Hi, hello, and welcome to a new series I’m starting titled “Chronicling Korea,” in which I will, well, chronicle my experiences here in Korea. From general cultural observations to distinctly unique anecdotes, this will be my way of ensuring that I neither override my entire online existence with foreigner-in-Korea related content, nor ignore my living situation entirely by reverting to the general “feelings” posts that I am all too good at.
If you’re new to this blog, I am a young American currently residing in South Korea, where I have taken a position as a Guest English Teacher. Being a Guest English Teacher is great for a lot of reasons: I only see each of my classes once a week, so every class with me is the fun class; foreigners are an anomaly here, and thus my blonde hair has elevated my usual nonexistent social status to that of a celebrity among my students; and I am rightfully not trusted to teach alone in the classroom the majority of the time, so I have four incredibly lovely co-teachers who help and support me both in and outside of the workplace. I really and truly feel lucky every day to be doing this job.
Something a little less positive that I have noticed, however, is that I am not simply a Guest English Teacher in my school, but rather I am an English teacher at all times. This is not unique for me, either. This is the average experience of a GET in Korea. As I mentioned earlier, foreigners are an anomaly here, which means that most Koreans, despite having been forced through an education system which heavily emphasizes English, have little-to-no opportunities to use English. This, and the societal emphasis on being silent unless you are absolutely correct, means that most Koreans are very shy when they have to speak English. They are shy, but they want to learn.
Another way that I have been very lucky with my placement here is that almost every co-worker in my office wants to improve their English, so I never feel lonely. I have at least six people who go out of their way on a daily basis to talk to me. They struggle when talking to me in front of each other, because, again, they’re all shy, but in private we have conversations about everything from movie actors to politics. The one thing that never fails to come up in a conversation is, of course, English.
I can’t recall a single conversation with a co-worker which has not included some form of grammar/vocabulary/pronunciation lesson. Now to be fair, this isn’t a complaint. Language learning is incredibly difficult, and not having the exposure to a language and the culture within which it operates only increases that difficulty exponentially. I don’t worry that they aren’t interested in my personality, because I understand that they want access to my natural expertise. If I were learning a language, I would want a native speaker around to help me with the process. Oh wait…
I should be learning Korean. I am learning Korean. I’m just learning Korean a little more slowly than I’d like to. The overwhelming generosity and enthusiasm from my co-workers has made me unfortunately lazy. In my small bubble of a school, in which my co-workers act very much like a family, I think more about how to help people learn English than I do about how to help myself learn Korean. I want them to get better at English so they feel confident speaking it, and I want them to get better so that I can know them better. I know that learning Korean is the ultimately the answer to all of my frustrating language barriers here, but since they already speak English so well, it seems a faster solution to help them with their learning than to motivate myself.
I spend so much of my time with my co-workers, trying to speak slowly, trying to help them understand me, that I forget my own language abilities. Once I’m reunited with the other foreign teachers here, with which I’ve made some exceptional friendships, I’m suddenly aware at how quickly I can speak, how much slang I use, and how incredibly long my natural sentence structures are. Just typing out this post has been a bit of a struggle..
As I said, I’m not complaining though. I understand, and so far I don’t mind. Fingers crossed that I will only continue to feel flattered by everyone’s attempts at learning a language so different from their own only to communicate with people like myself. Also, as they struggle with my mother-tongue, I’m going to try my best to learn theirs. Millions of people all over the world have to learn English, it’s only respectful that those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the English-speaking world bother to learn some of their languages as well. After all, communication is key.