Teaching English in South Korea – a South African’s journey
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Writer and travel enthusiast Lloyd Govindsamy shares his experience teaching English in South Korea.
If you asked someone to describe me, they would say quiet, reserved, and a little quirky, and they will be right. Raised in an Indian family, I was no different from the kid next door. All too familiar with the “Why are you coming home so late?” and “Sit down, keep quiet and stay there.” So why would an average Indian boy from Durban take the leap to teach in the Far East?
Well, given the lack of employment opportunities and the mundane way of life we’ve all grown accustomed to, there wasn’t much standing in my way. And, to explore what to me was an all-new world – teaching English in South Korea seemed lucrative.
With the aid of a recruiter, all the paperwork was done in a matter of two weeks, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Seoul, South Korea. The air smelt a bit funny, and nobody spoke English, but there was no turning back now. It was a three and a half-hour bus ride to Daegu, the city I would later call my new home.
When I arrived at my apartment, there was no bed as it is Korean culture to sleep on the floor. Two young men around my age, one from Wales and the other from America, helped me understand the curriculum I would be teaching and what life was like for a foreigner in South Korea.
I am not a trained teacher and so getting into a class filled with young minds waiting for a guy from Phoenix, Durban, to plant the seeds of basic English into their fertile little minds was intimidating. However, over time, you learn and grow. You teach according to each child’s capabilities. You develop a passion to educate.
One of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced in my entire life was watching my learners read an entire sentence in English from not being able to recite the English alphabet. “I love dogs” simple, yes. But can you say that in Korean?
After a week of “A for apple” and “B for bear,” it was time to spend my first weekend on the streets of one of the most progressive cities in the world. We hopped onto the subway and headed downtown.
To my surprise, there were hundreds of foreigners from all over the world teaching in the East, and they’re all there for the same reason I was, to get a break from the demanding, underpaid and undervalued way of life. Ireland, England, Canada, New Zealand – all in one city ready to explore and just as intrigued about Korean culture as I am. We drank until the subways closed and until it reopened the next morning, and in that time, I learned about people who are completely different, yet exactly like me.
The food wasn’t exactly to my liking, but I tried everything and anything that wasn’t available back home. Eel, frog, dried squid and silkworms – which tasted kind of like salted nuts – were just a few of the aphrodisiacs my widely palatable taste buds got to enjoy.
It wasn’t long before I began saving enough to travel to every corner of the country. Busan beaches, Jeju Island and even the party capital Gangnam. I climbed the mountains, swam the beaches and experienced the most exotic dishes.
The experience of living alone in a distant land, with nobody who speaks English, had a major impact on how I saw myself as a person. It makes you become a stronger and more independent person. You learn things about yourself that you never knew you could do, and if there’s something you can’t do, you find a way to get it done.
If you’re thinking about taking the leap of working in the far east, remember South Korea has no room for picky eaters, the easily frustrated and those too settled in their way of life and comfort. It is an experience that will break you out of your comfort zone and leave you crying to come back home if you are not able to adapt.
It’s all about living with the locals, embracing their culture and getting used to the life they live and not trying to be a South African in South Korea.