“Where are you from?” the nail salon owner asks. She tilts her head when I say, “America.” “Oh, but you look Korean,” she says confused. “I am,” I try to clarify. “I’m here teaching English.” It’s a conversation I’ve had a few times since I arrived in Korea five months ago, armed with little more than a few Korean words and phrases and scared absolutely stiff. I was born in Busan but adopted to the United States by an American family when I was a baby. I’ve had very little experience with Korean culture, and I was very anxious about it. Little did I know, just how much I would be discovering my heritage om this journey as an English teacher.
In fact, for the first week before teaching training, I said almost nothing to anyone. Looking into so many faces that looked like my own, I was overcome with an odd sense of guilt and nerves. Feeling disappointed in myself for not speaking the language, I was panicked inside that I didn’t learn more about my culture before coming here. Thankfully, a lot of those worries gradually dissipated over time. One step at a time, I achieved some small goals. Ordering at a restaurant — pointing at the menu and all — purchasing something by myself (without the helpful presence of my non-Asian husband), and practicing the little Korean I do know in daily life.
Taking the Plunge
It’s scary to come to a new country certainly — I almost talked myself out of it so many times. But every day, I’m so grateful I took the plunge. For the first time, I fully pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve made new friends, some of whom I feel like I could have for the rest of my life. I’ve traveled. I’ve confronted my social anxiety. I’m learning little bits about where I come from and practicing a language that was actually the first sound I heard after birth. Discovering my heritage has been extraordinary.
College To Korea
I first decided to teach English in Korea during my senior year of college, many years ago. It was just a pipe dream then. When my mom got sick, I put things off indefinitely. It was a good decision, since I was home when she eventually passed away. Life got in the way then, and I struggled to put that dream to rest. I tried to shake it off — and failed. It remained, a cloying reminder of things I lost and dreams unrealized.
One day, I decided I’d had enough. It was time to make it happen. And I did. I talked to some friends, one of whom had a friend who’d worked for Chungdahm, and she put me in touch with Aclipse. She gave me the real talk of the things that were great and the things that could be difficult. Pay was good, but they were strict, she explained. The curriculum was set, and there was CCTV at all times in the classroom. It protects you, she said. But it can also make you feel nervous. Thankfully, I’ve never had an issue with it, and I mostly forget about it during class.
Finding the Groove
All in all, I’m really lucky that I found such a good home with my school. I was placed in Daejeon, roughly the middle of the country, in a kindergarten program called i-Garten. Every day, I come to school smiling. Partially for the kids and partially because I’m proud of myself for taking the leap. I get to make a difference in the kids’ lives every day and get to know a part of myself I never got to. At 30, I’m having the time of my life, meeting new people, traveling the world, and learning more about myself. Everyone’s experience is different, but I wouldn’t trade mine for the world.
Rebekah Alcalde: Born in Busan, South Korea, Rebekah was adopted to the United States when she was five months old. She was an avid reader and writer, pursuing a degree in English from the Catholic University of America. Originally interested in teaching secondary education English literature, she served as a private tutor and substitute teacher before switching careers. She served as an assistant editor for a local newspaper and as a freelance marketing, communications and social media associate for several years before realizing her dream of teaching English abroad in South Korea. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, spending time with her husband and new friends, exploring Korea, and saying “yes” to everything in Korea she can.