I guess it’s time to tell everyone that Julianne and I have decided to leave Korea at the end of this August when our contracts finish, and try living and teaching in another country: China.
How does a native English teacher know when it’s time to leave Korea? Good question!
Everyone has different reasons for coming to live and teach English in Korea, and everyone has differing ranges of how much they can adapt to the radically different culture of Korea.
Everyone also has different lengths of time they can adapt and thrive within Korea’s living and working environments. For Julianne and I, we’ve reached our limits.
With all this in mind I decided to come up with a list of questions that I think are a kind of ‘litmus test’ for knowing when it’s time to leave Korea . . . and as a way of explaining some of the reasons why I decided it’s time for me to leave.
1. Do you yell and/or curse at Koreans for breaking English/western cultural norms while walking around in public?
This is an interesting question to pose because some long term expats I’ve talked to in Korea don’t think that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with doing this if the situation ‘warrants it,’ but in my mind it’s impolite and wrong to yell at people no matter where you are in the world regardless of whatever ‘transgression’ they have done to you.
Maybe this is just my Canadian cultural DNA talking, or my personality, but for some time now I’ve been alarmed by my diminishing inhibition against saying something, and perhaps even yelling, to Korean people when I’m out in public when they do something rude to me. And when I say ‘rude’ I use that in the Korean socio-cultural sense, and not in an ignorant foreigner imposing his western cultural norms on Korean culture way. I now think that if a Korean person does something to me, that if done by one Korean to another would result in a throw-down yelling and screaming confrontation, that I shouldn’t just ‘take it’ and let it slide like water off a duck’s back. While I know I am a second class citizen at best in some/many Korean peoples’ eyes, and in a small minority’s (I hope) perspective nothing better than a drug-crazed-pedophilic-rapist-foreigner, I am no longer willing to just let rude behaviors go.
Koreans are always telling me to ‘learn Korean culture’ and follow it, fine, but I hope they realize that the extreme attention to social rank respect is something that goes both ways regardless of ethnic identity if I’m to act according to the general rules of Korean culture; unfortunately, I am no longer naive enough to think that all Koreans will interact with me according to Korean cultural norms, and often, in fact, just because I am NOT Korean, they will disrespect me for that alone . . . which makes insisting on being treated with respect according to Korean cultural norms an act of futility more often than not.
Four years ago, when I was still pretty much a newbie in Korea, I remember walking down the street with an expat who had been here for six years. She would sarcastically scream back at children who would point at her and call out ‘waygookin’; she would yell at cars that came too close to her; she would yell at ajusshi who stared at her for too long . . . and the list goes on. I was shocked at these behaviors, and others I won’t mention here, because she was also Canadian (though the connection between one’s nationality and how polite one is has no direct bearing, I did still cling to the notion that Canadians are in general polite). I found myself ruminating on what had happened to that “Good afternoon, it’s a beautiful day, eh?” Canadian spirit in my friend? Where had it gone? How could it have been damaged to such a degree as to vent such antipathy towards the people who surrounded her in the culture she had chosen to live and teach?
Now, after having lived and taught in Korea for more than five years, I think she had an extreme case of ‘cultural exhaustion’ (a variation on culture shock, and culture fatigue). I also have ‘cultural exhaustion’ (though I’m not at the point of yelling at children and other Koreans all the time when they’re rude) and I think that it’s time to move on to new and hopefully better things before I become the crusty burned-out always negative about everything in Korea expat teacher . . . but there are days lately when I think that particular demon jumps on my back and pours toxic thoughts and feelings into my ears to the point that I don’t want to leave my apartment.
That’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to leave.
2. Do you have disproportionate reactions to circumstances that normally wouldn’t spark the average person into a heated rage or tears or negative emotional state?
For a while now I’ve found that my ability to react proportionately to the general circumstances of a situation and person/people involved in a situation has been compromised by stressful events and the cumulative effects of culture fatigue (think culture shock, but long term and in a different sense) that have piled up over the past five years in Korea.
Culture fatigue is a “. . . state [which] could be described as an intermediary state between a new comer and an adapted individual. In the beginning, one doesn’t know what it means to belong to the culture. At the opposite, the adapted have no problems understanding the culture (no questions about the choices he makes in regards to everyday challenges – e.g. pro, contra or neutral to the culture). In between these two states – new or adapted, one goes through a mental and sometimes physical pain trying to understand and control to a certain level what is going around. The end of this state is reached gradually, after one paid a lot of attention to the people and things around, and eventually understood the ranking of values and the ways one can achieve them.” (my italics and bold)
Since ‘culture fatigue’ doesn’t really fit how I feel in general, and why I am leaving Korea, I think perhaps a new term is needed: “culture exhaustion.” I am well and truly exhausted in mind, body, and spirit by the day to day grossly unprofessional aspects of teaching and education culture in Korea. I am also exhausted by the daily situations I experience when I’m out and about doing things on my own free time. These things in and of themselves never used to tire me during my first two years in Korea, but after 2007 and the horrific experiences I had at a foreign language training center something in me radically changed, and while 2008 was a really good year for me (because I went to teach at a national university of education and was treated as a professional educator and colleague by the Korean faculty–thank you!), 2009 was pretty much the straw that broke this camel’s back when a major event happened at the university (the six month teach English in English program was added to the native professors’ workload, ‘voluntarily’, 10 days before the spring/summer semester was to begin).
The cultural fatigue, for myself and Julianne, has gotten to the point where we no longer experience more positives than negatives on a day to day basis. I’ve tried every positive thinking method I know and yet I still cannot reprogram my cognitive filter to interpret and process my day to day in a primarily positive manner. Definitely a sign that it’s time to make some changes.
3. Do you find yourself using negative stress coping mechanisms more than is ‘normal’ (this varies from person to person, and only YOU can figure this out) in order to deal with stress and problems that happen each day?
I think one way many expat teachers deal with the stress of living and teaching in Korea is to hit the bottle–and sometimes really hard. I know for myself what is healthy and acceptable in terms of how I use alcohol, and I know what is unhealthy. I think nearly everyone who drinks in Korea at times crosses the healthy limit line in terms of frequency and quantity because drinking culture in Korea actually encourages and supports using alcohol as a stress release. But when an unhealthy behavior, whatever it is, becomes your primary stress coping mechanism it should be a clear warning signal that some changes are needed.
The bugger is that some sources of stress, and their effects on one’s well-being, simply cannot be managed no matter how much you go to the gym, hike a mountain, do Yoga, connect with your social support network of friends and family, write in a journal, and finger paint naked while listening to “Don’t worry, be happy” full blast on your stereo in your shoe-box apartment (not that, of course, I’ve done that, lol).
When the general conditions of your work environment and living conditions get past the point where healthy coping mechanisms are effective it’s definitely time to start making changes in your work and living experiences–and if you can’t, if the issues or problems are beyond the scope of the very limited control we as native teachers have in Korea . . . then it’s time to consider leaving before things become too stressful and unhealthy.
4. Do you find that a majority of the days in each week are ‘bad days’? Or put another way “I hate Korea days”?
I think that the cumulative effect of the thousand little things that happen each day at work and in the daily living conditions of Korea–each of these little pin pricks by themselves is nothing, but when they all combine together, and day after day after day they strike again and again . . . well, the cumulative effect can wear you down. This is when, I think, one begins to notice that there are more days each week, then not, when the general feeling at the end of the day is bad.
“I hate Korea” is a very extreme statement to make, and one that no matter how bad something is that happens to me I try to avoid like the plague because once you begin saying it you do have ‘the plague.’ Saying this toxic statement makes me think of the cave scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Yoda says to Luke,
Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.
Luke: But tell my why I can’t…
Yoda: No, no! There is no “why”.
There is no “why” can’t I say “I hate Korea” because once you do start saying that you have begun moving towards the dark side . . . where crusty burned out expats’ lives lose all positivity and simply become banal exercises in who can show the biggest display of toxicity towards their host country and culture.
That’s not who I am, and that’s not who I want to be. But there have been too many days where my frustrations and stress levels have gotten me close to the edge . . . and it’s time to leave.
5. Do you find that the every day things in Korean culture that used to give you happiness and pleasure have lost their appeal?
Another sign that it’s time for me to leave is that the everyday things I love about Korea have lost their glow, and they no longer are enough in terms of helping me have a happy and positive day.
I love Korean food, and really enjoy going to eat at restaurants . . . but being stared at now taints everything. I tell myself not to care but all too often it gets under my skin.
I love teaching . . . but find that I cannot be patient anymore with some of the problems that occur while co-teaching.
I love the sense of community and close friendships that Koreans have with each other . . . but I have a very strong dislike for the us-them paradigm that excludes foreigners based on the simple fact that I’m not of Korean ethnicity.
I love the healthy lifestyle that many Koreans exhibit with hiking and eating well and taking care of their bodies . . . but I have a very strong dislike for the dark side of this cultural trait where it is used to tell me I need to lose weight to my face (which is rude in Korean culture, not just western English culture).
I think that expats who stay in Korea past the 2 year mark generally have developed strong and positive roots. Expats who have Korean girlfriends/boyfriends or wives/husbands develop roots imbued with love, and love for a Korean extends, I think, to other Koreans and the culture in general. There are other reasons that expats stay in Korea long term and are able to adapt and thrive but I think having a Korean partner is perhaps one of the most powerful aids in discovering ways to deal with the day to day issues, stresses, and problems.
Julianne and I simply do not have those kinds of long-term positive roots within Korea.
6. Do you spend more time in your apartment isolating yourself than you do out of it enjoying activities and socializing with Koreans in their social spaces?
My cultural exhaustion has gotten to the point where I spend more time in my apartment when I’m not teaching and at work than I do outside of it. This is very bad, and I hate it. I love walking around taking pictures, and doing things. But my cultural exhaustion is at the point where the rewards don’t outweigh the costs.
If I’m not outside participating and interacting with Koreans and enjoying the cultural events all around me then why the heck am I living and working overseas in a foreign culture?
I want to travel and experience new cultures and meet new people and have positive cross-cultural exchanges . . . but I cannot do that any longer in Korea due to my cultural exhaustion. Definitely time to move on.
7. Do you find yourself speaking in more and more negative and overly critical ways about every day living and working conditions that you have absolutely no power to change but still on a daily/regular basis talk about?
Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that I’m very unhappy at my job right now. I think going back to teaching in a public high school was a really big mistake. I thought that living in Seoul (I’ve wanted to do that ever since I came to Korea in 2005) would more than make up for my dislike for co-teaching (even though I’m good at it), and that going back to teaching high school wouldn’t be so bad . . . but after having taught in a national university of education where I felt like I was a ‘real teacher’ for the first time in Korea I now realize that going back to teaching in public school is nowhere near as fulfilling and positive.
Anyone who has been a regular reader of my blog knows that I generally haven’t written in critical and/or negative ways about living and teaching in Korea . . . but over the last 9 months (since I returned to teaching in public school) my blog posts have been moving more and more towards the overtly critical and negative in perspective and content. I think that some of this has been perfectly reasonable, and that the writing I’ve done has been objective and fair in relation to the subject matter. But there have been some posts that when I re-read them I think to myself, “Wow, that’s pretty dark and negative. Time to make some changes.”
8. Do you avoid anything and everything Korean after you’re done teaching most days?
This question is pretty similar to #6 but I think it’s worth having on its own in order to illuminate the issue. There are too many days each week now where all I want to do after I’m done teaching is go home and eat dinner within the English-only-no-Korean-language-or-culture space of my apartment.
Anyone who is living and teaching inside Korea who finds themselves thinking and feeling like this on a majority of the days in a week needs to seriously ask themselves why they continue to stay in a culture that they have lost any interest in interacting with. There are days, however, when one is just naturally tired out by Korean culture, and you just need a break to recover and recharge–what I’m talking about is when the desire to avoid anything Korean happens more than a few times each week every week . . . that’s when things are beginning to get serious.
The problem for many people, I think, is that we fall into habits and routines and lose the ability to ‘think outside of Korea’ so to speak. We forget that there are many other countries and cultures around the world that we can travel to, live and work in, and that some countries and their cultures are just not for every0ne–especially to live and work in over long periods of time.
If you get to the point where you don’t want any contact with everything and anything Korean after you’re done work then that’s a pretty clear sign that it’s time to leave.
9. Do you interpret every interaction with a Korean where something goes wrong as ‘anti-foreigner’ motivated?
Something I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into now a few too many times is the belief that any time a Korean person says or does something to make a situation negative for me I blame it on ‘anti-waygook’ feelings on the part of the Korean.
I know this is not true, and that it is a gross generalization. I try to challenge this thinking, and to come up with as many other possible explanations for what has happened and why . . . but for a while now I’ve found myself struggling really hard to find those other possibilities.
Perhaps a part of this is due to being surrounded by, and saturated with, Korean cultural thinking patterns that unfortunately also tend to use the gross generalization paint brush that paints all foreigners as such and such, and that resisting the temptation to fight ignorance with ignorance, or generalizations with generalizations is really freaking hard when you’re also experiencing cultural fatigue.
10. Are you ‘normally’ a very positive and easygoing person but have noticed that your personality is changing, and becoming more negative in general?
I used to be the kind of guy who would always say “annyeong haseyo” to every Korean I’d see; I used to be the kind of guy who would always try to have a friendly expression on my face . . . but for too long now I’ve found myself not smiling, and not having a friendly look on my face.
Now when I go shopping I don’t smile much when the cashier greets me at the register in Lotte Mart, or when I get into a cab and the taxi driver says a cheerful “Hello!” I don’t meet his eyes in the rear-view mirror and return his greeting with a smile and my own “Hello” back at him. I have disconnected from my naturally friendly and polite self because it requires more energy than I have after teaching all day and striving to maintain a positive teaching energy and the friendliness I know to be so necessary to have a good rapport with my co-teachers and students . . . and this saddens me and worries me because I have to wonder what kind of long term effects my experiences in Korea will have on my personality, and whether I’ve gone past the point of no return in terms of rejuvenating these parts of myself that now lie dormant . . .
Anyways . . .
All of these things I’ve written about, and more, add up to Julianne and I deciding it’s time to leave Korea. We’ve found jobs at a top ranked university in China, and are very excited about starting them in September.
I’ve been doing tons of reading on the Internet about China’s culture and history, and while there are many similarities between China and Korea I think that there are enough differences that the move from Korea to China is going to help me rediscover being happy to live and teach overseas.
I know that I’m still going to be stared at, pointed at, and talked about by people in China because I’m a big chubby shaved head white foreign guy . . . but I’m hoping that with a better teaching and working environment this sort of thing will not bother me as much. Also, Julianne and I have talked about how there are different ways that Koreans stare at us, and when it’s simple curiousity mixed with a friendly spirit there’s no problem. It’s when you get a pervert-ajusshi looking at your girlfriend like she’s a prostitute, or staring at you with a ‘what the hell are you doing in my country?’ aggressive anti-foreigner look . . . those are the kinds of stares that drain the spirit, and poison one’s experiences in Korea. I’m hoping that China won’t be quite as bad in terms of things like that . . . though I could be totally deluding myself and my naivete is probably quite amusing to people who have spent time in China . . . only time will tell.
Well, my hands are tired and I’ve written everything I have to say about Julianne and I leaving Korea for now. I’m sure I’ll write more over the next 71 days as we count down to our departure date.
Wish me luck.