It started with a poster in the hallway of my university. On it was a young woman, her back facing me. She looked out towards some vast, foreign expanse, sitting on stairs that reminded me of photos I’d seen of the Great Wall of China. The poster said, “this could be your lunch view.”
I noticed the poster in my first year of university, and it stayed there for the whole five years I was on campus, always reminding me of the possibilities that existed beyond the confines of my life. I had always wanted to travel, but I had a degree to finish and a meager bank account balance that barely allowed me to pay my rent. Travel stayed a far-off dream that I thought would never become reality.
Five years later, I was about to finish school and had absolutely zero job prospects. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the Communications and English degree I’d just spent five years working towards. I felt hopelessly lost and simultaneously filled with fear for whatever awaited me after graduation, mostly because I thought whatever it was would taste like failure and disappointment.
The poster was still there, stuck to the bulletin board in the hallway. I went home one afternoon and googled the company in the title of the poster: Oxford Seminars. I learned about TEFLs and was shocked that people actually went abroad and taught English. It sounded like a dream come true. It also sounded impossible and the idea of moving to a new country filled with me unparalleled fear. But it turned out that the idea of staying in Canada and never leaving was scarier. After a few weeks of thinking about it, I signed up for their TEFL program. I knew nothing about the world of ESL, but by the end of the program, I had learned where the highest demand was, how much money I could make, and I had heard first-hand accounts from people who’d done it. The fear was still there, but I felt I was heading towards it with an arsenal of knowledge.
I finished the TEFL with my sights set on South Korea. My TEFL program offered a job placement service which I utilized, but immediately, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things I didn’t know or understand. I reached out on social media for help and was put in contact with a friend of a friend living in Korea, who told me of a job opening up in the city she lived in. By the end of the year, I had signed a contract, had my working visa for Korea, and a one-way flight booked to Seoul. In January, I boarded a flight that changed my whole life.
The process was fraught with anxiety. I was overwhelmed, stressed, and crippled by fear of failure. I pictured scenarios in my head, of me arriving in Korea, finding it awful, and moving back home immediately with my tail between my legs. I thought, “What if I’m a terrible teacher? What if the students hate me? What if I’m bad at everything?”
I prepared myself for failure. I cried six times the day before my flight. But when I landed in Incheon airport, I had the oddest sense of certainty. Looking back, it is more likely that it was the combination of exhaustion and jet lag that had ground down my anxiety and fear. Either way, the biggest surprise of all was that I did not fail. Instead, I flourished.
I stepped into the classroom unsure of myself, but after a few weeks, I found my footing and by the end of the year, I walked out of school a completely different person than I entered it.
What I found in teaching English was the first job I’d ever had that felt important. My students came to school on Monday and handed me their weekend homework and in their words, I could see the difference I was making in their lives. I could see their grasp of English grow, but I was also teaching them about the world, about different cultures and how to interact with them. I watched and listened as their perspectives on the world shifted and grew. Sometimes, I had tears in my eyes as I read their homework. My year in South Korea remains one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I became a teacher, and in turn, became a better person.
There were difficulties, of course. I needed to adapt to South Korean culture. The working hours were long. I went to work at noon, and I often didn’t leave till 8:30 PM. I taught seven classes each day, forty-five minutes each, back-to-back with no break. I caught a stomach bug one night, and spent the morning before work throwing up the contents of my stomach. I knew the concept of sick days didn’t really exist in South Korea. Technically, I think I had one or two in my contract for the whole year. I went into work that afternoon and my boss sent me to the doctor, who gave me a dozen pills (for a minor stomach bug), and went directly back to work, where I sat at my desk and fought off queasiness for the rest of the day.
The work culture of South Korea sometimes meant I felt I worked a lot more than I had agreed to, and sometimes my students were reprimanded in ways I didn’t really like. Particularly difficult was watching my students struggle with the amount of work they had to do between public school and the handful of after-school academies they attended. I tried to assure them that tests in my class were not important and they shouldn’t stress about them. They would often reply, “But teacher, in Korea tests are life!” There were many days when my students came to class and the stress they carried was visible. On those days, I tried to make my classroom a place they wouldn’t feel burdened by.
But even with the difficulties, I left Korea feeling like I had succeeded in what I went there to do. There are a few things that allowed me that success, I think. First, I went into the country with a completely open mind, or at least I tried to. I welcomed discomfort and I knew that only through discomfort would I find the changes I was looking for.
Beyond that was a specific moment that stands out in my memory as my turning point as a teacher and a human. It was during my first month or two of teaching, and I was giving my students a test. I sat at my desk, mostly ignoring them as they worked, looking at my phone, partly annoyed that I had to be at work and mostly, not wanting to be there at all. A job is still a job, after all, no matter where it is in the world.
I had the thought that I should put my phone away, that I was being a bad teacher, so I did. I sat looking at my students, at their heads bent over their papers, their puffer jackets protecting them from the winter cold that seeped into the classroom, and I thought, “Wow, I'm in Korea.”
After putting away the distraction of my phone, I became present in the classroom, in my students’ lives, and in the experience of living abroad. I began interacting with my students more, even as they worked. I thought, “these kids get me for forty-five minutes, five days a week. I owe them the best me I can give them.”
Those kids taught me how to be present. They taught me how to be a teacher. They taught me how to be a better person. Even now, three years after leaving Korea, I look at my year with them and I am awed that I got to experience it at all. Beyond everything, I am grateful. They taught me gratitude.
Teaching English abroad opened up a whole new world for me. It was not long after arriving in South Korea, that I decided I would not be going back to Canada. The world had become so much larger and more accessible than it was. I realized that I could see as much of it as I wanted and that I could live nearly anywhere.
After I left Korea, I went backpacking through Southeast Asia. I had friends who were moving to Vietnam, and I visited them and decided it was a place I could stay. It’s 2020 now, and I have been living in Hanoi for over two years. I have seen parts of the world I’ve only dreamed of seeing. I’ve washed elephants in Thailand, ridden a hot air balloon in Laos. I’ve seen Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the most magnificent sunset of my life in the Philippines. I’ve met people from all over the world and I’ve been humbled and awed by locals. I’ve spoken languages I’d never heard before and I have left my comfort zone so many times that it ceased to exist.
I no longer teach in a classroom. Instead, I spend my evenings teaching kids in China while sitting at my laptop. I spend my mornings writing and working on a budding freelance career. In the months after leaving Korea, I realized that my experience in the world of ESL and living abroad was valuable to people. There was an audience interested in my story and I could use my experience to begin my writing career. I was also introduced to the world of freelance, and to the masses of people who have moved to remote work in order to give themselves the freedom to travel.
On top of all that, I spent a lot of my time pondering how different things could be had I succumbed to the fear I’d felt before I left Canada. People tell me all the time that they wish they could live my life. They message me and ask how to do what I’m doing, and though I tell them, rarely do they take my advice. I understand it because I felt it too. Fear is what stops us: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of leaving our lives behind.
And while I felt all that, it was not my biggest fear. Bigger than all of that, was the image I had in my head, of being a seventy-year-old woman, sitting in a chair, filled with regret because I had not done any of the things I’d wanted to do. I feared to live my life having never faced any of the things I was afraid of.
If there’s one piece of advice I can give you, it’s book the ticket. Put the fear aside, and do the one thing you’re most afraid of. The rest of your life is waiting on the other side.
Sabrina's essay about her time teaching in Korea provides impressive insight into the incredible personal transitions that can happen when you're willing to dive into a new challenge abroad. She writes elegantly about her initial fears and the key moments that connected her to her students and her adopted culture. Since Sabrina is embarking on a career as a digital nomad, freelancing and teaching online, the world is her oyster! We recommend that she takes her laptop to new countries and ventures out for more cross-cultural engagement. She might consider trying Latin America, Africa or Eastern Europe as new and affordable places to explore culture. You can also check out her travel site here. Good luck!
- Work as a Freelance Foreign Correspondent offers an interesting look at the life of a freelance journalist working abroad as a correspondent. Writers, in particular, may find this article interesting!
- What Expats Say: Adaptation, Work and Pragmatism provides a few great tips and insights from pragmatic expats who’ve managed to adapt in creative ways.
- Becoming A Digital Nomad offers a quick look at the digital nomad career path.