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“Dynamic Korea” & the EFL Workplace

Living and working abroad as an English teacher in a foreign country may seem glamorous and easy. That’s what I thought. In reality, acclimating to a foreign lifestyle and workplace system isn’t always as simple or smooth as you expect it to be. Learning to marry the concept of long-term along one or many personal conflicts (i.e. food issues, un-welcoming co-teachers, bad housing situations, language barriers, cultural differences and/or culture shock) becomes an immediate challenge for English teachers upon entry. But what about the difficulties and  frustrations for the English teacher within a foreign workplace?

The trick with catchphrases

Dynamic Korea is a “catchphrase” we learned at our orientation and the key to surviving it is yogic flexibility and a kind of roll-with-the-punches type of patience.  As far as countries and catchphrases go, you have to read between the lines to get an idea of the marketable highs and the lows of that country. Incredible India‘s “incredible” for instance– on a bad day– could mean “overwhelming”; while Amazing Thailand‘s “amazing” was…well, still pretty fabulous because I didn’t experience much difficulty with it in general.  Dynamic Korea‘s “dynamic” , however, possessed both, an ominous and dubious meaning for the ex-New Yorker in me. Saddling “dynamic” could mean attempting to harness powerful change, unpredictability and inconsistency and who wants ambiguity in a foreign country or in a teaching job?

Sharing Voices
“Flexible and open-minded” was the mantra we were given at orientation,  when we didn’t have answers to the most basic questions just days before entering the Korean classroom.  Basic questions, such as what school we were going to teach at, what grades, how many students and our schedule. The answer was actually simple, just not obvious to a Western approach– the basic things that Westerners find important and want to secure in advance, were still being dynamically juggled up until its deadline.

I’m in my third month of my teaching contract and interestingly, the school structure, schedule, etc… was never explained or given to me despite my query. Thus, I must figure this out on my own. I’ve not even received a classroom timetable yet (so I’m often late starting class, when the bell occasionally forgets to ring…which rides me between lightly annoyed and humored). Many EPIK English teachers are experiencing similar broad scopes of Korea’s work dynamics; thus, an irritation with Korea’s shape-shifting inconsistencies is obviously felt. English teachers try their best to juggle and adapt to the dynamic workplace, amidst language barriers and cultural differences, but this unfortunately puts an strain upon having to adapt to their new lifestyle in a foreign country.

Fellow EPIKer and EFL teacher, Tina Hyland was kind enough to let me repost her thoughts here. I’d say I’ve experienced 3-4 of her examples, and could add to her list as well. We all have interesting stories to tell about the dynamic workplace we’re experiencing in Korea. So with no further ado, I say- Fighting! and hand this post over to Tina.


What is “Dynamic Korea”
It’s what expats say when we throw up our arms because we’ve been a little screwed, or something very unexpected happens (which is somehow the norm here). Here are some of my examples.

1) Being given vacation days, then having them abruptly taken, after you’ve made travel plans. Sometimes you even lose the vacation time *after* you went on a vacation you were given, meaning that future vacations will be shortened. That whole sentence probably doesn’t make much sense to you–and to me neither. Ah, Dynamic Korea

2) Having your entire schedule shuffled, and finding out about it in the last five minutes, just before you are supposed to suddenly do something important. Ah, Dynamic Korea.

3) Being given a gift or a privilege one day, and the next day having it taken away after they’ve had “further discussions.” Ah, Dynamic Korea.

4) Being asked to do something huge at the very last-minute, like, “Oh, we know we said we wanted a Teacher’s Class next week, but the teachers talked and we would like it today.” And by today, they usually mean in 15 minutes. Ah, Dynamic Korea.

5) Having to suddenly produce a great quantity of documents because no one told you they were necessary until the day they were due. Ah, Dynamic Korea

6) Being told uncomfortable or hurtful things by your co-workers about your size/shape/skin. Like “I can tell when you were young, you were beautiful.” Or, “You should eat chicken feet so your skin is not so old.”
Or this conversation, “We will all have one hamburger today. But you maybe need two hamburger?”
“Oh, no thanks. One hamburger is fine.”
“Oh! One hamburger is enough for you? HAHAHAHAHA!”

Ah, Dynamic Korea…

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7 Comments

  1. James says:

    Great Blog. Very colorful and interactive. Great postings also.

  2. Interesting points. Kelsey gives great advice. You are absorbing ahhlot on a daily basis.While the Korean teacher complains about the wonky system, you are definitely faced with culture shock, language adjustment, plus the wonky system.

    As for the insulting comments, Asian interaction is blunt. People make comments on weight, skin tone, beauty… Sounds extreme, but that’s the way it is. I have an hour glass figure and am considered chubby. Many a relative told me so, even my mother on occasion. Nice, eh?

    It’s a matter of being strong in your self, and nevah take it personally. Go girl, I have confidence in you!

    • @Nomadic Chick: Yeah, it’s definitely more than I imagined I’d be juggling but I realize there’s no way I could have predicted or guesstimated what I would have experienced to handle it better. Becoming an expat is definitely an interesting experience. Also Kelsey is a pro at handling the Korean hurdles, so I know she’s a bundle of knowledge. I hope she posts some of her blog links here. The Korean dynamics span a range of things and I’m sure there’s some things I’ve still not encountered. And I agree, Asian mothers are like that. I’m always reminded to dress nicely, wear makeup (i’m not Korean)… My mom was visiting my Korean school and was in our teacher’s office. She took one look at my hair and whipped out the brush and started moving towards me (to brush my hair!). I whippd back that Korean “stay back! don’t you dare!” silent look at her to make her stop (she watches Kdramas to understand that look). But when the office was empty, she whipped out that brush again & proceeded to brush my hair!

  3. Kelsey says:

    The thing to remember about teaching in Korea is that it is just as “dynamic” for Koreans. I too was frustrated about all the changes, etc, but eventually, my co-teacher explained to me that they too find out about everything at the last minute. I would be dragged into class at a period where I thought I had none, and would later find out that this was news to my co-teacher as well. The only reason that it doesn’t seem to bother them is that this is just the way Korea is, and so they’re used to it by now, just like they’re used to their crazy northern neighbors. An additional issue is that co-teachers know that foreigners hate these last minute changes, and so to avoid being the bearer of bad news, they often delay even further.

    I’m not saying it’s a good situation – it’s not, and Korea was probably the least professional place I’ve ever worked – but remember, sometimes you may actually be having the same complaints that Koreans do.

  4. Laura Cancun says:

    That’s crazy!!! I wouldn’t be able to stand the constant changes personally, but it’s so cool that ya’ll are getting used to it. Very enlightening post!

    I will wholeheartedly agree with you on the indirect insults. Here in Mexico, I’ve heard multiple times: “You look pregnant!”, “You look sick, are you sick?” “You have huge bags under your eyes!! You must not have slept much last night.” “Why didn’t you do your hair today?” and “You look annoyed. Are you annoyed? No? Oh, then are you on your period?”

    All of these comments must be said in front of a large group of people for maximum embarrassment.

    • @Laura: Interesting. Koreans are very conscious of appearances so I can understand a bit why they are so blunt w/ each other and foreigners- It’s become so natural and unconscious to them. One day our PE teacher came up to my CT & mentioned to her that it was time to dye her hair (her whites were noticeable). My CT was so nonchalant.. and apparently, everyone dyes their hair anyways. You dont really see many white haired old ladies. But I don’t understand why Mexican ppl are that way. Does it have to actually do w/ health concern or appearance?

      @Kelsey: Yes, thanks for the reminder (pull me back, sister)! Very true- Koreans don’t like being the bearer of bad news & they can have similar complaints about sched. changes. For Koreans tho, that system is an adapted norm (like NYers learn to wear the armor as a 2nd skin), but foreigners must juggle a new work system, a Korean speaking computer, a lack of very important information & a new country.. they have a very short time to learn it all. I thot this subject was an interesting mention tho. So many of us come into the program blindly — we research & see the hagwon rants but this can be a hit or miss program too. When I researched, there seemed a wall between the outside & this program. That wall wasn’t shady, just really “Dynamic”. Dynamic Korea means good and bad as yourself are expert in and if there’s other “dynamic” things we should be keyed in on, please let us know or post your links!

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