New Zealand Embassy Seoul, South Korea

Cultural pitfalls

Different Expectations

There are many different types of people teaching English in Korea. Some are professionally trained with degrees in TESOL, some hold graduate degrees in other disciplines and are teaching in Korea because they want to experience another culture; some are teaching English while doing other things such as research; some are teaching English while looking for other jobs; and some are merely passing through.

There are also many different expectations about their teaching jobs. Most of these people bring their own unique expectations to their jobs, as well as their own individual reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Some expect to be treated professionally and are shocked when they are not. Others expect to make a lot of money but later they realise they are actually making about what a unionised bus driver in Seoul makes. Some expect to receive a large Western-style house and are disappointed to find themselves living in very modest housing. Keeping a couple of things in mind before starting employment as a teacher in Korea will help prepare you for the inevitable stress possible disappointment you may encounter.

Foreigners are not Korean

Korean society makes a great distinction between one's inner circle of family, friends and business colleagues, and outsiders. One should always treat one's inner circle with complete respect and courtesy, while one treats strangers with indifference. Korea is not an egalitarian society; one is either of a higher or a lower status than other people. However, the Korean society and its people's perceptions are changing rapidly as contacts with other countries become more frequent.

Most Koreans who travel abroad do so in group tours, which limits their experience with their foreign environment. Thus, Korean society remains very inwardly focused. For most Koreans, foreigners exist only as stereotypes, and are not always liked. Living in Korea as a foreigner requires patience and fortitude. Most foreigners have found Koreans can be quite friendly and warm, but a foreigner will seldom be accepted as part of the inner circle; they will at most always be an outsider looking in.

Status of Teachers

Teachers are usually treated with great respect by their students in Korea. However, it is also important to exhibit the personal qualities and behaviour that help maintain that respect. A foreign teacher who does disrespectful things would be held in great disdain by most Koreans, and runs the risk of getting into serious trouble with both his employer and the Korean Immigration Office. In other words, one should always act in a respectful manner, and with discretion. As a foreigner in Korea you will be easily visible, and may find living here to be equivalent to living in a fish bowl with everyone around you watching what you do with great interest. Always remember that Korean society is much more conservative in many ways than New Zealand society, and one should try to abide by local norms.

The ESL Profession is not considered Professional by some Koreans: Largely, Koreans do not treat teaching ESL as a professional occupation. This is based partially on reality - many ESL instructors in Korea have not had any professional training.

Korean Employers

Korean society is extremely hierarchical, as are most East Asian societies. In Korea, the boss is the boss. Keep in mind that in Korea, an employee is not to question decisions made by their employer or challenge their authority, especially in the presence of others. As a result, one should be careful in how one deals with one's employer. When discussing issues that might become difficult, one should make sure not to lose one's temper, raise one's voice, or speak in less than respectful language.

Lack of Clear Communication

Neither Korean society nor language is very precise. Many things are left unsaid, but still are understood. Of course, foreigners often do not understand. It is important that one understands what is expected and what is required up front, and that any misunderstanding be resolved immediately. Otherwise, problems may continue to develop.

Female Teachers in Korea

New Zealanders should remember that Korea is culturally very different from New Zealand. Working females and, in particular, foreign females are often in a different, and negative, cultural category. Sexual harassment is not the norm, but it does happen and New Zealand female teachers should be aware of the situation in making a decision about working in Korea.

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