Living and teaching in Korea has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
It’s allowed me to dive in to something entirely new in a way I’ve never done before. I’m able to explore other parts of myself and discover new things I’m good at (and bad at). It’s definitely been the breath of fresh air that I needed after a stressful degree, and now that it’s been two and a half months of living in Seoul, I thought I’d look over my experience so far and share what I’ve been up to since being here.
My decision to live abroad was influenced by several different factors, many of which are surprisingly related to musicians’ health. I needed a job for the year before starting a deferred graduate degree in London at the Royal College of Music, where I want to do research in performance science on musicians’ health. Teaching abroad in Korea will allow me to save a lot of money because the salary is good and the school is covering my housing. Before I decided to teach abroad, I was also struggling to find something in Canada in a field that interested me, and at the same time had a strong urge to travel. Living here has satisfied both of those things, while also allowing me to be slightly closer to my boyfriend, who recently moved to Bangkok.
Before leaving, I was worried about experiencing the depression and loneliness that I’d felt during my degree. I was especially worried because I knew that mental health services here are almost inaccessible to a foreigner, especially as an English teacher where one of the requirements of my visa is that I have, and I quote from the E2 Visa Health Statement, “Never received treatment for a mental/neurotic/or emotional disorder”. After seeing a counsellor at McGill for almost two years, whom I had developed a good relationship with, I was worried about not only being separated from my family and friends, but also from people who knew the pain I’d sometimes felt and those who had been with me during those times.
Luckily, I have not experienced any low periods since being here. My job has kept me very busy and the teaching community is very supportive and friendly. I’m also still riding the high of living abroad and experiencing a new culture. And, I haven’t felt the same sort of stress and anxiety that I felt while I was at McGill.
On top of that, I’m not experiencing chronic pain anymore because I’m not playing the violin, which also greatly helps with the emotional side of things. Having a new daily purpose—teaching kindergarteners and elementary kids—has given me something new to explore, and leaves me feeling content and satisfied at the end of the day. It’s a very different feeling from what I experienced with living a musical life, where most days I didn’t feel very satisfied, because my performance wasn’t up to my own standards and I always had unrealistic expectations of myself, especially when I was injured.
Although I still have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to teaching (and I truly mean that most days I think to myself, What the hellllll am I doing?), I think it’s because it feels like less of a permanent thing for me, and I’m less emotionally invested. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I know it’s important to be emotionally involved with our career and to feel like what we are doing every day has a purpose, but knowing that I’m only going to be doing this for a year gives me some peace, and allows me to relax somewhat. This experience is to be lived in the moment instead of worrying about how it will impact my future career. (I want to acknowledge my own privilege here in being able to take this break. I know that not everyone is able to do this.)
In this way, the adjustment period to living in Korea has been pretty seamless, for me. I feel comfortable, although it’s true that almost all of my friends are other foreign teachers. Of course there is lots to learn, like Korean for example, but I’m here and I’m doing it and I’m teaching every day—even though I’ve been sick with bronchitis for 5 weeks.
This all being said, I deeply recognize that not everyone would be able to adjust to new surroundings and that sometimes this kind of change can lead to severe mental or emotional health issues. I also recognize that many people require medications and would not be able to qualify for the E2 visa in Korea or pass the random drug tests required of teachers. I plan on dedicating an entire post to this specifically in the future, addressing the problematic nature of both this specific clause in the visa health statement and also the whole “Eat, pray, love” notion that leaving where you are currently living and going somewhere new will somehow “cure” you.
I teach Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 until 6 pm, and Tuesdays and Thursdays until 6:45 pm. This doesn’t give me a lot of free time, and I’m usually exhausted after a day of teaching—although probably not as exhausted as I was during my degree. I teach kindergarteners (Korean age 6, Canadian age 5) during the day, and then in the afternoon I teach elementary kids up to grade 6. There’s still a huge learning curve, but my school provides all the materials for all my classes, so I don’t have to do much prep. Mostly, my days are spent discovering my teaching style and how to manage a classroom of kids who can barely read or speak English, are 6 years old, and are required to complete (at least) four pages of their workbooks every 40 minute class.
I’ve gotten to explore South Korea a little bit on the weekends and during the Chuseok holiday at the beginning of October, where we had a week-long break. I didn’t have my Alien Registration Card (ARC) until after Chuseok, which you need to have in order to get back into the country on the E2 visa that I’m on. Most of the trains were already booked for Chuseok, so my holiday was spent in Seoul with one day trip to Suwon. At the end of October, I also finally got to go to Busan for the Fireworks Festival.
Just a heads up that for the next year, my personal posts on this blog will probably be geared more towards teaching, travelling and adventure in South Korea and Asia, but I hope to give them the perspective of a musician living abroad, specially an injured musician. Stay tuned for posts on tips for how to become an English teacher in Korea, things to do in Seoul and more of what I’ve been up to, like my recent hike in Seoraksan National Park!
All photos are taken by me.