Sitting TOPIK and asking myself why…..

As I sat there, the red-headed beacon in the sea of monochrome hair that was the TOPIK ( Test of proficiency in Korean)exam hall, I asked myself if it was all really worth it.  The weeks of stress, the nights of Korean vocabulary filled dreams, the nightmares of not having filled the self-imposed daily study quota, was I sure I wanted to be part of this?

In my four years living here, nobody has ever stopped me up on the street and asked me what my TOPIK level is. In fact, most people I know don’t even know what TOPIK is. If I burst out a simple Korean phrase in my everyday life, sometimes as simple as hello, Koreans fall over themselves telling me how amazing I am. Great. Fantastic,so smart!  What was that grammar point for disputing a statement? Oh ya,(ㄹ)…하기는요. I remember because it’s the only one I get to use on a regular basis. So why do it? Work,study at work, home, dinner, study, bed as a routine for months and months makes me question myself. During those months, I wake up in the middle of the night to check a certain word, is it 행동하다 or 동행하다  and if the one I didn’t need is actually a real word what does it mean? This is how it goes for months.I revise and practice previous questions with my teacher where I learn the most useless vocabulary. Why does anyone need to know the Korean word for the soon to be married couple?Why? Why I ask you? Can I slip this into everyday conversation? I think not.

As I look around, I’m desperate to see someone who looks like they might be in the same boat as me. But in that room of 40 hopefuls, there are no other native English speakers. In fact, every other person in the room is from Asia, the realisation of which causes an appearance of the awkward turtle.Sitting away in the corner, Paddy Irishman.  As soon as I arrived at the centre, the whole thing took a turn for the worst. I sat alone in my car doing some last-minute revision when a coach load of candidates pulls up and they all enter, not a book or notebook in sight, looking as if they were doing the test for the good of their health. Maybe they were. Maybe that’s why some people do the TOPIK.  My friends, who are Ph.d students in a university in Seoul, do the exams because they have to. They must pass a certain level in order to receive their degrees.  They take classes in Korean and receive very generous scholarships so that’s a pretty great motivation to get their TOPIK. For me though, honestly, it’s so I have something to aim for. I won’t study properly if I’m not working my way toward a goal. For all the stress and randomness, TOPIK is that goal so that’s ultimately why I sit the test. Well, that and the whole thing will give me something to talk about with my friends.

Sitting there wondering if I look Korean enough to blend in, I can’t help but laugh as my thoughts roam to the person who’s going to be unfortunate enough to be correcting my test. I can read Korean as fast as a 4-year-old can so by the time I’ve read and answered questions 31-45, I have about 20 minutes to questions 45-60. So it’s a case of looking for some words whose meaning I don’t know, looking at the answer, finding a few of the same words and guessing the answer.  When did I think it was a good idea to sit this level and is there a limit on the amount of times you can sit this test? This is pretty much how I look during the exam…….

Crazy

On the bright side, there are some super interesting characters in this room. The people who don’t understand what “don’t open the test paper yet” means, the yawners, the gum chewers, the clickers and the guy behind you who keeps passing gas, it all adds up to the silver lining.

So that’s me and my TOPIK thoughts for now. Ironically, my next blog is going to be the 10 most useful Korean phrases! As ever, leave your comments below ( preferably in Korean, we all know I could do with the practice!)

Korea- 4 years on

This week marks my four-year anniversary in Korea. I can still remember the day I landed in Incheon as if it was yesterday. I remember exactly what I was wearing. How the cleanliness of the terminal impressed me, meeting my recruiter, being terrified in the car because we were driving on the “wrong” side and going to school where the children thought I was a man!

I’d love to know what my co teachers thought of me that first day. Back then I had super short hair and was paler than I am now. That first night, the other foreign teachers, Michelle and Garrett let me off with staying in but from the second night, we were out and about. And I mean “we” since I had to be escorted to and from everywhere because everything looked the same to me! After two weeks though, I had gotten the swing of things and was let out solo.

The finest piece of advice I heard in those first few weeks was from Nathan, who was part of the Geumchon Crew and still a good friend. On the train to Seoul he said that when you come to Korea you only have 52 weekends to see and do everything so any weekend you don’t go out and do something is wasted time. During that first year, my friends and I hit up all the big museums, events,festivals and did a few foreign trips for the long weekends.

The learning curve that first year was incredible. Before then I had never taught in a classroom, let alone taught English to Korean children. I’d never been to Asia before coming here and I’d never lived quite so far away from home before. But after the initial “what am I doing here” shock, life just fell into place like it would anywhere else.

When I left for Korea, my mission was to let my hair grow long. Here’s how that worked out over the years…..

This is us at our co teachers wedding a few weeks after I arrived.

1sy ye

                        This is when I visited my sister after my first contract.

2nd

                                            Beginning of my second contract.

2nd2

Now

heli bar

What have I learned?

A good attitude is half the battle. Not every day is going to be sunshine and roses so don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Ask for help if you need it. In relation to teaching, over prepare, then just go with the flow. These days, teaching is like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Not every student is going to get it. Revel in the small achievements of your students. Don’t take it too seriously, remember somewhere in the chaos to have a bit of fun.   Your friends are your family here so make sure you have some good ones. Take opportunities no matter how small they seem and just do things. Don’t over think things.

Am I the same person?

Being here has changed how I think about things. I’m more open to new ideas and ways of doing things now. I question more now that I’ve been here. Travelling has made me slightly braver than I used to be. Now, I’m more willing to accept mistakes and take risks.

Regrets?

I try my hardest in life not to have regrets. If I were to do something differently, I would have bought my car earlier. That car has made everything so much easier for me. I would have also started seriously studying Korean earlier. I only started to really study after about 2 years and now it’s only so so for someone who has been around for four years. But, I’m studying hard now and I guess that’s what counts. Other than that, I would have done everything else the exact same.

Highlights?

The people I’ve met. I have some of the best friends anyone could ask for. I’ve met loads of interesting characters along the way and hopefully that will continue. The places I’ve seen. Climbing the Great Wall and trekking across the Gobi have got to be on the top of the memories from travelling. The things I’ve achieved that I never thought I would (car, driver’s licence, TOPIK, being in a band).

Stay or go?

Stay, at least for another year. I’ve just signed a new contract at my school and things in my life in general are going well. I’m playing lots of Irish music, I play in a World music band,  I have lots of friends, good social life. I have it on good authority that someone I’m related to might be joining me here in the next few months. I still haven’t gone to all the countries I want to go to. Honestly, right now I have no real interest in going home or going anywhere else. I’ve invested a lot in learning Korean and building up a life here so I’d like to take that a little further if I could.

Advice for anyone who wants to come over? 

In ten years, it’s the things you don’t do that you’ll regret, not the things you do. If you want to come to Asia and teach, travel, have an adventure, just do it. It’s not going to fantastic everyday but most days will be pretty good. You learn a lot about what you’re capable of by challenging yourself to do something like this. You meet loads of people who you wouldn’t have otherwise met and it gives you an opportunity to do things differently.  Bring a good attitude and look at it as the start of a new adventure.