Living abroad is something Emma had always wanted to do. She is no stranger to moving to new places because of her parents’ work. She knew what was involved. Knowing what excitement lay ahead of her, Emma still didn’t felt confident enough to start a new life by herself. So she stayed where she was. Fast forward a few years and Emma felt she was at a standstill. She wasn’t growing or experience new and exciting things. That’s when she started to get serious about teaching abroad, and in particular, teaching in South Korea. Keep reading to learn about Emma’s challenges in a new country and what advice she wants to share with anyone considering doing the same.
Tell us about yourself! We’d love to know about your background, what drew you to teaching abroad, and more.
My name is Emma. I am from Texas, I am 28 years old and I have been living and teaching in South Korea for six months. My parents were in the Military so from a young age I knew what it felt like to move to a new place. And I knew what anxieties and excitement it led to. I’ve always thought about how adaptable that had made me. But I had never lived in a whole new country by myself.
When I was in High School there was an opportunity where I could live in Japan. I was nervous my new friends would disappear, so I didn’t take that opportunity. Once I got to college I thought about how amazing it would be to live abroad. I always wanted to feel more confident. I wanted to grow, and I wanted to know that I could move to a whole new place on my own. Teaching was something I always thought I couldn’t do. I told myself I wouldn’t be good at it. As I got older, I realized I was only really scared because I had never taught before. I had never tried it. At some point, my mindset changed and I craved growth and new experiences. Teaching abroad was the perfect way for me to try something new, be completely out of my comfort zone, and really grow.
Did you always know you’d end up teaching in South Korea?
In 2016, I went through what I like to call a quarter-life crisis. I was tired of feeling like I was at a standstill in my personal growth. Teaching abroad had been in the back of my head for years at that point, so I started to really research all of my options. Actually, my original plan was to teach in Japan. I had gone through an interview process but even then, I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me at that time.
While researching, I had stumbled across some Youtube videos about Korean culture and living abroad. The more I researched, the more drawn I was to the idea of living and working in South Korea. I really enjoyed learning about the culture. I loved the idea of financial stability as well as the safety that South Korea is known for. While I was doing my research, I knew that getting my TEFL certification would be important. But I also knew I couldn’t get mine online because that’s just not how my brain works. I was able to find a way for me to get my certification while also experiencing Korea before starting work. It was also a way to build a community with other foreigners as well. In the end, South Korea had everything I was looking for.
What were three things about your experience in South Korea that you did not anticipate? (This helps future teachers preparing for a trip there to feel more ready!)
I did not anticipate how very cold it could be. I spent some winters in Ohio but truly, I did not know what cold meant until I started living here. Investing in a very very warm jacket and having warm clothes is going to be important.
I did not think about how much embarrassment I would feel at the very beginning of my adventure teaching in South Korea. I had learned to read Hangul* but that was about it. So, going to the grocery store, ordering food, and doing basic things had a level of anxiety attached to it. I hadn’t anticipated those feelings and emotions. There were (and still are) some moments that I did not culturally understand and it is all a learning experience. I’m a pretty anxious person. So if you’re like me some situations will be more embarrassing than others but truly it’s all part of the experience. I laugh at those memories now but just as a warning, the buses move quickly and if you’re not holding onto something you might fall and potentially hit someone with your backpack and hold up the bus for a moment.
I knew that a big benefit of teaching in South Korea was the financial stability since you don’t have to pay rent. And the cost of your flight gets reimbursed, but I didn’t expect that the financial ease of living here would be as great as it is. You’re able to save money, go out and eat, travel, and live comfortably here. The cost of Korean food is very cheap and transportation is affordable and convenient. Living in Korea is very convenient.
*Hangul: Alphabetic system used for writing the Korean language.
What is one thing about the life of teaching abroad in general that you never expected/ Weren’t prepared for? Our readers love to get the inside scoop!
I had done my research but I was still not prepared for how awkward I could feel being a foreigner in Korea. People stared at me. It can be a little jarring at first because sometimes, you’re literally the only foreigner and I come from a very diverse country. This is something I’m still getting used to although the stares usually come from older people.
I would also like to add that for any coffee lovers out there, just because it says it’s a latte doesn’t mean it has coffee in it. It will say choco latte but it’s hot chocolate.
Can you share with us a favorite story or two from your time teaching in South Korea?
When I was in quarantine I got an ear infection that paralyzed the right side of my face. Wild, I know! My face is totally fine now, and I definitely understand the purpose of travel insurance. But while that was a whole adventure all on its own, the main part is that an older Korean woman that I didn’t know very well sent me a care package to welcome me to Korea filled with snacks and a letter to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. It’s definitely one of my favorite stories to tell because:
1. You should never ignore an ear infection even in quarantine and
2. I had only been in Korea for five days before I got sick and this really gave me comfort and reminded me that people were there to make sure I was ok in this new place.
What’s your favorite phrase/word of the English Language?
I would have to say that my favorite phrase is “easy peezy” because all of the students will say “lemon squeezy!” after. It’s very cute and lets me know that they understood what they just learned. It always makes me smile. Every. Time.
What advice do you have for someone on the fence about whether to teach abroad or not?
If you’re thinking about it, JUST DO IT! I thought about it for years and now that I’m here I wonder what took me so long. If you’re anything like me and you’re worried about leaving a life you’ve known and understood for a place you don’t know at all, it’s definitely worth it. You’re more capable than you think, someone will always be there to help you, and you’re going to grow in ways you weren’t expecting.
Finally, what does the future hold for Emma?
I feel more confident about my future than I have in a long time. It feels like there are more doors open to me. I’m going to travel more, learn more and I’m going to continue teaching for the next six months. I’m hoping to eventually help other teachers move abroad and grow.