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LGBTQ&A: Teaching English in Daegu, South Korea with Lauren
Written by: Denise Leinonen
Last Updated: January 7, 2021
What is your citizenship?
How old are you?
What is your education level and background?
Please tell us about yourself.
I just recently returned to the US from teaching abroad in South Korea for a year. I decided to teach abroad because I love traveling, meeting new people, and I wanted the experience of teaching in a foreign country to help me go back to school and do what I've always dreamed about doing, which would be assisting international students who come to study in the US.
What sparked your interest in teaching English abroad?
I've thought about spending a year abroad since I was in high school, but I was always too scared to be away from home for a full year. I studied abroad in France for a semester in college and, after that experience, I realized I could totally live away from home for a year. A few years later, I decided to teach abroad to fulfill my dream of living immersed in a different culture for a year, as well as gain international experience before going back to school.
Which did you decide to teach English in?
Daegu, South Korea
What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad? Were they supportive, apprehensive, excited, concerned, etc.?
Most of my friends and the people I knew were so excited (and a little jealous) that I was moving overseas to teach English for a year. My immediate family was a little more worried, especially since I was going to a country they only knew as a war-torn zone in the 1950s and now as the neighbor of North Korea. However, I continually took the time to educate my family about everything I learned about South Korea and the stories of others who taught there and assured them it wasn't like any horror they were imagining.
What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
I was worried if I would be able to do the job, especially since the kids I'd be teaching would have limited English abilities. Another big concern about teaching in South Korean public schools is working with your Korean co-teacher. I read and heard multiple horror stories online while in the application process and I was worried that I wouldn't get along with them. However, my biggest concern was being away from my significant other for an entire year. We were engaged when I decided I wanted to teach abroad and we actually got married before I left. I was afraid I'd get so homesick and miss her so much that I wouldn't be able to last the year and want to come back home.
On top of that, I was a little worried about hiding the fact that I was married to a woman from my co-workers and any new Korean friends I made. Having done my research on Korea, I found that there was still a lot of prejudice against the LGBTQ community and I didn't want to reveal any information that could get me fired from my job. I decided to just pretend I was single and not interested in dating or men. While not revealing that part of my life made me feel distant from my co-workers, it kept me safe and comfortable.
What resources did you find helpful when deciding where to go?
I used many of the resources ITA provided when trying to narrow down what region or country I wanted to go to. Once I settled on Asia, I used Google to research different programs and YouTube to listen to people's experiences with different countries and programs.
Please give your thoughts on dating abroad.
While I didn't date while I was abroad, I knew girls who did (or tried to). Many of them used Tinder or other dating apps to meet guys and usually only went on a few dates. I think dating while abroad can be a fun and exciting experience, but you really need to be careful and take a lot of precautions (make sure someone always knows where you are, who you're with, has your contact info, go to familiar places you know well, etc).
I was really surprised when I learned that a lot of the younger generation in South Korea were more open and accepting of the LGBTQ community than I had read about online. The city I lived in was known to be one of the most conservative cities in the country, but they had a Pride festival in the summer time! However, the only LGBTQ-friendly clubs/bars that I could find were in Seoul, the capital.
Also, in Korea, it's acceptable for friends of the same gender to hold hands in public - it's seen as a sign of friendship. Therefore, when my wife came to visit me for a few months during the summer, it was okay for us to walk around holding hands.
Did being a member of the LGBTQ+ community have an impact on where you decided to teach English? If yes, how so?
Being an LGBTQ person didn't have as much impact on where I decided to teach English as much as for some people. People don't usually assume that I'm queer because of my outward appearance or mannerisms; I wasn't traveling with my partner, and I wasn't looking to date while I was abroad. There was really nothing that would have revealed that I wasn't straight, so it was really my choice who I could disclose that information to. Because of that, I felt like I could blend in anywhere and still be safe, albeit closeted.
Did you come out while living abroad? If so, how did your host country and experience influence that decision?
I came out to other foreign English teachers and to some Korean friends I made while abroad. My decisions to come out were influenced mainly by the fact that hiding who you really are is uncomfortable and keeps you from getting close to people and that feeling sucks. The culture of my host country mostly kept me closeted to other Korean people, but there were certain individuals, once I got to know them, that I felt safe coming out to.
Tell us about finding your community abroad
I was mostly able to find LGBTQ happenings in Korea online. It wasn't difficult to find other LGBTQ foreigner teachers, but as for LGBTQ-specific events, that was mostly online. Facebook is a great tool to use to find events and meet-ups, but sometimes those events are kept hidden so as not to out people, so you might have to know someone already who can get you into the groups.
What were some of your most memorable experiences teaching English abroad?
The most memorable experience I had teaching abroad was when I had to teach a two-week camp during the winter vacation for a small group of boys. There were only four students, and I feel like I really bonded with them more than my students I only saw during regular classes.
Were there any cultural boundaries you found to be different than your home country? If so, please explain.
Hand-holding between friends of the same gender was acceptable in Korea, which is different than the US where male friends absolutely don't hold hands, and only sometimes female friends do.
Additionally, I didn't feel safe talking about LGBTQ community issues in my classroom, even if I wasn't outing myself. There was a popular short clip going around called "Heartbeat" about a boy's heart that outs him to the boy he has a crush on. It would have been a perfect short clip for a discussion in English about teen crushes and LGBTQ people, but I felt that could get me in trouble with the school or the parents. In the US, that sort of discussion would be okay in most schools.
What are your thoughts on safety in your host country abroad, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
I think some countries and cultures are safer than others for LGBTQ people, definitely. However, even if you're in a country that's accepting of LGBTQ people, there are still prejudiced people who could hurt you. It's always a good idea to let someone know where you are, who you're with, and travel to new places with other people. I think there should also be more resources available about what safe spaces exist in various countries for LGBTQ people.
Do you have any advice for people planning to move to this country/move abroad?
If you're the kind of person who wants to go to LGBTQ-friendly bars, clubs, events, or just generally always be around LGBTQ people, I would say Seoul is your best bet. Coming out to Koreans of the younger generation was pretty safe for me, but I would go on a case-by-case basis. Personally, I didn't want to come out to my co-workers for fear of losing my job or all the teachers gossiping about me.
Having been lucky enough to study abroad in India during college, Denise already had a natural affinity for travel after graduating with her International Studies degree. It was that degree that influenced Denise's decision to teach English abroad, and having never been to Asia, she chose to teach English in South Korea.
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