Half the difficulty of finishing well is starting well, much like stepping onto an escalator. If you start off right, it’s smooth sailing to your destination. Many expats are like those small children you see at the mall who aren’t certain about the right timing to step onto the escalator. They start to take a step, but frightened by the speed of the moving staircase, quickly change their minds. They decide to wait for help or take the more reliable, good old-fashioned stairs. I’ve noticed this behavior even in foreigners who have been living overseas for some time.
Don’t get me wrong, I think most expats have adapted well to their environment, but subconsciously they keep a part of themselves reserved from the new culture. Hence, there is a tendency to resort to the familiar preferring to spend much of their time with other expats, eating western style food, or simply avoiding making new friends with the locals. You don’t need to speak Korean to make friends. Perhaps I’m at an advantage being an outgoing person, but from day one I have done my best to throw myself into Korean culture.
One example of this was during my first week teaching in Korea. One of my co-teachers suggested I have a house warming party a day or two after I arrived. Immediately I agreed to it and we set the date. In the end the entire faculty was invited. Not what my co-teacher had in mind, but I wanted to make sure I sent a very strong message that I wanted to build a good relationship not only with a few teachers, but the faculty as a whole.
I will admit the prospect of providing a western style meal (as requested by my co-teacher) for the entire faculty was a bit overwhelming, but I was all in. Fortunately only about half of the faculty turned up (approx. 17), including the principal and vice principal. Am I glad I did it? ABSOLUTELY! Everyone had great time and, as hoped, it was a tremendous step in fostering good relations. To my surprise, my co-teacher told me that it was the first time most of them had ever been invited over by a foreign teacher. Many if not all had never had a home-cooked western style meal. In her words, “No foreign teacher has ever done this.”
To my delight, they all loved the food and everyone enjoyed themselves. I probably still had the best time out of anybody. Of course, it wasn’t just this one evening that opened up the doors, but a consistent attitude toward their culture from the very beginning. No one expects you to be an expert. Just knowing a few simple things when you arrive like how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Korean, being able to use chopsticks, listening, and asking questions lets them know you are interested in their culture and eager to learn.
Though I’ve only been here about three weeks, I have had many more opportunities to spend time with people from my school. Since the night of my house warming party, I have seen my coworkers at faculty functions and dinners and teacher get-togethers for ice cream or coffee after school. In fact, it’s the weekend, and I am writing this after getting back from a café where I met one of my co-teachers for coffee this morning. We ended up chatting for 5 hours on topics not related to school!
Okay, so I understand not everyone is going to have the same circumstances I have had, and it isn’t going to be possible for every teacher to host a house warming party. The moral of this blog is to make the effort, reach out, and build relationships with your native colleagues, especially if it is your first time living abroad. You’re not in Kansas anymore, embrace it. It will make all the difference in your work environment, ability to build friendships, and improve your overall experience. Pretty simple stuff, right? Well, not according to my co-teachers. So if you’re able to do some of these things, you are definitely sure to shine whether you’re teaching or whatever capacity you find yourself in Korea.