Monday, March 2, 2009

New Foreign English Teachers in Korean Public Schools -- Health and Homesickness in Korea

The writing below is from a selection of writings in an orientation program I wrote and put together.

I'll preface the writing below by saying that it is based on my own interpretations of the socio-cultural experiences that foreign teachers have in Korea. It is also based on listening to, and reading, many foreign teachers stories about living in Korea, and teaching in the Korean public school system.

And again, if you copy this and use it please cite the source: Jason Ryan.


- Establish a Protocol for when you are Sick

If, and when, you get sick in Korea you will have to deal with many things that are different than in your home country. Talk to your co-teacher about your preferences for when you are sick.

A story that I have heard some native English teachers experience (myself included) is that when they are sick, and have taken the day off from work, a small group of Korean teachers will come to the native teacher’s apartment. This may or may not be a good thing depending on how sick you are. Hosting a small visit (that may feel like a party) is not what many native English speakers wish to do when they are ill. You may need to specify that you only wish to see your primary co-teacher when you are ill, and/or only those Korean teachers that you have become close friends with; explain that you would prefer that a large number of Korean teachers do not visit your apartment when you are sick.

Also, you will likely need to explain that while Koreans like to share details about almost everything involving their native English teacher, that many foreigners do not like to have their symptoms and illness details, and treatment details, shared with the entire teaching faculty, and even sometimes with the students. Explain that it is enough for the other teachers and students to know that you are ill, but that they do not need to know specific details. Do expect, however, that your primary co-teacher, principal, and vice-principal will need to know the details.

A very important point that should also be discussed is what your primary co-teacher should do in the event that you do not answer your door when they come to visit. Often the building manager will have no problem with unlocking your apartment door—without your permission or a warning—and letting your principal, vice-principal, and primary co-teacher (and anyone else who may have come along) into your apartment. If you are ill, and sleeping, you may be in for a huge shock when the visitors all see you in your sleeping/sick attire . . . this can create a very awkward and potentially negative situation.

Discuss with your co-teacher that knocking once or twice before unlocking the door and entering is not enough. That they should knock very loudly several times, and yell in English who it is that is at the door, and that they want to see you. Then that they should wait for at least a full minute in case you need to dress yourself to go to the door. And that if there is still no answer from you after a minute, that they should try to call your cell phone, or land line, before deciding to unlock the door and enter your apartment.

This may all sound rather paranoid and excessive—but wait until something like this happens to you, or a friend, and you may change your perspective . . .

Going to the Doctor/Hospital in Korea - "You should go to the hospital . . ."

As a foreigner living and teaching in Korea—get used to hearing this statement a lot. Korea does not have a culture of family doctor clinics. So, when you have a mild illness or injury—you go to the hospital. If you have a stomach ache or headache or bad cut—you go to the hospital. If you aren’t sure what medicine to buy at the pharmacy for your cold—go to the hospital . . . get the idea?

So, try and have some patience and understanding for this major cultural difference. When you are sick, or have an injury, you will not be at your best in terms of energy and thinking . . . but try and keep in mind that you are a visitor in Korea, and that the advice, "You should go to the hospital," is an expression of concern for your well being, and the generally accepted, culturally normal thing to say to someone who appears to be unwell in any and all ways.

It seems like a lot of people in Korea are also not accustomed to, or educated in, many of the common medical terms and knowledge that Westerners learn through popular culture, and education in school. So, when they go to the hospital there is a strong faith and trust (what some might call a "blind trust") in the doctor that is quite common. Accepting the diagnosis without question, the prescribed pills (sometimes as many as 12 or more different kinds of pills) without knowing what they are, what they do, what their side-effects are, and what you should know in general about the medicine . . . Koreans generally just take their medicine and do as they are told by their doctor. Asking the nurse or doctor, who is about to give you an injection, ‘what is it?’, and, ‘why are you giving this to me?’—are just not seen as being necessary questions . . . keep these things in mind if and when you go to the hospital in Korea.

Mental and Physical Health in Korea

For many foreigners arriving in Korea it might seem like they have entered a never ending party culture, but try to remember why you were recruited, hired, and flown over to Korea—to teach English.

Going out on week-nights to party is generally not a good idea. English Instructors should not come to work hung-over and exhausted from a late night out, and then be teaching young students. Your students and co-teachers will notice your condition, and it will impact the levels of respect and interaction quality you have with them in the teacher-student relationship.

Mental and physical stress and fatigue from teaching all day, and dealing with the different challenges and issues that living and teaching in Korea present to us should not turn into a ‘license to party hard’ as a stress release mechanism. Consider getting a gym membership, checking out the local mountain and hiking places, sign up for a Taekwando class, Yoga classes, or any of the many different healthy ways one can decompress from a challenging day of teaching English.

The 3, 6, 9, and 11 Month Phenomenon (Homesickness and Cultural Difference Adjustments)

My recruiter told the group I came to Korea with (in 2005) about this phenomenon and I didn't believe him at the time. But after the sixth month mark came, and I was feeling homesick and having a hard time with some cultural differences, I remembered what he had said. I realized that I had also been unhappy around the 3 month mark too.

Call a friend and talk to them. Call a native teacher who has been in Korea longer than you and talk to them about what you are going through (buy them dinner, or some drinks, as a thank you for their time and experience). Talking with people who have been in Korea longer than you, and who have a generally positive outlook on living and teaching in Korea can really help you out. They can give you suggestions about how to deal with what your feeling, or your situation, that you may not be aware of because you've never had to deal with it before in your home country.

Bear in mind that if you talk to other foreigners who have a negative attitude about life in Korea that it will make you feel worse, and any advice that they give you may make your situation worse. I am not saying that we should never be critical or negative about life in Korea, but I am saying that the WAY we go about it needs some care.

Good luck.


Foreigner Joy said...

great advice.

I remember when I first got here a trainer told us to have a hobby. To find something we enjoy to do instead of just using the internet and watching TV.

It was great advice.

Jason said...

Yeah . . . looking back at what I wrote almost 3 years ago I see some things that need to be clarified and explained more clearly.

I kind of have what you're talking about in the text,

"Consider getting a gym membership, checking out the local mountain and hiking places, sign up for a Taekwando class, Yoga classes, or any of the many different healthy ways one can decompress from a challenging day of teaching English."

but it's just not as clearly articulated as it needs to be.

I think there also needs to be a list of hobbies that are easily available to newbies when they don't know the Korean language and can't find stuff.

Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read and for making a really good suggestion on how to improve the orientation info that new people SHOULD be getting but don't always . . .

ESL Daily said...

Foreigner Joy, I could not agree with you more. Hobbies while teaching in Korea is probably one of the most important things to keep your sanity (especially if you stay more than a year). I taught in Korea for 6 years and the only thing that really kept me going were my hobbies. Books can be hard to come by if you live out of Seoul. However, I know many writers (blogging and novel writing). Picking up a Masters degree is another good thing to accomplish while teaching. Hiking is great, but not all enjoy it either. While teaching at a university, I discovered balsa wood was cheap and sold at just about every stationary store... modeling became my hobby (airplanes). Photography and video recording are also great to do.

On the other hand, I know far too many that let the bottle become their hobby while teaching. A very dangerous thing to your health, but also your attitude while teaching.

I am not saying that drinking is bad... just don't let it consume you.

Gilles said...

I would like to comment on the "hospital/medicines" issue in Korea.

As you well stated, doctors tend to give a huge number of medicines.
The doses thus tend to be outrageously strong, even if you only suffer from a very small cold.

To tell you a bit of my experience, I just accepted everything without questioning at the beginning.
But as I became a regular (~unfortunately~) visitor of my doctor at the local health center, I started to actually ask questions and in the end, I always managed to lower the doses my doctor wanted me to take (and of course my health did not deteriorate, on the contrary I felt better during the treatments since my body had to handle less medicines).

When I came back to my home country, my doctor almost went crazy about what I told her.

So just be polite and gentle, but try to know a bit more about the pills you take beyond the fact that they are pink or blue and yellow ;-)

Jackie Bolen said...

Been following your series. Lots of good stuff. I'm going to put a link to it on my blog!

Anonymous said...

Technology makes life so much easier nowadays to keep in touch with those back home and up-to-date with current events around the globe. You just want to make sure you buy that laptop/notebook computer back home before coming here and paying much more for a less advanced product with a smaller hard drive.

For keeping up with my favorite TV shows, I rely on a slingbox ( and a hava ( hooked into my brother's satellite dvrs back in the states. Another option for accessing Hulu and Network TV shows on-line is getting an Open/Personal VPN account -- is an option that has a discount code on-line as well for about $35/year.

For my radio needs, I use This website is free if you listen to the commercials, or for a small fee you can get uninterrupted service. There are selections for all tastes. There is Christmas music year-round, the best of 1930’s radio dramas and variety shows, music from around the world, and even oldies from the late 1800’s to today.

As someone who still communicates with some of my friends and family with Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Skype, I’ve found the magicJack ( to be an even greater value. For $20 a year (U.S. and Canada), you now have a permanent local (U.S. or Canada) phone number that allows unlimited calling back to the U.S. and Canada for free from anywhere in the world. For me, it has been a great help with my older relatives who aren’t computer savvy but still want to stay in touch. It is also great having a phone number that I know won’t be changing no matter where in the world I move to as I no longer need a land line thanks to this marvelous invention.

Oh, yeah, hobbies like cycling, hiking, and walking are great to see more of the country, staying in shape, and for the environment. I can't wait for the weather to turn a bit warmer and then seeing the multitudes emerging from their winter cocoons onto every conceivable trail around the country.

John from Daejeon

Anonymous said...


Have you ever thought about putting together your own book? Besides including your own material, you could also be an editor and take submissions from other teachers and include them as well.

Just a thought,

John from Daejeon

Jason said...

Thanks for all the comments.

This is week 1 of the spring semester at my university so I don't have too much time for blogging today but we'll see what I can manage.

I also want to write longer reply comments to what's been written here but that will have to wait too, sorry.


Brian said...

Hey, I know you're busy, but when you get a chance do you think y ou could add categories to your posts? Just simple stuff (My travels, Gangwon-do, etc.), and add one or two about teaching, K-TEFL? It would make it easier to navigate all your posts on education. Thanks.

Jason said...

Yes, sorry, and yes, sorry sorry sorry . . . it's been on my to do list since I started blogging but as anyone who knows me will tell you I'm a great example of "organized chaos" with files and folders on my computer, and this extends to my blog too . ..

Will try to do so soon.


kat said...

Just found your blog and I am really enjoying reading it. I am starting my second year of teaching in a public school in Gangwon-do.
I sent the link out to a bunch of newbies in the area!

Diana said...

This is one of the most helpful posts about getting sick in Korea I've seen. You present balanced, fair, culturally-informed information.

I would just add that Koreans don't usually take days off for being sick. In this culture you get credit for trying, so they are thought of as better workers if they come in all week (even when they have to leave early and get nothing done) than if they take one full day for rest and then being productive the rest of the week. I don't know why, but it is so. When you ask for a day off, they think you're dying.

And they say "hospital" when they sometimes mean "doctor's office" or "clinic." Small family practices are less common here, but there are lots of doctors' offices.

And P.S. on the hobbies--you don't need to know Korean to take PE classes like yoga and taekwondo, even if they are taught in Korean. Just copy the movements.

Dele said...

First off, THANK YOU for all the informative entries you have written about living and teaching in Korea. Everything is honest and thorough for the reader.

It defintely makes me feels less stressed about teaching in Korea this year!!

Your hard work is truly appreciated, so thanks for taking the time to help others out!