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teaching in Korea

Asia teaching-abroad travel

4 Things I Didn’t Know Before Moving To Korea

10/05/2020

1) Spitting is something that I witnessed every day while living in Korea. Spitting is not something that you think about before moving to another country, and in the grand scheme of things, let’s be honest, this is not a big deal. However, it can gross you out if it’s not something that you’re accustomed to. While I did my best to respect cultural differences while living in Korea, this was something that I kind of got used to, but never enjoyed. Every time I stepped outside of my apartment back into the real world, the sidewalks were littered with spit, and there would be numerous people hacking stuff up as I walked by. Early on, I’d try to avoid stepping in it, as there were variations of colors and thickness, but eventually gave up on that. What really grossed me out, was that the spit would freeze on the side walks during winter!

2) Crossing your legs in front of older people, or your superiors can be seen as rude in Korea. I didn’t learn about this until well into my time there, and I’m not sure as to why this is considered rude. I’ve heard stories of friends who witnessed older people getting upset at younger people who were sitting across from them on the subway, with crossed legs.

3) Having your hands inside of your pockets in front of older people/superiors can also be seen as rude. This is quite different to American culture, and we don’t think twice about doing it. However, doing this in formal situations, in front of elders, superiors, etc. can come off as having bad manners, and disrespectful.

4) The last cultural difference that I want to mention has to do with food! When having a meal with those who are older than you, or your superiors, it is rude to start eating before they do. Once they begin to eat, then everyone else may start eating. Unless he or she gives the okay to eat before they do. It’s polite to wait until they start eating. There is a high regard for elders and superiors, so this is just another way to be respectful while in their presence. I’ve witnessed this first hand on many occasions during staff dinners. There was even an order to where people sat. Those higher up on the hierarchy scale, like the principle, vice principle, etc., all sat at one table. I never sat at the principles table unless he invited me.

Although I did as much research as I could before going to Korea, nothing trumps going somewhere and experiencing it for yourself. There were other things that I was unaware of before moving, but these were some lesser known things. As a foreigner, Koreans did not expect me to know all of their cultural customs, however, once I became aware of various customs, I did my best to follow them.

Below is a video I did a few years ago on the spitting in Korea, because it really did bother me that much ya’ll!

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Schools Linked to a Murder

09/21/2020

During my time in Korea I worked at two middle schools. For the first year and a half I taught at an all boys’ middle school, and for my last year, an all girls’ middle school in the area was added. Monday-Wednesday I was at the girls’ school, and Thursday-Friday I was at the boys’ school.

I was having lunch in the teacher’s dining area one day with my co-teachers. What often happens to foreign teachers is that when having a meal with your co-teachers, they’ll speak to each other in Korean, and you’ll just kind of sit there in your own little world, (unless you know Korean of course). In the midst of their discussion, the eldest co-teachers asks me if I understood what they were talking about, which of course I did not. She then proceeds to tell me a story of how in the 90’s there was a man who kidnapped a female student in the area, raped her, and put her body in a water tower.

Local police in conjunction with Seoul detectives lead a massive manhunt for the guy, which lasted several days, and made national news. This guy was an adult when he committed this crime, but had attended the school I was teaching at as a middle schooler. For that reason, the school had had a bit of a bad reputation ever since.

I was so shocked because Korea rates pretty low on the murder scale, and this was the first instance of something like that happening that I had heard of, (I was about 6 months into my time there at this point). Later on, the principal had my main co-teacher translate to me that the area I was living in wasn’t the safest in Busan, that there had been some assault cases, and to be careful. Again, I was pretty alerted. I lived in the same apartment during my entire time in Korea and felt safe, however in comparison to other areas of Busan, mine overall wasn’t the safest.

The girls’ school I worked at. It wasn’t too far from the boys’ school.

Fast forward to about a year and a half later. My main co-teacher at the girls’ school I worked at and I were walking through the neighborhood to get to an E-mart, for supplies for summer camp. (E-mart is like Korea’s version of Walmart, but better. These stores and others like them even have food courts inside!) The school was a few minutes walk from the main street, with only one way roads, and was littered with alleyways. I’d noticed that there were always older people who stood outside of the school gates and into the alleyways, before and after school. They’d wear something like crossing guard vests. So I asked her why they were there.

She starts to tell me the story of how there was once a student at the school who was kidnapped, raped, murdered, and her body put in a water tower. As she were telling me this, I realized that I was teaching at both schools connected to this murder. It was definitely a, “this can not be happening” moment. All I could think of, was what were the chances of this happening to me? I’d come literally across the world to teach in Korea, to find out that something horrible was connected to the two schools. As we walked on, she then goes on to tell me that we were currently walking in the alleyway where the girl was kidnapped. It definitely felt as if I were in a weird Lifetime movie or something! She goes on to say that teachers who work late, and don’t have a car, can call the police station and an officer will escort them to the bus/subway station.

Despite this really unusual story, if you read my blog about being a singe woman in Korea, then you know that I actually felt quite safe during my stay there regardless of what the statistics in the area were. I did see detectives searching for someone once a few subway stops from my apartment, but that was it. Of course I appreciated the heads up from the principal on the area I was living in, maybe others would have felt more in danger there, I don’t know. I was born and raised in inner city Miami, so honestly no place in Korea ever felt quite as dangerous as that! Nevertheless, heinous crimes such as this one are rare, and were even more so in the 90’s.

For those of you questioning what a bunch of old retirees would really be able to do in the face of danger, you have clearly never come in contact with a Korean 아줌마, (ajumma) or 아저씨, (ajussi) (older women and men).

If you’re interested in more, I did a video on this story while I was still in Korea some time after I had found out. Check it out here:

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My Experience Living as a Single Woman in Korea

09/14/2020

I taught English in Busan, South Korea for two and a half years. Living abroad as a single woman can be daunting to some, so I wanted to tell you a bit about my experience. I’ve had many female friends tell me that I am brave for having lived outside of the country alone, but honestly I was not too worried about it. You can chalk it up to bravery, or naivety, but once I’d made up my mind to start looking to teach abroad, I never had second thoughts. South Korea stands as one of the safest countries on earth. Civilians are not allowed to have guns, and there’s an overall lower crime rate. I had done the research, spoke to folks I knew who had lived in Korea, and felt that I’d be safe living there as a single woman. Mind you, I’m not saying that there is zero crime in Korea, and that women are always safe, (I wish!) Overall, Korea has a much lower crime rate than many other countries.

During my stay there, I lived in a studio apartment alone, and had no problems coming home late at night. There was a safety that I felt in Korea that I did not have in America. After I broke a bone in my foot, I would even take a shortcut to my place down a dark alley. Taking alleyways in Korea is pretty commonplace, and I found myself doing things in Korea safety wise that I’d never do back home! Personally, there were few experiences that stand out as having made me feel unsafe/ uncomfortable.

Since I’m sure many of you are now curious, as to which experiences made me feel unsafe, I’ll gladly share them. One night I was stressed, and decided to take a late night walk. I’d done it before, and like to take walks to clear my mind. As I was walking, a drunk older man stepped in front of me slurring something in Korean. I sidestepped him, and quickly walked away. There was another time I took a walk at night, (I know, I know), and two women walking a bit in front of me kept turning around and smiling at me. This isn’t too unusual being a foreigner in Korea. Long story short, they turned around, blocking my way, and tried to convert me to a mother god cult. They had a video with English subtitles using Biblical scriptures to support their claims of their being a mother god. They then invited me upstairs to their church for tea. Having grown up hearing stories of what happened in Jonestown during the late 70’s, (Google it) I politely declined, sidestepped them, and rapidly walked to my apartment, all while frequently looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

That particular incident freaked me out more than the previous one because a friend had told me just a few days earlier of how people from that same cult approached her. Another friend of mine also had a creepy experience with people from this cult, so I was a bit shaken up because it had happened right in my neighborhood. I got approached a year later or so by another group of mother god people who were handing out flyers right outside of one of the schools I worked at. Since this was during the day on a busy street, I was more annoyed than creeped out. The woman speaking to me spoke fluent English as she was from the Philippines, and insisted I take a flyer. Afterwards, she literally followed me for almost the entire 10 minutes it took to walk to the bus stop, trying to convince me to join their church. This was one of the few instances where I was straight up rude to a person in Korea, because “No ,thank you” was not registering.

The last case where I felt weirded out by someone happened on the subway. As I mentioned earlier, I had broken a bone in my foot during my first year in Korea, and wasn’t out of the cast for too long before I took a subway ride. I don’t remember where I was going or why, but on the way back, a middle aged man sat next to me, and decided to sit with his legs wide. This was in August, and it was hot out, so I had on shorts, and he did as well. So his leg was rubbed up next to mine. I was sitting in the coveted end seat, so I kept inching over and away from him, only from him to continue to widen his legs. After doing this a few times, I was highly irritated. I noticed that there was a young woman sitting on the other side of him, so I looked to see if he were doing the same thing to her, which he was not. I didn’t immediately want to get up when he kept rubbing his leg onto mine, because my ankle was still not completely healed, and I didn’t want to have to stand, as the subway was pretty full at that time. Disgust outweighed the discomfort in my ankle, and I decided to get up, walk to another car, and had to stand up until it was time to get off.

I want to reiterate that these are some of my experiences in Korea, and I do understand that this isn’t the case for other women. When it came to safety, I was definitely able to let my guard down much more than in America, however it is important to always keep your wits about you. Play it smart wherever you are. No matter how safe a country may be, you still need to take precautions. Go with your gut reaction. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right for you.