At The View From Over Here there’s an excellent post on “How to Make the Best of Your Time in Korea” with some great specific advice for people teaching EFL in South Korea. The other writer has kindly agreed to let me borrow her list framework as a springboard for my own general EFL list, but you should go read the original for her perspective even if you’re not going to Korea, I think.
Here are my suggestions based on my experiences traveling and studying abroad, as well as what I’ve learned from friends and colleagues working overseas (or those who’ve come here):
- Learn at least some of the language! She mentions that even if all you do is learn to read menus, you’ll be a lot happier than your compatriots who didn’t bother. Very true! Start small–learn the writing system. Learn chunks that let you get out and about, like “Is this train going to…?” Use tools: I use an online dictionary for Japanese that includes slang and whole phrases, combined with a plug-in mouseover dictionary, and I can switch to typing in Japanese instantly and easily. As a result, I can go beyond my real abilities to get information I need. Learning about the language’s structure can make teaching English easier, too, since you’ll learn some sources of common errors. P. S. My friend who works in Korea and has the complex washing machine pictured above notes that no, you won’t be able to muddle through with just a dictionary–hers yielded things like “heavenly blessings” and “the geographic features of a mountain” for some of those labels!
- Learn some culture and history. You’ll understand people better and the sights you see will be more interesting (see #8). You don’t have to hit the history books unless you want to–you can watch movies and TV shows, read novels and manga/comic books, read a Culture Shock book or Moon handbook (technically these are travel guides, but they’re heavy on history and culture), etc.
- Choose your friends wisely. I thought the other blogger was really smart to point this one out. If you’re looking for a satisfying career experience and you surround yourself with party animals, or you find that you’re inexplicably depressed and somehow don’t notice that you’re hanging out only with Bitter Expats … you need to change things. Don’t be afraid to move on from one group of people to another. People whose goals and activities don’t match with yours can really ruin your EFL experience. So can spending all weekend and all evening in your apartment by yourself because you don’t know anyone. Use Meetup.com, Facebook, etc., if you’re having trouble finding the right people.
- Make friends with the locals! It might be difficult, but try to make friends with local people, and not just through language exchanges (which I haven’t found to work very well). I’ve known people who’ve had good luck joining kimono clubs and martial arts schools, though this seems to work best out in the countryside where they’re too kind/baffled to say no to a nonfluent foreigner. Asking a co-worker to teach you to cook local food might be a good way to get to know them, too. If you have suggestions on how to tackle this one, leave a comment!
- Find the right type of job for you. I know, just having work is good, but you should pay attention to shift times, student age, how much planning there is, how much commuting, etc., before you take a job. You don’t want to not be able to either take care of your students well or enjoy your life. Once you get the job, if it really isn’t a good match for you, you may have to leave. Do so if needed, as gracefully as possible. Make sure you understand your contract, your living arrangements (particularly if they’re tied to your job), and your legal rights in terms of your salary, residency/visa status, etc. Don’t ever let yourself be in the position of fearing to quit because you don’t know what will happen if you do.
- Do your research about your school. Use Google and bulletin boards to see if you can find out anything specific about the college, conversation school, etc., you’re considering. Some places are really awful, with illegal working conditions; others are simply imperfect; others are fine (remember, complainers are always louder than happy folk, and people’s metrics for acceptability are different). Unfortunately, the more subtle relevant information–like whether a particular school will allow you to use modern, communicative teaching methods–is often virtually impossible to find out on the internet. Contacting a previous instructor is sometimes possible if you’re being recruited or if you’ve gotten an offer, so that may be your best chance.
- Remember, it’s just a job. There are plenty of bad and not-so-great English-teaching positions back home, even for people with MAs (trust me…) and, I assume, for people with PhDs as well. As long as you’re overseas, you’re in a position to do something interesting, so enjoy your free time, travel (catch the train if your town itself is boring), learn the language, attempt to make culturally sensitive changes at your workplace (like the paper I read by a teacher in Japan who started an extensive reading club and eventually got it funded by the school!), find a new job if it’s that bad, or do something to make the most of where you are. Hey, if you’re abroad, I’m already jealous of you!
- Travel! I know people who lived in Japan for a year or more and never looked at a travel guide, because they thought travel guides were only for tourists who were passing through. This is nonsense. Buy the Rough Guide for wherever you’re going. It’s full of information about restaurants, parks, and day trips, plus a lot of relevant cultural and historical notes. Check out Chris in South Korea for inspiration–he goes somewhere new every week! Hit Google and look for bloggers writing about things in your country or even your province. If you’re teaching in Europe or most parts of Asia, you’re well-situated for travel to surrounding countries, too.
- Eat the food. No, really, just eat it. In Taiwan, some of my classmates were betrayed by Pizza Hut’s squid-corn-mayo pizza once, flipped out, and basically ate at McDonald’s the rest of the time. Naturally, they were miserable compared to the people enjoying Taiwan’s “Western-style” cafes, Taiwanese cuisine, and first-rate international restaurants. When you buy food to eat at home, the blogger at The View From Here mentions that it’s good if you can spend your money at small local markets some of the time, instead of giant supermarkets or department stores. As a bonus, you may be able to get to know the local shop owners, and you may feel more comfortable trying out your language skills on them. Check out the Lonely Planet World Food Guides and similar books if you’re nervous about or unfamiliar with the new place’s cuisine, terms, and customs. Find the balance that works for you–I admit I frequented a certain Taipei hotel’s Sunday brunch buffet so I could get my good cheese hit.
- Try to think of where you are as home. Remember, wherever you go, there you are. Be mindful of that and enjoy it. Make a place for yourself online (by connecting with other bloggers, etc., in your area) and offline (by joining clubs, classes, etc.). I’d advise against cluttering up your place too much if you’ll only be there a year, but don’t go the other way and live in a barracks room. Make yourself comfortable. If you think of where you are as home and not a temporary pass-through, you should be more motivated to make your life a good one. Take care of your health, living environment, mental and social needs, physical and aesthetic comfort, and whatever else you need. Don’t put it off because “it’s just nine more months”–this can go from miserable to dangerous pretty fast.
You may notice that many of these suggestions seem to relate to moving your focus from internal to external. In fact, it reminds me of integrative orientation in terms of language learning. Getting comfortable in a new culture, and not just getting over culture shock but actually learning to live successfully, may have some parallels to successful language learning, so it wouldn’t surprise me if something of an integrative orientation is helpful in this process as well. At any rate, the unhappiest people on certain bulletin boards do seem to mostly be the ones who either relate everything to themselves or relate everything to their home countries.
If you have other suggestions, leave them in the comments and I’ll make a follow-up post later! If you’ve have links to posts with tips for specific countries, those would be great too. Many of you have more experience overseas than I do, so your general or specific suggestions would be very welcome. Don’t forget to hit up “How to Make the Best of Your Time in Korea” if that’s where you’re heading!