No 6. Tales of Teaching Abroad

No 6. Tales of Teaching Abroad

Part 1

Dongtan, South Korea, February 2023

Two days before I was supposed to be travelling down to Birmingham with my girlfriend, instead I found myself hastily printing out employment contracts and scrambling to get passport photos taken. 

Sadly those passport photos ended up being some of the worst photos ever taken of me - but needs must and all that. I looked like the war criminal villain from a Jason Statham movie.

decided to move to South Korea with my girlfriend, Beth, about 3 months before all of this. We had met each other at a time when we both knew we wanted to live abroad but had very different locations in mind. 

So, when I was eventually met with the possibility of working in the same city in South Korea, 15 minutes walk away, at the very arse end of the hiring season, I felt it wise not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

However, there was a catch. I was to prepare all my documents, pack all my bags, say all the goodbyes I could and get on a plane 3 days after having the interview with the director.

I spoke to my dad, and we both shared the same thinking; after deciding last minute to pursue a teaching certification after Beth had already finished hers months before, and given that she had already signed her contract before I had had a single interview, it felt like fate that I should take the offer.

So there I was, on a plane, sleep deprived, anxious, stressed, uncomfortable, sat next to a friendly fella chewing cloves for his chesty cough, finishing my assignments for the teaching course I had yet not completed - and would eventually finish while working full time once I arrived.

Photo: Louis Slater

But that was over a year ago now, and now I find myself doing all the mundane tasks I know everyone else at home is doing. Doing a food shop, sticking the washing on, taking the bins out, washing up.

The only difference is there’s a terrible selection of cheese and I have to freeze my food waste otherwise it stinks up my studio flat. The washing machine does the same jingle though.

Every day I go to work around 1 pm, prepare my classes, eat my lunch, chat with the other Korean teachers at my school, and then begin my day of classes.

I try to emulate my favourite teachers at school. This includes not being called Mr Slater, I prefer to go just by my name, as was the norm when I was at school, but also talking to the students about their lives. I get the feeling that most of them don’t get the chance to.

The South Korean system is a flawed one, just like any other. It produces high-achieving individuals, yes. But the way it does so, focussing so much on memorisation, being able to regurgitate information rather than a true understanding, isn’t fit for everyone. 

Photo: Louis Slater

I have students who can have flowing, elaborate conversations with me but are constantly left disappointed by their public school test scores because they couldn’t throw out the same definitions and explanations they had been memorising word for word over the previous month.

South Koreans are quite similar to British people when it comes down to it. You get stared at if you talk too loudly on the bus, disturbing everyone else’s peace. There’s no expectation to have a conversation with cashiers or waiting staff, and the linguistic norm is to be more polite than not with anyone you meet (until you know their age in relation to yours).

I have met a great deal of Koreans. I know they have all studied English before, but most of them don’t want to speak whatsoever as they don’t feel confident, only having practised their listening and reading skills at public school. However, a few bottles of Cass or shots of soju, or even just visiting the same place every day, at the same time of day, softens people up.

The people I have met here have been some of the most friendly, entertaining, and welcoming people I have ever met. This was crystallised for me when my coworker, James, had a stroke and our friend who runs the dumpling store downstairs called an ambulance and helped me with visiting him in the hospital and making sure he made it through the process.

Photo: Louis Slater
Moving abroad and teaching is incredibly rewarding. I’ve seen so much here, from an intricate understanding of the Korean healthcare system to some of the best local restaurants in Dongtan, the youngest city in South Korea. I’ve even been taken to the tomb of Korea’s greatest king, Sejong.

It is frustrating hammering in the same lessons every day: give me a full sentence! “Th” not “D”! Hockey not Floorball! But the little moments when I can make these kids smile, or laugh, or give them a revelatory moment about grammar makes it all worth it.

So here I am, creating the new generation of Korean Arsenal fans, taking every day as it comes.

Noted by Louis Slater



Part 2

Osaka, Japan, August 2023

Humid August. Heavy suitcases falling over. Coach drivers ushering utterly clueless JETs to their seats.

That's the scene I was met with when starting this new chapter of my life as an English teacher in Japan. Complete confusion and chaos. But I wouldn't change it for the world.

When first arriving in Japan last summer, I was completely out of my depth – having never lived in another country, and having never taught anything before.

The first few days were spent panicking, wondering if I had made the wrong decision, and frantically looking up flights to see if I could go back home.

On the Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Osaka, my heart beat out of my chest, nerves keeping me on high alert, hoping this wouldn't end in complete disaster.

Photo: Khadijah Ali

Then I met the teachers. They welcomed me with open arms, and I just knew everything was going to be okay. I taught my first lesson and met the bubbly excited students, and I knew I wanted to stay. I met my best friends who have become my lifeline whilst here, and I knew that leaving now would only fill me with regret.

That's not to say teaching doesn't have its hurdles, making lesson plans that are engaging, discovering ways to tackle the obvious language barriers and using a mix of English and my terrible Japanese skills to get the point across are just a few.

However, the students are so active that their energy is contagious. I often find myself laughing as loudly as them in class. They’re intensely competitive, so game lessons are always filled with the most enjoyment!

The English Speaking Society is my favourite part of the school week. Playing board games together, figuring out mysteries or simply chatting with the students has become special.

There’s a strong bond in the club that I wish to continue into the new school year, as new students decide which club to join.

Photo: Khadijah Ali
When talking to the teachers, I try to improve my Japanese little by little while they use English. One teacher especially loves to talk about Bollywood films with me, making the inner Shahrukh Khan fangirl extremely happy.

They’re always recommending new places to visit, and I can’t wait until I’ve seen them all. Kyoto has been my favourite place so far, I was lucky enough to wear a Kimono and see the beautiful autumn maple leaves.

As a Muslim moving to Japan, the most important thing for me was to find a Mosque where I could make friends and hopefully find Halal food (which surprisingly wasn't that hard to do in Osaka.)

There, I met my best friend and made connections I will never forget. Visiting the mosque every Saturday for their weekly program and sharing meals from either Indonesia, Egypt or Pakistan makes Osaka feel like home.

I don’t know what life holds for me next after teaching and living in Japan, but I hope it feels as rewarding as this.

Noted by Khadijah Ali



Part 3

Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 2023

You can actually smell the asados cooking when you walk through the streets. People shouting “¡cambio cambio!” and “¡alfajores!”- words that I will become all too familiar with by the end of May.

It’s not hot yet- I’ve arrived at the end of their winter - it’s September. It will be a couple of months before I experience the enduring heat and intense humidity of living in a tropical city. 

Buenos Aires and the porteños who live there have a strong sense of their national culture and are a proud bunch. There are certain things that they hold close as quintessentially Argentinan - although quite a few descend from the largely Italian part of their population. 

The architecture is European, and you can walk down streets for multiple blocks feeling like you have been transported to Paris. Beef and leather are supreme, second only to football. 

Maradona is god and Messi is his reincarnate, and the Boca vs. River rivalry consumes the majority of my conversations with my Argentinian students. 

The buses smell of mate, and everywhere you go people are carrying thermoses to constantly top up their cups and caffeinate themselves with the herbal tea. 

Pizzas, pastas, and milanesas are the traditional bodegón delicacies aside from the world-class beef and empanadas. “But they are just Italian, right?”, “No, these are Argentinian”. A crucial clarification. People really do dance tango in the streets, and every child wears a football shirt. 

Photo: Daisy Carlisle

Aside from enjoying a delicious £2 bottle of Malbec at every chance, I am here to study and then to work. I came here with a friend from university to do a TEFL course, the only in-person course offered in the city and one that promised a job teaching English upon successful completion.

Looking back on it now, we laugh. There were aspects of it that were spectacular; the grammar teaching, and the experience we gained through observing classes and teaching them ourselves. 

However, for all the glory that is Argentina (and it is really glorious), it became increasingly evident how disastrous the level of organization was, from the tiniest to the largest scales. 

What was meant to be a 5-week course became 7, and certain promises about getting employment were not fulfilled to the extent of which they were made

Students showing up 30-40 minutes late for their 2-hour classes was the norm, and the printing shops were never open during the hours they published. 

Photo: Daisy Carlisle

I grew up in Los Angeles and studied in the UK, where I will call home when I return. Daily life and the art of “getting things done” in Western culture is, for the most part, quick, efficient, reliable, and uncomplicated. 

Argentina demonstrates these foils at practically every turn. Every day is a surprise, and completing 2 errands in 2 hours counts as a great success (especially when one of the errands is getting cash out - crucial in a ‘cash is king’ society). 

As any young person who has lived abroad knows, becoming accustomed to a new city, culture, and way of life has its challenges, some of which may outweigh the fantastic and beautiful experience of a life abroad. 

I got a job teaching English to Argentinian students online. It was not what I expected, however, it has been an incredible experience nonetheless. 

Photo: Daisy Carlisle
My friend and I joke that in each class we put on a “one-woman show” to our students. The classes are personal, as sharing anecdotes about our lives and worldviews become central to language learning.

My students are funny, charming, intelligent, challenging, and have taught me countless things about their worlds. The job demands a lot: focus, attention, time.

It requires diligence and grammatical expertise, and incredible amounts of patience. It can be endlessly entertaining, and sometimes I spend whole lessons just chatting and laughing with my students.

My time in Argentina has been wonderful. I have been able to travel while here and experience everything that the country has to offer.

I have visited jungles and waterfalls, frozen mountain peaks, wine regions, penguin colonies and new cities all in one amazing country.

It has been an experience I would not change for the world.

Noted by Daisy Carlisle


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