What It's Like to Teach in a Country Where You "Look" Local But Aren't

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Note: This article was first published in Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Asian Travelers’ Perspectives. Download the Ebook to read more!

Please allow me to start by giving you a quick history lesson: In the last several years, South Korea has become very well known around the world for its rapid economic growth and futuristic advancements in technology. When it comes to economy, high-tech systems, and industrialization, it has set an example on the world stage of how quickly and successfully an entire country can change.

Changing Hearts and Minds: Breaking Stereotypes while Teaching in South Korea

When I first arrived as an English teacher in South Korea, all of my expectations in these departments were not let down; there were stores, restaurants, and businesses being built everywhere I turned, the cost of living felt noticeably lower (especially because I was a recent college grad), the metropolitan cities were clean with tall buildings and bright lights, and the Internet connection really was as fast as lightning.

How did they do it? After just a few weeks of teaching in Korea, this was a question I found my own answer to. 

As I became more exposed to the deep ins and outs of its highly distinguished and intense education system while also forming friendships and relationships with Korean people, I realized that I wanted to teach them a lot more than just English. While Korea’s economy is growing faster than its Internet speed, its societal standings on certain issues like gender or racial equality remain traditional and conservative. I want my students to grow up to be well-rounded and open-minded global citizens (read: decent human beings in general), and I knew it would take a lot more than just learning English as a second language for that to happen.

Some expats teaching in Korea joke that they are teaching robots instead of humans, and I would agree that there are times it feels that way. But, at the end of every day they are just little people—literally—trying to figure out the world, and as their teacher, I consider breaking stereotypes a significant part of my job description. After teaching my Korean kindergarteners about English grammar rules and how to add dollars and cents, I try to squeeze in some important life lessons.

 Here's what my experience was like teaching English abroad in a country where you can easily be mistaken as a local.

Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Teaching in Korea exposes you to all the ins and outs of Korean culture.

5 lessons I learned while teaching in a country where I kind of blended in

Here are the real things I try to teach my budding English speakers.

1. We All Have Bellybuttons

On one particular day during lunch, my entire class of fourteen was taking polls. “Raise your hand if you like today’s lunch,” someone would ask. Some raise their hand. “Raise your hand if you’ll get a sticker today.” Some raise their hand. “Raise your hand if you like pink.” Some raise their hand. This went on for a few minutes as I sat back and just observed. Finally my role as teacher was needed.

“Raise your hand if you have a bellybutton,” called a little voice. Everyone raised their hands, and they all looked around at each other in excitement. I laughed because it was adorable and also at the fact that some of them might have thought that their friends didn’t have bellybuttons. They asked me if I had a bellybutton too. Much to their surprise I confirmed that I did, and went on to explain that we are all human, we all have bellybuttons, and that in so many ways we are the same. 

For a few minutes, we talked about equality and how to treat each other with kindness. We talked about how people are just people, and soon I also found myself explaining the contrary fact that we are all different, and that this is a good thing.

gwanghwamun Gate, Seoul, South Korea
You have a lot of power as an educator and as a gatekeeper to new knowledge.

2. “I Want To Be Someone Else!” 

When only one of my students gets a star for good behavior next to his or her name on the board, the latter are almost guaranteed to simultaneously say, “Ugh! I want to be [insert name with star here]!” Followed by this complaint is my attempt to teach the lesson that contradicts the last— that we are all unique and individual.

When I first met my students, they asked me if I was Korean. “Your hair is black and your eyes are black so you are not America people. You are Korean people!” they said to me. And when I asked them what they thought “America people” looked like, they described (with a seven year-old’s vocabulary) a Caucasian person. Cue one of my very first teaching moments. 

With only two and half percent of its population being foreigners, South Korea is not a very culturally or ethnically diverse country, and undeniably it shapes the way that children learn and grow. The country is also known for their booming plastic surgery industry, which some argue cause many young people, girls especially, to grow up and feel the pressure to undergo a procedure or two. The fight against conformity is in every country and culture, and in Korea, I take every chance to remind my students that their individuality and uniqueness are beautiful, and that they are loved for who they are.

I know that wishing for a star next to a name isn’t the same as getting plastic surgery to change one’s appearance, but to me the lesson underneath is the same. They might not quite understand yet how important and irreplaceable they are as individuals, but at least I got them to stop wishing to be anyone else for now.

Bulguksa Temple, South Korea
You’re learning about your students’ culture while they learn about yours.

3. Say How You Feel

If I’ve learned anything about how children express themselves, it’s that they don’t need words to do it. I once witnessed two little girls have an impromptu glaring side-eye exchange over the fact that they both wanted the same person to be their partner for a game. For the entire six seconds the stare down lasted, they both had eyes that I hope I’ll never see again. This incident was followed by a classroom discussion about the importance of communication. It felt like what I imagine a family therapy session is like. I told them: It’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to disagree, it’s okay to be sad, and it’s okay to cry. But, we always have to be honest and use our words to explain how we feel.

A hand went up and a small voice with a precious question reminded me that I am but a student to my own students. “Then if we love someone we can say it and hug them too?” Everyone laughed and hugged and confessed their love for each other. It was all love and hugs until the hugs got stronger and the day ended with a discussion about how we need to keep our hands to ourselves. I just can’t make this stuff up.

4. “Always Think It’s Your Birthday”

At the end of most days, my students and I sit together on the mat and talk about what we’re grateful for, what we can do better tomorrow, and how the day went in general. I teach them how to be grateful and how to show it, and why it’s so important. 

At age seven it’s hard for my students to recognize that people around the world lead drastically different lifestyles. They laugh when I remind them that their own parents and grandparents didn’t grow up surrounded by iPhones, BluRay, and tablets, but they seem to understand when I tell them that there are children in the world right now who don’t even know what those things are. They are genuinely in disbelief and, hopefully even more so, grateful and humbled. 

Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Watch your students blossom into well-rounded, accepting people while teaching in Korea. 

“Always Think It’s Your Birthday” was the quote on the cover of a birthday card that one of my students made. As an English teacher in South Korea, I feel good when my students say or write things with no mistakes, but somehow I feel even better when they say or write things that I wish I thought of myself. I asked her what she meant by the phrase and she just said, “What? Because everyone is happy on their birthday!” 

5. Open Minds Learn The Most

As a kindergarten teacher, I didn’t think there would be days that I’d be teaching about racism, stereotyping, adoption, gay marriage, religion, and violence, but I’ve come to realize that these are issues that children are exposed to and shouldn’t necessarily be sheltered from. 

Most English academies in Korea use American curricula and textbooks, so there are stories in our books about American culture, history, and lifestyle. We’ve read about Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and have even had discussions about the 2016 election while it was happening. Korean children grow up in a very different world than most American children do, and as a result some concepts are hard for them to grasp. 

In Korea, homosexuality remains taboo, guns are not owned or carried by anyone including police, and many Korean people have never even met a foreign person. The media and popular culture often shape their views toward other countries and other people. As a Filipino-American living and working in Korea, I often have the honor of feeling that I don’t fit many Korean’s image of “American.” Older Koreans often say things like, “You don’t look American” or, “But you look Asian” and as the years passed I’ve taken less offense and more pride in showing the world that America is not just one face. 

When these topics come up, I do my best to teach them always to have an open mind, to be kind, and to learn as much as they can before forming any opinion. And every day I can see them learning that it’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to be different, and sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.

decorative benches lining a street in South Korea
You have just as much to learn as your students do!

Your goal should be to remain a student yourself while you're teaching others abroad

Being an English teacher in South Korea is a kind of power, a gift, and a curse at once. It’s incredible to be the source of so much information for a young person, and it is just as incredible to think about the influence I have on the minds of our world’s future. After coming to understand the great respect and dedication that Koreans feel for education, and after working as an English teacher in South Korea, the most important lesson that I have learned is that we are all (and always will be) students. We are intended to never stop learning from our books — or from each other.

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Topic:  While Abroad