Throughout my work term with Teach and Learn Korea (TaLK), I got to live independently, learn a new language, develop new interests, and adapt to Korean culture. Not only is the TaLK program generously funded by the Korean government, the instructional teaching hours are only 15 hours a week. This gave me time to explore the country and learn more about myself.
Before my work term, I lived a very sheltered life. I had not been outside of Canada and had not lived on my own or prepared my own meals. It was my first time abroad and I still remember the moment I left my family at the airport to embark on this life-changing journey. In the first few months of traveling, I relied on my friends for navigation, but once I became more comfortable I took my first 3-day trip alone in Jeollanam-do (a province 5 hours away). With the help of Maps app, some Wi-Fi, and my broken Korean, I was able to successfully navigate three cities.
Learning a New Language
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Busan, Korea was the language difference. I wanted to learn a little Korean before my departure, however, I never ended up doing so. Thankfully, people in Korea are very nice and were super helpful when needed. However, I would recommend that prospective TaLK scholars learn some basic Korean before departing. Although I learned a bit of the language during orientation, it was through my placement that I became more efficient by using a book and phone app to learn.
Adapting to a New Culture
I was placed in Andong, a city of beauty, culture, and heat. On my first day settling into my cozy studio apartment in Andong I was happy. I finally had the opportunity to be independent, which was something that I always wanted but had been too scared to try. Summer in Korea is quite hot and a bit humid which I was not used to. Initially, I greatly disliked the heat but after the three-week orientation, I became so used to it that even at 30 degrees Celsius not once did I need to use the air conditioner.
On my second day of work, I had to catch the bus alone for the first time. In Andong, buses usually don’t stop if I don’t run out to the street and wave them down. I learned that the hard way, by missing my bus (50-minute intervals) on the second day of work. I’ll always remember that moment when I was filled with anger and tears. But I didn’t let it stop me. With time, I learned to observe other peoples’ behavior to improve myself. That is how I was able to travel all over Korea both in groups and independently.
I love music and art so I registered for an introductory drawing and painting class. I also took Gayageum lessons, which is a traditional Korean 12-stringed instrument. Both of these skills were challenging but so rewarding. What made it more challenging was that the instructor used Korean and gestures to teach me. Through these extra-curricular activities, I was able to learn more Korean and also meet new people in my community which was important to form a sense of belonging. Having these things to focus on relieving any stress that I had after a day of teaching and helped me relax and enjoy the moment.
I didn’t eat spicy foods when I was in Vancouver. However, something I noticed about meals in South Korea is that they always come with kimchi and other types of spicy radishes and peppers. I didn’t really eat much at first but I came to enjoy the spice very much. An ability to adapt is definitely an important quality to have for someone taking on such a big change. It was nice that I adapted enough that with time I was able to ask for the price of a product, say thank you and express gratitude in Korean.
I also was really lucky to have had a tremendous amount of support from my Mentor-Teacher, and Korean co-scholar. They helped me navigate my placement and always answered my questions. Just like the spiciness of kimchi -- which I’ve come to love and will never forget -- the experience that TaLK gave me has spiced my life in ways that I could have never imagined. It has broadened my scope of life and showed me that I have more potential than I know. Most importantly I learned that getting lost, failing and crying is a part of the learning process and only makes us stronger. This job opportunity definitely changed my life.
(The Teach and Learn in Korea (TaLK) program at SFU has been discontinued as of 2021. To learn more about international co-op experiences at SFU, check out the International Co-op website.)