Recently I have been getting dozens of messages from people living on all corners of the world (well actually, the 7 english speaking countries) trying to get advice on not only teaching abroad, but moving abroad in general. People who have never lived abroad, or alone before understandably have a lot of concerns. I didn’t allow myself to be concerned because I knew worry would end up consuming me. That kind of backfired on me, because now I realize its exceptionally beneficial to think deeply about what living in a non-english speaking country really MEANS.
I studied abroad in Korea, and had traveled solo to 19 countries before I graduated and moved to Korea to teach. I thought I was going to be immune to culture shock and loneliness and homesickness. Well, if I was immune, stress freaking evolved and became resistant to my immunity. Ooooph, it was a hard first few months.I will describe my experience throughout this little FASRQ (Frequently Asked stress-related questions)
1: Since I don’t speak Korean/Chinese/Cantonese/Japanese/Thai, will it be hard for me?
Okay, so I don’t recommend moving to a country without at least knowing basic things. I came to Korea with an intermediate level of conversational Korean, so I did very well, as I could read all the signs and could ask questions, order food, and have basic conversations; enough to get my point across. But I had friends at orientation that couldn’t tell a Chinese character from a Korean one, and I know some of them had a very difficult time. Especially on buses in rural towns. While its not absolutely necessary to speak the language, I think it makes you more comfortable and willing to step out of your comfort zone because you can go into a small cafe and order a drink from their only-native-language menu. Also, I think it help with lonliness if you can at least have some human interaction daily. Also, if you are going into teaching, learning some of the language is SOOOOO helpful in the classroom, because most students are not perfect at english and they ask questions in Korean and being able to understand them makes your job easier. So I 10/10 recommend studying the language of the country you’re moving to. When I visited Japan I was so frustrated that I couldn’t read anything or understand anything, and I can’t imagine how much more frustrated I’d be if I LIVED there and couldn’t escape my own ignorance. If nothing else, learn: Hello, goodbye, thank you, how much is this, where is the ____, and any other words you know you’d use a lot. For instance, the word for vegetarian (if you are one) and the name of the food you’re allergic to (so you can tell them not to add that thing). SO HELPFUL.
2. I have never lived alone/away from home before. whats the transition like?
This one, I can give my own personal take on as I was the same way. Lived with my dad until I was 22 and went straight from complete shelter and comfort to being on my own, all alone, in another continent. The first month was easy, because your mind is too busy with settling in. Thinking about getting groceries, home decor, getting things set up in terms of internet/phone/etc. But once the chaos of trying to make your apartment a home calms down, your mind is much more free to wander. And sometimes not in the best directions. If you live in a big city, you’re going to be exploring often and you will probably have a lot of foreigners around you can talk to which is great and you’ll be able to vent if needed. Its all about how you spend your time and who you spend your time with. For people living in a small town, how you spend your time still applies. You can travel every weekend to see your friends which alleviates the loneliness. Use your time wisely. Make your apartment cute, go grocery shopping and buy weird produce, go to the gym, take walks, and dont forget to socialize; you’ll need it. Talk to your friends and family back home often and really pick up your hobby. The transition is kind of nonexistent because you literally go from being sheltered to being on you’re own in one days time. So go in with enthusiasm and you’ll be fine the first month!
3. What is culture shock like?
Oh culture shock. What a lovely little surprise that is! For me, as I said, I thought I was immune, and I didn’t even get it until roughly 2 months in. When it hit, it hit HARD. Stronger than the typhoon in Ulsan I swear to you. Culture shock isn’t what it sounds like really, which is why I seriously thought I wouldn’t get it. I thought it literally meant ‘being shocked by a culture difference’ because if that was the case then i would have been fine as I adapt very easily to change and adopt the customs required of me. But culture shock is not that; its the feeling of being so alone, and so helpless. You cant do anything by yourself, you always need a translator or help and its so frustrating for people who are used to being independent or who want to get things done on their own time. There are stages of culture shock that are seriously accurate. The most common are: depression, helplessness, and anger. These are three things I never or rarely encountered growing up, but they all hit me hard. Like for instance, I was so sad all the time. Back home, I’d hike so often because I could leave my feelings at the bottom of the trail, and come back down and those negative feelings would be long gone. But it didn’t work here. I’d be reunited with the negativity immediately upon finishing my hike. There was no escaping it. I’m not telling you this to scare you, I just want you to know that its possible culture shock may do this to you and during these times you have to talk to people and spend as much time with people. I swear it helps. I wish I could put into words how I felt, but its hard to express; like I felt foggy, and I became scared to think too much, and then I became scared of the dark because that was a synonym for alone. But the number one thing that pulled me out of that was FRIENDS. I can not stress this enough, hang out with people, talk to people, it is the only cure. I can confirm!
Next comes anger. My friend was telling me her experience with culture shock and she had the same stages as me, which even more deeply engraved the culture shock stage evidence. You start to get so mad at everything. Like the way pedestrians don’t have the right of way, that the food you want is unavailable or too expensive, that you had to use a squatty potty far too many times and also no soap and toilet paper in said toilet. The communication at your school is non existent and that becomes more and more frustration. You cant transfer money back home because of the language barrier and now you’re upset. You didn’t like the school lunch and now you want to scream. A bird looked at you wrong and now you’re more livid than you were when Trump won the presidency. This, THANK GOD, is only temporary, and also its the last step!!!! Once you stop being mad comes the best part, acceptance! You’re going to go through a few days without feeling an ounce of negativity and you’ll be like “oh my god. I haven’t been mad at an animal for like 3 days. Everything is going to be fine. By this point you’ll probably be more than half way done with your contract and you’ll realize how fast time went and the last bit becomes more exciting!
3: I’ve never taught before and I’m nervous, is teaching hard?
I wouldn’t say its hard, per-say, but it is challenging depending on how many lessons you have to prepare a week. It can get overwhelming, especially in the beginning. I was creating 6 lessons a week for a while and I was so stressed! But its fine, you’re fine. Do what your coteachers want you to do, and its fine.Even if your lesson blows and your kids were bored, its not a big deal, they’ll still love you and now you know next week can only get better.
4: I have a specific diet, will I be okay?
As mentioned prior to this, if you have an allergy or diet learn the language to express that at restaurants. My friend has celiac in Korea and she has been doing good, she just had to learn the words for the foods she cant eat. I’m vegan and have been able to customize food to make it animal cruelty free. My friend is allergic to fish, IN KOREA, but he has survived by being able to ask if there is any fish or shellfish in dishes, and avoiding the ones that are for sure unsafe. So its doable, but if you are seriously allergic, bring an epipen.
5: I’m broke and have student loans. What if I run out of money?
If you’re teaching that will not happen. On average, people save about $1000 a month. I have been able to save abouT $1400 a month, so you will really be fine and good luck with your loans!!
6: how is the health care and dental care?
Great!! If you need a checkup, learn the word or have someone write the word to show to the doctor or dentist and you’ll get your stuff done without any hassle. If you’re actually sick, most doctors speak some english or are fluent, so just talk to them or point to where you’re hurting. They get that you’re foreign and wont know the language.
7: what if I am really unhappy with my placement? *teaching question only*
If you are truly unhappy, know that you DO NOT HAVE TO STAY. If you honestly feel that your health, mental or physical, is declining, you can go back home. Don’t compromise your health because you feel like you have something to prove. You don’t. You are the most important person in your life and its not worth a declining mental state. However if you’re just annoyed at certain aspects, but your mental and physical health is unaffected, I’d say stick it out and continue doing fun things because you’re getting paid so much! Its only a year, unless you want to stay, so you got this!!
As you can see, I went through every phase, and every fear. But here I am at 7 months in, and I feel great. I recently got complimented for being able to capture the attention of even the most unmotivated classes. So I swear it gets better. Maybe you’ll have a perfect and happy year, or maybe you’ll go through culture shock. But whatever your individual case, you will make it and you’re in for one incredible year.
ENJOY THE NOMADIC LIFE.