Many new native English teachers recently arrived in Korea. Welcome. It feels like yesterday that I myself exited Incheon Airport, knees shaking with excitement and uncertainty.
One year later, I can reflect on some actions and mindsets the contributed to a smooth transition into Korean life.
To be fair, I’ve only lived here for one year. I am far from an expert. Moreover, every foreign teacher’s situation is different. Our life circumstances are often difficult to compare. However, based on my own experiences as well as the reported experiences of my friends, I have some quick tips that facilitated an easier transition into Korean and teaching life.
Many teachers (especially in the EPIK and JLP programs) are more than just English teachers. In some ways, we are cultural ambassadors of the English-speaking world.
While it may sound off-putting to say that part of our job is to “appear happy,” this is the norm for most jobs. Servers, businessmen, bartenders, and any other jobs involving human contact depend on positive interactions.
Smiling can easily facilitate such positive interactions.
I cannot measure how much confusion, awkwardness, and cultural misunderstanding dissipates when I smile sincerely.
As foreigners, we can appear both intriguing and threatening. We are intriguing because we easily stand out from a seemingly homogenous Korean culture. However, this unfamiliarity can also appear threatening – especially to strangers.
Smiling can both stoke intrigue and relax the threat-response reflex. It essentially tells people that you do not mean harm. When you show that you do not intend harm, cultural gaffes become much more easily forgivable.
A sincere smile has helped me more times than I can count. While it is not always easy to smile in the face of awkwardness or uncertainty, the payoff in work social settings can be huge.
Full disclosure: As a 193 cm, 90 kg, oft-bearded man, I find myself smiling to obviate a threatening appearance. I’m sure that people of different sizes and genders invoke different first impressions of others. Moreover, not all social situations warrant placating gestures. We should all smile at our own discretion.
2. Don’t Show Your Sweat.
No, this is not a jab at sweaty foreigners. I myself become a leaky faucet once I start sprinting or lifting weights.
Rather, this is a friendly reminder to remain calm. No matter what stressors may arise (stressors are inevitable when living and working in a foreign culture), it pays to choose tranquility.
Korea is a fast-paced society. This culture indoctrinates stress from a young age. Yet many people suppress those feelings to avert flustered appearances.
Essentially, everyone deals with the same difficulties of fast-paced life. We are all in the same boat. So it does not pay to appear unhinged.
Outward appearances are everything here. That applies to more than just physical beauty. Outward emotional appearances are equally essential.
So grin-and-bear-it and then vent to friends after the fact (if you must).
Don’t panic if you struggle to stay calm (ironic advice, I know). Equanimity is a habit. Tranquility is a choice. Every time we choose to remain calm, we strengthen that behavior until it soon requires no thought at all.
3. Remain Patient In Uncertainty
Many foreigners here know little of Korea’s local language, bureaucratic structures, or social fabric. I’m one of them. Uncertainty is a constant state of being.
It’s okay to not know. It is okay to be ignorant at times. As long as we practice sincere learning and patience, then ignorance becomes a bridge to understanding.
Many Korean co-workers understand and expect our ignorance. They know that we will not be dynamite teachers straight off of the plane. They know we have much to learn.
As long as we remain open-minded and improvement-oriented, there is no shame in ignorance.
However, impatience can sabotage our learning efforts if we are not careful. If we ask too many questions, seek too many answers, or improve everything in our lives at one time, we’ll likely improve nothing and alienate those around us.
If we are patient with ourselves, we invite others to be patient with us. Sincere effort is enough. Mistakes are bound to happen. However, apologizing, learning, and preventing duplicate mistakes is our choice.
Moving to a new country can be a jarring experience for many. Sometimes we feel aimlessly tossed in a turbulent current of unknown language and customs. We wonder if we will ever adapt – if we will ever consider this foreign land home.
It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay to be nervous. When we acknowledge these emotions, we can take constructive steps to manage them.
If we can make the conscious choice to smile, remain calm, and stay patient in the face of uncertainty, then the odds of smoother interactions increase. As we progress through smoother interactions, we feel empowered to survive and even thrive in a new land.
I love these three habits. Yet while they are easy to discuss, they often prove difficult in practice. I still struggle on a regular basis. We must be ready for initial difficulties. We must be willing to catch ourselves when we lose composure, forgive ourselves, and try again.
As we catch ourselves frowning, flustering, or regressing into impatience, we find an opportunity to correct course.
The attitudes we display can make or break our day-to-day interactions. By improving our interactions on a moment-to-moment basis, we can improve our lives in monumental ways.