The 5th Month Mark: Reflections of an Expatriate

Warning: this is an especially long winded post, but the words seem to be the ones in control, not me.

Merriam – Webster Definition
               time: a non spatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future. 

My Definition
               time:  a phenomenon that sometimes drags on and on, but also can fly by without you realizing. a thing we count and measure, but somehow is simultaneously unquantifiable. 

        “Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
                                   An Acceptable Time, Madeleine L’Engle

          As of today I have officially reached the five month mark, I am almost halfway through my year long contract. I still have to pinch myself, and remember that I actually live in South Korea.

          Sometimes I ask myself, how did a born and raised Minnesotan start in the land of 10,000 lakes, home of the hotdish, end up in Korea eating eel and silk worm larvae

        The answer to that question can be summed up in two dreadful, bone-chilling words; student loans. On second thought, maybe eight words would be more accurate.
        Student loans, wanderlust, and a love of adventure.

        Little did I know that owing money would be the catalyst for one of the best decisions of my life.

         I spent a significant amount of time during my last two years of university, as well as after graduating, taking care of my ailing grandparents. During that time I was reminded of the importance of family and how short life really is. Time, it slips away quickly. 

Amazing that after all those years of work and money, the only thing you get is a piece of paper.

          During the last year of my grandpa’s life, I began searching for an alternative to living out the next several years stuck in a small cubicle, struggling to pay off my loans bit by bit. It would drive me insane. 

          With my severe case of wanderlust, I knew the road I would need to take would look very different from the norm, but it would ultimately be a better choice for me. 
          Upon the recommendation of a friend, I thoroughly researched Footprints Recruiting, an agency that places people in teaching positions all over the world. I wanted to travel, needed to pay off my loans, and teaching in Korea quickly became the best and most interesting option. 

          Footprints was incredibly helpful with the application process, and even now (five months later), I still receive check-in emails once in a while making sure that everything is well. I know that if I ever run into a problem, Footprints will help me. 

          While looking back over the last five months, I have learned a few things that can make time spent living or traveling abroad a positive experience. 

          It’s important to be aware of your expectations and assumptions, and even more importantly, be able to modify and adjust them when necessary. 

          Having my expectations blown out of the water happened the minute I stepped off the plane. I chose to look for teaching positions in Ulsan because it was in the south and near the coast. I assumed that when I was hired as an elementary teacher for Onyang Elementary School, I would be in the city. I was wrong. 

       Did I expect to live in a rural community surrounded by mountains and rice fields? Absolutely not, am I disappointed that I ended up living in Namchang? Absolutely not. (It’s easier to save money in the countryside). 

        I expected to be teaching at the school itself, but am the full-time center teacher. I get to start at 10:30am, a good thing for someone who is not a morning person. 

Showing off my (inside) school shoes.

         I expected to have a Korean co-teacher to help me, most of my classes I teach alone. I actually enjoy the freedom that teaching solo gives me.

        I expected to be the only native English teacher at my school, but I am one of three. Having the occasional girls night is good for a mild case of homesickness.

Sushi with my co-worker.

        My expectations that have needed modification cover everything about life here in Korea, from work to the food to the culture. 
          I’ve learned that it’s important when traveling or living in a foreign country to not expect it to be like home. Take everything you know about life and throw it out the window. The beauty of starting from scratch, is that, once you look past your own expectations for how things “should” be, the beauty of the country and culture will be able to shine through.


          Life as an expatriate is about thriving, not simply surviving.

        The beauty of letting go of expectations is that you become free. Expectations are heavy, and the weight of them can be exhausting. If you let them go you can concentrate on thriving in your new environment.

        Soak up the new experiences, weird though they may be. Instead of constantly comparing the culture to what you are used to, embrace and try and learn what you can from a different way of life.

       I have come to realize, that while I thought I was coming to Korea to teach, the real reason I have come is to learn.

         Perhaps the most important thing I have realized, the concept that has taken root and blossomed is: Life as an expatriate is all about the people.

        Money is great and it will be wonderful to be debt free after only one year teaching in Korea, but ultimately, it will be the people I have met and the memories of them that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

Stella taking a picture Korean style 🙂

        Time will pass, but the impact of the people I’ve come to know and appreciate will remain, imprinted on my soul. 

         My students make me smile everyday, and receiving smiles in return balances out the discomfort of jumping cultural hurdles. 

                    (after a fun class period of being silly)

             Me: “Ok, class time is over, good job today!”

             Philip: As he plops down beside me with a beautiful smile and contented sigh, “Teacher……”

              Me: “Yes, Philip?”
              Philip: “Teacher, today was wonderful!”

              Me: “Yes, I think so too.”

          His sincere smile and depth of feeling made me feel, in that moment, that all the struggles of adjusting to a new life were worth it. 
         One thing I adore about Koreans is that when they care about you, they really have your back. I have forged a special relationship with the secretary at the center. She calls me her daughter and I call her my Korean mom. She is always willing to help me, and listen when I need to talk. 

         I have realized that while memories of pretty places tend to fade, the memories of people find a place in your heart and stay there forever.
          I have no way of knowing what will happen in the next seven months, what hurdles I will have to jump, I just know that coming to Korea was one of the best decisions I have ever made. 

Loving Life in South Korea!

(We play games with a point system in my classroom) – 100 points to everyone who read this entire post 🙂
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