“Korea? Why?” “Do you speak Korean?” “Do you know anyone who lives there?” “North or South?” These are the questions I became used to as I prepared to move to a country that I really didn’t know anything about. It happened on a whim that had me packing my bags and booking my flight. Like many others, I had recently graduated and was unsure as to what my next steps should be. I wanted adventure and Korea seemed to fit that criterion quite well.
I only knew that I was moving to a city called “Daejeon”, which for the longest time, brought up thoughts of mustard and the French countryside. I didn’t know what to expect, it was completely unfamiliar, and this is exactly what I was looking for at such an unknown point in my life.
I signed a one year contract to teach at an after school English academy, where the students would soon teach me more than I could teach them. Arriving in Seoul for training had me staring through the window as I landed wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into.
Settling in took some getting used to. I fondly remember sitting on the floor of my apartment (no furniture yet!) wondering where I should eat in my new neighborhood. I wanted to go for a walk to ease this process of adaptation but the thought of having to deal with the constant stares and looks of shock directed towards me proved to be a setback in venturing outside for the first few days. Being a tall, fair skinned, blond haired, and blue-eyed woman in this country doesn’t exactly make it easy to blend in and yet eventually the stares became less noticeable (although still very common) and I found myself becoming a local – a very alien local.
Teaching in the evenings allowed me to have the entire day at my disposal. I signed up for a month of hot yoga at a local studio down the street, which had me hooked from the get-go. I walked in and was greeted by an instructor named Lucy who asked if I was familiar with the practice.
As a three-times–per-week regular, I quickly became acquainted with the women who frequented the various classes offered by Lucy twice every morning from Monday to Friday. The classes were taught in Korean and I often found myself glancing at the women next to me to figure out what move I should be doing next. Attempting to relax with my eyes closed wasn’t very successful as I had a continuous fear that I would be left laying on the mat while everyone else moved on to other positions.
My new “classmates” would always greet me with wide eyes and exaggerated hellos. Often, they would express their frustration at not being able to speak enough English to be able to talk to me, leaving me feeling ignorant at still not having learned their language. Lucy worked us hard and would help me with poses telling me to “push!” while quite literally pushing me deeper into various positions.
After class, we would make our way to the change room where I befriended a woman who was a mother of students who attended my academy. She had previously lived in Canada and we would often discuss what we liked about each other’s country. I once mentioned that I was catching a cold, which had her bringing me an assortment of tea to the next class. She explained that she brought me both Korean brands and brands she had liked and had saved from Canada so I could enjoy a taste of home.
I signed on for another three months.
I greatly enjoyed my new routine and I bragged to my students about the fact that I was also attending an academy to which they responded, “but teacher…how do you understand?” It was these lessons that truly made me feel as though I was living as part of the community, that I wasn’t just another foreigner. Being a part of their every day and making it my every day made me feel at home. The delicious smell of roasting garlic from restaurants in the area filled the streets as they prepped for the day and I returned from morning class. I smiled to the parking attendant and entered my apartment to prepare for another day of teaching.