South Korea's Battle Between Old and New

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) was my escape. It was an escape from working temporary jobs to pay the bills, but most importantly, it was an escape from answering the difficult question of, “What next?”

TEFL has become a popular escape for young adults from the English speaking world. In Korea alone, there were about 20,000 foreigners listed as English teachers in 2010. I became one of the thousands in July after moving to Osan, South Korea to teach English at a high school.

At the Korean immigration office in Suwon, I received a compliment from a Korean man, “Your English is very good!” he said. “Thank you, I’ve been practicing my entire life,” was my reply.

From that moment on, I knew my experience would be different from that of my white colleagues.

Korea has been undergoing rapid change. From a once-poor and traditionally hierarchical nation, Korea has become an economic powerhouse in Asia. With the advent of this financial gain came the English language as well as migrant workers seeking a better life.

It is hard to find a statistic of the number of South Asians currently residing in Korea. However, I have met many men from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore who work as engineers for large South Korean firms such as Samsung or LG Electronics.

Perhaps this is why my students were confused when I told them I am Canadian. “You’re not Canadian, you’re Indian!” said one. South Koreans are rarely subtle. In fact, I have often been handed whitening cream samples at the local E-mart, a popular department store.

Diversity is becoming a reality in Korea, as is Westernization.

While on vacation in Jeju, the socialist self-governing island off the southern coast of Korea, my friends and I visited the small town of Seongsan. After hiking up a mountain, we came upon a woman practicing her Buddhist faith behind the window of a coffee shop. Later that night, venturing for some fried chicken and beer, we heard Justin Bieber blaring on the radio, only to realize it was coming from the coffee shop where we heard the ambient sounds of the wooden fish in the morning. Behind the window, the Buddhist woman was serving iced coffee to tourists.

With such rapid change, it is no wonder why some Koreans try to hold steadfast onto their traditions. The world that they knew has turned upside down in a matter of years. But at what point can progress overtake tradition?

Diversity is progress in a country that has been largely homogenous for years.

But is English progress?

English, despite being the language of colonizers, is a means of global communication and therefore, a way to connect. English does not mean the eradication of other languages. In fact, in an increasingly globalized world, it has become more important than ever to hold on to language.

What I try to teach my students, more so than English, is to respect other cultures and broaden their horizons.

While searching for an escape, I found South Korea. Behind the battle between old and new, I see borders faltering, relationships forming, and diversity becoming something to celebrate.

As for “What’s next?” That is still up in the air.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons