Well. What an intense start to 2017. I think the title explains it really. After four months living and working in Korea, I have made the decision to move back to Hong Kong, until the summer at the moment. This all came together quite quickly and suddenly, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision, nor one that I took lightly, but after talking it through with family and close friends, especially while I was back home over Christmas, I’ve realised that I need to put my happiness and my health first, both of which have been suffering lately.
The crux of the matter is that I’m unhappy, both with the job, and in Korea in general. I’m unhappy to the point where I had chronic insomnia for the month leading up to Christmas. I suspected it had something to do with stress at work, but as I’ve never been that invested in the job, it seemed strange to be not sleeping like that. Now I realise it was unhappiness, and anxiety about that unhappiness. I had insomnia once before, prior to final exams and graduating university, when I was very stressed, but it’s never affected me again until now. And I’ve never been one to show my emotions much, but I’ve definitely been a lot more emotional, even in private, than I normally am. I believe I even experienced my first (and so only, thankfully) anxiety attack a few weeks ago. The insomnia was affecting my physical health (my skin has been acting up too, and a friend even suggested the tonsillitis a while ago was my body trying to tell me something was wrong), and I’ve never had much in the way of mental health issues, but I was starting to get concerned that 8 more months like this would send me into a state of depression and/or anxiety. So although this change seems sudden, it’s been bubbling for a while. It was going home over Christmas that I was really able to process everything, when I was talking it through with my parents and other close family, who all could tell I wasn’t that happy, and noticed a big difference in how I spoke about Korea versus Hong Kong. I’ve always known in these four months that I preferred Hong Kong, but I made the choice to come to experience Korea, and preferring one to the other is fine and natural, and I gave Korea a decent amount of time to see if things improved before coming to this conclusion. I was more than a bit hesitant about quitting, as I’ve never been one to give up on things, or shy away from these sorts of challenges, and I worried that going to Hong Kong again would be a step backwards. But it’s not, it’s a way of allowing me to recover and then be able to take steps forward again, and sticking it out isn’t worth it if I’m this miserable.
The unhappiness stems from various things. I didn’t come into this experience blind – living in Hong Kong helped prepare me for some of the culture shock, and I was aware the job involved more teaching hours, less holiday time, and intense textbook work forming most of the curriculum. Knowing it and living it are different things though. The teaching hours and holiday I had were normal for in a Korean hagwon, but I was so burned out and exhausted (of course the insomnia wasn’t helping!) by Christmas, that the thought of 8 more months, with only a few days vacation here and there, was horrible. And while I disagree with the excessive bookwork, I know it’s difficult to change their minds about it. What I could have done without was the constant pressure to get books finished, to spend break times helping kids catch up, and yet to still make lessons fun… Add on a serious lack of communication and a permanent state of disorganisation… The worst for me though was the lack of compassion shown. I was made to work all day after landing from an overnight flight, I was given very little help adjusting and was basically thrown into classes at the deep end, no one (aside from the English teachers) noticed or cared that I could barley eat or speak from tonsillitis, nor were they grateful that I was still showing up to work, and I was still made to lead a larger than normal sized class because it was ‘”my turn”, and when I didn’t have a substitute teacher for just one afternoon of classes, while I was going home for extra days, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to go at all if I didn’t find one, with just hours until I was due to leave (fortunately I found someone at the last minute…). While many of the teachers were nice enough, though I wasn’t close with them, the management usually left me feeling like a faceless cog in the machine.
I will stress that there are far, far worse schools out there you could end up in, and if I were set on staying in Korea then I would have stuck it out where I was. However, I didn’t enjoy living in Korea much either. It’s still an interesting country, and I would gladly visit again as a tourist, but I felt uncomfortable living there. It’s not true of everyone, I have nothing against Koreans in general, and I hate to stereotype, but I did feel like the people were a bit ruder and less friendly than I’ve experienced elsewhere, and I experienced much more staring, and borderline sexual harassment (I was never touched though) than I did last year. There’s a large focus on vanity and material possessions, which I’m deeply unsettled by, especially when it was so apparent in young children, and the students were also less well-behaved and had less respect than those I’ve taught previously. I did meet some very nice people, and some of my students were very sweet, and grew on me with time. I’ve also heard a lot of stories about problems with schools, contracts and all sorts of other things, which although I haven’t experienced personally, I wish I’d been more aware of before. I also found Busan as a city to not really be to my tastes – there’s plenty to do and it’s full of amenities, but to me it lacked character and excitement and uniqueness. None of this means I’m telling people not to go to Korea – I know plenty of people who’ve worked there and had an amazing time! I’m simply explaining my experience, and why it’s not a place I’ve been happy living in. Everyone’s experience will be different though, and I don’t regret going there, as I got to see and experience another new country, and there are some beautiful parts to it, and I’d probably have always wondered what it would’ve been like if I hadn’t.
So that’s why I’m leaving early – but why Hong Kong again? Why not home, or somewhere new? Mostly, because I’m not quite done with Asia yet. There are still several more countries I’d like to visit, and the plan was to do so at the end of my contract, and save up until then. So by working in Hong Kong again, I can still do that, whereas going elsewhere would have made it more awkward and expensive to come back. And for the sake of 6-7 months, I thought going to another new country in Asia would be too difficult, as it involves so much preparation and then time to settle in. With Hong Kong, it won’t be exactly the same as last year, but I can slot back in fairly easily I think. I’ve been able to secure a contract until the summer – which is lucky, as many jobs would’ve insisted on a year – with the same agent as before, but in a different school. I know the city so well now, I felt much more comfortable living there than I have in Korea, and most of my friends from last year are still there, albeit a little more spread out and most aren’t with the agent anymore. I’m hoping to save enough to visit my friend in China around Easter, while she’s still there, my parents may come visit again near the end of my contract (which they weren’t planning to do had I still been in Korea), and then I can still travel the other countries I want to see when I’m done.
Now, one more thing. I know, I absolutely know that there will be people who will judge me heavily for this decision. I’m not defending my decision to those people, as I shouldn’t have to; it’s my life, my emotions, and they can’t invalidate how I feel. But believe me, I’m not without a conscience. I’m breaking a fixed term contract (the only other time I’ve quit a job was an open ended contract, I’ve always completed fixed term ones), and I’m doing it without giving my full notice period. I am not comfortable with it, and it’s not my preferred way of doing things. But with two months notice, the school would have made my life hell, out of spite, I’d have had to fight for all the money I’m owed (as is, I’m forfeiting a couple of weeks wages) and the anxiety would have undoubtedly gotten worse, which they wouldn’t understand or acknowledge. I wouldn’t have been able to get another job until the summer too, without signing for over a year, which is a more selfish reason, but still one to bear in mind. But even with all this explanation I just provided, I know people will still judge me. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however, that’s their problem if they disagree with my choice. This is my life, these are my feelings, and all feelings are valid, regardless of situation. Just because one person feels fine in a situation, doesn’t mean everyone does.I do feel bad for the inconvenience this will cause, but I’ve tried to minimise where possible (my work, reports etc. are up to date, I’m forfeiting wages etc), and given how I’ve been treated and the lack of appreciation or compassion, my guilt only stretches so far. And the people who matter most to me, my family and friends, every single one has supported this decision. I am choosing to put my happiness and my health above everything else, because without those, then what’s the point?
So there we go. It’s been a turbulent few weeks, but I’m confident now that this is the right decision for me at this time, and I feel calmer already. I’m a bit nervous about starting a new job, and the change of situation within Hong Kong, but I’m still sure that I’ll be happier there. I hope I’ve explained this as fully as possible, but if anyone has any more questions, or finds themselves in a similar circumstance, please don’t hesitate to ask.