Four years ago when I imagined my post-grad life as an English major, I envisioned myself writing a book while perched on the windowsill of a New York City loft. I would be working as a waitress, but I’d be happy because I’m doing what I love. However, my dream sounded akin to almost anyone who has ever read and enjoyed a collection of poetry, so I knew I had to do something ~unique~ upon graduating.
Four years later, in a totally expected and rather typical fashion, I packed my life and Arts degree into two suitcases and moved to South Korea to teach English. I was accepted into the EPIK Program to teach in Daejeon, the country’s fifth largest city, commonly referred to as the Silicon Valley of Korea. I later found out that within the country, Daejeon is actually referred to as the most boring city in Korea, but alas, we live and we learn.
I’d like to think that most people I interact with are decently rational thinkers, but I don’t want to admit how many people asked me to clarify which Korea I was moving to. Before you go off spewing ignorant misinformation, I invite you to please try to locate North Korea on a map. From now on, I refuse to engage in semi-intelligent conversation with anyone who cannot complete this task.
Canadians always ask me if I’m afraid of North Korea, but in all honestly my safety here is the least of my concerns. My greatest fear is running into my students when I am at a bar in a crop top. I live within walking distance from my school, so it is impossible to walk down the street without running into little Minju or Jiyeon. Although values are changing, Korean fashion is still fairly conservative, thus showing skin from the waist up is considered scandalous. I’m trying to not set a reputation among my students’ parents as the biggest hoe in Daejeon so I always leave the house in a disguise, AKA a long sleeve blouse which I quickly shove into my bag as soon as I’m in the clear.
I teach grade three, five, and six, but I think I’m learning more from them than they are from me. I’ve been taking style tips from my sixth graders, who come to school in all black jumpsuits, rompers, and non-brassy blonde hair. Those cursed with poor vision sport trendy wire-rimmed glasses that would have every head at Trinity Bellwoods on swivel. Whoever said Paris is the capital of fashion was obviously a Eurocentric blogger, because Korean style is light years ahead of anything I’ve ever seen in the West. When I was in the sixth grade, I’m pretty sure I wore Aeropostale tracksuits and had tiny oval transition lenses. Aside from the fact that Korean clothes are one-size-fits-all and I have not been able to get a single skirt over my thighs, I’m anticipating becoming a Korean style icon by the end of my teaching contract.
My decision whether to renew my contract, which lasts until next August, weighs upon a number of factors, including but not limited to whether or not I survive school lunches. Although my school’s cafeteria food is honestly delicious, lunch is a physical and mental struggle every day. As a Chinese-Canadian, my diasporic and cultural anxiety is at an all-time high as I feel too Asian for the Caucasians and too Caucasian for the Asians. My facade of passing as Asian quickly slips away during lunch as I strain every muscle in my upper body on not letting the fried chicken drumstick slip off my metal chopsticks. Yet, during EPIK Orientation, at least one white girl would sit with me during dinner and demand that I teach them how to use chopsticks.
I’m still not sure what food is socially acceptable to eat with your hands, so I’ve been piercing my chopsticks through cherry tomatoes and struggling to hold up the weight of corn on the cob, lest my co-workers think I am uncultured swine. I have kimchi stains on everything I own, from my shoes to my notebooks to the white skirt I wore during a welcome ceremony with my entire school and their parents.
Prior to stepping foot in Asia, I had planned to start a Korean dating blog, aptly titled “BAEJEON”. In preparation for my dating blog I overlooked the most crucial aspect in writing about my search for love in Korea: I don’t speak Korean. Except for learning the alphabet and two basic greetings, I prepared nothing before uprooting my life and settling down in South Korea. It is completely irresponsible to prepare nothing when moving to a foreign country as an English teacher, and I admit I am guilty. “Globalization” is just a buzzword; expecting everyone to cater to your Anglophone-speaking needs is prime Western Tourist Complex. Don’t worry though- I’m currently writing a comprehensive analysis on the neocolonial impacts of teaching English abroad.
Teaching English in Korea is a huge job market occupied by a majority of white Americans, and with a great number of Americans abroad comes a great number of blogs (Ancient Travel Proverb, n.d). Many people prepare for their time teaching abroad from these blogs, myself included, but I soon realized that these blogs are written for and by white people. Expats of colour have much different experiences than white people who are just realizing that race is a factor that influences one’s daily interactions.
To make a pretty mediocre long story a pretty mediocre short story: living in Korea is hard. Blogs like to omit the less glamorous details. Blogs talk about the exhilaration of clubbing in Seoul, not the frenzy of trying to cancel an accidental 1000 page print job on a Korean printer. Blogs tell you living here is easy as drinking soju outside 7-Eleven and singing your heart out at noraebang. Blogs don’t tell you how to cope with finding out your students are being abused. Blogs tell you it’s cute and funny to have to mimic what you’re trying to say in Korean. Blogs don’t tell you that teaching your language is sometimes a form of imperialism.
However, I’m quite excited to have a relative amount of Asian privilege! Getting harassed for being a minority? Not in this country! During EPIK orientation all of the English teachers stayed at a Korean university dorm where the curfew was 11pm. My friends and I, who are all Asian except for our Token White Friend, strolled in casually at 11:04pm one night. Our white friend got written up as late and we walked away without a second glance. I guess there are ups and downs to every experience!