Here’s how my cat got me a Korean roommate in college.
I’d had Midnight since elementary school, so I couldn’t give her up to live in a dorm. Instead, I got an apartment, which meant I had to get a roommate. This was back in 1995 when people still put ads in local newspapers. Cho Hee-Kyoung was the first to answer my ad, and I almost would have paid her to be my roommate because I was so excited to live with a real, live, international student.
Hee-Kyoung was my portal to international students.
Up until then, my plan had been to major in English education. I thought I’d eventually get a job teaching in my old high school. Who knew teaching English overseas was even a possibility? Not this rural Okie!
However, Hee-Kyoung opened up a new world to me as students from China, Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Japan, and Bangladesh started coming to our apartment, as fascinated by the opportunity to talk with an American as I was to talk to anyone NOT American. I was holding informal conversation classes, editing papers, and having the time of my life. I didn’t realize it then, but I was preparing for a life of teaching English overseas.
When you are thinking about teaching English overseas, how do you choose where to go?
Then one day, Hee-Kyoung suggested that I go to Korea to teach English after I graduated. KOREA! That was light-years away from my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma! She assured me that I didn’t need to know Korean because everyone would want to learn English. In disbelief, I started doing some research.
Now, in 1996, the internet available was dial-up, without color, without pictures or videos. So, my research was both online and in the library. Finding out that teaching English overseas was something I could qualify for and be paid for amazed me, but I wasn’t completely sold on Korea. I didn’t really know anything about it, and the whole world seemed open to me. I eventually narrowed down my choices to Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
I eliminated Taiwan almost immediately as I had zero confidence in my ability to learn to speak, read, write, or understand Chinese. I decided that while writing in Korean might be easier, essentially the level of difficulty between Japanese and Korean was pretty much the same. Both cultures interested me equally. The opportunities to teach English were similar. So, like any college student, I looked at the food.
This is why my stomach dictated my country choice.
Japanese food is exquisite. The Japanese basically serve you art on a plate. Korean food looked more like something I could cook without even trying. HOWEVER, while portion sizes in Japan seemed fit more for a child than a fully-grown adult, Korean portions looked almost too generous. In essence, my stomach’s greed to be full led me to Korea, but strangely enough, it wasn’t the congealed cow blood soup that turned me vegan. (But that’s another story.)
Preparations for a new life in the Hermit Kingdom
I switched my major from English Education to English so I could take more courses that I thought would be helpful to me in Korea. As much as I loved some of the courses, I knew that many would not be helpful for teaching English overseas. Wanting more teaching practice and exposure to different customs, I began to look at my international friends and classmates with a new purpose. I prepared to become an adult ESL teacher overseas. (How I ended up driven from the local airport straight to a classroom full of children is another story.)
I grew up in South Korea.
Someday I might write about eventually getting escorted out of that airport in Seoul by those baby-faced soldiers armed with machine guns, with no place to go, and a few of the many other adventures I had while teaching in South Korea for almost a decade. For now, I’ll just say that I grew up in Korea. I became a teacher in Korea.
It was in big industrial cities and tiny rice-paddy villages that I developed many of the skills and techniques I later used teaching adult ESL here in Oklahoma.
You CAN go home again.
Okay, so the first two times I came back “for good” didn’t last. I made it for almost three months the first time before I was back in a Korean classroom. The next time I lasted an entire year, but Korea still had a firm grip on my heart, and I returned.
The third time was the charm. I dove back into teaching, but this time with adults. I earned my M.Ed. in TESL, hosted homestay international students, and began making adult ESL resources to fill gaps in what was available. You can find these resources in my TpT store and in my BOOM store.