Culture Shock, Korea, and the ESL Teacher

I was talking recently to a young woman who had just returned from a teaching post in Korea. She said her first months in her job were a nightmare because of the unfamiliarity of everything. It made me wonder how teachers can prepare themselves to cope with culture shock.

Anyone who leaves their familiar environment for a prolonged spell is prone to the stress of culture shock. Although we know on a rational level that we are going to meet unfamiliar routines and customs, emotionally it takes time to adjust and this period of adjustment leads to unexpected reactions. These could include mood swings, depression, frustration, loneliness, apathy, even panic or physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, colds, stomach upsets. Each of us reacts differently under stress firstly, language may be a source of profound difficulty. If you are not proficient in the language of the host country then the problems could accumulate to an intolerable level. Back home you are a sophisticated individual, well able to articulate your needs and ideas. Suddenly you find people looking at you with blank incomprehension, sometimes even wincing as you massacre their native tongue in your attempts to communicate. It's not surprising that you feel frustrated and isolated.

Other changes such as climate, food, different timetables have a more invidious effect. You may not realize that these are the sources of your emotional, mental or physical pain. Small things start to have a disproportionate importance. People's different behavior patterns have a subtle influence too: are they more time conscious than you or less so? Do they use unfamiliar gestures and facial expressions? How formal are they in social and work situations? Do men and women play different roles from those you are used to?

Typically culture shock moves through different stages, from the initial excitement of the new challenge to a sense of being overwhelmed by all that is unfamiliar, followed by a period when you settle in and gradually take a more balanced view of your new surroundings. The second phase can be very alarming and you may have the sense that you have made a terrible mistake and wish to go home. You will be missing your family and friends, you will long for the foods you can't find in your host country, or your favorite t.v. program.

So what can you do to minimize the impact of culture shock? Well, you can make full use of all the technological aids that can keep you in touch with your loved ones; nowadays it is possible through email and even video links to make contact as often as you need to. Join societies, sports clubs, work groups that can bring you into contact with your compatriots so that you can swap experiences, borrow and lend books and magazines and talk about your comparisons of the new milieu with the home country. These are the means by which you will feel less isolated and cut off. It can be very reassuring to find a compatriot who understands your reactions.

Proper preparation before you leave for the new country is vital too. Get up to speed on the essential information about the place: its customs, food, religion, all the systems you will need to have contact with such as education, health-care, driving regulations. Do your very best to learn at least a little of the language and try out some of the typical food before you go.

And if things get bad, tell your Director of Studies. It is only reasonable that the school that has brought you away from your home country should provide you with some support in the early stages. Schools should have an induction period for new teachers and could do much to counter the sense of isolation the newcomer often feels. I'd be really interested to know what your school does in this respect.

By Brenda Townsend Hall

ESLemployment, Contributing Editor
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