My name is Tabitha. I’m 24 years old and I currently live in South Korea. Ever since I moved here, I’ve wanted to tell my story about coming to a foreign country as an African American (Black) female working as an elementary school English teacher. Now, I’ve been in South Korea for about six months and I’m ready to talk openly and frankly about my time here:
Let’s start from the beginning: Six and a half years ago, I was a freshman in my college dorm surfing the internet with my roommate. I had already been an anime fan for years before that, so Japan was quite familiar to me and I hoped to visit the country someday. Korea, however, was a complete mystery to me. It wasn’t until my roommate and I discovered the world of Korean Pop music (aka Kpop) that I became interested in South Korea. At the time, the mega Kpop groups such as DBSK (also known TVXQ!), Super Junior, Shinee, Big Bang (and later 2NE1), and Girls Generation were taking the Kpop world by storm and I was hooked! For me, music is not only a beat and lyrics, but a look into a culture. I was fascinated at how Korean groups were formed after years of training and composed of six and more members and how this correlated to facets of Korean culture. And let’s not forget the amazing choreography in the music videos, something we haven’t seen in American music in a very long time!
It wasn’t long until I was introduced to the idea of working abroad as an English teacher by two Canadian bloggers, Simon and Martina, from the popular YouTube channel Eat Your Kimchi. Not only were they working in Korea and earning an income, they were free to travel throughout the country and be immersed in the culture and language of Korea. No one I knew personally had traveled abroad unless in the military, so the idea of working and living in a foreign country seemed like dream to me. As a first generation college student, I had simply entered college looking to earn a degree, possibly attend graduate school, and get a well-paying job. The idea of living and working abroad was a new and novel idea.
Now let’s fast forward, six years later. I was completing my master’s degree in Educational Policy and after doing a little more research online, I finally decided that if I was going to live abroad and teach English, I had reached the ideal point in my life to do so. I originally wanted to study abroad in Korea as an undergraduate but decided that my educational goals, friendships and other relationships were more important at the time. I felt that if I didn’t go to Korea in 2014, I would never have a similar opportunity to do so again.
After telling people I was applying for a one year teaching contract, I got comments like, “Oh you’re Black, Koreans don’t like Black people,” and “Are you going to date a Korean guy?” and “Which Korea are you going to again?” and “That’s so far away!” Of course, there was my all time favorite comment: “That’s great but when are you going to settle down and get married/but are you going to ever get married/have children?” (insert side eye right here)(that last one is a “perk” of being from the South).
Despite all those comments, both positive and negative, I boarded a plane in Little Rock, Arkansas on the morning of July 29, 2014 and made my first international flight to come to South Korea. Now, not only do I live in Korea, I live on the lovely island of Jeju. Jeju has a culture all it’s own and most Koreans only visit here once or twice in their lifetimes. I actually joked with one of my friends saying, “It would be just my luck to get placed on Jeju. It’s the one place every couple goes in K-dramas (Korean dramas).” and of course, I got placed here, much to my friend’s amusement.
My school is quite small, with only about 60 children across six grades. My job is to teach English after school to students from grade one to six. My school is also in a rural area. Children in South Korea living in rural areas don’t often have the same access to private English academies and foreign (native English speaking) teachers that children in the urban areas do, so my teaching program is focused on bringing quality English teaching to children in rural areas. The children at my school are just like any other group of kids: they love to have fun, they to play games, and they have different levels of interest in learning English. While I will admit that I was nervous to be a Black teacher in a small school, the students have adjusted well to me and ask me a million questions every time I change my hairstyle. Teaching is not the easiest job, but it is challenging and there is nothing quite like seeing your students master new vocabulary and new phrases in a second language.
Of course, you’ll be wondering what it’s like to live in Korea as a Black Female, so stay tuned for my next post.
*Next time: Black and female in South Korea: Fascinations and Frustrations*