This past week marked my third full month living in South Korea, and nearly-third full month of teaching middle and high school ESL. Up until now, pretty much all of my blogging efforts have gone toward recounting the many wonderful, new and exciting things that I’ve seen and done. I’ve hiked some killer mountains and stood in awe of glorious views. I’ve biked to the beach and back, soaking up the sun in the Korean countryside. I’ve been to several festivals, gone zip lining and am fortunate to have positive relationships with coworkers, expats and a handful of Koreans outside of school. And yet, despite all of this, lately I’ve felt like I would happily give it all up in exchange for a plane ticket home.
True to the trend depicted on this culture shock chart, the honeymoon phase is over and the magic has worn off, leaving me in a state of full-blown homesickness and disenchantment. Going to the grocery store used to be an adventure; an exhilarating quest that resulted in me boldly buying something off the shelf purely because the picture looked yummy. Now it’s more of a hassle; a frustrating and time-consuming endeavor that results in me purchasing anything even remotely recognizable, or nothing at all. The language barrier, which started out as a challenge I was ready to face head on, has become more of a hindrance; an obstacle that impedes even the most basic tasks, like paying bills and getting a haircut. And then there’s the food. For the first month or so, I was very good about eating at least a little bit of kimchi with every school meal and giving everything on my tray a try. Most recently, though, I usually just move the kimchi around to make it look like I’ve touched it and I pass on the seafood dishes. I have officially entered the preliminary low of culture shock.
Compounding these pangs of homesickness and cultural aversion is yet another downswing on a different emotional roller coaster: teaching for the first time. All through my TEFL certification and EPIK orientation, I naively believed I was fully prepared to handle this job despite my lack of experience. Then, after the first week or so, it finally hit me: I have no clue what I’m doing. I fell into survival mode and ever since then have been throwing anything at the wall in the hopes that it will stick. Most mornings I fight negative thoughts of self-doubt and anxiety as I drag my feet to school. I sit at my desk trying to plan a lesson and sometimes an hour or more goes by with no result because I’m paralyzed by my own skepticism and insecurity. And at the end of the day, I go home wondering if even a handful of students benefitted from my presence.
It’s a double whammy. A perfect storm. An uphill battle against two enemies that have combined forces. As much as I could be, I was prepared ahead of time to deal with culture shock and the challenges of being a new teacher. But I never really considered the fact that I would be fighting both beasts simultaneously. It’s an overwhelming feeling, and for awhile now it has followed me around like a second shadow that I can’t shake.
This is not a rant about why Korea sucks or how teaching ESL abroad with no experience is a bad idea. Or at least, I don’t mean it to be. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I have many good things to say about both topics. I just wanted to acknowledge the other side to the reality of living in a foreign country and the learning curve that every new teacher rides during their first year. I wouldn’t be giving you an honest or accurate picture of my experience if I didn’t. Culture shock is no joke, and neither is homesickness or the battle to find your way in the classroom.
Having said all of this, I promise to not let these struggles permanently turn me into one of those cynical, unappreciative expats who never has anything good to say about their time abroad. No one likes a whiner. But for right now, at this moment in time, I wanted to be real and admit where I am.
I have faith that things will get better. And, intellectually, I know that nothing in life is forever. It would just be nice if my heart and soul got the message too. Until they do, I’ll keep rolling with the punches of The Double Whammy.