When and where did you teach abroad? Did you go with a program?
I am currently teaching English in South Korea. I teach in a city called Pyeongtaek – about 45 minutes south of Seoul by train. My contract is one calendar year long.
The program that I am teaching with is called GEPIK: Gyeonggi English Program in Korea. Gyeonggi is the name of the province that I live in; it’s the most populous province in South Korea and it surrounds the capital city of Seoul. GEPIK has been outstanding to work with so far, and they provide their teachers with great benefits (rent and flight reimbursements, health insurance, year-end bonuses, etc.).
I got lucky during my application process. When I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I realized that my school had an affiliate program with GEPIK, so I was able to apply directly through my school and they set everything up for me. If you aren’t so lucky to have a special “lead” like I did, don’t worry! The online application process for GEPIK is very straightforward.
What made you want to teach English abroad?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be a traveler. I grew up in Arizona and traveled all over the US for family gatherings, hockey tournaments, road trips and vacations throughout my childhood. In college, I traveled overseas for the first time in Israel with a program called Birthright. It was an awesome time in my life. I learned a lot about the history of Jewish culture, and some of the closest friends I have today are people that I met in that program.
But what really kicked off my travel addiction was studying abroad. During one spring semester, I studied abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. It was the single best experience of my entire life. Studying abroad in Prague was the first time I had really been immersed in a truly foreign culture. I didn’t even know it was possible to have that much fun exploring Europe. After my program ended, I went on a month-long backpacking trip, starting in Dubai and ending in Switzerland. By the time I returned home to the US, I’d visited over 20 new countries and I could sense that the travel bug was just getting started!
To date, I’ve been to 40 countries and 44 US states. And now, I’m looking forward to traveling all over Asia during the next 12 months!
What is the biggest surprise about your teaching experience abroad?
The biggest surprise about my teaching experience so far is getting used to Korean lifestyle. Not necessarily the language, but rather the way in which Koreans live their day-to-day lives. Things are completely different than what I am used to at home. Here are some specific examples of what my life now includes:
- Trying to improve my chopstick skills…I have rarely seen a fork since arriving.
- Bowing every time I greet someone.
- Getting stared from in every direction because of my red hair.
- Taking off my shoes every time I enter a home, my school or other places meriting respect.
- Getting used to alternative garbage disposal methods!
- Getting asked to get my picture taken because I am a foreigner.
I could go on, but these are just some of the major things that stand out on daily basis. Having been here now for less than two months, I feel like I am adjusting well to the culture, because I’m prepared for anything unusual that comes my way.
How did you finance your trip abroad, and did you find any creative solutions to stay on a budget?
I get paid on salary through my program, GEPIK. As I mentioned above, GEPIK gives some awesome perks to their English teachers. They cover my monthly rent, pay for my flights both ways and provide me with health insurance. Despite all of these benefits, I still need to budget myself. Here is a breakdown of how I do it:
I get paid on the 17th of every month. The second I get my paycheck, I put a quarter of that money into a separate account – my “travel fund.” I use this money for all flights and travel expenses for future trips. I also put another quarter of the money into a savings account that will remain untouched during this year. The other half of my paycheck goes to daily expenses and activities such as food, public transportation, partying, concerts, shopping, etc. During the week, I hardly spend any money. It is on my weekend trips to Seoul that I spend the majority of my cash. So far, my budget is working out perfectly!
Is there anything from your workplace that gives you particular insight into your host culture?
Yes, there are literally thousands of things from my workplace that give me insight into Korean culture. I will share with you my favorite, and that is the school lunches.
Everyday at 12:30, I eat lunch with the students. The different foods served at lunch are a highlight. Every lunch consists of rice, kimchi (spicy Korean cabbage), some kind of locally grown vegetables, and a variety of meats (usually one or more of: beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, octopus, duck and sausage). Korean food is absolutely incredible and I haven’t really had a bad meal yet. With that being said, I consider myself a very adventurous eater, but even I have been put to the test during school lunches when they served duck feet and octopus soup. I was a little intimidated at first, but I got over it and I ate the meal alongside everyone else. And it wasn’t all that bad!
The most challenging thing about school lunches is the fact that no one drinks a beverage with the meal. Given that Korean food is almost always spicy, I sometimes choke on my food and there is never any water to wash it down! It was really hard for me to get used to this at first, but now I am slowly coming around and I have trained my body to drink after the meal is finished. In the end, you live and you learn and now I am used to it.
How did you deal with cultural divide during your time teaching abroad?
This is an interesting question for me because Korean culture is based very much on systems of hierarchy, meaning that society is marked by social status. When two Koreans meet each other for the first time, they subconsciously (or willingly) determine who has a higher status. It is always men before women and the old before the young. Therefore, the oldest Korean men (like my school principal) are treated with the upmost respect by all others.
How does this affect me? Well, I am at the complete bottom of the hierarchy chain because I am a foreigner. My opinions at school aren’t considered relevant, and I am always to do what I am told. For example: There are frequently schedule changes during the week and my co-teachers inform me five minutes before the class starts. They will say something like, “Sorry, but this class is changed to tomorrow morning at 7am, and this other class is cancelled this week.”
The good news is that I am flexible and I am quickly adapting to the culture. I am making adjustments when necessary and I am always aware that I really don’t have any power. It really isn’t as horrible as it sounds. It is just how Korean society functions, and I am along for the ride!
What is the number one tip for anyone following your footsteps?
The number one tip that I can give to anyone that is going to teach abroad is to familiarize yourself with the culture. Specifically, learn about the history of that country and start studying the language PRIOR to your arrival. I did both of these things and I cannot tell you how much they’ve contributed to my experience so far in Korea.
How did I familiarize myself with the culture before arriving? I read articles on Wikipedia, watched YouTube videos, read books and talked to my friends who had already taught English in Korea. I read a book called The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture in Korea, where I learned a lot about how Koreans live their lives. The book also tied in the history of Korea and the Korean War. It’s very important to have basic knowledge about these things, especially right now when tensions are high between North and South Korea.
Learning the language has led me to a more comfortable experience. I am not saying that you should be fluent before you arrive, but at least know how to read, write and learn some useful phrases. I went above and beyond and I started studying Korean about a year in advance. By the time I landed in Korea, I was already able to understand many things around me and hold a basic conversation with people. Since arriving, I have drastically improved my learning ability and it feels great to know what’s happening around me.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
My future plans are to finish my contract in Korea and keep on traveling. I am only 22 years old, with no major responsibilities or relationships tying me down. Whether that means staying another year in Korea, or adventuring out to a new part of the world, I know that I want to keep living abroad. The world is out there for me to explore and this is no better time to do that than right now.
As for my career, I plan to have my own start-up business. My undergraduate studies focused on economics and entrepreneurship, so I learned a lot about what it takes to start a business. I have never been the type to work a corporate job, where I sit all day long at a cubicle and I am being told what to do by someone of higher status. I learned this about myself through various summer internships that I had at large corporations in the past few years. And I know that I have the passion, drive and motivation to succeed on my own.
What kind of company do I want to start? Well, I would like to follow my passion, and do something that relates to the travel industry. Perhaps a travel social networking Web site/app or something that can be useful for all young travelers. For now, I am working hard to build my travel blog and connect with as many like-minded travelers as possible. I am confident that this will lead me in the right direction. The opportunities are endless, and that is why I am so excited about my future!
Since writing this contribution, Drew has gone on to become a popular travel vlogger and blogger visiting almost 200 countries and sharing his thoughts and experiences along the way! Check out his YouTube channel here. For those hoping to follow in his footsteps after your first experience abroad, check out these articles.
- Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career will give ideas on how to parlay your English teaching experience into further international opportunities.
- Marketing Your International Experience to Employers is a great article for those returning from a cross-cultural experience abroad.