Cultural Experience | Korea

Dialogue with: Joan, Teaching and Traveling in South Korea

The kind of Eat, Pray, Love trip we all should take at one point in time.

The holidays are finally upon us!! I love this time of year especially here in the US because it’s not just gearing up for one but TWO holidays within a month of each other! I never understood the concept behind Thanksgiving at first but it soon resonated with me and is now a holiday I shall probably celebrate wherever I am each time November comes around. Speaking of foreign concepts… A friend of mine studied abroad in S. Korea about 2 years ago and really fell in love with the country that she decided to take a year off to go teach English to the young kids in Seoul. At the tender age of 21 that really is a huge decision to make and actually go through with but after having spent over a year now in S. Korea immersing herself in the culture and her passion for teaching, she has grown and adapted to the country so well and I could not be more proud of her.

I featured Joan this week so that she can share her story to all of you who have ever thought about teaching abroad and of course to fuel our travel junkie egos a tad! I’ve never really thought about visiting Seoul but now I think I may add it to my travel bucket list.
korean kids

1. What inspired you to take on a teaching job in S. Korea of all places?

I’ve always been the kind of person to stray from the beaten path and do my own thing. Like most kids in High School I picked up a hobby I was really into, I started really getting into Japanese culture and anything Japanese.  I read Manga and watched Anime and started learning Japanese on my own. This hobby may sound a bit strange and not as “mainstream” however growing up in a community without a lot of diversity and ethnic differences, I wasn’t really exposed to so much until I got to High School and voila… Languages, cultures and people from all different ethnic backgrounds. I was a sponge and Japanese culture was my first learning experience.

My attention was directed onto Korean culture in my freshman year of college. Fortunately due to Chapman University’s plethora of affordable study abroad programs, I was able to Study Abroad in South Korea for a semester my junior year. It was an amazing experience and I had a lot of fun experiencing new worldly things. I was forced out of my comfort zone and had to learn Korean to be able to communicate a little better with the locals. But as they say, all good things must come to end and I had to return home and complete my junior year. I wasn’t happy or focused anymore, because all I could think about was the place I barely got to experience with just a semester abroad. Noticing this I tried to research on how I could return, and stumbled upon my current program TaLK, Teach and Learn in Korea. I was going to be a senior and graduate soon but I was still confused on what I would do after graduation. So I decided since I wasn’t sure of my future, I thought I should do what I really wanted to at that moment. And with support from my family, friends and discussing it with my faculty advisors, I decided to put my senior year on hold and try regain my focus back in South Korea.

2. What was the process like? (For anyone who wants to do it in future)

If you are really interested, I feel personal research is always better in such situations. Also I wouldn’t do the program justice if I forgot something important. So please check out the website for further information on the program.

3. How are you liking Korea now having been there almost a year now?

It has almost been a year hasn’t it? Honestly I feel like I haven’t been here that long. I work 15 hours a week teaching my regular and after school English classes. In between those times, I’m coming up with lesson plans or different games for the students so I can make my classes more fun. When I’m done with all that I usually travel outside my small city and try to go to different cities and learn about different things or have fun with other foreign teachers. Honestly for the first 6 months I was having a lot of fun that time flew by really quickly, I made friends during my program’s orientation and we are still good friends today. We would meet almost every weekend for different adventures mainly in Seoul, since we all lived in rural areas for work.  My students were still very apprensive with me, because for a majority of them it was their first time seeing a person of a diiferent race up close and candid. I’m a tall African-American girl with braids so I stick out like a sore thumb. We soon bridged that gap though and my students have grown really fond of me and my teaching style. Every day is a struggle teaching; I would be lying if I said this wasn’t a hard job. But even though I came to Korea for my own personal gain, being a teacher to the students has taught me a lot more about myself and how much I enjoy being a part of my students daily life. There’s always a down side though, I always miss home and the different kinds of food available in the US and not here. I miss my friends and my family and my dog a lot more now recently than I did when I first got here. I think a lot about my future and I’ve finally regained what I lost my first 3 years in college. I forgot my passion for learning, why I chose the majors I did( Political Science and Sociology). I like learning about different things and about people. I realized what I really wanted to do after I graduate, and am excited to get back home and accomplish it. Since I turned 21 right before I came to South Korea, I guess you can call this my growing year. I learned a lot about myself being away from my friends and family and have gained new purposes in life. I love teaching and being there for my students… despite the constant language barrier.
4. What do you teach and to what age-group?

I teach at Seobu Elementary school in Samcheok, Gangwon do. I teach formal English classes to my 4th through 6th graders and I teach an afterschool English class to my 1st through 6th graders. For my formal English classes I have to follow the curriculum book for the specific grades, so there is not a lot of freedom during those classes. However I can add in a video or game to help keep the students motivated and having fun. For my afterschool classes I have more freedom, so I come up with different topics for a couple weeks and teach the topic to my students. Usually phonics and ABC learning topics for my lower level students, and topics about food, family , colors, dreams, jobs, directions etc for my older students. I like to incorporate a lot of games and fun activities for my students because in South Korea they take education very seriously, usually having the children attend regular school till 3:40pm then going to different learning academy for another 4 to 5 hours. They are basically studying for hours on end every day. And it only gets worse as they grow older. After learning this I tried to make my classes less formal and more fun and learning centered because I wanted them to relax a little and not be too stressed during my class and just act like kids.

5. Did you have to learn Korean?

I actually get asked that question a lot by my friends, so no you don’t have to learn Korean to get the job. However once you get here, it’s up to the individual if they want to learn the language or not. I personally have been trying to enhance my Korean learning abilities while other foreign teachers are perfectly content knowing “Survival Korean”. So it’s really up to the person.

6. Are there any other activities you partake in with the kids aside from teaching?

Not really, maybe we will talk outside of class or share music or jokes. But I’m usually just their teacher. They really don’t have time outside of their studying if it’s not already planned through the school to do other things. Since I’m one of the 2 English teachers at my school, I recently did have to teach a song and dance to my classes for the school festival. That was both really fun and stressful; it was a nice change though from just strictly learning English material.

7. What do you do in your spare time in Korea?

I’m either sleeping or trying to learn as much Korean as I can during my free time. But what takes up a lot of my time and money is going to different parts of Korea and trying new stuff. Going to the city to have different kinds of ethnic food I cannot get in my town, or shopping in the malls. Visiting friends who live in different parts of Korea and just having girl time weekends with my friends. The city is a very fun and metropolitan area, kinda feels like Los Angeles sometimes with so many people in a small place. I basically just explore whenever I’m not teaching, around my own city or different parts in Seoul.

8. What would you advise future students looking into teaching abroad as well?

Do your research! There are a lot of programs out there that can have you teach Abroad in places in South Korea or in a Latin American country. Find an area you’re interested in or that you’ve always wanted to go to and picture yourself living there. Because even though you have a job to do, you have a lot of free time on your hands (depending on your program) so you will explore your area and the neighboring parts as well. If you’re looking for adventure, or think you’re missing a bit of excitement in your life I would highly suggest considering it. Especially with our economy and recent grads who can’t find a job, why not take the time to travel and experience something new in between prepping for grad school or what have you. If you haven’t studied abroad or you have but want to do more, I suggest you research about it. Being able to see how different people live in  different countries and being able to experience it is an amazing feeling. I don’t regret my decision because I learned and acquired so much invaluable knowledge in this year alone that I know I would not have had I chosen to not follow my gut feeling.


Joan is an example of very many of us, current students and recent grads who still have no idea of what their future looks like and she is simply telling us that it’s completely okay to not have it all figured out. Not all of us are wired that way and that’s why a good time out is necessary sometimes to find our niche in this world. Don’t be afraid to follow your gut feeling, you never know where it may lead you.

Diana Odero

Chapman University | 19 stories

Diana is a recent graduate of Chapman University having studied Graphic Design & Sociology. She is an international student from Kenya and is currently working in Atlanta. She is an adventurous person who views the world with an artistic eye. She loves to travel, to read & write, design, cook and meet new people. In addition to writing for The College Tourist she is also working on building her brand as a freelance designer and lifestyle writer. Check out Diana's blog .

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