Global Connections #7: Working abroad in a pandemic

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Podcast Transcript: Global Connections #7: Working abroad in a pandemic

Guests: Mary Heng

Episode 7: Working abroad in a pandemic


Xiao Yun  0:00

Thank you for joining me here today. Mary, it’s so nice to see you. It’s been, I don’t know, two years since we last met.


Mary Heng  0:09

It’s nice to see you.


Xiao Yun  0:11

Yes. Even though we are not able to meet in person, we are still able to zoom in together. And thank you for joining me from South Korea, 14 or 13 hours ahead of me?


Mary Heng  0:24

14 hours. It’s 8:10pm right now. So I’m already finished with my day of work. So thanks for getting up early as well.


Xiao Yun  0:32

Yeah, it’s the thing that I want to do just to meet you, Mary. To our audiences who don’t know, Mary, Mary, do you want to share a little about yourself and where are you currently and what are you doing?


Mary Heng  0:46

Of course, my name is Mary, and I’m currently living in South Korea as an English teacher. I live in a rural town called Yeong Cheon. It’s about 100,000 people. And it’s right outside of Daegu, which is Korea’s fourth largest cities. So I’m pretty much in the center of Korea. And I teach elementary school in grit, English, grades 3,4,5 and 6. So I have about 700 students, and I teach with a co-teacher every day and the program is called EPIK, which is the English Program in Korea, and it’s the Korean Ministry of Education Program. So I came here, and almost a year I was gonna say, a year and a half a year in three months ago. So I just started my second year here.


Xiao Yun  1:37

Nice. Yeah, I remember it was when I first started. It was the year that I first started my master’s program. And I remember, in the midst of preparing,


Mary Heng  1:47

I was prepping to come.


Xiao Yun  1:49

Uh huh. Was it like at the midst of February was when you left to Korea in


Mary Heng  1:56

I decided I wanted to go to Korea a while before that. So I applied to the program and about August of 2019. You know, before we even knew what Coronavirus was. And I actually moved to Korea about two days before the pandemic really hit hard here. I left February 16, or 17th. And Korea had a couple cases then, but I didn’t have to wear mask on my flight over anything. And then my second or third day here things really cracked down and we all had to wear masks and stay inside. So it’s been it’s been a while now but I’m still really enjoying it. Yeah,


Xiao Yun  2:37

I know that your undergrad you did Global Studies and Spanish or something not really related to teaching English or education setting in general. Is that because your study abroad experience that you did in undergrad that prompted you to like, oh, maybe I could go to Korea to teach English or like, what’s the reason behind you saying yes, going to Korea?


Mary Heng  3:01

Yeah, well, I’ve always wanted to teach abroad since I was younger, I did a study abroad in Spain when I was 16. I spent my entire junior year of high school in Spain. So I kind of caught the travel bug then. And then in the summer of 2018. I went to Taiwan for a couple of weeks. So that really piqued my interest in, you know, being independent traveler worldwide, I guess. So that’s kind of what made me decide to move abroad. And I think, even though I don’t have any experience in teaching, and teaching English is a way that you can move abroad very quite easily. And so I found a program and I moved over here, just kind of for the sake of living abroad. And I’ve really loved teaching since then. And I love all my students. So it’s been teaching for the first time has been interesting for me, but it’s been it’s been good. I like it. Yay. That’s so good to hear.


Xiao Yun  3:59

But I know that you did mention that you moved to Korea, like two days before it hit the pandemic hit us. And it was like a really, I would say a really weird transition. But how was your transition to Korea during the pandemic? Like what were the things that you realize it was so different when you arrived in Korea?


Mary Heng  4:22

Yeah, well, all I really know of Korea is like Corona Korea, I’ve never been here and non pandemic times. Um, but something that I’ve noticed immediately at least comparing to what I’ve been seeing back home is how how Korea has handled handled the pandemic. And everyone here diligently wears masks. You know, it’s never been a question of should I should and I, everyone has taken it really seriously from the beginning. So that’s something I noticed right off the bat. And like for example, contract contact tracing here has been great, you know, Anytime I go to a restaurant here, I scan a QR code that I have on my phone, and they take my temperature. So I feel really safe wherever I go. In case I’m in contact with anybody in the general vicinity, I know that someone will give me a text or call and make sure that I get tested. So just in a general sense of how Korea has handled the pendant pandemic versus the USA, that’s a big difference that I noticed.


Xiao Yun  5:26

Yeah, I think like for sure. And I think for me, having from Malaysia and my family back home, it’s also the difference of like, tried to communicate with them that yes, we are protecting ourselves here in us. And meanwhile, yes, self contact tracing and how they handle COVID is different. But still, you are still able to, you know, do the things to protect yourself and protect others. But you did mention that you are co teaching with 700 to 700 students have a lot of students. What do you think are some of the challenges that you have met when you first begin, teaching?


Mary Heng  6:12

Yeah, well, like I said, I didn’t have any teaching experience prior to coming here. So I really had no idea what to expect. And some challenges. I guess the biggest challenge I’ve encountered while teaching is literally that my students just don’t know any English at all. I live, like I said in a rural town, so they don’t come into contact with a lot of English. So I’m really happy to have a Korean co teacher with me, because if the students don’t understand, we try our best to work it out in English, and then a Korean co teacher can step in and help if we need it. But definitely, as I’ve taught longer and longer with the students I’ve done with them over a year, now they have a lot more confidence now. And I can see how their English is getting so much better. And even if they don’t know what they’re trying to say we we somehow all work it out and they have a lot more confidence. And I can tell their ability is so much better now. So that’s so fun to see,


Xiao Yun  7:07

That’s so good to hear. It’s really nice to see the rapport and the relationship you are able to build with students. And if they don’t even speak any English, you are still able to communicate in that way. And that’s just really beautiful to see, I would say.


Mary Heng  7:23

I was thinking the other day, I had some special education students in my classes that really just are not grasping English at all. But I still feel like I had such a special relationship with them. Because we can still play you know, little memory games or matching games while everyone else is doing homework or something. So I’ve loved being able to build those little relationships too.


Xiao Yun  7:46

Mm hmm. But like, talking about like cultural differences from us, and Korea, what were some of like the notice noticeable differences or similarities?


Mary Heng  7:59

Yeah, I guess I talked a little bit about how Korea handles the pandemic differently. That would be a big difference that I’ve noticed. But another huge one I’ve noticed kind of keeping on the topic of schools is just how intense the schooling is here and how focused these kids are. Like I said, I teach third through sixth grade. So my third graders are eight years old. And and the first day of school, I always asked them, Oh, do you have any questions about me? And they asked Mary teacher, what’s your university? Which to me, you’re like, you’re eight years old? Why are you thinking about University already. And they all have little signs on their desks that say, I guess it’s translated to my goal is Seoul University, and they’re eight years old. Um, so it’s definitely been a big difference for me to see how focused these kids are and how determined they are to go to a good university. And I’ve heard too, you know, I don’t teach in a high school. But I have friends that have taught in a high school here, who said the students go to school at 7am or 8am. And they study at school until 11pm. And even one of my co teachers told me that when he was in high school, his junior year, his mom would pick him up at 11pm and take him to the library until 1:30am to keep studying to be able to go to a good university. So that’s just been a huge, huge difference from the United States for me, because for high school, in the United States, it’s still difficult but it’s a lot more relaxed. You know, we go play sports at school and we hang out with friends, but it’s just not as much of a thing here. So that’s been a huge, huge difference I’ve noticed even in elementary school stages,


Xiao Yun  9:48

wow. I i in a shock I from 7 to 11pm and having to go to a library after Do not


Mary Heng  10:01

I do not know how they handle it?


Xiao Yun  10:04

I know that like a friend of mine who’s from Korea that I’ve met here in University of Nebraska Lincoln, she told me that their sort of SAT that can be comparable to SAT here in the US, it’s really, really hard, like the English questions that they have at the math questions that they have are from next level intense for them. And while that’s just a little, a lot of hard work that needs to go into in prepping to attend a higher education institution.


Mary Heng  10:38

Yeah, and that test you’re talking about is so crazy. Um, I actually the the day that the test was happening, I was walking to school, and I noticed there was like, no cars on the street, like, there were no kids walk into school. And I asked my co teacher like, what’s going on? Where is everybody? And they told me that all of the schools in Korea, at least middle schools, and some elementary schools will start at 10am that day instead of eight, so that the roads are open. So all the high schoolers can get to that sh t type test with ease. And if you need a police escort, the police will escort you to the test. And actually, for a portion of the test, the listening part of the test, they shut down all airways in Korea, so no flights land or take off for like a 15 minute period or eight minute period. I’m not sure. So it’s just it’s for me just totally something new. I would never see that happening in the United States at all.


Xiao Yun  11:41

Wow, that’s so different from


Mary Heng  11:44

no different. Yeah.


Xiao Yun  11:46

Like, it’s like a whole country movement, and where they really make sure that there’s no outside or external disturbance that would affect Korean students,


Mary Heng  11:58

and they really want all of their students to succeed.


Xiao Yun  12:01

Well, that’s just interesting to hear from your perspective coming in from you, us where we have a different higher education system. And yeah, I noticed that like the, I would say that from for me, the first thing that I realized when I arrived from Malaysia to US, was the metric system of switching to Fahrenheit switching to Miles, like, how is that for you? Like, I know that in Korea, do they use like, Celsius?


Mary Heng  12:35

kilograms, kilometers, all of that. And like I said, I lived in Spain for a year and that whole year, I could not grasp Celsius, and even hear coming up. Coming into my second year for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around Celsius, I still have my phone in Fahrenheit. I know. I always know. Okay, 30 is hot and zero is cold. And in between, I just have to translate it. I’ve not been the best at that. But in general, I don’t drive here and I don’t I teach English. So I don’t do a lot with the metric system. So it’s not been a huge problem. But it’s definitely something I share with my students that they think is really funny that, oh, it can be 90 degrees in the USA. I’m like, Yeah, can you think it’s so funny?


Xiao Yun  13:25

Would you say that up you being international person in Korea, but translate how an international student is in United States? Would you think that there are similarities?


Mary Heng  13:41

I think there would be a lot of similarities and differences. But something that I’ve noticed here, kind of an example of this of a difference is that if I’m in a restaurant or talking to a teacher in my school, and maybe we’re having a language barrier moment where we’re not really sure what’s happening, and we’re trying to communicate, it’s always the Korean person that apologizes for not speaking English, which I think I’m like, I’m the one that’s in Korea. I should be speaking Korean. Why are you apologizing for not speaking English? And I think that in the United States, if a Korean student were to come to Lincoln, Nebraska, I can’t imagine a waiter or somebody say, Oh, I’m sorry, my Korean is so bad. I wish I could help more. So I’ve noticed everyone here is super accommodating and always wanting to learn English and learn about the USA. So that’s a difference I’ve noticed for sure.


Xiao Yun  14:41

Yeah, but it’s got to be your second year in Korea. Have you learned any Korean language?


Mary Heng  14:49

all Korean is so it’s so easy and so difficult at the same time that the alphabet is pretty easy to learn. And there’s a lot of Konglish. So a mix between Korean and English that I’ve been able to pick up on, but the grammar has been very difficult for me. But I’m at a point where I can understand the menus and I can understand a little bit of what’s happening. But it’s like all of my job is in English. I talk to my kids in English, so most of my days still happen. And almost 100% English.


Xiao Yun  15:21

Yeah, and talking about a menu. I remember when you first moved to Korea, and we were Snapchatting and you were saying that I’ve locked out at home all I get is mundu the dumpling so how do you what is your greatest food journey in Korea? Like what’s your favorite Korean dishes?


Mary Heng  15:45

There’s so so many things that is one of my favorite things about Korea is all of the food here. And one of my favorite little dishes I had here is just called kimchi jeon and it’s just kin to pancake. So it has kimchi and you know, onions and whatever other vegetables and a starch and some oil in a pan. And it’s so so good. Um, but other than that every food here I’ve had I’ve loved I’m a huge fan of Korean barbecue and all this soups. I love everything. And since being locked in my house during the pandemic, I figured out the delivery app so I can finally order some Korean food to my house instead of eating you know, the frozen dumplings I found in the grocery store. So big wins.


Xiao Yun  16:29

And it’s so great to hear all by note that our time is approaching till the end, I do have like a couple questions to ask before we end what are some of the characteristics values or some of the competencies that you think would will make one successful in your role?


Mary Heng  16:50

I think that if someone wants to be an English teacher abroad, or specifically, in Korea, you have to be someone who’s flexible and may be okay with not being in total control at all times. There’s kind of a saying here for foreigners in Korea called Korean surprises. And it’s when for example, your co teacher changes the lesson plan at the last minute and you just have to roll with it. Or because of the language barrier, you don’t know what’s happening, and you just have to roll with it. So you have to be someone who is really flexible. And also you can’t be a picky eater to be in Korea, because the food is so different. And it’s so good. But if you’re a picky eater, I’d say open your mind a little bit. The food is so good. You got to try it.


Xiao Yun  17:37

I was caught off guard, what do you say not be a picky eater.


Mary Heng  17:41

I mean, you can come here and just have dumplings. But I think if you are open to trying new foods, there’s a whole world of things you’ve never even heard of. I mean, Korean cuisine isn’t just Korean barbecue dumplings and even bought so so much more. So just be ready for all the best food.


Xiao Yun  18:00

I feel like imagined in my head when we were talking earlier about the different things that you are experiencing? And like, How different is it from your experience? And I would say that you spend your majority of your life here in United States and transitioning to South Korea and two years in it’s so much different. And I guess my final question to end our note that you didn’t mention like the characteristic the values and things that someone should have that would be successful being able to teach English abroad. But some general advice for folx who are interested to working abroad not just teaching English, what is a one piece of advice that you would share to them?


Mary Heng  18:45

I would say do a lot of research before you leave not only on the country that you would like to teach in but research different programs and reach out to people from those programs. Because really, every country looks great to teach in. And it probably is and every program looks great. But try your best to find a blog of somebody who works at this specific position and have a chat with them about what it’s like what they like what they don’t like. So you can kind of weigh all your pros and cons before committing to moving all the way across the world and maybe finding out that the job isn’t so great or something like that. So just do a lot of research, I would say.


Xiao Yun  19:26

Hmm, for sure. And I think that that takes that the conversation that we have today. A lot of those are really translatable and transferable to the higher education setting off like how a student affairs professional can support international students by building that rapport getting to know the international students and being able to provide them with the support and it was really nice to be able to chat with you here Mary today and thank you for staying a little bit later for your day. I know that you need to get up super early the next day, to teach 3rd to 6th graders and I just want to thank you for joining me here today to chat a little about your experience working in teaching English abroad in South Korea.


Mary Heng  20:12

Well, thank you for having me show you. I miss you and it was so great to talk today.


Xiao Yun  20:17

Yes, it’s we need to catch up sometime soon. I don’t know if it’s I don’t know if it’s gonna be in Korea if you decide to stay a couple more years or US. Thank you so much, Mary.


Mary Heng  20:32

See you Xiao Yun, see ya!


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