Hello teacher-travelers, welcome to South Korea and the EPIK program! I came here six months ago and this was my first time moving to a new country, away from my family, my culture, my language, and my comfort zone. If you are also a first-timer like me, my immediate advice to you is: go with it! Be open to everything from the moment you arrive in South Korea and head to orientation. It will make your experience and your transition so much easier.
The group of people you meet at the EPIK orientation are going through the same things as you are. They will be your best friends, your adopted family, and your saviors more often than you care to admit while you grow accustomed to your new life. I met my closest friend in line at immigration just after landing in Korea. As we talked while we waited in line, we found out that we were both new to EPIK, and that we were both placed in the same province (Jejudo), and found out later in the same city! Fate!
What Happens During EPIK Orientation Week?
EPIK orientation is packed with lectures, field trips and special events. During my orientation, we had a wonderful Korean martial arts show and training session, multiple cultural performances including music and dance, and a tour of an ancient temple site. We had lectures about teaching, co-teaching, culture, and language. It is an exhausting week, but the perfect cure for the inevitable jetlag.
The people running orientation are incredibly hard-working and helpful. Often, the EPIK orientation leaders are beyond intimidated about speaking English in front of a crowd of native speakers. My orientation leader was a gentle, soft-spoken young woman named Michelle, who was the first impression many of us had of Korea and taught us about Korean hospitality. She showered us with praise and was heartbreakingly self-deprecating. This is the special kind of warmth that South Koreans have. Often, South Koreans are full of compliments and gifts for foreigners. At first, I wasn’t sure how to react but I soon learned that it is customary to reciprocate their generosity.
By the time the EPIK orientation was over, Michelle had all of us enamored with her, and we did our best to show her how much we appreciated her efforts and kindness. This is an important lesson in your work environment. Small gifts for co-teachers and principals go a long way. If invited out for dinner, returning the invite at a later date is important. Be in harmony with their kindness and you will relate more easily to bosses, co-workers, and acquaintances.
Overcoming Culture Shock
Homesickness and culture shock is inevitable, but the EPIK program does a lot to make new teachers’ arrival an exciting and less intimidating experience. The sense of community among EPIK teachers starts in orientation and lasts through your time in South Korea. My best advice to overcoming culture shock is to build relationships and participate in events with your fellow native English teachers, who are experiencing the same challenges teaching English abroad for the first time in their lives. Take advantage of Facebook groups for your community, explore and have a blast!