3.28.2010

Formspring: Why are you in Korea?/Older foreigners.

Well, I have nothing to say today that I feel like saying publicly. Most of it's been tied up in what's going to result in a horrendous phone bill at the end of the month. Love you kids, but my heart and my head ain't here this weekend -- they're drifting around a big old house down by a creek in Alabama.

Now seems like as good a time as any to think about a question like this, though, huh?

HI So what made you do this. Move to Korea and become a teacher and do they pay well and do you like it? How old are you too, im 32 and I would think this is for the younger peeps

What made me become a teacher and what made me move to Korea are two pretty different stories, although obviously related.
What made me become a teacher was what makes anyone become anything, which was that I needed some way to pay my rent. This happened in New York. I was working a job I hated for absolute peanuts with a total jerkoff for a boss (more like a series of jerkoffs, really, minus our head boss who was this tiny blond woman from the Bronx who talked like an inmate and rode motorcycles, but that's a different story entirely -- anyway, she was cool as fuck). Graduation was soon approaching, and since the head boss had taken a shine to me, and taken me as her personal assistant, they were starting to talk about offering me a permanent, real life managerial position. I took one look around at what that would mean for the direction my life would veer off into and said, nuh uh no thank you I'd rather starve to death. And started looking for work elsewhere.

I had a friend who was working at the international center as a tutor for foreign students. She said, why not? I said, because I'm awkward as fuck, I don't generally get on well with strangers and I don't know the first fucking thing about teaching. I mean, I taught kids before, but adults at a university level, ESL? No that looks like a royal cock-up just waiting to happen. But I didn't have many options given my full-time school schedule, and the pay level I'd jump to after I had my degree was appealing, given the fact that I was currently making $7 an hour. So I went in for an interview, where the boss made an innapropriate joke about "positions", but got and accepted the job anyway.

After a while, I realized I had kind of a knack for this, and that I actually kind of liked it. My schedule started to fill up with students, and I began to get quite close to quite a few of them. They were almost exclusively Korean, with the odd Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, South American here or there. It was my Korean students I became closest with, however. I began to meet many of them outside of work, and became quite involved in listening to their stories -- their struggles as foreigners, as outsiders, as people trying to build a life for themselves in a language they were only just becoming confident in. I heard a lot about their families, their hometowns, their home culture. They took me to Koreatown, brought me homemade Korean food, and started to teach me small phrases here and there in their language. A pack of Korean cigarettes. A bottle of Korean beer. They always came to our meetings with something in their hands.

I learned about their art -- how it compared to the art going on in Korea at the time. I learned about the mandatory army service in the ROK, what it was like to drive an army truck through dangerous mountain territory at the ripe old age of 19. I learned about how Korean men would jerk away from you suddenly if your accidentally brushed your leg against theirs under the table, or how they would turn bright red if you layed your hand on their arm to comfort them about a mistake they had made. I learned about how Korean women would call themselves your older sister, and hold your hand as you walked together down a crowded city street.

Although my pay level was good, I was limited in how many hours I could work. New York is not a joke, financially, and I was getting tired of struggling to make ends meet. I was getting tired of making those phone calls home at the end of every month, shamefully asking my family if they could spare the last $100 of my rent. Getting tired of eating eggs and bread all week, not being able to see a movie, not being able to buy a new pair of shoes. Getting tired of trying to find a way to make $20 stretch the two weeks until the next pay period.

I had to find another job. Which wasn't a big problem -- I had a strong resume with jobs stretching back to the time I was 14, strong references about how I had worked at each place for years, had always shown up on time, never unnecessarily called in sick, and worked hard. The problem was that in order to find a new job, I would have to quit my old one. I went in for an interview for a job I'm still not sure I quite understand -- something about photoshop, the Library of Congress, art.... nothing I actually wanted to be doing. But high profile, high paying, good for the resume. Required you to wear proper clothing, commute into Manhattan in the mornings. I was offered the job on the spot, and told to let them know in the next couple of days whether or not I accepted.

About a week previous, due to the fact that I had my resume up online, I had been contacted by a recruiting agency for jobs teaching EFL in foreign countries. Did I want to go abroad? I could do that? That was possible? I can't just pick up and leave New York, move to a foreign country... that's insane. I like teaching, and I don't want to let it go, but, come on....

On the train ride home from the interview, I started thinking about how my life would change. Health insurance. A new wardrobe. Working in Midtown. All of that was fine, but what about my students? What about teaching? What about everything I had gotten out of that job, had learned and experienced vicariously?

When I got off at my station in Sunset Park that night, walking back to my apartment I stopped in at the local bodega to forage for something cheap but somewhat sustaining to cook for dinner. I rang my mother. How did the interview go? Great. I got the job. Um, I think I'm moving to South Korea.....

In the end, I didn't want to give it up. I didn't want to become another 20-something with a boring daytime job in Brooklyn -- one that required me to stutter to come up with an explanation when someone asked me what I "did". I wanted to teach. I wanted to see what it was like to be a foreigner. I wanted to see something else, do something else. I didn't want to keep trying to balance my financial stability with my happiness, subtracting points from one to add to the other here and there.

That's why I'm in Korea. I was 23 years old when I moved here, one year out of university and I'm now (as of a couple of weeks ago) 25. I suppose I can see why someone might think this is only for the young, but me personally, I wish a few more older, more responsible and experienced people would show up here every now and again. It shouldn't be just an adventure, in my opinion -- it is a job, afterall, not a backpacking vacation. Personally, I look up to the older foreigners I meet here quite a bit, and I take what they have to say -- their advice and their life experience -- to heart. Especially the ones who have been here longer than I have, and especially the ones who have married and started to make a family here. They have generally mellowed out, aren't on the prowl for action all the time, not interested in partying. They take their jobs seriously, have the best advice for how to move up in the work place, and have started the serious business of finding a way to be accepted into Korean society. All of which I find intensely valuable.

I think having a few more older foreigners around would bring a much-needed stability to the community, and perhaps help to raise our profile in the eyes of our Korean counterparts. Which is not to say that older automatically equals wiser, but it doesn't hurt. Older people are more likely to have had serious work experience before, are less inclined toward bitching and moaning, and more geared toward taking their job to heart. I also do think that sometimes making the adjustments necessary to acclimate into a new culture can be a bit difficult the older you get, but this is all, all entirely dependant upon the individual, of course.

Any other questions? I like this formspring stuff....

4 comments:

<3felish said...

I've been wondering how people are able to go overseas and teach. I'm interested in doing it. I've asked around, and so far, everyone I know that's been overseas to teach were part of a university program OR missionaries. I'm 21. I'm a "baby" but I love teaching. This seems like an amazing experience.Teach overseas for a few years and come back to America. When I come back, that's when I'm going into the field I majored in. I have my AA degree, but everywhere I looked requires a bachelors. it's hard to even continue towards a bachelors degree because it's expensive. is there any advice you can give me as to where to start? or look? i reallllllly appreciate it (=

The Accidental Pilgrim said...

Dear I'm no Picasso,
I saw your guest post on AAK and liked it so much I followed you home! Was glad to read that us older expats are appreciated! At 33 I'm quite the old fogey around here, but I wouldn't have it any other way, as my previous experience of living and working in other countries has made me quite adaptable. You should have seen the jaws drop in the staff room here when I not only ATE dried squid but actually LOVED it! "But Kate Teacher! Foreigners NEVER try the squid!" heh heh.
Anyway, I love your posts, thank you.

Myra said...

Thanks for sharing.

Do you know French teachers in SOuth Korea? I wonder if there are some there, who went there via a program...did some google search but I don't think any Korean or Japanese program include French teachers.

noeme teofilo said...

Hi, was just wondering if you have heard about Fatbag Korea. It's the latest and fastest growing online shopping here in Korea. Very convenient and safe way to shop because you don't need to download anything. Thanks for letting me post on here. Just too happy to find out about the site and can't help but share to all the expats here in Korea.