Living and working abroad seems to be becoming more and more popular amongst our generation these days. Many of us choose to leave after finishing up our undergraduate or master’s degrees, or just before settling down into the “real world.” I caught up with Shannon, a current college professor based in North Carolina, to have a talk about her experience as a Black woman working and living abroad for three years. More specifically living abroad in South Korea. Shannon moved to Busan, South Korea in 2017 after a Seoul vacation opened up her eyes to the possibilities that living there could bring.
What made you finally choose to go teach in Korea?
I’d always been interested in Korean culture. I watched a lot of Korean dramas and listened to a lot of K-Pop when I was younger, so the trip to Seoul just helped make my decisions easier. Plus, I really wanted to live outside the country.
What grade(s) did you teach?
I think they would be the equivalent of high school sophomores and juniors here in America. There’s only three years of high school in Korea; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. I taught 1st and 2nd grade while I was living there.
What was your initial reaction to meeting your first set of students? Since you taught in America before going, it couldn’t have been too bad, right?
Honestly? I was nervous. I was used to American students, but I didn’t know what to expect with these kids. I was shocked when I realized how similar they were to American kids. Personality and interest wise. It was all very similar. I will say my Korean students were way more disciplined than my American students were.
Do you think your skin color impacted your connection to your Korean students?
Kinda. I think it impacted how they initially perceived me? A lot of them had never seen a Black person outside of movies and television, so I don’t think they knew what to think of me at first. Like, when I wore my natural hair I’d come in and they’d say “oooh, Teacher…hip-hop hair!” and I’d just be like, “this isn’t hip-hop hair, this is what natural Black hair looks like sometimes.”
Kind of off topic from teaching, but how do you think Korean’s in general view Black people?
I think it depends on the age group because a lot of the older Korean people have a different kind of mindset, and people our age are neutral and don’t care as much. Younger kids are curious and their thoughts about us stem from however their parents view us a lot of the time. I have a friend who had a younger student that thought Black people were ugly and dirty, just based on what she had been taught at home. A good bit are ignorant like that because they haven’t seen Black people in person, and when they do see us on television and stuff like that we’re sometimes portrayed in a negative light.
Okay, back to teaching. How did you teach your students about our culture?
I’d put it in my lessons as often as I could. I’d try to bring up race politics in America, different things I would see on social media that may be trending that had to do with race. Stuff like that. I tried to talk about the good and the bad. Like, if I was making a PowerPoint of something good, I’d put people of different racial groups with different occupations to show them in different lights. I’d show my students Black people in all sorts of occupations so they’d see that we can do that stuff, too. I also showed a lot of music videos and would have them analyze the videos or something just to get them acquainted with our culture. I really just wanted to help get rid of the stigma surrounding Black people.
What is one thing you took away from your experience? Would you do it again?
I learned how to be alone and really enjoy my alone time. I truly feel like I felt peace within myself. Being detached from everyone like my family and friends for so long helped me learn to enjoy my own company more. It was one of those ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ type journey’s for like three years. The first year was kind of like being in college all over again, I kind of went crazy. The second year I was in my head a lot, but the third year I really found peace. I’d definitely do it again. If I could convince my husband to go back with me, I would.
Any tips for other Black people who might want to look into teaching or living abroad?
Yeah, I think Black people, especially ones from America, need to go with an open mind. A lot of the time as Black people we feel like second class citizens in our own country, but you can’t go to a new country with that mindset. Also, definitely don’t go to a new country feeling entitled. Don’t expect people to speak your language if the first language there isn’t the same as yours. It’s going to be a culture shock, but you have to realize it’s not America. They won’t have the same mindset or history as us, so you can’t assume that they do. Oh, and make sure you either take a lot of hair products with you or research websites where you can get them from in whatever country you go to. That’s something I struggled with a lot in Korea. I eventually found Facebook groups geared towards Black people abroad and in Korea specifically, that pointed me in the right direction. Facebook groups were actually a good resource. Anyways, I’d definitely recommend living abroad at least once in your life if you can though. I think everybody could use the experience.
Want to keep up with Shannon? Check out her personal blog here!