A millennial from the Finger Lakes region of western New York. My parents raised my younger brother and me to be strong, social, self-reliant, cultured, creative, outdoor-loving individuals. My father grew up in Chinatown, New York City, while my mother is from rural, western New York- they met in college in the Outdoor Education program. My family is biracial: Chinese-Irish American. I never fully realized how the few and tiny differences which set our family apart from the majority of the small town had really affected my self concept and how I perceived others, until much later on in my life. My brother is two years younger than I am, and we were fairly close growing up. Our parents were not the wealthiest, but they were wonderful parents who worked hard to provide us with healthy adventures and positive experiences throughout our childhood- we were lucky there. Along the way, we’ve had some difficult times, some differences, and a lot of distance (my mom & Rich: the west coast; my dad, aunts, uncles, cousins & grandparents: the east coast; my brother & his lovely girlfriend: Colorado), but I am exceedingly grateful for every little life lesson each family member has taught me, whether they’d meant to or not.
Summer camp at 4H Bristol Hills was always something my brother and I would look forward to. There, we had mentors and role models, made friends and learned so much about ourselves and our capabilities. I was a struggling student in high school with little motivation and connected with few teachers and peers. I spent my summers as a senior counselor, ropes facilitator, and lifeguard from the year 2000, til 2004. To this day, I am exceedingly grateful for the examples and skills my seniors had provided me with and the chance to give back to the camp. At the end of my last summer in Bristol Hills, I additionally worked at a rotary camp called Onseyawa for children with special needs on Seneca Lake. There, I was a senior counselor, program director and lifeguard. These were my first jobs as a teen, and they were eye opening experiences for leadership, self concept, alternative education and special education.
I hadn’t declared a major in college til my junior year. Both of my parents majored in Outdoor Education at SUNY Cortland, and since that was the only thing I felt confident doing, I thought I might as well follow in their footsteps, or join the fine arts program, but I was afraid I’d struggle finding work with these degrees and would never dig myself out of student debt. I continued to complete required liberal arts courses and electives such as art, design, and French. I’d found myself studying photography and graphic design through an exchange program for a semester in London, my sophomore year. The historic and diverse city opened up opportunities to visit countless museums, to converse with various nationalities about world issues and politics, and to travel affordably to neighboring countries. When I returned to New York, I finally declared a major in International Relations and French and was looking forward to begin a program alongside students with similar interests as my own. In Nice, France, I’d spent the summer of 2007 taking courses in the language as well as European Trade and Economics. By the time the program finished and after taking time to travel around the country solo, I’d found myself confidently listening and speaking at an intermediate level of fluency. I was ecstatic that those ten years of French classes had finally paid off, some! To gloat, a notable point for myself on that trip was when other European tourists would take me for a local resident and ask me in beginner French for directions around the city.
Life After College
Despite my recent achievements and having the time of my life in France, I suddenly felt I was back at square one with no idea what would come next. I applied as a substitute teacher in my hometown at the Canandaigua, New York School district with another friend who had recently graduated. Although, I’d checked boxes for areas in social studies, French, history, special ed, fine arts, and every age level on my application, of course I was valued most for my experience with children of special needs. I was glad my brief experience with special education would be of some use, and the job was rewarding. I only struggled to understand why there was no one else more qualified, available. One day, a co-worker presented an advertisement for a TEFL certification course, which was available in my hometown, as well as New York City. This, I thought, could be my next step.
I thought if I’m so interested in world cultures, what am I doing in western New York, and why don’t I get to know New York City and my grandmother in Chinatown better? I left home in December of 2007 to live with my grandmother in the big city. Shortly after the move, I was sitting in a classroom taking the TEFL certification course in TriBeCa. In order to support myself, I had to work full time in retail on Broadway with a diverse staff from inner city neighborhoods, and interned at a contemporary Chinese art gallery with the elite of NYC for the experience. After some thought about where I might want to move abroad to teach English, I chose Turkey. My academic advisor from college thought it ridiculous and told me I should be applying for a job in a French speaking country. I knew she was right, but I wanted at least a year in a culture outside of Europe, to experience something different. Istanbul’s Eur-Asian culture seemed to be an ideal compromise. Alas, I was unable to find a job in Turkey which could support my financial needs. Although my time with my grandmother in Chinatown was precious, when I told her I would extend my sojourn in NYC through the summer, we both agreed I should find a place of my own. I lived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn for a few months and then moved to Park Slope for a few more. One of my roommates told me her boyfriend was living in South Korea, and she just found an editing job in Seoul and would move there the following Spring. I didn’t know a thing about this Asian country, but I spoke to a recruiter and soon enough, I, too, would be on my way to Korea.
Teaching English in Korea
My flight landed in Seoul on the first of May 2009, and I began teaching English three days later to students grades K-6 in an after school academy, branded YBM-ECC. I taught Monday through Friday from nine o’clock in the morning til eight at night. We had few breaks and hardly any time to create a curriculum or even develop lesson plans, so most classes were executed spontaneously. Most teachers, like myself developed a rhythm and rolled with the punches. My employer was kind, reliable and flexible, but I quickly learned that her business, like the hundreds of other after-school academies, thrived off the image of success more often than the students’ true development. This is when I first began to understand the heavy social pressures and education culture in Korea. Though I felt a bit disappointed, I embraced the situation and have tried to make the best of it for the students and myself.
After several months into my new life in Korea, I received news that I had been accepted for the teaching position I’d applied for in sub Saharan Africa with the Peace Corps. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to put my French and teaching skills to use in a community, I believed at the time, to be in true need of my efforts. I completed the rest of my paperwork to solidify my placement in Togo or Ghana, and I went in for all of the vaccinations, but then I had a change of heart. I wanted to go to Africa so very much, but I weighed the financial consequences of volunteering for two years against staying in Korea. It was not an easy decision to make – I chose to stay at YBM-ECC for three and a half years more, and then I was offered a job at Hanyang Elementary School. The opportunity never arose for me to become the head teacher at YBM-ECC, but I left feeling highly valued by my employer and very appreciative for my experience with the company.
I have been working at Hanyang Elementary since March 2013. It’s a comfortable job with more vacation time to travel to neighboring Southeast Asian countries on occasion, but the social politics of this reputable, private school limits efficacy and teacher collaboration and can be quite lonely. For the past four years, I’ve taught second, first, and sixth grade English. I have recently been appointed as the senior native head teacher. I enjoy this job because we are given plenty of creative freedom when planning our syllabus. Legally and administratively, the job has gone through many changes these past few years regarding equal opportunity for students from families with lower incomes, eradicating English immersion programs and diminishing corruption in public school administrations. I was teaching each student at least two to three times each week the first two years, but now it’s hardly once a week. I miss the rapport I used to build with students when I saw them frequently each week. As I watch these students face so much pressure from society to consistently perform at high standards I hope that I am somehow making a difference in my classroom by emphasizing creative expression, critical thought and providing a fun and safe atmosphere. Although I have my frustrations with the job, it’s a good job, but I’d like to find a teaching opportunity abroad, which allows me to grow in new ways personally and professionally.
I’d decided to apply for a spot in the Framingham State International Education Masters Program Cohort, located in Seoul, South Korea. I’m currently taking this course alongside twenty energetic, hardworking and and passionate English teachers from various countries, who also work at private elementary schools in Seoul, like myself.
Although I’ve contemplated starting my own blog for over two years now, the EDU 932 Multimedia and Tech in the Classroom course has forced me into a jump start.
After completing this degree, I hope to have not only gained a great amount of wisdom and useful skills as an elementary school teacher. I have endless confidence in my cohort members and I believe that our positive energy and various points of view have already enhanced our program experience.
Life After Korea?
Tentative plans have been discussed to leave Korea sometime within six months to two years. Who knows? What I do know is that it will be absolutely heartbreaking to leave my job, my apartment, Han River bike rides & runs, hikes, the food, close friends, the customs, and more. Why would I leave? I want more, and Korea will always be here. I’d like to spend time catching up with, if not being temporarily present with, my close friends and family back home. I want to challenge myself in new ways, with new languages, new customs, and a different job. I want to have a family of my own someday. I’d like to feel a bit more involved with the local community as well, which has been difficult at times in Korea. As much as I love teaching, I’m beginning to feel what I believe is ‘burn-out’. Extended travel, a long trek or bike ride, or exploring a new profession may be in order sooner than later- let’s see how everything plays out.