Have you ever woken up one day and realized your life is completely different from what it once was? Even the sounds are foreign. You get out of bed and look outside and you’re shocked by the sight because you seem to have stepped into a different world.
I’ve experienced this a few times. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling: the sense of displacement that comes with a sudden rush, and you look around, dizzy at the trajectory of your life. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s a high I’ve been chasing for years.
Canada to South Korea
The first time I felt it was four years ago, on a morning in January, when I woke up in a strange bed in a strange apartment. I stepped out on the balcony, sprinkled with snow and the cold cut through me. I had not expected it to be cold in South Korea. People warned me, but still, I underestimated it. I had just left my home on the east coast of Canada, where there was snow up to my waist. I thought I knew winter.
In Canada, what I knew were the spoils of woodstoves and insulation and thick winter clothes that kept me warm. In Korea, the only heat in my apartment came from the in-floor ondol heating and I had to wear three sweaters in my classroom so I wouldn’t freeze. My kids sat at their desks, doing their work in puffer jackets. It didn’t take long for this to look normal to me.
It wasn’t just winter I underestimated, though. Perhaps what I underestimated most of all was how deeply I would fall in love with the country and my job as an ESL teacher.
At first, I was nervous about becoming a teacher. I thought I would fail. I thought I’d be reprimanded daily and the students wouldn’t like me. Instead, my boss, a petite Korean woman, came into class each day and praised me. My students told me they loved me. I saw their minds change. I saw their grasp of English grow and their perceptions about the world evolve as they absorbed new ideas.
My boss told me I could teach what I wanted, so I began to bring in western news stories to my older students. My boss would read through them during the week to ensure the students understood the concepts. The stories were often about social issues like racism or gun violence or indigenous issues and climate change. At the end of the week, my two oldest classes would have a debate or a discussion about the articles, and on Monday they would bring me their homework highlighting what they learned and what their own opinions were. Every Monday after school, I sat correcting their homework and I was overwhelmed by their response. I was overwhelmed that I was teaching kids about things of importance.
To me, teaching ESL in Asia seemed like an escape, a kind of way to run away from responsibility. Perhaps what shocked me most of all was that I truly became a teacher. I was good at my job and I cared about it.
On the last day at the end of my one year contract, I stood in front of my class with my youngest kids, who I started each day by singing Disney songs with, and found I was crying.
Lucy, a little girl whom I adored, looked at me and quietly said to her classmate, “Look, teacher eye water.” Unsurprisingly, this only made me cry more.
I became a better person in that classroom. I fell in love with dozens of kids and I finally understood what it was to feel like your job was important and you were making a difference in people’s lives.
I did not know how much moving abroad to teach ESL would alter me. Maybe that was naive of me. But after South Korea, I returned to Canada and felt myself to be foundationally different. Even now, when I walk down the street during winter, there’s a certain smell that can transport me back to that first January in Korea and the nostalgia hits me like a train. And as I write this, there’s a familiar tug in my chest and I begin to entertain thoughts about returning to South Korea. The nostalgia is poignant.
Become an ESL Teacher
That year as an ESL teacher in South Korea remains one of the most impactful and important years of my life, and if I could recommend anyone to do anything, it is to do just that. Get a TEFL qualification, move to a new country, teach people a language, and begin to call somewhere new your home.
I recommend The TEFL Org as a certification provider. They are the UK’s most experienced and accredited TEFL course provider, founded and run by real-life TEFL teachers. Their first-hand experience will be invaluable to you as you begin the journey to becoming an ESL teacher.
And I can’t stress to you how invaluable the journey will be. That decision to get TEFL certified and to move to South Korea altered the course of my life in ways I never could have imagined. Four years have passed and I still call Asia home.
What is Home?
I’ve been living in Vietnam for over two years and when I go back to Canada, I miss my adoptive home here. I recall the smells and sights and flavors and I am often more homesick for Asia than I ever have been for my home in Canada.
It is one of the most mystifying things I’ve experienced, to long for a place where you are a foreigner as strongly as you do the place you were born.
And though my job is different from the one I had in Korea, I still teach children and the bonds I’ve formed with them surpass the classroom and they go beyond language. My students work very hard to express themselves in a language that is foreign and difficult because they desire to communicate with me about their lives. It makes me aware of how lucky and privileged I am to have gotten these experiences at all.
I’m not sure what my life would be if I hadn’t gotten on that plane four years ago. I’m sure it would still be full of goodness, but I can’t imagine it would have this particular kind, the one that gets me excited to put my feet on the ground each morning, to look out the window and realize home is wherever I have made it.