Korea Prep: It Still Hasn’t Hit Me


The prospect of actually, physically moving to Korea is still blissfully theoretical to my silly, naïve brain. It’s a fun idea I’ve cooked up as a way to stave off the more horrifying alternative of being a consistently unemployed teacher. It’s a cool, alluring story I tell others to make my life seem interesting. It’s something to keep me busy. I’ve been trying to learn the language, and even that my brain just sees as a cool new thing to acquire, a parlour trick I can pull out at parties. Look at that honky, others will think with wonder, he can write in Hangul! My brain, presented with all this evidence, stands valiantly, resolutely against the very notion.

I have certainly been going through the motions of getting ready: I have been to the Korean Consulate so many times I can now navigate there automatically, and my face no longer displays the nervous only-non-Korean-in-the-room grin that I see displayed on those who are still earlier in the process. I have all of the luggage, and I have spent a good few hours at the bank readying my accounts. I have studied Korean culture, if you can call trolling the internet for blogs from other teachers to be real, legitimate research. I have not yet tried to find a squat toilet to practice in, but I just might.

In our orientation book, a previous teacher remarks in her essay that we are surely swimming in our own ideas of games and projects and lessons! Aren’t we excited young educators ready to embark? When I read this, my eyes widened, and I began to get nervous. I’m an over-planner by nature, but on the education front, I have done very little. I have no lessons, or any games, or any projects. I don’t even know what grade I’m going to teach, or what level the students will be at.

I comfort myself: this was the same in teacher’s college. I entered OISE feeling insanely unprepared: many of the other teacher’s candidates appeared like erudite and capable young pedagogues, and my paltry volunteer hours seemed pathetic and immature by comparison. And then I entered a room full of four year-olds and things clicked, and the ideas spiralled out. If I think of it like school, rather than work, I have nothing to worry about: I’ll show up, my brain will get it in the magical way it usually does when approaching a new topic, and I will be fine. And then I will open up the orientation book and laugh, metaphorically, in the face of whomever wrote that essay as though they care.

The education system, if anything, gives me little concern. There will be more students, sure: I lucked out over the last year, and the largest class I had was about 22 kids (even my 5/6 class was a leisurely 18 children, most of whom had rich parents who would remove them for exciting, exotic vacations), and I should expect 25-40 kids per class in Korea. And indeed, English will be a second, and difficult, language for all of them—and yet, I’m no stranger to English Language Learners, and that all of the students will share the same home language is a boon. They’re all going to have the same phonetic pool to draw from, and the same grammar hoops to leap through. In the Kindergarten class I worked in, there was Bengali, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Spanish,  and Portuguese as home languages, and that was just the morning.

Really, my job title might as well be Dancing Language Monkey, and I spent much of the last year being dancing monkey in one way or another. Much of primary education inherently entails being an entertainer, and my teaching style just requires me to be an entertaining goof, so I still turn on the works even with older students. Math time? Become probability and measurement monkey. Art time? Run around the class spattered in paint and papier-mache paste. English? Read text, become entertaining children’s book narrator, go to town.  As long as I can keep kids’ eyes on me, and apparently this will not be difficult in Korea, I can almost certainly jam some English into their noggins. My philosophy has always been to trick children into learning.


My concerns mostly drift towards basic life management: I can, just barely, read the language, and thus will maybe be able to find things on a map (slowly, laboriously). But while I can “read” Korean, I can’t actually understand it—I stutteringly produce the Korean phonemes into morphemic syllable units, and these units make entirely little sense. How will I turn on my washing machine? How will I manage in a department store? How in the hell will I buy some food?

I worry less about culture. The internet abounds with dozens of accounts of things I’ll have to deal with, so I’m building up my defences now. I can picture fairly clearly what things will raise my ire most, and they usually surround school culture, and the need to cow myself to authority figures and whatever their latest whims might be. But elsewhere, the cultural aspects bloggers have presented seem paltry, or at times even ridiculous. As a Canadian, I am very used to taking off my shoes inside of someone’s house—that I will extend this practice to a place of work and wear comfortable sandals all day (though in a deadly sock & sandal combo) seems just a natural, utterly benevolent evolution of a practice to which I am already accustomed. Table manners? Apparently people will slurp and burp more often, and I need to not shovel food down so as to outpace the head of the table, but I’ll probably be so unskilled with metallic chopsticks that I have little worry. And bowing, which some sites present like the great apex of culture shock beyond which few can surpass, seems little more than an extension of quirky handshake norms.

Really, though, my only main concern is not turning into some sort of language hermit: building up my oasis of homey-feeling and delightful all-English environment and then never leaving it except for work and groceries. I signed up to head down this rabbit hole, and I’d better be willing to go all the way and drink the shrinking potion and attend the crazy tea party (first lesson for the Korean children: how metaphors can get away from you).

But why should I worry at all? It’s not like I’m really going to Korea! That Visa in my passport and the looming suitcases are just cute little flourishes I’ve acquired to embellish the story.



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