▲ English teacher Darren Southcott instructs several students at Shinseong Girls High School. Southcott feels that “doing as the Romans do” is the way to survive and thrive in a foreign culture. Photo courtesy Darren Southcott
When I think back on my time in Korea and Jeju I am amazed at how fast it has gone by. Maybe that is me getting older, but I'm sure it's also because of how much I have enjoyed living here and how busy I've been “doing as the Romans do!”
For those who are willing to sit back and let the year, or two, fly by it is more than understandable. Realistically, many see teaching English in a foreign country as a paid adventure to experience the world, and in many ways it is. However, with just a little bit of endeavor teachers can leave Korea with much more than just 12 months of TESL on their resume.
When I arrived here I was bewildered and quickly had to adjust to life without the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. I was once called lazy by a Korean teacher as I had the cheek to sleep 6 hours before the morning alarm, which just happened to be a Gareth Gates album, on loop, for 12 months! Realizing that things valued at home, such as a full night’s sleep, weren’t as high on the agenda was just part of the learning curve.
Another of the initial adjustments was learning to be “on call” for last minute nights out with teachers, at which I would be expected to drink and sing and eat various creatures, some less alive than others. I said from the moment I came to Korea, I would “do as the Romans do,” but I still found it taxing.
These may seem like minor details over two years on Jeju, but it is intriguing how a foreigner’s attitude towards the little things can often be a microcosm of their attitude to Jeju life as a whole. I’m always fascinated by how some teachers love Jeju to bits, while others find it hard to adapt to life in Korea. It often comes down to how we respond to the little things.
As some teachers come to the end of their contracts and others are thinking about renewing theirs, it is worth looking at what Jeju can offer you. When bothered by the little things, it is always worth grounding yourself and reflecting on the fact that things aren't as they are at home, and neither should they be. With this attitude inconveniences become learning curves and moments of frustration can become challenges. An open attitude to the little things will help open doors to the bigger ones.
After meeting a Korean friend one day for what I was told was lunch, I was bundled into the back of a car for an hour drive, before being dumped in an abandoned school on the southeast corner of the island. Two foreign friends and I were calmly informed of our partaking in a yeo-jang contest, which is cross-dressing to you and me. A bonfire was lit in the school grounds and a portable noraebang was hauled from a car. Before we knew it we were walking a moonlit cat walk in mini-skirts and eye-liner to Cass-fueled wolf whistles. I could have felt exploited, but I was sure I was doing what the Romans do.
Okay, so parading as a woman in a cross-dressing contest isn't exactly something to tell the interviewer back home, but I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was exposing myself, some might say a little too much, to a foreign culture. I tried to leave behind my English inhibitions and have some fun the Jeju way. It was never going to get me a promotion or a pay rise, but its benefits were arguably further reaching than that.
I believe that by having an openness to the little inconveniences which come with living in a foreign culture, we can learn to take the bigger ones in our stride. I see all the great opportunities that opened up in my second year on Jeju as a result of how I responded to the little challenges in my first.
Jeju is lucky in that it has a great number of teachers who are open and willing to learn from Korean life, as well as giving so much back. I would like all teachers to take a similar attitude, as having an open mind to the little things smoothes the ride over the bigger ones.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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