After college, like many graduating seniors, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I liked the idea of helping people in some way, and I wanted an adventure. I was afraid of going back home to live with my parents and getting too comfortable. I wanted to be sure that I had the confidence and sense of independence that I needed to move out on my own. I heard about an opportunity to teach English in South Korea that I couldn’t pass up, so I signed a year long contract to teach middle school girls English as a foreign language.
I learned so much while I was there. Of course, I learned about culture, history, Korean pop music (in which you quickly become an expert when you teach middle school girls); and I began developing some foreign language teaching skills. However, spending time navigating and living in the culture provided some of the most valuable lessons.
One thing I began to see was that just because an idea is logical to most people from one culture does not mean it is logical to someone in another. Each culture values different aspects of life. For example, some may value efficiency at the expense of quality of work, but another may value quality work over the number of tasks completed. When I was teaching, I wanted to focus on depth in my lessons. I wanted my students to have a thorough understanding of the material, but over time, I learned that many of my co-teachers seemed more interested in the breadth of material that was shared. Some cultures, such as ours in the USA, tend to pride ourselves in our ability to be independent. Other cultures focus more on contributing to the community and relying on one another. While I wanted to gain independence, I had friends in South Korea whose families expected their children to live with them until they were married. These different approaches to reasoning remind me of Isaiah 55:8 which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” He is able to see the advantages and flaws in our thinking no matter our background. He gave us the ability to use logic, but our perspectives are limited.
I also observed that there are some things that people seem to share no matter where they are or where they are from. People typically value working hard, family, and having fun. The experiences that break our hearts, break theirs too. An act of love here is generally considered an act of love throughout the world (except, of course, certain culture-specific gestures). Students liked writing notes that they folded into intricate shapes to each other and sometimes to me. Some students stopped by my office to chat about their favorite pop stars, and they just wanted me to listen. Empathy is powerful wherever you are.
I also began to realize that we need to show grace and understanding to everyone around us just as James 1:19-20 tells us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We don’t know another person’s perspective or what has shaped it. I remember feeling frustrated by certain ways people acted when I was abroad, but I realized that it was only because I wasn’t used to them. If I had grown up in that culture, I would be frustrated by American culture. I struggled to adjust to little things like the way people passed you on the street on either side instead of defaulting to the right side or how people didn’t create formal lines to get on the bus. They probably wondered why I didn’t just jump on in. It is so easy to jump to conclusions and to throw vitriolic insults at someone because they don’t see the “obvious” solution to a problem. However, we don’t know what life circumstances formed their viewpoint. We have a very narrow perspective, but we are often quick to think that everyone around us has experienced life just as we have. Or we may acknowledge that others have different life experiences, but we don’t acknowledge that their values and ways of reasoning are different than our own.
Finally, I saw that the people with whom we regularly surround ourselves have a huge impact on how we think. There is a reason culture shock and reverse culture shock exist. We are used to responding to certain situations in a nearly subconscious manner. Suddenly, we see our reactions that we never actually thought about having, and we realize that we could and now often should act completely differently. When I first arrived in South Korea, I was concerned about making too much eye contact because it can come across negatively in certain situations in their culture. When I got back home, I had forgotten how to use eye contact as a way of inviting someone into conversation or to show that I am intently listening. Small gestures like eye contact that came naturally before no longer felt normal. I think the influence of those who constantly surround us applies in our everyday lives. Whether we intend to or not, we will act similarly to those we are most often around because it becomes normal and subconscious for us.
I’m glad I didn’t have a job at home lined up after college because I learned so much by spending a significant time abroad. I’m very grateful for the lasting friendships I made and for the people who helped me during my time there. What stories and lessons do you have from your time abroad?
Final note about jobs abroad: if you are considering a job abroad, please do your research to make sure the organization is reputable. Job promises abroad are often used to lure people into dangerous situations.
Interested in tips for moving abroad? See my guest post at Helene in Between.