…until I get to put my arms around my baby sister again!
In my first “Letter from South Korea,” we covered off the basics of who, what, when and why Meaghan Harrison chose to leave Canada and teach English overseas. Now, in Part 2, we can learn a bit more about this experience on a personal level.
You’ve been in South Korea for six months now … what’s been the most challenging aspect so far?
The most challenging is just the day-to-day life. The majority of Koreans don’t know English, so basic things like going out to eat can be made difficult. You have to plan your actions much more carefully. If you walk into a Korean restaurant and do not know how to order something in Korean (in most restaurants there are no menus anyway), then you probably aren’t going to get any food. Although living here can be challenging at times, it really is a learning experience and has made me respect and admire immigrants in Canada much more.
The most rewarding?
The kids! I was going to put them in the most challenging aspect of Korea, but really they have given me the most rewards. When I started school in the beginning of March, the kids knew some broken English and I had to constantly tell them to stop speaking Korean. Now most of the kids do not speak any Korean at school, they can write and they can read sentences. They truly amaze me. Although some days can be so challenging, they can always make me laugh at least once a day! In Korea, it is totally acceptable to be very playful and loving with your kids as a teacher, in fact it is expected. It is so nice to be able to pick them up, hug them and kiss them. I will miss that if I ever teach in Canada.
The most fun?
To be able to work at a job I love and respect. I have never had a job that I truly enjoyed like this. It makes every day fun.
The most bizarre?
I think just being a ‘foreigner’ is the most bizarre. People stare at you no matter where you go. One time I was on the subway and I saw a man taking a picture of me with his cellphone, trying to pretend he was texting. It is a very strange feeling to stand out, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good. I don’t think it is really rude to stare in Korea, so people will literally just sit with their eyes on you non-stop. The younger Korean people are very nice, in my experience; but some of the older Korean people don’t understand why we are here and can make that very clear (sometimes using negative words for white people). Basically being a foriegner anywhere must feel bizarre, this is just my fist experience with it.
You are there with you husband. Do you think you would have made this choice if you were travelling alone?
I know I would have made the same decision if I was alone. I always wanted to travel, this is just one way to do it. Having said that, my husband has made this experience ten times more fun and easy. We always have each other no matter what, which makes living in a new country much easier than it is for most people. Many people come to Asian countries to live and end up feeling very alone and isolated, because I have my husband I can avoid that kind of homesickness. We have been able to share the ups and downs together and I feel so lucky to have him here by my side.
How do you spend your free time?
What we like to do most is have good food and be with good people. When you eat Korean food, it is a very social activity. All the food on the table is to be shared, and it can take many hours to finish. It is definitely my favourite thing to do here.
When you complete this experience, what do you hope you can walk away with?
So many things … I will have a better opportunity to get into good schools for teaching, as many of them see experience as a requirement for acceptance. I will have a better understanding for different cultures, specifically how difficult it is to live in an unknown country. I have also seen a side of my husband I didn’t know existed. How giving and gentle he is with the children, has made me love him even more. A deeper appreciation for Canada and all the space and beauty we have. And finally, I hope to walk away with money in my bank account and to be debt-free!
How does a recent graduate stay hopeful?
The unemployment rate for youth climbed to 14.9 per cent in May, says Stats Can. One in five young adults have moved in with a friend or relative, says Maclean’s. Most are suffering from recession anxiety, says the Calgary Herald.
If you’re graduating soon, recently graduated or a parent of one of the former, I hope you’ll take heart with this “Letter from South Korea” post.
Below, you’ll find Part 1 of my interview with a 24-year-old recent graduate from a Canadian university who has chosen to teach English as a second language in South Korea.
Her name is Meaghan Harrison, and she’s a fiesty young woman who I’ve known since birth. I’ve always admired her beautiful outlook on life. Hand her lemons and she honestly wouldn’t think to do anything else but throw a lemonade party.
What made you decide to leave Canada?
Ever since I was a little girl and saw my big sister (you might know her, she happens to write an interesting blog in Ottawa) travel after university, I knew I wanted to do the same. I thought I might do some back-packing around Europe, but that didn’t really fit well with my economic situation. Teaching overseas is the perfect way to meet both of my goals: travel and pay-off student debt.
Job opportunities are pretty limited in Canada right now. You can take a low-wage entry position (which I did for a while), but this makes it extremely difficult to make rent and pay-off student debt. I actually made more money waitressing, but I wanted to get into something different.
How did you pick South Korea?
As soon as I decided I wanted to do teaching abroad, I started researching on the internet and contacting friends that had done the same thing. I just kept hearing great things about South Korea and I got in touch with a recruiter who really helped me decide that South Korea was the place to do. Some of the other Asian countries are more expensive to live in, and South Korea has a reputation for better contract and employment conditions.
Have you always been interested in teaching?
In some ways, I always have been … but I never thought I would want to be a teacher as a full-time job. I enjoy working with children and I also did some hockey coaching for youth when I was in university. And I can remember, when I was very little, that I used to hold classrooms in my bedroom for my stuffed animals! I even gave out assignments and graded how each one did; I think my stuffed lion animal was my best student!
Now that I am actually teaching full-time, I can definitely see myself doing this when I return to Canada. I really love my job. I teach kindergarten level now and if I end up teaching back in Canada, I would like to teach older children. But this is an excellent way to start – if you can teach six-year-olds to read, write and speak English, then anything is possible!
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!