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Growing Abroad: Hong Kong & South Korea

Q&A with Julia: Taught English in Hong Kong
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Julia
Taught English in Hong Kong
Her thoughts on Adaptation
If you stay in a place long enough, there comes a point when the culture becomes part of you.
Her thoughts on Personal Growth
It was through all of my experiences in Korea that I truly came into myself and wasn’t afraid anymore to be who I wanted to be. I was free!
Her thoughts on Taking It All In
I formed friendships with teachers from five different continents, learned how to be independent in unfamiliar surroundings and challenged myself to try as many new experiences as possible.

Author Julia Rucinski and her partner Seth write about off the beaten path adventure travel experiences on their blog ForSomethingMore. Based in Hong Kong, but covering the world over, they learn and share about local cultures so that their readers have the information and inspiration they need to craft their own off beaten path travel experiences. Their blog helps travelers avoid tourist traps, access the true essence of a place, and adventure like a local. As minimalists, they both usually travel with only a school bags worth of luggage as well as their desire to take only photos and leave only footprints.

Julia's Backstory

While studying abroad in Australia at age 19, I met a woman who’d been teaching in China. We sat at a Greek restaurant in Cairns and she told stories of getting lost in back alleys, trying unrecognizable food, and being stared at by locals everywhere she went. To me, her life sounded fascinating, and I was instantly sold on the idea of traveling further. I decided right then and there that I would travel to exotic places, live in a fascinating culture different from my own, and observe how kids grow up in other places.

After finishing my BA in Education, I attended a University of Chicago job fair. I interviewed all day long with over ten districts in the area. As I came to the end of an exhausting day, I noticed two desks at the center of the fair. One desk represented EPIK (South Korea), and the other was for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme (Japan). I raced home, pamphlets in hand, and started calculating how I could swing it. I had my student loan estimates on one side of my paper and the salaries and allowances provided by each program on the other.

After a lot of thought, I decided to apply to teach in Japan! I was over the moon. I couldn’t wait to eat what people called “sushi.” (Having lived most of my life in North Dakota, I’d never tried it.) Sadly, an incredible earthquake and tsunami hit Japan a few months before I was scheduled to go, and the school I was accepted to was devastated in the disaster. I began to think that maybe living overseas just wasn’t in the cards for me; but I decided to apply to the EPIK program, just in case they still needed teachers for the upcoming academic year. A month later I found out that I’d be heading to Ulsan, South Korea, at the end of summer!

There were a lot of skeptics when I told friends and family that I was moving abroad to teach. Most people cringed, thinking of North Korea and the war. But I ended up having the time of my life!

While abroad, I formed friendships with teachers from five different continents, learned how to be completely independent in unfamiliar surroundings, without any support system, and challenged myself to try as many new foods, activities, and experiences as possible. I had to navigate a steep language barrier in a Korean hospital when feeling deathly ill from pneumonia. I gave a speech in Korean in front of a room full of Koreans. I belted out 80s and 90s songs at the top of my lungs in front of my principal at an alcohol-fueled staff dinner. I joined the staff volleyball team. I learned how to make kimchi. I formed a dragon boat team. I poured my heart into creating meaningful and engaging lessons for my students. I fostered lasting relationships with my co-teachers. I attended numerous Korean festivals. I discovered a passion for hiking and the outdoors.

I believe all of these experiences gave me the confidence to appreciate who I am and what I can give and teach others. It was through all of my experiences in Korea that I truly came into myself and wasn’t afraid anymore to be who I wanted to be. I was free! Soon after, I fell in love with someone who had as much zest and passion for travel, teaching, and life as I did! Together, we decided to leave South Korea behind and move to the “fragrant bay,” Hong Kong.

After nearly five years of teaching and living in Hong Kong, my husband Seth and I feel like seasoned expats. Seth teaches at a local secondary school through the Hong Kong Education Bureau Native English Teacher (NET) Scheme. You can read Seth’s story here. I used to teach at a local primary school through the same program for two years but for the last three years I have been teaching at an international school.

Local School vs. International School

Teaching at a local school through the NET Scheme rewarded me some really great perks. In most cases, the Native English Teacher (NET) is the only non-Hong-Kong-native working at the school. In some cases, an English Language Teaching Assistant (ELTA) works at the school alongside the NET. This was true for me. I had one other person at the school who could identify with being an expat. Spending most of my school days with colleagues and children from Hong Kong afforded me the opportunity to really immerse myself in a culture different from my own in a more intimate environment. I quickly learned that Hong Kong locals take a while to warm up. However, I also realized that the more interest I showed in the way they do things, the language they speak, the holidays they celebrate, and the school and work traditions they participate in, the more willing they became to open up and engage. Of course, just because I was open to new ideas didn’t mean I agreed with how everything was done. But, having an ELTA by my side was often just the right amount of support I needed to avoid feeling alone in a culture vastly different from my own.

I co-taught eight classes of 30+ children in each class with a Local English Teacher (LET). Most of my students lived in a housing estate near the school and their English ability level was relatively low. The LET helped bridge the language gap between me and my students in desperate situations, but most of the time both the LET and myself spoke in English to the children. The children would make great strides in their English language abilities throughout the course of the year and that made teaching at a local school most rewarding.

Since I’ve started teaching at an international school, I’ve been able to experience Hong Kong in a new way.

I teach 40 students in total, without a co-teacher. Now my students either come from English-speaking homes or have been speaking in English since they were in diapers. I can now often make a deeper connection with the students I teach, because my words and intentions don’t get lost in translation. In terms of supplies and experiences, I can provide a lot for my students now, because money isn’t an issue in the international school community. A few different nationalities are represented in my school community and the culture feels more Western than a local Hong Kong school.

Each experience has its pluses and minuses. Each experience showed me a different face of Hong Kong. Neither is better or worse. Sure, I miss the cultural immersion of my local school, but bask in the meaningful connections I feel with my students at my international school. Both flavors are worth a try!

Are You Ever Coming Home?

This is a question my husband and I often hear from loved ones back home. The truth is, living abroad and teaching abroad have been, and continue to be, just the right amount of adventure. Hong Kong stimulates us culturally and gives us a place to embrace green spaces for hiking and exploring. We have grown into ourselves while living abroad, and going back “home” often feels foreign to us. To put it more simply, Hong Kong has become our home.

There comes a point (if you stay in a place long enough) where the culture becomes part of you.

You start to view local foods (like fish ball noodles, pounded rolled rice noodles with sesame sauce, and crispy, fried fish skin) as staples of your morning breakfast routine. You learn to sprint to catch the arriving MTR train when it’s rush hour because you know a thousand people are right behind you rushing to get on it too. You bring an umbrella with you when the sun is out because you know it’s too hot without it and you don’t want your skin to take in the harmful rays. These are all things people back home would probably find very strange, but they are now a part of me.

Practical Advice

Any teacher could spend their entire career abroad. If you’re hired at an international school, you have a plethora of opportunities for professional development in the latest and greatest teaching practices, as well as opportunities to advance into a leadership role. Sometimes, schools will even contribute towards your masters degree(s). Many teachers make teaching abroad a permanent career move. Some fulfill a few contracts at one school, then decide they want to try a different school model. So, they join a service like Search Associates to help them find something of interest.

If teaching abroad interests you, first think of the type of school or education center you would be interested in working at. I can only offer advice for Hong Kong, but here are some options based on experience and salary.

Tips for Those Who Are Thinking of Teaching in Hong Kong

  • Learning Centers / Kindergartens - These are probably the easiest jobs to get in Hong Kong. Most of the time, teachers are recent grads, backpackers trying to earn some extra money, or people looking for a gap year experience. Sometimes, they provide you shared accommodation with another teacher. Other times, they will pay you enough to find a room to rent.
  • DSS schools (Direct Subsidy Schools) - DSS schools are free to do their own hiring. Some DSS schools are EMS (English Medium of Instruction) schools. They are open to negotiations with regard to salary. Usually, they will not pay for housing which makes working at a DSS school more of a stepping stone if you’re looking to make more money. The NET Scheme - Qualified teachers and people who hold a bachelor’s degree in any subject with a TEFL certification can gain employment in the NET scheme. The contracts require a two-year commitment and, most of the time, a NET teacher will be placed in a local primary or secondary school that is CMS (Chinese Medium of Instruction). Sometimes there are EMS local schools, but there are far fewer of those. NET jobs are more difficult to obtain and therefore are higher paying positions. EFS and International Schools - Although some of the international schools and EFS schools in Hong Kong pay on par with the NET Scheme, the experiences teachers have are much different. Usually, EFS and International schools’ language of instruction is English and they all require teaching degrees. Most teachers even obtain a masters degree to improve their chances of being hired. There are many opportunities for professional development and leadership in these schools. Additionally, once you’ve been hired at one of these schools, your chances of being hired at other international schools further down the road increases.
  • PYP/MYP/IB/ Inquiry schools - Most schools that use the IB (International Baccalaureate) hire teachers who have been trained or have experience at IB schools. It’s very difficult to get your foot in the door unless you have had some experience with this curriculum. If you’re interested in teaching at a school that teaches in this style/ using this curriculum, I suggest getting some preliminary training.
  • Common Core/ British Curriculum - Some schools using the American curriculum (Common Core) or British curriculum are looking for teachers with experience using this curriculum, however, I have found that these schools may be easier to get into without experience in these curriculums as they are more country-specific and it’s more difficult to find a variety of teachers with the same background in curriculum.
  • Making a life for yourself abroad can be done in a variety of ways. Also, you don’t have to be a teacher to find work abroad. Although I personally can’t speak to how people in other professions land jobs abroad, I’ve met many architects, engineers, bartenders, restaurant wait staff, financial sector professionals, interior designers, product purchasers, and translators.

Living and working abroad is an experience that will change you forever. It will open your mind to other ways of doing things and other ways of thinking. It can humble you. I strongly encourage you to get abroad as soon as you can! You won’t regret it!

Advice from MyWorldAbroad
Jean-Marc Hachey, Publisher, MyWorldAbroad

Julia’s story showcases how the determination to go abroad can change the course of your life. Her story demonstrates how dedication, open-mindedness and persistence can help anyone face the challenges associated with pursuing work and travel in a foreign country. Seth and Julia’s story is a motivational one for any aspiring international English teachers, and any couples or young families who wish to travel abroad together. The following articles are recommended for anyone in a similar situation:

Teaching English Abroad: The General Market provides readers with all the basics of teaching English abroad. One of the most popular articles in this section is Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career.

The Traveling Spouse: Why Work? is an important section for any “trailing spouse,” and it deals with how to find work when your significant other is posted abroad.

Special Concerns for Couples and Families see this article for advice related to the more personal side of moving abroad as a couple or family.

Skills and Qualifications for International Educators is an important read for anyone hoping to teach abroad long-term.

Julia's Next Steps
Advice from MyWorldAbroad
by the founder of MyWorldAbroad
Jean-Marc Hachey
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