The following is an interview with my neighbor Heather. She is a twenty-three year old fashionista teaching at a hagwon. After graduating from Ryerson University with a degree in Fashion Communication, she moved to Seoul. She felt a one-year contract was not enough time and resigned for another six months. Check out what she has to say below.
What made you want to resign and stay?
My contract was for a year and a huge reason why I resigned was because I didn’t feel like finished what I wanted to get out of this experience. Of course, I have my boyfriend, Jay. I still had friends that were staying. Even though I’ve been here for a year and I try to see all the different tourist attractions and go to different places it still didn’t feel like enough [time]. Even though one year seems like a long time when you think about it. But when I really look back into my experiences it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I wanted to get more out of it. A year and a half felt like it was more substantial.
You said you’re from Canada. What were you doing in Canada before coming to Korea?
I graduated in 2010 and I decided to come here right afterwards because my sister was here already. I was working part-time until I left for Korea. I didn’t want to make any big commitments since I knew I would be leaving soon.I also spend a lot of time preparing for my move here. You don’t just pick yourself up and move to another country, I needed time to prepare and plan.
So you already had a contact here.
Yes, because my sister was here already, she was a huge reason why I wanted to come here. I’d heard a lot of good things about the culture. She learned a lot while she was here, she made a lot of connections and a lot of new friends. I hadn’t seen her in so long, I really wanted to come here and spend some time with her where it’s just sisters. We’ve never had that chance where it was just she and I in a foreign country and we’re relying on each other. It was really great!
I was working part-time in a design firm. I was waiting for this to get going. Some things kind of stalled it. I ended up waiting for a lot longer than I expected. I was supposed to come here in September of 2010 a couple months after I graduated. It ended up taking another couple months. So, I didn’t come here until February 2011. It was nice in a sense, I got to spend more time with family and friends. While I was in university, I was just studying. It was such an intense program I didn’t go out a lot. I was getting a lot closer to my school friends because we’re always working together or doing projects together. It was always they and I. It was good to take some time away from that and to really spend time with my family and other friends.
Bringing up family. How did they react when they found out their second daughter was going to come to Korea?
That was the hard part. I think my parents have always known that with my sister and I, we always do what we are passionate about. This goes to even with the choices that we’ve made in university, what kind of program we wanted to do. They know that we don’t just listen to other peoples’ options. We are really just passionate about, if it is something that we like, love, or really believe in we’re going to do it. She was a huge reason why I was coming here. So, I think they were kind of glad that they’ve gone through it one time already with her and the second time they didn’t have to be as worried because she could help me out. At the same time, letting two of their kids go so far away at the same time it was still hard for them to accept. If they had a choice I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted us to leave. As we started to become adults and they started to accept that they really start to let loose to let us make our own decisions.
But other family members, like certain aunts, uncles, and my grandma who are a little bit more traditional gave me a hard time. They really gave me a lot of pressure, almost between choosing my family or this. Lots of pressure to tell me why am I going back to a developing country when my family has worked so hard to [get to Canada? The world has changed so much and it’s not about just staying in one place, settling down, making money. I really want to travel and my parents respected that. As long as I got their respect and they understood what I was trying to get out of this, I was fine with moving to Korea. I respect my family. At the end of the day, if I listen to them, they’re not the ones living my life. I don’t want to let other people control what I want to do with my own life. After choosing to do this and being here for so long I don’t have any regrets. Not listening to them and always sticking to what I want and what I’m set to do.
Did your sister live in Seoul?
Did you look anywhere else?
No! Definitely it was not an option. We are totally city girls. I cannot imagine myself being far away in some farmland, teaching in some really small school, eating the same thing, and going to the same restaurant. I can’t even picture that. I was really glad that she was placed in Seoul. If she was placed somewhere else, then I probably would have considered that and I may not have been happy about.
Since you’ve been here what’s something that shocked you?
I think what completely shocked me was not the culture itself, but how fast I have adapted to the culture.
A lot of people when they think that going into Asia it would be so different, but after coming here you really start to see that there are a lot of foreigners here. They’re so accepting of foreigners it doesn’t faze them. Because of that, it doesn’t make me feel like there are a lot of barriers that stop me from getting comfortable with the culture. People have made it comfortable for me, it made me eager to get more comfortable. That has allowed me to really feel like I’ve been making a part of my life here. Maybe it’s because I’m Asian too. People don’t look at me and say, “Oh yes! That’s a foreigner! Let me say hi to them. Everyone just thinks I’m Korean. If they don’t think I’m Korean, they think I’m Japanese. They start talking to me in all these different languages. Sometimes that is awkward for me. That has pushed me to be more comfortable because it feels like everyone has accepted me already and there really is no barrier to break down.
Tell me about barriers. How do you find communication? Is that hard?
It’s harder because people assume I’m Korean. If it was more obvious that I’m a foreigner, people would not even attempt to speak to me in Korean. Or at least if they speak to me in Korean, they don’t expect me to say anything back. Because they think that I’m a Korean, and when I don’t reply to them in proper Korean sentence structure, or saying the correct things with the correct formalities then they start to really question “Why is this Korean not speaking her own language?” I have to tell them, NO! I’m not a Korean. I’m Canadian. Then, they start to get confused, “Why does she look Asian if she’s Canadian?” It’s often a lot of unnecessary explaining and sometimes I just let it go. I don’t even want to explain. Because now I’m more comfortable to try to communicate in Korean I think that because they see that I’m trying whether they think that I’m a Korean that’s trying to speak the language or a foreigner that’s speaking the language I think at the end of the day they do appreciate it. I have no problem making the effort because I am living in Korea. I do feel like it’s necessary to learn the language and to learn the culture.
Has there ever been, in terms of working and adjusting, where you felt you needed to go home?
When it comes to the job you start to realize being in Asia you don’t get the same kind of job security and job protection that you get back home. There are a lot of things where you start to realize you can’t really question why it’s done that way, you just have to go with it. I guess, partially, if you’re going to ask me again what shocks me, it’s the working culture. I sometimes think, if I was back home, some things would never happen. The point is I’m not back home. A lot of things you have to adapt to. It makes me feel like I am growing up because there aren’t a lot of protections around me. I have to grown up and adapt to other peoples’ rules and cultures.
If you had to pick one thing, what has been your highlight of being in Korea?
My boyfriend here [lots of laughter, especially from him]. I’m not going to lie, definitely my highlight. Which, I didn’t expect at all to happen because when you’re going to a foreign country you struggle to make friends. But when you find a boyfriend or a girlfriend it starts to [more laughter]. It was an amazing thing that happened because first of all, I didn’t expect it to happen. I was solely here to really build personal experiences and grow up. While I was at home my parents always sheltered me, I only lived at home, they always helped me out and being here I just wanted to grow up. Just seeing how I am now, my perspective, the experiences that I’ve learned here and looking back at how I was when I first came here. I think that growth in perspective, learning to let things go and adapt is kind of thing that…
So you feel you’ve grown up a lot?
Ya! Definitely! I think a lot of the growth I was anticipating, but even if you anticipate it, it may not happen. So, witnessing the growth is a huge advantage for me for being here.
How do you find teaching? You said you studied…
Ok, something more visually oriented…and not dealing with kids.
Right, I’ve always loved kids but I never would have thought I would be in a foreign country and teach. It never crossed my mind. As much as I love kids. I always had certain expectations about teaching in Asia. While I’ve been here, there were some things that proved me right and proved me wrong. With the company I am working for, they’re a really structured company at least with the teaching methods. They are really strict on what they want you to do, time management, classroom management, and following that kind of structure was really foreign for me. It wasn’t something I was use to especially being a really creative person. To be here doing something totally new and to teach when I really didn’t have a lot of teaching experience before, that kind of methodology was really hard to grasp initially. At the same time, seeing my kids’ different levels of English proficiency was really surprising. They spoke so well and they were so knowledgeable. This refers to the high level kids, because we go up to college material. Prepping for those classes was difficult at first. The lessons have taught me a lot, from learning about North Korea, political issues to seabirds. We teach them so many different things. I learned pictures and body language are a really great ways of communicating too. When I first started prepping for the high level classes, it would take about an hour and a half or two hours. I would go through all the readings looking for words, finding synonyms, definitions and looking for visual aids. There are a lot of things I didn’t know. It makes me humble. Even though you’re a teacher and even though you speak a lot of English, at the end of the day you’re human. There are a lot of things you still don’t know. We still learn everyday.
What do you think of the expat community?
I don’t really think much of it. It’s great that there is such a big community here. If there are any issues I always feel someone else will have the answers. There are others who have done it and been here long enough to tell you where the sources are. At the same time, certain foreigners have different perspectives than my own. Sometimes I’m glad that they’re here. I’m glad that there’s such a big community because that’s partially why we all feel so comfortable here. You’re not just the one foreigner with a whole bunch of locals.
Revisiting the home topic, what is something you wish you brought?
I brought a lot! I brought two full suitcases, a carry on, and a purse. I stuffed them good! I can’t think of anything.
Have you had any trouble finding something from back home?
That’s what’s surprising, a lot of the things I need, I could find it here. If I have to say maybe one thing…maybe more shoes! The weird thing is I actually can’t really buy into Korean shoes. I don’t know about men’s shoes, but women’s shoes are cheap. Yet, you do get what you pay for. I feel the styles are all the same, the quality can be cheap, and even when you pay a high price they still feel like cheap quality. A lot of the shoes I bought are from Zara. I wish I had brought more shoes because I thought I could buy a lot of shoes here, but I don’t really own Korean shoes.
What do you expect is going to be difficult adjusting back to Canadian life or adjusting back to having your family so close?
When I go back, I’m going to be living with my family. I am use to being on my own and I have developed little habits, my own way of doing things. It is really hard to imagine being back home and following other people’s rules again. Even though they are family, but parents are parents. You are never going to hear the end of nagging. You’re never going to hear the end of worrying and constantly reminding. That is one thing I don’t really miss. It’s going to take some adjusting to go back to that. Being away from the industry for so long and to be back in this competitive design industry I know id going to be difficult. That’s the sacrifice you have to make. When you leave and you come here looking to gain certain experiences, there has to be a sacrifice. I knew from the beginning when I go back, I’ll have to start from the bottom. I might have to take more courses or go back to school. Whatever it is, I’m willing to do it because I didn’t expect it to be easy.
Any regrets because of that?
NO! No regrets.
This is my last question. What advice would you give someone moving to Korea?
One big one, is to keep an open mind. A lot of times, coming from a developed country we think we know more than everyone else and you’re not willing to adapt. Keeping an open mind would make your experience here so much more comfortable and so much more rewarding. Whether it is trying new food or making new friends or meeting a boyfriend/girlfriend or your job. Whatever it is as long as you keep an open mind and you stay safe you’ll enjoy your experience.