Monday, August 23, 2010

Week 1: The Decision to Teach Abroad

Seoul, South Korea. Photo courtesy of Topic Photo Agency/Getty Images

"SO," they say, wiggling in their seats to get more comfortable, "what will you do if North Korea invades?"

Second most popular question, I swear. After, Why teach English in South Korea? 

I'll answer the most common wondering first, as it really is two questions that need to be split up. The first part of it is, why do you want to teach abroad? The second part is, why in South Korea in particular? The answer's well thought-out; it was brought up many times in the interviews, after all.

It was at a lunch table back in college, dominated by education majors, when I first discovered the Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL). I really owe it to that girl who brought it up. Within six classes, I would have a crash course on how to teach English, the crazy, non-nonsensical language that's borrowed rules and words from all over the place. I would also have experience in the classroom; the minor culminated in a teaching practicum. I was immediately drawn to the program, as are many others who experience the Traveling Bug.

Have you ever had that one teacher who really, truly, inspired you? Who challenged you to think about something differently, or who made you feel that with hard work, you could be the next president? Of course you have. Have you ever had that one teacher who put you down, dismissed you as a failure, and you were surprised how much it hurt? Yep, that kind is out there, too. The point is, teachers are in the greatest position of power. The influence they have over people is incredible. They are the nurturers of confidence, the builders of tomorrow's leaders. My fourth grade teacher was the one who noticed my imagination and love of writing. She bought me a personal journal to write my stories in. The gesture was touching, the impact resounded over decades. I'm still writing today, with that childlike delight in creation and sharing my stories with others. But who writers are is another discussion. Back to Korea. Ahem.

After all the teachers that have inspired me, I would be greatly honored to do the same for next generation's kids. And yes, they happen to be in South Korea. I am jealous, wildly jealous of children who grow up bilingual, or trilingual. That is such a unique gift to have, and they will definitely use it to help them succeed. There's something magical about learning other languages that you don't appreciate until you're older- well, in my case, at least. Learning French in high school, I ignored it and focused on using it as little as possible. Only a few years later in college, I was lamenting the fact as I eagerly took a French review course. Now I'm teaching myself Korean- a process that deserves a whole post to itself. Research shows time and time again that childhood is the best time to learn different languages. Children pick it up the fastest, absorbing the crisscrossing layers at an unprecedented rate, while adults furrow their brows and fret about grammar rules.

So that answers the first question. On to the second: why South Korea? There are the practical reasons, of course, which is a new one for me. I'm usually a whirlwind of passion and emotion that gives little thought to sensibility. However, South Korea, which is rapidly blooming in technology, and takes great pride in its educational system, has opened itself up to foreign English teachers, seeking to boost itself up the ladder of Asian countries who speak the "language of business." They hire many foreign English teachers, pay a very generous salary, and most schools reimburse airfare, as well as arrange and pay for housing rent. Damn. Okay, I'm on board. But what of the people themselves?

I find myself drawn to South Korea because I do admire them; they have been through many tragic years of occupation, not to mention the current plight with North Korea (the two countries are technically still at war). When the Demilitarized Zone was drawn up after World War II, (the Soviets occupied the North, and the US, the South) many Korean families would be split apart. Some of them didn't see each other again until the late 90s, when visits were finally arranged. There have been Japanese occupations during the world war times and military occupations.

During one of my job interviews, I spoke of how horrible the military government of the 1960s must have been to South Korea; the Korean interviewer responded that she had supported that occupation! Goes to show that a foreigner should wisely keep their mouth shut about matters they don't understand; in my mind, military government = nasty. The main thing is, these are a people who have been through much, seen too much, and I greatly admire their spirit to persevere. I am interested in the North-South conflict. As I write this, things are heating up with who will succeed Kim Jong-il as dictator? of the North, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is proposing a reunification tax, which could be seen as a hostile gesture by the North. Many people in the South want reunification, but they don't want to pay for it. Much of the North is starving, and what their economy is seems to be the equivalent of a black hole that will consume them, if China ever steps away. This will be no East Germany, West Germany reunification, that is for sure.

But let's talk of brighter things now, and leave the newspaper horror stories behind us. Let's talk of the ski area that will be right near the city of Namyangju, where I will be teaching. Let's talk about the annual Lotus Lantern Festival, a beautiful celebration with light-up floats and parades in honor of Buddha. Let's talk about the lovely islands off the coast in the south, the monastery ruins in the wilderness, and the intriguing tae-kwon-do martial art forms- might I take a class? And of course, how can I forget the food, the proud staple of any country. Soups and kimchi, teas and seafood; they don't have Korean BBQ places popping up all over the USA for nothing. In short, Korea, although a small country, has more than enough to keep me running for a year. I cherish challenges. I live for them. Teaching English there will be an honor. And to all my family and friends, please take advantage of my position; come visit!!! 

Oh yeah, there was that other question: What will you do if North Korea invades? Well, my list includes run and hide underground... feel free to offer other suggestions.  

Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact. 

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