One week ago I was sitting at my desk correcting essays and assigning homework for the day. I was still keeping up with the news via morning podcasts, both back home in the USA and locally here in Korea, however headlines of the Coronavirus [COVID-19] had fallen to the back burner. Instead, the US was focused mainly on the democratic debates, discussing Bloomberg's appearance back on the stage and who is best suited to take on Trump. Meanwhile, Korean news talked about negotiations with the USA regarding troops on the Peninsula and the never-ending issues with the North. The number of Coronavirus cases in Korea had reached the 30's, manageable and of little worry to the majority of the population. Then on Tuesday, it was announced that a 61-year old woman had been diagnosed in Daegu, after apparently visiting church, a wedding buffet and medicine clinic while exhibiting symptoms. One week later and here I am, wondering how my home has become national news; NPR, The Guardian, New York Times, BBC, we're everywhere. It's interesting though, living in the place where the news is happening, to see first hand how quickly stories get twisted and fake news can spread.
Eight years ago I was sitting at home in Wisconsin, reading a friend's blog about volunteering at an orphanage in Gumi, South Korea. Never could I have imagined that this very orphanage would become an integral part of my life, a place I felt at home, made friends and was able to watch kids mature and grow into young adults. Here I am eight years later, five Christmas parties under my belt and countless memories made. My winding up at this orphanage was not so much coincidence as it was due 100% to my reading the aforementioned blog, but the pure fact that I was placed in Gumi was happen chance. Was it really coincidence though? I think not, my landing in Gumi was an extremely pivotal moment in my life. Not only did it lead me to these children, but also best friends, love for a new profession and ultimately hundreds of more experiences. Back to the kids though, since that's what this one's all about.
Nope, not the Backstreet Boys, although they did try to have a few comebacks in recent years didn't they?
It's me, yet again giving Korea another go. I landed just over a week ago and am already so busy throwing myself into new projects it feels, once again, like I never left. My first day was hard, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to pack up and go home the minute I walked through the arrivals door, but I'll blame that all on extreme exhaustion. I arrived in Korea on an overnight flight from Budapest where I didn't sleep a wink, after 3 other restless nights and one sleepless overnight bus. I had hoped to go straight to bed (after my 4 hours bus to Daegu), but no Korea had other plans for me. I met my recruiter, dropped my bag at the airBnB I'd booked and jumped in a taxi to Mama's English School. I had an interview with the school and was fully expecting to start on the 1st of October, but my recruiter had options for me, this school being only one of them. Since my arrival I will say my feelings have done a 180 degree turn and I'm so happy to be back. In one week I've made new friends, settled into a new town, explored outlets for teaching yoga and private English lessons and am currently trying to help a friend start his own business. Damn, I'm exhausted just thinking about it, but the busyness does keep my mind off other less exciting things *cough* broke up with my boyfriend *cough* but that's all I'm going to post about on that note...
I've been on and off living in Korea for nearly four of the last six years, which according to many of my friends means, "My Korean must be so good". While I would love for this to be true, it's not. I could list all of the excuses, coming and going, having waves of motivation to study, losing interest and then coming back again, but ultimately it's up to me. The number of times I've cracked open my books, only to close them again is growing too high. I found an awesome Korean Language Scholarship program a year in and a half ago, an answer to my problems. Finally, after all of the "should, next time, soon" talk, I took the plunge and here I am, first week of classes at Geumgang University.
Aesop's Fables began as life lessons for adults and later turned to stories for children, but somehow one of them has turned into a reflection of my life. Similar to The Boy Who Cried Wolf, I've found myself repeating the same story, over and over again. Six years ago I promised my family that I'd be moving to Korea for "Only one year" which became two. I was confident I was done with Korea after that, but returned again in October of 2015 (and the few visits during my travels). My year in Andong wasn't an easy one, including heartbreak, injuries and issues at work, so when I left a year later it felt like a final goodbye. But, low and behold I was wrong again, I stopped by for a wedding last April and then was pulled back for the whole summer. Long story short, I met a boy, remembered how much I love teaching here, and still wanted to learn the language. 16 entry stamps later, I'm back again, and this time there's no expiration date on my stay.
When I left the United States, bound once again for Asia, I only had a few plans on the horizon. My best friend in Korea was celebrating a milestone birthday and an ex-coworker was getting married. Being free of commitments or schedules I told them both I’d be in attendance. I thought three weeks in Korea would give me some time to regroup after roaming around Thailand, get my plans in order for the next few months, maybe fit in a few workouts and even do some writing. Exactly none of that happened though. Instead, I transformed into a social butterfly and made sure to visit as many old friends as I could, without running myself too deep into the ground. After three weeks, ten cities and roughly 20 different reunions I was longing for a vacation, but it was all worth it.
Become friends with people who aren't your age. Hang out with people whose first language isn't the same as yours. Get to know someone who doesn't come from your social class. This is how you see the world. This is how you grow.
I had a somewhat crazy realization the other day while talking to some fellow travelers. We were all sharing our stories of where we come from, where we’ve been and where we may be going. I was telling my story as I normally do but then at one point talked about being ‘homesick’ rather than referencing my hometown of Wisconsin I found myself speaking of being homesick for Korea. You know the phrase "You don't know what you have till it's gone" well with travel this couldn't ring more true.
As I go from one country to the next I’m constantly building friendships, adapting to a new way of life and discovering new foods. As I become accustomed to these things they’re suddenly ripped away when I decide it’s time to move on and experience yet again another country. Sure, I only have myself to blame for the constant movement I must endure, but that doesn't make saying goodbye any easier.
When it was time for my four-month adventure through SE Asia to come to an end it wasn't so hard saying goodbye because I didn't actually have to go home yet. Instead, I was headed back to my second home, South Korea, to visits a few friends, pick up my belongings and say my goodbyes 'see you laters'. It was yet another early morning in Bangkok where I set out from my hostel before the sun even rose, the other girl staying in my room happened to have a flight around the same time which saved on taxi fare out to Dong Muang airport (not conveniently located on the MRT line). Actually, this stop back in Korea made leaving so much easier, as I boarded the plane my excitement grew as I knew I would soon be seeing all of my great friends and students, both of which felt more like family.
For the last two years people have been telling me what a great teacher I am, "one of the best foreign teachers I've ever worked with", but I often wondered how sincere these words were. Now, as my time in Korea is coming to an all-too-soon end I'm realizing that most of those statements were, in fact, heartfelt and I am a good teacher.
I've always seen my connection and interactions with students from one side of the glass, but over the last few days, I've been able to get a glimpse of the other side. I'm somewhat shocked by the number of students who have reached out to express their feelings towards my departure. I came across this article last week, which discusses the real impact teachers have on students and it really hit home with me. For those of you that don't want to click and read, here is a great excerpt from the article:
Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.
Teaching English in another country is a unique and ever-changing experience, I remember being told from day 1 that there is no real way to prepare new teachers. For every incoming teacher, their city, school, co-workers and of course students are going to vary drastically. I strongly believe that it's a teachers attitude that is will determine how their career abroad unfolds. Coming in with a positive outlook, ready to take on any challenges or obstacles will help prepare them for success. There may be difficult moments full of challenging students, frustrating situations, and surprise schedule changes, ultimately making you want to throw in the towel, but the rewards are soon to follow. After spending close to two years in the classroom I'm happy to say that I've had a positive experience and wouldn't trade it for the world.