After obtaining degrees in English Literature and English Secondary Education, Sean Lords packed up his bags and left to Seoul, South Korea where he lived for three years teaching English abroad. Sean has since returned to the States and is currently at work on his Master’s degree.
You’ve been flying for 16 hours; you’ve watched four terrible Tyler Perry movies, consumed some unpronounceable rice dish and kindly donated your shoulder to a lovely (yet drooling) 70 year old Korean woman. The plane is finally landing on the tarmac and all at once you realize you are nearly 6,000 miles away from everything you’ve called home for the last 20 some odd years. “How did you arrive at this point in your life”, you’re thinking. You had a five year plan, you had grades, and you had big ideas. Then you graduated. Getting a job was not as easy as it looked in the movies and suddenly you’re living in the spare room of your parent’s house. You’re not even given the chance to go back to your old room because it’s been retrofitted with yoga balls and an elliptical machine and is now referred to as the “fitness center”.
My choice to teach overseas came out of necessity. I knew I was better than the 7 dollar an hour job that I was working. Seeing my friends posting all about their new careers, their new kids and their new adventures left me feeling less than stellar and I decided I needed a change in scenery. A drastic change. I got on Craigslist and literally sent an inquiry email to every recruiter I came across. Rural location? No problem. First English speaker to ever live there? No problem. Oh, it’s a reform school for troubled high school boys? Perfect. I was set and nothing was going to hold me back. I was so set on my move that I wasn’t even going to research the city I was moving to (Hupo, South Korea? Sounds fine by me).
So let’s flash forward again. My recruiter picks me up from the airport and we exchange the usual awkward banter. Only this time it’s made more complicated by our language barrier. We spend the next four hours in conversation over a biking trip that he took or about how great Costcos are, I was never quite certain as the conversation took more turns than the road to the small village I was being led to.
When we arrived, I was escorted up a small flight of stairs that was entered from a side door to the town’s only convenience store. My room (a 12 by 12 square with an attached bathroom) was quaint and the landlord was more than excited to show off the heated floors (ondol) that they just had put in. Just as speedily as I was taken to the room, I was left. The door was closed and I stood facing the room’s only window. I remember it was raining outside because as I slowly banged my head against its frosted glass, a little condensation dripped down onto my nose.
My contract at that school lasted a year. It was a year full of breaking up fights, trying exotic foods I would have never had the chance to otherwise, falling two stories off a roof at 3 am because I locked myself out of my apartment, meeting some truly incredible people from all over the world and being given the gift of exposing hundreds of young minds to not only the English language but to our culture, our slang and our cuisine.
At some point in those 12 months my room, with its slightly peeling wall paper, bright pink duvet and shotty internet signal became my new home. My forever-excited Korean co teachers who would leave me strange notes and equally strange tasting snacks became my new family. My students became my friends. I gave them some wildly animated thumbs up (sometimes down) when they would get a new haircut. We’d high-five when they finally were able to pronounce marble, they taught me the insanely intricate dance moves to which the new pop song on the radio and we exchanged tearful hugs when it finally came time for my last day in the classroom.
I ultimately decided that I wasn’t ready to travel back to the United States. My home was now here in this foreign, come not so foreign country. I did some more Craig-listing. This time around I put in a little more research and a little more thought. I ended up in Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world, teaching kindergarten for the next two years. Each day was a new layer, a new meaning and a new way I defined the word home.
Teaching English in Southeast Asia is not the solution for everyone dealing with the economic troubles that beset the United States at the moment. You need thick skin. There was not a moment in my time spent overseas that I wasn’t acutely aware that I was the minority (a sensation I strongly suggest everyone experience). You need an even thicker stomach. But most of all, you need an appetite to experience culture, a culture with eccentricities and shortcomings just like our own. You need an open mind to meeting people from all walks of life with viewpoints that will always challenge and cultivate that of your own.
Want to find out a little more but don’t know where to start? Unlike what I did, I don’t suggest Craigslist. The internet has some truly spectacular resources for those with a piqued interest in the life of an ex-pat English teacher. Dave’s ESL Café is a great place to start. There are several job posting boards and hundreds and hundreds of threads amongst its many discussion boards covering everything from which laundry soap is the best bang for your buck in Thailand to the trickier subjects like negotiating your appropriate tax category with your school.
Do you have any unique stories to share about your overseas teaching ventures? I’d love to hear from you below.