Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me by leaving a comment, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!
Before I moved across the world to teach in Korea, I was extremely nervous and constantly questioning my decision. “What if I hate it when I get there?”, “What if I get too homesick?”…The “What if’s” were endless. About a month before I left, one of my friends was trying to ease my fears. She said “Even if you go, and it sucks and you’re miserable…It will still be a great life changing experience that you can be proud of doing.”
Here I am 18 months later, and halfway through my second year living abroad in South Korea. It has definitely had its ups and downs. Some of my friends have described it like this, “the highs are really high and the lows are really low” meaning that when things are going well it’s amazing and you never want to leave, and when things get really tough you are logging on skyscanner and checking prices for flights home. Although these moments are rare and tend to pass quickly, they definitely do happen. Obviously, hard times happen in every place, but when you are living abroad your first instinct is to blame it on where you are and to get out. Overall though, living abroad is an amazing experience, and it can definitely make you a better person.
When you’ve lived in the same place for a long time you have a comfort zone for that place. It’s home. It’s familiar. I am the type of person that loves this feeling. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone is very scary, and causes me a lot of stress. It’s also something that I never liked about myself, so I’m always trying to force myself to abandon my comfort zone. Yes, it’s scary, but the feeling I get from overcoming that fear is amazing! This is part of the reason I needed to get away from home and live in a foreign country. Coming to Korea was exciting and shocking. There were so many new things to learn all over again (a language, getting around, shopping, the bank, the post office, etc.) It was all very frustrating and confusing in the beginning. Fast forward 18 months, and now Korea feels familiar when I come back from traveling. I just came back from Taiwan where I couldn’t understand any Chinese. It was relieving to come back to a place where I could read the signs again, and knew where I was going and how to get there. It took a long time to get to this point, but it was worth it because I feel strong and empowered.
I think the most valuable thing I’ve gained though is a new level of cultural sensitivity. With my education background I’ve had many hours of training in this, but coming to Korea (and traveling) has taught me so much more. When I first came to Korea I was bombarded with information on how to act so as not to offend anyone. A lot of it didn’t make sense until I’d been here awhile and figured most of it out for myself. Now I am constantly aware of my body language and words. I’ve learned how to communicate non-verbally in desperate situations, and my understanding of “broken English” and “Konglish” has improved a lot! This experience has helped me a lot when traveling around Asia, and will continue to help me with my daily life and career.
My experience living abroad has also made me a much better cook, expanded my taste palate for different foods, and made me a much less modest person. All my time spent in jimjilbangs (public baths/saunas) with my friends and strangers has made me much more comfortable with my body. Living in Korea has also forced me to make the most of my vacation time. Instead of lounging around the house on days off like I did back in the States, I use the time to travel around Korea and also experience other countries in Asia. I know I will bring this with me wherever I end up in the future.
I didn’t want to just talk about myself for this blog. I could go on forever about how I’ve grown as a person while living abroad. Everyone has a different idea of what makes them a better person. Something that is a good positive experience for me might be terrible for someone else. So, I decided to ask a few friends who have lived in various places what they thought about this topic.
One of my good friends in Dallas, Steve Lovelace, lived in American Samoa and he said, “Living abroad taught me patience. Americans tend to live in a fast-paced, instant gratification culture. Once you’ve lived elsewhere, you learn to slow down and accept that not everything is instantaneous. I was a very impatient teenager, but now people compliment me on my easy-going manner.”
My friend Laura lived in Taiwan for year, and has spent the last 6 months living in Columbia. She said, “It gave me more patience and was a far different reality than simply reading about the difference between the East/West and various countries.”
And finally, Ivan, a fellow teacher and my neighbor in Korea said, “Living abroad has opened my mind and given me a global perspective. It has helped me realize that the world has answers and you just have to go out and get them. Finally, it has dispelled any beliefs that life is in one place and can only be lived there–there’s always another place to explore and learn from.”