Cape Town – Whether it’s a break after matriculating, in between career changes or just to have an adventure, choosing a gap year to travel any part of the world proves to be a soul-fulfilling, life-changing journey.
South African expats are all over the world – either for better career and financial opportunities, new cultural experiences or even for love.
SEE: How satisfied are South Africans abroad?
One of the most popular gap year opportunities is teaching English as a foreign language, with Asian countries proving to be the most popular destination for South Africans.
We chat to three South Africans - Suraisha Naidoo, Daniel Uken and Claire Smith – to find out more about their teaching adventures in Asian countries.
Naidoo, who taught English in South Korea for one year after learning about it from a friend, says that it was an opportunity to impart her knowledge and “embrace a different culture”. She returned to SA after her year-long contract to start her career in Human Resource Management.
She told Traveller24 that she would like to teach abroad again, but will choose a different country.
ALSO SEE: Saffas take the braai to South Korea, boet
Uken is currently teaching physics and math in Taiwan on a 2-year contract. “The decision to teach overseas was based on a desire to immerse myself in a culture completely different from my own. I wanted to see things from a different perspective, learn a new language, and challenge myself by being removed from my comfort zone,” he told Traveller24.
He says he chose Taiwan because it has” a high foreigner happiness index, it is very central in Asia making it easy to travel to other countries, and because I wanted to learn to speak Mandarin – their national language”.
“I have not renewed my contract but I do plan on returning to SA,” he says, adding that while it's not his plan to teach in another country again, “it's nice to have that option available”.
SEE: The specialities of Taiwan
Smith chose to teach English in South Korea for 3 years because it was a means for her to pay off high student loans, as well as to “see the world and have a free apartment and tax-free salary”.
“I chose this country because of the EPIK programme, which helps to employ teachers, train them and place them in schools. The EPIK programme also pays for your flights,” she told Traveller24.
Smith, who had previously studied journalism, decided to return to SA to complete her Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) through UNISA, so that she could teach full-time in SA. “I grew to really love teaching in Korea and it inspired me to come home and want to work as an educator,” she says.
She says that she will consider teaching abroad again “because it is a fantastic way to save money.”
SEE: When the travel bug really bites
Here’s what they had to say about gap years and travelling:
Do you consider these years teaching abroad as “gap years”?
Naidoo: “You could say that. I decided to go once I was done with campus but didn't plan on staying there forever.”
Uken: “I guess in the sense that it is a break from my mainstream career, then yes, it is a gap year. However, my life is more than just my career - in terms of the life experiences and challenges I can learn from, I think it as far more important than 'a gap year'.”
Smith: “No, I do not. Many people have worked as full-time employed teachers in (South) Korea for over a decade. I think teaching in Korea requires a greater level of responsibility and therefore wouldn't be a gap year.”
What has your experience been like working abroad?
Naidoo: “It was exciting - a new adventure with new challenges. When I got there it was a bit of a culture shock. I had to adjust to their lifestyle and food. The food took a little getting used to but I ended up loving it! The one thing I would go back to South Korea for is the food.”
“It was a little difficult with the language barrier but then I ended up learning key phrases and using hand signs to communicate with them.”
“South Korea was so safe which is something I really miss - being able to walk around at any time of the day or night without having to look over your shoulder. I also had the opportunity of meeting people from other countries and made a lot of new friends.”
SEE: #NoRegrets: 5 hurdles to overcome if you're planning a gap year abroad
Uken: “It's been fantastic! The Taiwanese people are very friendly, trying new food and seeing new countries is great. And the foreigner community feels like a second family.”
“It's not without its challenges of course - the language barrier can often make life interesting, and cultural differences can be perplexing at times, but it's an experience I would recommend to anyone.”
“I enjoy the sense of adventure - that every weekend I can go explore and find something completely new and interesting. I am still often surprised by how different some things are from home.”
ALSO SEE: MAPPED: SA ranks 8th in world's 10 most popular gap year destinations
Smith: “I would hugely recommend it to anyone. Korea can be a very extreme society - I taught in a small town that had only 10 native English speakers. However, you have the opportunity to meet fantastic teachers from all over the world, travel and learn about a new culture. Most of all it will teach you to think on your feet and be humbled to a different way of life.
“I really enjoyed how efficient everything was. The KTX (high-speed rail- line) can take you across the country in 3 hours and there is a bus every 30 minutes to just about everywhere.”
“I loved to try all the kinds of food and build a friendship group of Australians, Brits, Americans, Irish and New Zealanders. Kpop (Korean Pop music) is also extremely cool. It’s some of the most colourful pop music I have ever seen.”
“Mostly, I loved the students. I taught mostly high school and loved how willing my students were to learn about a different culture. Their sarcasm, humour, and willingness to try and stray me off the lesson topic will never be forgotten,” she says.
What are some of your most memorable experiences working abroad?
Naidoo: “Taking the train for the first time ever. To my surprise they had a little Kiosk and a karaoke room.”
Uken: “Standing on the observation deck of the Taipei 101 building and looking out over the greater Taipei area, my first time eating stinky tofu - a local delicacy that is too sophisticated for my simple palate, I'm sorry to say - and the weekend I spent in the south of Taiwan getting my scuba diving license. With regards to actual work, I would have to say saying goodbye to my grade 12's at the end of the academic year in July. I will miss them!”
Smith: “The interesting people. The weird food. The culture of respecting your elders. I have seen many a people get up from their seats and give it to grandmothers. Elders automatically walk to the front of any line and are served first etc.”
How much of the country that you worked in did you get to explore, and did you get to travel to other countries?
Naidoo: “South Korea is a small country, so I visited most of the landmarks which taught a lot more about South Korea. I got to travel to Australia where I visited family, and China where I wanted to see The Great Wall and other places in China.”
SEE: How many of these UNESCO sites have you seen?
Uken: “I feel like I have made a good effort to see as much as I can. I have been to the four corners of Taiwan, and out to some of the islands as well, but there's always more exploring to do and more sights to see!”
“I have been to Singapore, Malaysian Borneo and Thailand so far, and am going to Vietnam in a month's time. Then Japan and China next year! Singapore is an incredible city with some rich history. In the case of Thailand, the tropical island experience is just magical. Borneo is also a breathtaking place, from the stunning scuba diving/ snorkelling islands to deep in the wildlife-rich tropical jungles."
ALSO SEE: Thailand: Budget-friendly escapes for South Africans
Smith: “As South Korea is only about the size of the Western Cape - with affordable and efficient transport links - I got to see a lot of it. My favourite being Gyeongju (Bulguksa) a temple up in the mountains that is very old. I would suggest anyone going to Korea spend a few days exploring Seoul - a city that is home to 10 million people.”
“South Korea also gave me close access to lots of other Asian countries - Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Bali, China, Hong Kong etc.”
SEE: Japan on the cheap
What are some of the South African things you missed the most?
Naidoo: “Family, friends, biltong, mutton/ lamb, home cooked food.”
Uken: “FOOD! While I love the food in Taiwan, you certainly miss the flavours of home. I also really miss the multicultural aspect of South Africa, since Taiwan is a bit monocultural. That said, you do meet foreigners from all areas of the globe, which helps offset that. I miss being able to say words like 'shame', 'robot' and 'bakkie' and having people understand what I mean, but of course, most of all I miss my family, friends and pets.”
Smith: “I missed Biltong and wine. A very average bottle of wine would cost about R250 in Korea. It was something I only drank on very special occasions. I also missed living in a country I was raised in - something that I always took for granted until I lived somewhere else. It's an amazing feeling to live in a country where you simply 'belong' and can understand inside jokes about politics, South African humor and history etc.”
What to read next on Traveller24:
- #NoRegrets: 5 hurdles to overcome if you're planning a gap year abroad
- Travel and Make Money: A Gap Year Teaching Abroad
- MAPPED: SA ranks 8th in world's 10 most popular gap year destinations