My last guest-blogger in the current series is Sheetal Makhan, a South African who teaches English in Korea. I’ve never met Sheetal, but was linked to her fascinating blog some time ago. The first of her posts I read was a candid and revealing piece about panic attacks. It occurred to me at the time that lots of teachers must suffer from them, and yet I couldn’t remember reading about them, and certainly not such a personal account as the one Sheetal gave about her own experience.
She was one of my ‘Unsung blog heroines’ from last year, and I’m delighted that I can finally publish some more of her thoughts.
Life: It’s all about give’n’take!
After four years of studying in a cocooned environment of my university campus, just two hours away from my parent’s home, I packed up my life in South Africa and moved to South Korea.
I graduated with a Journalism degree and a major in Anthropology. I thrive on meeting new people and learning new things about different countries, cultures and customs. I yearned to travel and see the wonders of the world. Seeing monuments and natural beauty on glossy pages of travel magazines didn’t do it for me. I needed to see them with my own eyes.
Anyone who moves to a foreign country without ever visiting the place beforehand will agree that it’s a gamble. At the time when I moved to Korea, people in my hometown and community were surprised. Korea? Few people knew about it, except that it was at war with the North. Of course, many people thought I was crazy to leave my family and move to a tiny country just off the Asian continent.
Three years later, I ask myself why I did that. Why did I leave the comfort of home and the familiarity of my family and friends of over 20 years to move to a place which is completely foreign to me? I couldn’t speak the language, I was sure that food would be a hassle since I’m a vegetarian and the biggest thing of all – moving seven time zones away where I knew no one.
I could have easily gotten a cushy job in journalism in South Africa. I was already writing and editing a magazine before I left. Yet I abandoned all that for a country I knew little about and would start teaching English – which was a field I actually wanted to pursue before journalism.
Thinking back, I was craving a challenge. An adventure. I wanted to do something so outrageous (for me, at least) that one day I would look back and think, “Damn…did I really do that?!”
English teachers in foreign countries describe the initial months as a “honeymoon phase”, where everything is new and exciting and you want to take photos of absolutely everything – from funny store names to unusual snacks in the teacher’s room.
My first year in Korea was blissful. I adapted to the culture very quickly and within two months, I was able to read and write Korean (Hangul). I was never short of things to do over week-ends and was always being invited out to dinners and parties.
Twelve months passed very quickly, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to wrap up my Korean adventure just yet. So I signed a second contract at my same school. Friends I’d made either moved back to their countries or moved to bigger cities to take up other teaching positions. I became more attached to my Korean colleagues who became my family away from home and friends I could always count on to go out for dinner or shopping with. Unlike my first year in Korea, I went to Seoul less frequently. Even though it’s only an hour away from where I live, I had less energy and enthusiasm to endure a bus and subway ride to the hustle bustle of the big city. I found another cocoon in my own city in Korea.
Another year passed. Still, there was more I wanted to do and experience. Above all, I was genuinely enjoying my work. Many foreign teachers I know (here in Korea) have told me that they have no interest in teaching English. They’re merely here to earn money and have no intention of staying more than a year. As with anything I do, I put 100% effort into my work, and as a result, it has been recognized and rewarded. My school also appreciated me staying with them.
I signed another contract for the third consecutive year. More friends moved away. Others got married and started families. The rest got into relationships. Fewer people had the time to go out as they did before. They promised me that things wouldn’t change, but of course it would. Things change when you have another person in your life – whether it’s a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or baby. As seasons changed, my network grew smaller.
Because of this, I got to spend more time with someone I never really got to know deeply. Myself. I started to enjoy my own company. After work, I’d head to the gym, come home and read, blog or chat online with family and friends around the world. The next day, I’d go to work, and it would be routine all over again. My colleagues still cared for me and we always made empty promises like, “We’ll have dinner together someday” or “Let’s see a movie together”. It never materialized and I was ok with it. They always say, you have to enjoy your own company before others can.
I started doing many things on my own like shopping, going to movies and even taking trips alone. I never felt sorry for myself and actually enjoyed the “me” time. People told me that I’m brave and that they admire me for what I was doing. My friends tell me they could never imagine sitting in a coffee shop alone, let alone buying a movie ticket for one. The though of booking a holiday for one made them shudder.
By doing all these things on my own, I’ve learned a great deal, not only about the world around me, but most importantly – about myself.
Since I arrived in Korea, I can go almost anywhere alone because I’m able to speak a bit of Korean. Mind you, I’m not fluent, but I know enough to get by. The best thing I’ve accomplished is that I’ve traveled to different countries alone. My first solo trip was to Singapore and Malaysia. I came back feeling empowered and like I could take on anything. When you’re thrown in the deep end of any situation, you have two options – you can drown or surrender to the problem, or you can learn to swim and come out feeling like a champ.
Many people from home also tell me that I’m very lucky to be seeing such wonders of the world. From the skyscrapers in Seoul to the stunning temples nestled in the mountains to the pyramids, Sphinx and Nile in Egypt and most recently to the Great Wall near Beijing, China. Yes, I do feel very lucky that I’m able to go out, explore, capture these beautiful sites, come home and share it with my friends. I honestly feel like I’m living my dream.
While it goes without saying that I miss my family and friends, it’s a sacrifice I have to make for the experience that living abroad has given me up till now. I talk to them on almost a daily basis. Of course, it’s not the same as seeing them or feeling the warmth of their hugs. Everything in life is about give and take. You give some, you take some. At this point, I can’t say whether I’ll stay on further in Korea, but I’m pleased to say that I have no regrets so far and if I hadn’t taken the plunge to leave home when I did, I would never have realized all that I’m capable of.
I’d like to thank Ken Wilson for inviting me to contribute to his very interesting and informative blog!
Read more of Sheetal’s writing at http://www.sheetalmakhan.com/
This is the last of my second set of guest blogs. If anyone would like to contribute to the third set, which I aim to publish in a couple of months time, do get in touch. Especially all those of you who promised me something and didn’t send it yet. 🙂