget is that there are several hundred other people whose greatest fear is also that they won’t make friends. A bigger problem is not just grabbing the first person you meet on the bus on the way to the orientation. There are lots of people to meet. Relax. Take your time. Get to know everybody.
There’s a lot more to being a foreigner in Korea, like the fact that you’re always on display, half-rockstar and half-leper, and you have to adjust to every interaction you have with a Korean being a novel experience for them, which can be weird at times. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Everything is heightened. The other day I saw a girl drop her umbrella, and she was with her friend, and it was kind of goofy, but then she picked up her umbrella, looked up and saw me, and her friend started laughing – the minor embarrassment of the situation was just heightened, because a foreigner – me – observed it. People will hesitate for a moment before sitting next to you on the bus. A hundred kids a day will say “Hello” to you, and you have to remember that every time, it’s a unique experience for them, even if it has become boring to you.
Another thing is that people tend to have the wrong idea about Korea – even if they know it’s a developed country, they tend to expect something more like South-East Asia – markets, thieves, panhandlers and chaos. Most of the people at my first orientation, including me, had got from the TaLK promotional materials an impression that we would be living in something like a Vietnamese rice paddy. It’s really not like that. Think of Japan – you’d be wrong, but closer.
You mind end up thinking that you’ve never lived in a civilized country before. Clean and fast public transport, universal politeness, and quality customer service are some things I missed desperately when I went home again. Korea’s a special country – if you’re inclined to it, I wouldn’t worry too much about the inevitable anxieties.
Trust that it will be good.