McDougall in Korea

WMS English teacher returns from her time spent teaching in Korea.


Bridget McDougall with her students.

“Have you ever stopped in a really small town to get gas on a really long road trip? It’d be like that,” Wydown English teacher Bridget McDougall said after returning from a four year long teaching position in South Korea. “Just picture the tiniest little town you know and then imagine saying, ‘We’re going to send a Korean lady there, who doesn’t speak any English, and let [her] live in that town and teach our kids. Good luck.’”

McDougall’s decision to move to Korea was very spontaneous.

“I wasn’t one of those people [who] wanted to get away or wanted to start a new life [and] have an adventure,” she said. “I just thought, ‘You know, it’d be really nice to go teach in another country and then come back and use what I learned to make my teaching at Wydown better.’”

Despite having a job she loved, McDougall had an opportunity to teach in another country and wanted to grasp it. She sent in her application and within five months, McDougall was boarding the plane that would mark the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Her first few days proved to be quite difficult.

After being driven to her new apartment, she was left alone with the knowledge that there would be a typhoon that night and that school would be canceled the next day. As soon as her Korean connection left her apartment, McDougall said she sat down on her suitcase and thought, ‘What have I done?’”

McDougall had the sudden realization that her decision was much more pivotal than she had originally believed. Exploring the town the next morning, she found herself immersed in a totally new and foreign culture.

Lacking knowledge of the language, food, traditions and social patterns of South Korean society, McDougall relied on improvisation. This ability influenced her teaching style and became vital to her daily life, eventually forming her mantra of the next four years: “Well, this is happening.”

As she absorbed Korean culture, McDougall developed her own ideas about the Korean way of life.

Because she remained primarily in the rural areas of South Korea, McDougall’s opinions about Korean society were limited. McDougall kept this idea in mind as she navigated the differences between US and Korean education systems.

McDougall noticed one of these major differences when she asked her students to complete an activity that involved the use of body movements to act out English words. She went into this activity with the expectation that the students would have no problem with this task. However, the students simply stared at her after receiving the directions. They were so unaccustomed to this teaching strategy that they did not know where to begin.

In the Korean education system, it is much more common for students to memorize large quantities of data than to participate in interactive activities. Despite much encouragement on McDougall’s part, no one in the class could carry out her instructions.

She drew the conclusion that the students, who were used to being told exactly what would be on the test and receiving very direct information, were not familiar with this kind of improvisation. In the US, students value the learning process, while in Korea, the learning process is less important if the student obtains the right answer.

McDougall began her journey with the hope of retaining some useful educational skills, but the great diversity she experienced provided her with a richer knowledge not just in education, but in culture as a whole.

One of her most prominent experiences occurred in an unlikely place: a bathhouse.

This was a public place where, for only eight dollars, one could experience several different means of “cleansing.” Some were physical, such as warm rocks spread over your body, and some were more geared towards mental cleansing, such as meditation rooms.

This entire cleansing process would be completed totally naked and most likely with others in the room.  Members of the bathhouse would even complete the equivalent of grooming whomever happened to be in the room with them. While this may sound strange to most Americans, McDougall connects it back to what some might commonly experience in their childhood.

McDougall relates the practice to the innocent act of taking a bath with a friend or sibling as a child. She said, “You’re not thinking ‘Wow, I’m naked!’ You’re just like, hanging out, enjoying each other’s company.”

These experiences demonstrated the more intimate side of Korean culture and would resonate with McDougall the most as she learned to feel comfortable in her own body.

“That [experience], that’s what Korea feels like to me.”