Man, how time flies. It’s now been about 3.5 months! As the New Year approaches, I thought it’d be appropriate to reflect on everything I’ve learned thus far from teaching and living abroad in Korea and share some of my insight with you. No matter which stage you’re at in the EPIK application process, I hope this finds you well. Soon enough, you’ll be in my shoes learning the following 13 things (plus more) for yourself!
1 | Chopsticks > forks. No really, they are. I find them fascinating and really fun to use. And I’m highly convinced that learning how to use chopsticks at an early age helps children’s fine motor skills develop at a faster rate. They can draw and color like it’s their job and I’m highly impressed considering they’re still little munchkins.
2 | Korean school lunches > American school lunches. Korean lunches consist of soup, 2-3 side dishes (반찬, pronounced banchan), a main dish, and if we’re lucky – sometimes dessert. The lunches are very scrumptious as well as healthy and balanced. I have immense respect for the lunch staff, they work tirelessly all morning to serve us fresh food from scratch.
3 | The concept of being a vegetarian barely exists in Korea. Don’t even try throwing around words like vegan, pescatarian, or any of the other -tarian variations. Here’s a really great list of 5 vegan or vegan friendly restaurants in Seoul by Travelog. Among those listed is my favorite, Plant Cafe. It’s delicious – even for the steak enthusiast. For groceries, you will be able to find what you’re looking for although it obviously won’t be as simple as you’re accustomed to. Try checking out iHerb for practically anything you may be looking for that you can’t find in the stores. It ships quickly.
4 | Pet culture is different in Korea than it is in the States. This has been extremely challenging for me to get used to being an animal lover of all shapes and sizes. Truth is, I’m still adjusting. Pets, and any animal for that matter, are perceived differently here – it’s not at all like it is back home where our pets instantly become family. If you’re anything like I am, heads up: you will be seeing many more stray cats and dogs than you’re used to.
5 | You’ll question and rethink Asian stereotypes. No, seriously.
All Asians look alike – that’s probably one of the most common stereotypes I’ve heard. People were always telling my sister and I that they thought we were twins and when we would break the news to them that we’re not, their responses would typically be along the lines of…are you sure? Yes, I’m sure! We’re not twins just because we’re Asian and we don’t look alike just because we’re Asian. Truth is, we’re not even blood related and we look completely different.
After months of living in Asia and being surrounded by Koreans, I couldn’t be happier to dispel this stereotype. It’s completely not true. I’ve seen people of all different heights, colors, sizes, and facial structures.
Think about any preconceived ideas or stereotypes you may have coming in and mentally prepare yourself because you will be surprised.
6 | Korean children have just as much fun (if not more) than children in the States. They’re given a lot of autonomy here. During the handful of breaks throughout the day, they’re allowed to run through the halls and outside, play with each other, and play on their phones (yes a number of them have smart phones). Korean children aren’t what you would expect and this goes back to stereotypes. They’re not perfect angels, I mean they’re great kids, but they talk (loudly), play, and wrestle with each other and it’s pretty much acceptable here. The kids are kids and to be honest, it’s actually quite refreshing (except when they get too loud and crazy).
7 | Children have an innate ability to brighten your darkest days. My students are such bright lights and their energy is invigorating to be around. It makes going to work everyday a lot easier.
8 | Never underestimate the power of creating incentive. This is a powerful tool. Especially because as EPIK teachers, our classes aren’t graded. So instead, you need to find ways to give them something to work towards. I use the online tool, ClassDojo, because it combines positive and negative reinforcement. I like to hold each student accountable, so in order to have a class party, which consists of a movie and treats, every student needs to reach 100 points.
9 | Accept the things that are beyond your control. I learned this very quickly. Adopting this mindset early on will save you a lot of unnecessary stress. However, if you do reach a point where the stress becomes unbearable, then take a look at my article on alleviating stress and anxiety.
Which leads me to my next point…
10 | Go with the flow and live in the present. It won’t always be easy, but in the end you’ll be better off if you do. Would you rather enjoy the moment or spend every waking moment dwelling over the things that didn’t go your way?
11 | It’s okay to cry. There will be times when you just need to release it all and let it go. Cry. It’s okay! I’ve cried a couple times and it does help. Especially if this is your first time living abroad, it’s bound to happen.
12 | Traveling opens your heart. I cannot stress this enough. By immersing yourself in alternative ways of living, you’re instantly gaining more appreciation and respect for the country and the people who inhabit it. You may not understand why things happen the way they do, but you at least learn how to accept it.
Throughout my time here so far, I’ve learned a lot about foreign interaction and how important it is to be kind to one another despite cultural differences and language barriers. Click the link to read more about my experiences and thoughts on this topic.
13 | I can do it. This is actually the first time I’ve ever lived entirely on my own without a roommate or housemate. In addition to this being my first time living alone, there’s the added element of living independently in a foreign country where English is not the spoken language.
It has definitely been challenging, I won’t lie. Each day seems to present itself with new obstacles to overcome and at times it gets so exhausting that in the moment I forget why I came here in the first place, but it’s only ever a fleeting thought and then I’m somehow reminded.
I came here to do something more meaningful, to make a difference in these kids’ lives, to travel, and to explore my roots. And that’s what I’m doing. It’s enormously rewarding and indescribably freeing. And for someone like me who has always valued independence, I’ve finally found myself understanding and discovering what it truly means to be independent.
You can do it, too! You’re a lot stronger than you think. I wish all of you the best of luck as you complete your application materials, interview, and wait for placement.
This article was created for EPIK e-Press.