Part 2: My First Time Living Abroad
After graduating from the University of Lethbridge with a Bachelor of Science in Geography, I decided to move to Vancouver, BC initially to live and work. I didn't know anyone but ended up coincidentally running into a few familiar faces.
After a couple of months of just not feeling the city or the life I was trying to make there, I decided to apply for a job in South Korea. After interviewing for a job over the phone, I packed up all my stuff that I had had shipped to Vancouver, rented a car, and drove it all back to Alberta. I applied for my passport and 2 weeks later I was on a plane to Incheon, South Korea. I was ready to learn about the world and about myself in a completely unfamiliar environment. I wrote a journal every day for the entire year and have yet to reread it all. It ended up being nearly 600 pages single spaced!
I had amazing experiences that taught me more about what I was capable of and about other cultures, people, and ways of life than I had ever before. I saw a world that I had only read about in books or seen on TV and in movies, but even those didn't do the culture, country, and experience justice. There were so many surreal moments (including during my first week being handed a Korean baby, simply so the family could have a photo with a white person as I was the first they had met in person) and I loved every awkward, strange, and wonderful minute of it.
I got to understand similarities and differences between the two cultures, while living outside my comfort zone. I even received my black belt in Taekwondo through a “hogwan” (school) with an instructor who only spoke Korean, teaching him English as he instructed in his language. I lost a lot of my videos from my time in Korea, unfortunately, but still have this pixelated blurry one of me practicing some kicks at my Taekwondo school.
We practiced for six months and then it was time to test for our black belt in Seoul.
The first step was showing the various Taekwondo patterns and then we had to spar. Unfortunately, my friend Ben didn't block one of my kicks, and I got him in the jaw. I got a point, and he sparred well enough to get the required points. It was nerve-racking to be the only two Caucasians, but in Seoul we weren't as much of an oddity as we were in Incheon, so people weren't watching us as much as usual. Aside from the judges, anyways.
Within a few weeks, we both had my black belt and ended up on their school's poster, with my two Caucasian coworkers and sparing partners.
My life was completely different from that in Lethbridge and it was hard to even compare. I was so far beyond feeling that I was "on vacation" and had integrated myself in an initially foreign culture. I knew how to interact at least basically with Korean people; how to go shopping, to travel, to give directions to taxi drivers, to read signs in Hangul (Korean alphabet) after teaching myself in 10 days, and to simply smile and enjoy the novelty that I was to many people everyday. Frequently, kids, teenagers, and some adults would come up to me and say "Hi. How are you? I'm fine and you?" (practicing their English knowledge) give me the peace sign ('V' sign with their index and middle fingers) and then often take a picture with me and walk away laughing.
I learned very quickly that my time at my English school was mainly as a mascot. Foreign teachers were required to teach from books that, honestly, weren't quality English instruction, but we made due with what we could. I found out fairly quickly from other foreigners that my school wasn't the best, and there were many shady experiences that peppered the year. It was simply a luck of the draw. At least me and my coworkers had something to laugh about on our downtime with others. After leaving Korea, my school was blacklisted and I was not surprised.
After my year contract ended as an English as a Second Language teacher in South Korea, I travelled around Asia for a bit with my best friend who'd come to visit for the last week. We went to Beijing, touring part of the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Imperial Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, along with many other jade and oyster pearl shops.
Next we set out for Thailand hitting Bangkok first. We watched a few Thai kickboxing matches, explored the famous Khaosan Road, and wandered through magnificent Wat Phra Kaew or 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha'.
On our journeys, I picked up a tailored Armani suit, and boy did I feel special. Then we headed to Phuket and Phi Phi & Monkey Island. The first day on the beach (where you could still see the damage from the 2004 tsunami) I fell asleep and got a nasty sunburn while fighting some initial travel exhaustion. (Use sunscreen, especially when you're tired!) I learned a bit of Thai as we went, trying my best to communicate using my trusty travel book. It was great to see people smile as I attempted their language, giving it my best as a tourist.
After a few days, we travelled back to Bangkok and then flew to Hong Kong for our last leg of the trip. It was busy city with so much to see and do and eat, and we couldn't get enough of the food. We joined a tourist group and ended up at a black market where you could nearly buy anything you wanted, for the right price. The skyline and layout of the city was beautiful, nestled around some green hills and surrounded by water. We stopped by the statue of Bruce Lee, making sure to take in as many touristy things as we could. :)
As our vacation came to a close, we travelled back to South Korea to pick up my belongings and then it was time to go back home for a visit with family and friends. The next chapter of my life begins...
Stay tuned for Part 3: Experiencing Reverse Culture Shock