GUEST POST 15 – Sheetal Makhan on living and working in Korea

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!

Sheetal at school with some Korean Girl Scouts


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?!”

At a friend's wedding

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.

Sheetal with some of her colleagues

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.

Doing a traditional Korean Fan Dance

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.

On the Great Wall of China

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

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. 🙂


8 thoughts on “GUEST POST 15 – Sheetal Makhan on living and working in Korea

  1. Hi Sheetal!
    I am so happy to read your post here – it is great (and I have told you I am a fan of your blog – which I got to know thanks to Ken!). Before I say anything else, let me first thank you for teaching me how to say “Thank you” for things that happen daily. (For those who have not read Sheetal’s blog – and I strongly recommend that you do – she has a series of daily posts with which she expresses her gratitude for things that happen to her daily.) I realized when I started reading your daily gratitude posts, I was not really thinking every day about how good I have it just to have my health, or a smile from a colleague, or the chance to enjoy small things like chocolate or a walk. I was too busy feeling disappointed about a few unlucky moments I encountered during my move here – but thankfully everything is much better now! I have you, Ken and Sean Banville to thank from the twittersphere to thank for helping me out of that vortex with their encouragement and kind words.
    Now – to this post! It is amazing as always! It is great to take a plunge in your life (I did it too this year) as you mention, to get to know yourself better. I love the point where you say (if you don’t mind my quoting it) “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.” For me, you are certainly a champ – you have not given up and on the contrary, you have come out a winner!
    After reading your blog, your tweets and this post, you are definitely a person I would like to meet face to face! And I admire you for your strength and courage and for being a winner in everything you do! Thanks for sharing all of your experiences in Korea with us.
    In my book, you are one of my favorite ELT people!
    Thank you so much for this post.
    Hi Ken!
    Thanks so much for having Sheetal as your guest blogger (and thank you for recommending her blog to us on Twitter!). I won’t get tired of saying that I am looking forward to meeting you and that you too are one of my favorite ELT people!
    Kindest regards to you both,

  2. A beautiful post, Sheetal!

    What you describe here represents (to me) possibly the ideal attitude and set of expectations to take with you if you are going to teach in Korea. It CAN be an adventure and journey of personal discovery as well as a solid commitment to being a very good teacher.

    I also really like the way you outline the very transient nature of people and relationships if you stay in Korea beyond one year. Having spent 10 years there myself, I can say you’ve really nailed this issue.

    I love reading your blog and exchanging tweets with you. I’m a big fan of your “work” – by which I mainly mean your attittude and take on things!

    Keep up the great work, and thanks Ken for featuring Sheetal on your blog.

    All the best,

    ~ Jason

  3. I must confess that I enjoyed reading about your adventure and I wish you many, many more… A husband, a child, or somebody you love have a way of tying you up. They give you all their love and they take all the other things you could experience if they weren’t in your life. Enjoy ” you ” as much as you can! This is the time of your life!

  4. First of all, I’d like to thank Ken again for asking me to contribute to his amazing blog. I’m so glad to have ‘met’ you & have so enjoyed getting to know you over the past few months.

    To Vicky:
    Forever sweet & so kind – thank you very much! Over the past few months, I’ve also really enjoyed chatting to you & getting to know you through our tweets. As I’ve said, the world is so small, we will surely meet one day.

    To Jason:
    Thank you very much. This means a lot coming from you! I’m also happy to have ‘met’ you as I know you can relate to many (and more) things that I experience here. It’s been fun getting to know Mr Raven through tweets 😉

    To Adriana:
    Thank you! Well-said and very true. I appreciate you reading this 🙂

    (Ken, Vicky & Jason: You all rank as my top favourite ELT Twitter buddies! Much love to you all.)

  5. Hi Sheetal!

    A friend referred me to your article here. I loved reading it!

    Firstly, it reminded me so much of my experiences here in Korea. (Also from South Africa, Cape Town). I have just completed my first year here, and have become so happily settled here, that I have renewed for a second year. I now find myself already contemplating whether I’ll stay for a third year.

    Secondly, I can identify so closely with what you have to say. Friends and family back home say the same things to me. However, I have always enjoyed spending time alone with me. So, it is that I am quite happy here in Korea. Yet, with many friends around and available when needed.

    Last year, I used to email all my friends and family every last detail about my adventures and travels. This year, I finally started a humble blog, and just loaded all that news there. If you’d like, you can share some of my Korean experiences, too. It might evoke similar feelings of reminiscence! 🙂

    Continue enjoying Korea!


  6. Hi Andrea!

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to read this, I appreciate it 🙂
    I think many people will relate to certain things if they continue they stay longer than a year. I’ve always said that we have to be able to enjoy our own company before others can enjoy it. Thanks again, and have a wonderful time! 🙂

  7. Hello Sheetal,

    This is such a lovely piece and should be read by anyone thinking of moving abroad to teach English. I think it is really important in general for people to step out of their comfort zones. As your personal experience shows you really do get to learn about yourself and spend time with yourself. I think this is one of the best gifts.

  8. Thank you, Shelly for your kind words. Many people think that it’s fun and games while living abroad, but I think I have definitely experienced the good, bad and hard times. I’m sure others will be able to identify with me. Thanks again 🙂

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