Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea

The Reds, Whites, and Blues of Being Abroad During Elections


Watching the election results roll in from my computer in the teacher’s office was difficult. This is most invested I’ve been in the outcome of any election, and the first I’ve had to watch alone. I sat in the office, simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that we were fourteen hours ahead of Washington DC, knowing that this one would likely drag on into the late hours of the night for most Americans, but we’d find out by two or three pm at the latest here, while I was still at school or just after getting home to sit alone in my countryside apartment. Some of the teachers knew about the election, but as the only American in my office I felt very solitary, refreshing my computer screen every few minutes and talking on gchat with people living stateside. Add to that the fact that I couldn’t pull up facebook, I held a silent, computer-lit vigil.

In addition, tomorrow is the 수능, the college entrance exam all high school third graders take. While the average Korean knows more about American politics than the average American knows about Korean politics (in my experience, at least), because of preparation for this massive test (both in getting our students ready and by getting our school ready to administer this test), most of the teachers weren’t too concerned about the election. However, due to me teaching the second grade student about politics for the last three weeks, I kept getting bombarded by students in the hallways and in the teacher’s office.

“Teacher, today is the day, yes? Election day? Do you know yet? Who has won?”

“We’re still waiting.”

“Ah. I am nervous. Let me know?”

“I’ll try my best.”

We only had two classes today, followed by longer than average cleaning period, lunch, and then we closed school early. During the cleaning period I tidied up my desk and sat, staring, at the screen. I was focused so hard on the red and blue appearing and disappearing on my screen I didn’t notice the  students behind me until they asked what I was looking at. I looked behind me to find a group of eight second grade boys, staring at my screen. I showed them the New York Times interactive map I had pulled up on my computer, and together we looked and marveled at the amount of red slowly creeping across America.

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I then explained the electoral college system.

“Ah, so it is an indirect system”

“Yes, it is very different from Korea’s system.”

” Ah, that doesn’t seem fair. And there is so much red on this map. You must be very nervous.”

“Yes, yes I am. However there is still time. America is so big, that we have multiple time zones. Over half of the states have not announced their results yet.”

Soon after the principal saw that the students were only pretending to clean and shooed them away. A few hours later I had the same conversation with some older male teachers in Korean. Explaining the electoral college system in English is hard – doing it in Korean is even harder.

At this point, my eyes were turning as red as Oklahoma from staring at the screen, so I went to Sloths with some of the teachers to go get coffee. I left my phone on and open to the New York Times’ elections predictions, and it was there, with two other teachers, that I stared at my cellphone’s minuscule screen, then threw my hands up in the air and yelled “OBAMA WON.”

Voting overseas is difficult, procedurally and emotionally. I’ve never forgotten that I’m American, but if you’re not reminded constantly, it’s not something you think about. Being surrounded by Korean people day in and day out I never felt Korean, but I never felt strongly American either. I’m not The American, I’m just Em(ily). There have been no campaign posters or ads, no friends to talk to about the election. I did remember to turn in my absentee ballot request form well ahead of schedule, but then Virginia never actually sent me my ballot, and I had to fill out an emergency form and express mail it in. As much as the Koreans around me do care about the outcome of this election, it doesn’t affect them in the same way that it affects me, and they haven’t reacted the same way I’ve reacted. I want to see other Americans. I wanted to have an election party and watch the news anxiously. I wanted to watch Obama’s victory speech and Romney’s rather nice concession speech together with friends after a long day instead of in the afternoon, alone, sitting on my the floor of my barely heated apartment. I’m glad I did my duty as an American citizen, and I’m glad that my vote, as a voter from a swing state, did end up counting, but I wish I had someone here to wholeheartedly share my excitement with.

Tomorrow is the test, and the next day we’re going back to school. I’ll continue to teach about politics and political parties, and slip back into my everyday life, at least until the Korean election in December.


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안녕하세요! My name is Emily and when I started this blog I had received a 2010 – 2011 F*lbright grant to teach English in South Korea.  I then decided to apply to renew my grant, so I am now staying in Korea until July 2012. This blog is not an official F*lbright Program blog, and the views expressed are my own and not those of the F*lbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in Philosophy Pre-Law and Classical Civilizations, and found myself 3 months later teaching English at SGHS. The town that I taught in, SG, is a small town of 12,000 people, an “읍” (eup) rather than a “시” (shi – city), and though it was sometimes hard teaching in such a small town I really enjoyed the unique experience of being the first foreign teacher SGHS had ever had. I lived in the largest part of the county which is significantly bigger (40,000 people) than the town the school is situated in, but is also considered rural by Korean standards.

During my second grant period (2011-2012) I decided to change schools and I currently teach at CPHS which is located in an even smaller town than previously, in Jeollanamdo.

This blog is meant to serve as a reflection not only of being a Native English Speaking teacher in Korea, but also of living as a foreigner in rural Korea.