Expat Interview With Zannah - American Living in South Korea

Published: 15 May at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Korea South
Between studying Japanese throughout school and setting her sights on pursuing a career in education, it seemed inevitable that Zannah Smreker would end up teaching in Asia. It took being laid off from a post-university retail job to finally give her the push she needed, and she took the leap all the way to Incheon, South Korea in November of 2011. So far, her love affair with ESL teaching in the ROK has been exciting, rewarding, and amazing. She writes about her adventures and life as an expat on her blog, I'm a wandering soul (see listing here)

Meet Zannah - US expat in South Korea
Meet Zannah - US expat in South Korea

Here's the interview with Zannah...

Where are you originally from?
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I was living in Austin, Texas before moving abroad.

In which country and city are you living now?
Incheon, South Korea.

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I arrived in November 2011, am currently contracted through August of 2014, and am considering staying even longer!

Why did you move and what do you do?
As much as I loved my life back home, I'd been entertaining the idea of teaching English abroad ever since studying Japanese in high school -- where my teacher told us about various programs. After getting laid off from a retail job where I was basically spinning my wheels post-university graduation, I decided to look into teaching. The struggling U.S. economy meant finding a teaching position at home would be difficult, so the timing just felt right to finally go abroad. I work at a private English academy, or hagwon, which is part of a large chain of academies all over South Korea, teaching elementary through middle schoolers.

Beautiful ceiling at Gyeongbuk Palace in Seoul
Beautiful ceiling at Gyeongbuk Palace in Seoul
Did you bring family with you?
Nope, I made this leap all by myself!

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Honestly, it was extremely comfortable. This was my first time traveling abroad, so even though I'd lived away from home since starting university and felt extremely self-sufficient, I was anxious. But the transition into life in South Korea was almost effortless -- this is a modern country with nearly everything I would want or need from back home. I was also lucky to be placed at a school with twelve other foreign teachers, many of whom also live in my apartment building. Having support from other expats as soon as I arrived definitely made the first few months of finding my way around much easier.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
Being placed at an academy with a large expat staff made it easy to make friends, and I feel like it set me up to mostly socialize with other expats -- it becomes very easy to live in a little English bubble. I also went through a week of training when I arrived, so I made quite a few friends within my training class and we've kept in touch over the past year. I have made some Korean friends, but largely my friend group is other expats.

Buddha's Birthday lantern-making in Incheon
Buddha's Birthday lantern-making in Incheon
What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Korea is a beautiful country and I feel like I've barely even begun to explore it. Get lost, eat street food, stay out all night, go hiking, stay at a Buddhist temple for a weekend, do all the sightseeing you can at temples and palaces, find quirky cafes, go shopping in the subway stations... I've been impressed with the resources I've found online, from official tourism websites to other expat bloggers. The best recommendation I can give is just to go exploring. There's so much to do and see! Enjoy it.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
Everything. I mean that -- the food, the people, the culture, the sightseeing, the nightlife, the travel options... Korea is wonderful. I'm in love with this country and my life here. Teaching has been rewarding and fun, I have a great group of friends, and there's always something fun or interesting to go do.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
Overall, I would say the cost of living is cheaper here than back in the U.S. I've been able to live very comfortably and still send a nice amount of money home each month to pay down my student loans, car, credit cards, etc. However, it is very easy to spend too much money on imported foreign food and products, which are often more expensive here than they would be at home, and that can make your cost of living increase.

Korean traditional marching band performing at the Folk Village in Suwon
Korean traditional marching band performing at the Folk Village in Suwon
If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Research everything. As you're looking into jobs here, especially in the English teaching domain, really, really do your homework. I've been fortunate in my experience with a private academy because it's with one of the larger academy companies in the country, so I wasn't at a great risk of being tricked by shady owners, but that is a thing that happens. That being said, don't believe everything you read online. I found, before coming here, that there are a lot of very negative, bitter people, and the internet is just the tool they need to vent their frustration. Don't take it to heart. There's plenty of positive, yet honest, information out there for you. Contact bloggers. Find a way to e-mail people at the school you're looking into. Get all the information, and keep a good attitude.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
I miss my dog. And, obviously, I miss my family and friends as well. Skype and free text messaging apps, in addition to Facebook and good old e-mail, have made it easy to keep in touch and feel like I'm not really that far away, which has been great. It's been hardest missing events back home -- from weddings to road trips, it's a bummer to realize you can't be there. However, it is completely possible to Skype-attend a wedding, birthday party, or even a concert, and I quite like that I have those memories (and the screenshots!) as part of my expat experience.

Feeling a bit like Aladdin in a templestay uniform at Golgulsa Temple
Feeling a bit like Aladdin in a templestay uniform at Golgulsa Temple
What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Embrace the adventure. Things are going to be strange, crazy, confusing, and wonderful. Just roll with it. If you keep a positive, friendly attitude, you'll be pleased to see how far it gets you. The frustration of a language barrier is softened significantly if you can smile and be patient with the situation.
  2. Let yourself wander and get lost. Exploring for the sake of exploring is rewarding and a great way to get to know a new place. Don't be afraid and remember that most of the time, the worst case scenario is you get lost and you'll have to find someone to help you. Which really isn't so bad.
  3. Don't be afraid to try new things. This means foods, tourist trips, participating in public events or festivals -- anything. Can't tell what that is on your plate? Take a bite. See a cool tourist trip but don't have anyone to go with? Go alone, you'll make friends. Are you being singled out at a festival as the only foreigner in the immediate vicinity? Smile, laugh, enjoy it, and get some great pictures.
  4. Learn about the culture. I found my culture shock was softened greatly by having a decent amount of knowledge about Asian customs, manners, food, etc. That being said, I still read up on Korea in particular. Other blogs were the biggest help, actually, especially ones by other ESL teachers. They gave me a good idea of what to expect as a teacher.
  5. Again, do your research about any potential jobs or places you would live. Find all the information you can, so you can make informed decisions. Don't be afraid to be a little assertive (especially if dealing with a recruiter) -- make sure you get all of your questions answered before making a commitment to a job.

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
My blog began somewhat as a record for myself, but mostly as a way to keep in touch with my family and friends. I figured entries with lots of pictures and funny anecdotes would help with keeping everyone updated on my life. As I wrote more, I noticed my blog's readership growing and becoming much wider than I'd anticipated, which was great. I blog about my life in Korea, various trips or vacations I take, cool things I do around the greater Seoul area, and things I like to eat. Hopefully, everyone from my family to complete strangers will find it entertaining, interesting, and helpful!

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
For any questions, check out the "Contact" page on my blog -- it has all of my information, or just leave a comment on an entry! You can also find me on Twitter: @zannahrose! I'm always happy to answer any questions about moving to or living in South Korea!

Zannah blogs at http://zannahinkorea.blogspot.com which we recommend a quick visit if you haven't been already. I'm a wandering soul has an ExpatsBlog.com listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Zannah, please also drop her a quick comment below.

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