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South Korea, Work Abroad / August 13, 2012

One English Teacher’s Experience in South Korea: Lifestyles of the Cheap and Faceless

Today I got groped on an elevator.

In one swift movement, two fingers were forcefully jammed up, right between my legs.

I quickly spun around.  Only the elevator wall stared back at me. Looking down, just past my knees, I made eye contact with the perpetrator. A spacey grin of silver-fillings and baby teeth giggled back.

For all intents and purposes, I am an expat English teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. But really, descriptors like, “sideshow clown,” “anatomical body used for a child’s own curiosity and self-exploration,”  or “stand-in with a white face who needs to be ready for any and all photo opportunities (the more ridiculous, the better)” would probably be a lot more accurate.

My situation is not unique (seriously, everyone gets groped on the elevator). There are loads of us having this same experience, getting tiny fingers shoved up our rears, posing for carefully orchestrated pictures with students we’ve never met, spending our days dispelling myths about Niagara Falls being the only place to visit in North America.

With about 25,000 ESL teachers living in South Korea, our lifestyle habits and social trends tend to be both insightful and shameful.

For starters, we’re a pretty cheap bunch of kids. Our salaries rival that of engineers and professional baseball players. But even with this kind of monthly income, we still choose to buy the bottom-rung beer at the convenience store. We still select the student fare when riding the subway. We still fill up on the free (and unlimited) side dishes offered with every traditional Korean meal. Yet we can always be found experiencing the best of Seoul nightlife.

It’s a lifestyle we have grown accustomed to. We aren’t forced to pay for things like coat checks or covers. We don’t have to worry about going hungry at work. Instead, we assume that there will always be at least five students offering up a handful of chips that they have previously manhandled. Or at the very least, some strange chestnut candies which look deceivingly like chocolate-covered almonds.

Things like tipping, waiting in line for the bus and even paying for rent are more foreign than our own working visa status.

I don’t mean to generalize an expat’s spending habits. But as foreign teachers, we tend to be grouped together. Which brings up the next oversimplification of an ESL teacher: we’re faceless. We’re not from South Korea. Therefore, we are all the same.

I’ve been described as having black hair and black eyes. I’ve been told I have a small face. There are repeated comments that I look tired or sick. When I can be bothered to make an effort, my co-teacher is convinced that I have a secret date later that evening. None of these descriptors are accurate.

We accept that our mere presence, our black eyes and small faces, is the reason why we are here. Among expats, we rarely discuss our actual jobs. We can be the most amazing mind-molders or the most complacent of babysitters. But there’s no point in talking about it. Our situations are all too similar.

My classroom is a venue for my current interests or music obsessions, and my students probably hate me for this. I opt to show them skateboarding videos or travel clips in class. If I’m concerned that the lines between YouTube and teaching are becoming too blurred, I’ll grant them a game of Hangman. But I always choose the word jazz. Google told me it’s the hardest word to guess. The fact that I have researched this may communicate that the feelings my students have towards me may be reciprocated.  But that’s not the case. I just like to see 10-year-old kids’ anxiety increase as the stick figure nears lethal suspension.

South Korea can be a country of strained language barriers. This serves as a daily reminder that we are somewhere other than “home.” But it can also be a place void of all those difficult things about home: expensive healthcare, being put on hold with customer service, noxious record store clerks. It’s a perfect combination, which is exactly why it’s a crying shame that South Korea remains off-the-radar as a travel destination. As it stands, I’m convinced that the primary contributor to South Korea’s tourism industry is luggage-toting parents from English-speaking countries visiting their cheapskate, sick-looking kids.

But those parents who do choose to visit, or those with a quick stopover before making their way to other Asian heavy-hitters like Japan or China, will discover an animated country full of contrasts, cafes, and corn-topped pizzas.

It’s a place where it is extremely possible to take part in creative outlets which seem unattainable in another place. It’s a country where you will be easily and quickly rewarded for breaking out of your countercultural circles and befriending Koreans.

It’s a country where, in the end, you can’t help but smile after getting groped on an elevator.


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