It probably goes without saying that I love to travel. I love being able to slip in and out of cultures, explore new countries, and meet people with life experiences entirely different from my own. I want to hear new languages swirling around me, see how boyfriends and girlfriends interact in public, and find the human traits that are shockingly different, and refreshingly similar. I’ve always found international travel easy for anyone with an open mind and an earnest desire to understand. Working overseas, however, is an entirely different story.
Obviously, there are many differences between Korean and American culture, each with a different degree of subtlety. I don’t find the fact that Koreans bow incredibly shocking or difficult to adjust to, and I can wield chopsticks like I was born with a pair in my hand. These lifestyle changes are so easy to adapt to because they are apparent physical changes that represent long existing cultural views. Confucius thought that using knives was a sign of violence, so chopsticks were used to promote peace and harmony in Asian homes. I can get on board with that. For a Westerner, it does take a bit of practice, but Asian children need practice too, and are started off with a child’s set, just as we learn to ride bikes with training wheels. These physical changes- give and receive items with two hands, tilt your head down when you greet someone, throw your toilet paper away in the trash can and not the toilet- require enough repetition to train your body to do it automatically, but don’t require much thought other than that. It’s the real mental differences between cultures that I struggle with.
Living in Korea has taught me that despite where I am living, and my feelings towards my own nation and culture, I’m an American through and through. The way I relate to other people, try to impress my coworkers, and view education, is so closely related to my cultural upbringing that the two things are almost impossible to separate. The American in me will try to work hard, show that I’m willing to stay late, pull my own weight, and help out coworkers if need be. That mentality didn’t get me very far in Korea. What it did get, was coworkers who would ride my willingness to help, and would ask me to write their exams, read and condense their English stories and even correct a dissertation (yeah, I’m still trying to understand that one). I have since then discovered that this not what any sane Korean would do to try to make a good impression at work, and you should instead bring fruit for everyone to share, or give a gift to your principal so he’ll like you more and all the other teachers will be too scared to dislike you. I can’t say that it’s better or worse, but it’s a huge change in mentality that I’m still struggling to adjust to.
I don’t know if there’s a way to prepare expats for these things, as I’ve become quite aware of the differences between Korean and American culture, and still find it hard to essentially flatter all the right people in order to be well received. I was talking with another NSET (Native Speaking English Teacher) over the weekend, and the topic of our working experiences came up. She has been in Seoul for over a year so she has more insight to the vast differences between how things work at home, and how they work here. To paraphrase, in her experience “Your credentials here don’t matter. What you know, where you learned it and how well you do your job is irrelevant. I could print off lesson plans early and send them to my co-teachers for revision, make a wonderful engaging lesson that my students love, and I could eat every last piece of kimchi in the cafeteria. That’s not what’s important. The fact that I gave my principal a Chicago tourist mug filled with chocolates is what makes them respect me as a teacher.”
While everyone has had different experiences and perhaps this summary is oversimplifying things a bit, by and large, this is how things work in the public Korean schools. You may think ‘Okay, so I’ll just buy gifts instead of working hard, that’s easy enough,’ but not so fast, Sparky. You can take the girl out of America, but (most unfortunately) you can’t take America out of the girl. The way I view work ethic and interaction with my coworkers is still very Western in nature, and I don’t know whether it’s possible to immediately shed these expectations and habits I have in order to work more effectively overseas. Give me some time and a New Hampshire calendar I can gift to my colleagues and I’ll let you know how things are. For the time being, I’ll try to bridge the gap between the East and the West one workday at a time. Hmmm, that actually sounds kind of awesome. Wish me luck!