Feeling at Home in the Netherlands and South Korea with Peter Kersting
In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Peter Kersting. Peter had many experiences with foreign students in his formative years growing up in Napa Valley in California, which made him interested in experiencing life outside of the United States. He studied abroad in the Netherlands for a semester during university and learned a lot from the experience.
Hoping to go abroad again after graduating from university, Peter applied for many positions in his industry in many countries around the world but continued to get rejected. At that low point was when he found out about teaching English abroad and the TEFL program. Three months later, he was on a one-way flight to South Korea! Peter had an incredible time in Korea but decided to move back to the US right before the pandemic hit the world. Now he is working on new projects and has his sights set on getting back to Asia in the near future.
Listen to Peter discuss his inspiring story in this episode and find out how you can use your skills to create the international life you’re searching for!
LEARN in this episode:
✔ How your expectations can create traps for you when you move to a new country
✔ How you can get the most out of your time abroad personally and professionally
✔ The value of learning the local language (even if it’s a really hard one like Korean!)
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Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.
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With that said, let’s start the conversation.
David McNeill [0:00:47]: Hey Peter, thanks so much for joining me today on the Expat Empire Podcast.
Peter Kersting [0:00:52]: Thanks for having me, David. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.
David McNeill [0:00:55]: Awesome. Yes, it’ll be great to hear about some of your adventures abroad, you’ve definitely had quite a few and been to some really cool countries. I’m glad to have you on the show and of course, excited to jump into it. If you could start out by telling us a bit about where you’re originally from, where around the world you’ve lived so far and where you live right now, that would be great.
Peter Kersting [0:01:14]: Whenever anybody asks me that question, I have a hard time answering it because while I grew up in California for 22 years, I don’t really consider myself from there. I grew up in California in a place called Napa, which people will know because of the wine industry. Then I moved to Arizona in 2012 and that’s where I ended up going to school up in Northern Arizona University, which is in Flagstaff near the Grand Canyon; a really beautiful mountain town it’s awesome. As far as where I’ve lived since then, I’ve been really lucky to have lived in both Europe and in Asia. I’m sure we’ll get into that a little bit more in depth, but I lived in the Netherlands for six months while in school and then I lived in South Korea for a year.
David McNeill [0:02:09]: Great. I guess now you’re back in the states or maybe that’s jumping to the end of the story.
Peter Kersting [0:02:14]: No, it’s a good point. I should have mentioned that. Right now, I’m back in Arizona in Chandler, Arizona, which is in the Phoenix area. I’ve been here since probably February of 2020.
David McNeill [0:02:28]: Awesome. Yes. Let’s dive into that some more and of course, I think the best place to start is probably at the beginning. If you could tell us a bit about what got your interest piqued in trying to go abroad and especially thinking about going to study abroad in a place like the Netherlands, it would be good to hear where all that originated for you.
Peter Kersting [0:02:49]: If we’re talking about origins, I’ll probably have to start a little earlier than college. I was thinking about this recently. I was really lucky that my family hosted a lot of different exchange students when I was growing up. Some of my earliest memories were of living with people from Europe. There was a guy when I was probably six years old who lived with us, his name was Marcus Fisher, he’s a German guy. To me as a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old watching this guy go to high school with my older brothers, and live with us, I think that was one of my first exposures, more personally, to somebody who’s from a different culture.
That was very formative and throughout high school, even later on my parents hosted several different people. We had some people from Spain, some people from Italy, some French people that all lived with us for periods of time. I think for me, that started my interest in culture because I thought it was so cool how different everybody was.
The other thing I guess to note is, I am one of eight and I’m kind of in the middle, so I don’t know if it’s middle child syndrome or what but, I don’t like to do things the way that other people do them. All of my siblings had gone to study abroad and I thought that was cool, but they all studied abroad in Rome because they went to the same college and they did the same study abroad program, which was really cool, but I was like, I don’t want to go to that school and I don’t want to study abroad in Rome. I want to do something different.
As I mentioned before, I moved to Arizona in 2012 and I ended up in NAU, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and they had a really good program to go to the Netherlands. I was studying journalism and this program was for intercultural communication. It seemed like a good fit to me because, as I said before, my fascination with cultural exchange, and so I started learning more about the Netherlands and I just said, you know what, let’s do it. I’ll go. I went to this school called NHTV in Breda which is North Brabant which is pretty close to Belgium. It’s maybe 40-minutes driving from Belgium, I’d say, and it was awesome. I loved it because of how straight up Dutch people are. I really value authenticity and Dutch people are nothing if not authentic. For a lot of people that is very standoffish or it puts them on guard, but I tend to be that way. I felt like from the very get-go in the Netherlands, I felt really comfortable.
David McNeill [0:05:59]: Yes. I can imagine it’s good to be able to experience a different culture and realize that you fit in there quite well. Did you have any initial experiences that showed you that you could work with the direct culture there or was it just a sense that you got in your typical daily communications? What was it that really showed you that, hey, I fit with this pretty well? Did you kind of know about that type of culture and directness before you went there or did you learn about it on the fly?
Peter Kersting [0:06:28]: I had an advisor for my study abroad program who let me know a bit about things like, Dutch people are like seven feet tall. Yes, they’re very direct about things. I was given some warnings. To be honest with you, first of all, the program that I was in was a Dutch program, but it was also an international school, so it’s not like it’s just Dutch people. There were people from all over Europe studying there, even from South America. I had a really good friend who was from Brazil, for example. It’s hard to answer that question. I think it just comes naturally for me, I’ve always been a very outspoken person. I don’t like when people, you can tell they feel a certain way, but they don’t say it and to me it was refreshing to have a Dutch person come up to be like, Hey, you look like shit. Well, so do you. You know what I’m saying?
David McNeill [0:07:31]: Yes, absolutely. In terms of the friends that you made there, because you were an exchange student for those six months or so that you ended up being with people on your program, maybe from other parts of the world, or did you find close relationships with the local students as well? How did you navigate that? Where’d you find your closest friends?
Peter Kersting [0:07:51]: Yes, that’s a good question. I guess I have to step back a little bit because I travelled for about a month before I ended up in the Netherlands. As we mentioned before, my family growing up, we were able to host a bunch of students. There was one family that when I was in grade school, they actually were going to the same school as me but later on one of their sons was studying wine since their dad was also in the wine industry. He came and lived with us in his early twenties, that was much later on. I thought, well I need to visit Francois in France.
So, the first two places I went were England, where I had a good friend who lived there and then in south France, before I went to the Netherlands. I had already had friends that I made in the US that I was able to go visit and see, and as I’m sure, you know it’s such a different thing to see somebody in your own stomping grounds versus going to theirs. I feel like that’s always like a really cool unique experience to be able to do that.
I had those kinds of friends, but as far as making local friends, predominantly my friends were definitely from the program but I was able to really, for example, Christmas is like a big holiday there, but more like St. Nicholas Day rather than Christmas Day. Around Christmas time, I didn’t really have plans. I had plans for St. Nicholas, but I didn’t have plans for Christmas and one of my Dutch friends, Laura asked me if I wanted to stay with her and her family. I got to meet other peoples’ families, I actually stayed with two different families on Christmas time, which was really cool. I hope that answers your question.
David McNeill [0:09:50]: Yes, absolutely. It’s good to get a chance to also have that local experience with traditions as well, and also to have someone there just spend those key holidays with which can otherwise potentially get kind of lonely. I think that’s a good place to be in.
Peter Kersting [0:10:05]: Yes. You think about culture shocks. I think the bigger ones are when you’re used to doing something a certain way and then all of a sudden it’s not available or it’s done very differently there. I don’t know if I had anything that was too crazy of a culture shock, but it is always interesting to be like what am I supposed to do? Like I normally celebrate Christmas, but where am I going to do this? I was lucky that people were really inviting, to bring me into their homes or something.
David McNeill [0:10:40]: How did you find the school system there in the Netherlands compared to what you saw in the United States? Did you find a comparable level of rigor? Or of course at the same time, I’m sure you’re trying to have a lot of fun as an exchange student, it depends on how much you’re focused on your studies, but it’d be good to hear if it was a pretty similar experience or what are some of the challenges or changes that you experienced there?
Peter Kersting [0:11:02]: Yes, a good question. First of all, the grading system is totally different. The way that it was explained to me at least, is that they don’t do an ABC grading system, like you would in the US with a GPA weighted system. So that made it a little bit weird when you were trying to translate your grades back to your home university in the US. The other part of that is if it were a graded system, let’s say a C would be a good grade to a Dutch person because it’s really just about passing. So, there’s a cultural difference there that’s pretty big that, Hey, we want you to be able to show me that you can do it. If you can do it, you’ll get a job. You’re not going to get an ‘A’ grade unless you’re actually perfect.
That was a pretty different way of thinking of it. Students would just aim to pass; at least Dutch students really would really aim to pass. You would see a difference between the Dutch students, I always thought it was interesting. If you were watching a German student study versus the Dutch student study versus a French student or some of my friends from Finland or whatever, they were all very different about what was important to focus on. I noticed that people who are not from the Netherlands seemed to be a lot more concerned about their grades. I certainly was because I needed to make it translate back well.
There’s that aspect of it and then the other side was at least in the program that I was in, there was a heavy emphasis on actually hands-on projects with other students. I was spending a lot of time working on, I was studying film for example, so, we’d actually be out, going and filming things or learning how to do a live broadcast, which was incredibly valuable to be able to actually do a real professional project with other students in an actual setting. You do some of that in the US curriculum but not nearly as much as you could, I think. There’s a much heavier emphasis on those sorts of very practical projects, I guess.
David McNeill [0:13:26]: Yes. That makes sense. I found when I was studying in Singapore, the local students, maybe a bit contrary to your experience, were extremely focused on the grades. I also had to translate my grades back. I was worried about that, but I had other friends in the exchange program from other countries and universities that only needed to get a passing grade. You could see quite a variety and seriousness and dedication to the studies that each student had.
Peter Kersting [0:13:53]: I don’t mean to say that Dutch students are not good students. They definitely are, but there were times when you would be in a group and you’d be like, thank God, at least I have a couple other exchange students because they’re going to actually work hard. Versus some other students you just didn’t know they were like kind of ace in the hole or are they going to be taking this seriously or not? Or they’re just trying to pass?
David McNeill [0:14:20]: Yes. I can imagine there’s some cultural differences and exchanges going on there, especially as it approaches the school work. As you were wrapping up those six months or so that you spent in Netherlands, how did you think about going back to the US from there? Were you thinking, How can I make this longer? Or were you thinking maybe it’s time to make it back? I mean, what was your mentality around it? Did you think about trying to make it back to the Netherlands in the future?
Peter Kersting [0:14:47]: Yes. All good questions. First of all, it was crazy fast because one of the challenges of that program I didn’t get a chance to mention is, I was going in as a junior, which is third year for my university, but I could take classes from first, second, third or fourth year, which is what they call it in the Dutch system. Because of that, it was kind of weird to plan my schedule because the fourth-year classes don’t worry about lining up with the first-year classes. As an exchange student, it’s actually really challenging to figure out, how do I take the classes I need to take, but also make sure that they’re not conflicting with each other.
As I was wrapping up my program, I had a lot of crazy things that happened. I had to take a couple of my exams even in the US. It was kind of hectic to get back in that sense, because my senior year was starting in Arizona before my program ended in the Netherlands. Actually, I don’t think they do the second semester program there anymore because my specific class had such a hard time. I think I’m the only person who graduated from that program who was there as an exchange student from the US. There were like five of us and maybe one other person got their minor from that.
That side of it was a whirlwind, but as far as wanting to leave or stay, I’ve never really felt like I need to get back to the US at any point in my life. I love being an expat. I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s something about the expat way of life. You’re in this weird grey zone, right? You’re not a local, but you’re also being included. There are some spots where you can really feel connected to the local community or culture, but there’s also not the same kinds of expectations for you because you are foreign. It just gives you a sense of freedom that’s…you’re just given a grace period, I guess. It’s hard to explain. I always loved that because you can play the foreigner card, like even if it’s not fair.
David McNeill [0:17:17]: Of course. You made it back to the US then, it sounds like you managed to wrap up your studies and make it through that difficult process. But after that, were you thinking about starting your career after university in the United States or were you already thinking about these international opportunities?
Peter Kersting [0:17:36]: I was already thinking about getting back overseas. I didn’t ever really want to leave. I could have stayed a lot longer. It was good to finish up my program. I got my bachelor’s in journalism and my minor in international communication because of that study abroad program. One of the other really cool things and this is what’s awesome about travel, is you make so many connections, that you wouldn’t be able to make otherwise. I think especially for the other students I met who are from other countries, we were able to really bond over the fact that, Hey, we’re both foreigners here. There’s something about two expats, meeting each other and saying like, we get the challenge of this and we also get the allure of this. I think that makes your bond a little bit stronger.
I was really fortunate to stay in contact with, I still am in contact with a lot of the people I went to school with. Also, I ended up being a cultural ambassador for both my study abroad program in the Netherlands and the one in the US. The year after a bunch of the students that I went to school with in the Netherlands, they came to do a journalism workshop in Flagstaff. I got to just show them my stomping grounds, do really American things with them. In that sense, that was like a cool thing for me to be able to do like, Hey, let me return the favour for you to show you what’s up over here.
But yes, I was ready to go back. I just didn’t know how it was going to happen. I remember distinctly, I was in the Netherlands in 2016, I graduated in 2018 and I’m like, Okay, I want to go to Japan to do sports journalism, specifically baseball. I was applying around there and just didn’t land any of the jobs. It’s a little harder when you don’t speak Japanese, and then I was applying to be a reporter in Rome and that didn’t work out. Funny enough that was also, I think, because I wasn’t good enough at Italian and French. I was just trying to find something in journalism but internationally and getting kind of frustrated by those results. So, I ended up staying for a little longer than I wanted to, but that’s when I ran into teaching English as a second language as an option.
David McNeill [0:20:17]: When you realize that, that was an option for you, and of course that’s a definitely a well-trodden path by a lot of folks that are looking to try to get abroad into different countries and have those amazing experiences, what did you think about when you saw that? Did it seem like the perfect opportunity for you to make that transition? How did you pursue it from there? What certifications did you need, for example?
Peter Kersting [0:20:39]: As far as certifications go, it all really depends on where you want to go and how you want to do it. I’m a huge, huge advocate for teaching English as second language. I cannot recommend it enough to people. If your intent is just to go and live in another country, it is an amazing way to go somewhere else and live there, especially if you can do a government program, which is what I did, because oftentimes I think the government programs have two huge bonuses. One is that the structure is already in place. Your whole life is going to lose all the structure the second you move to another country; nothing is going to be the same. If your job is, I work from eight o’clock to 4:30 Monday through Friday, and I have weekends off, that’s a structure you can build off of. To me, I’m a spontaneous person, but I like to create a structure around my daily routines at least. That is alluring.
David McNeill [0:21:43]: You have this idea in mind, you knew the qualifications and certifications that hopefully needed to be able to be successful in that role, but how did you decide on which country to go to there’s so many options out there? You talked about being interested in foreign positions in Japan and Italy. Did you consider those countries and what did you decide on in the end?
Peter Kersting [0:22:02]: I was fortunate that…I was really honed in on Japan at the time. That’s when I was just like, Okay, the reporter jobs, aren’t happening. How do I work in Japan? That’s how I came across the TEFL route. I had never heard of that before. I don’t know why. I never knew it was a thing. International TEFL Academy, which is program based out of Chicago had really good SEO. I saw their program and just did a really quick glance over it and I was like, Whatever, I’ll call them, I’ll talk to them for like 10 minutes. That 10-minute phone call ended up being an hour long. The guy I talked to was just really good and he knew his stuff, he wasn’t pushy, he was just being informative.
At the time it was probably November and it just happens that I missed the JET program. JET is the most popular government program in Japan for teaching English as a second language. I missed the cut. I had missed the deadline for that. He was like, well, it’s okay though. I mean, you have other options. Korea is pretty good. I was like, all right, well tell me about Korea. I don’t know. He told me about the EPIK program and just some of the basic benefits, like how much money you’re going to be making, what the job might look like. Immediately I was like, Oh, that sounds good. Sign me up, bro. From then it really was like, I signed up for the program, I got TEFL certified and I left the country in a matter of three months.
David McNeill [0:23:54]: Nice. You just jumped right into a country that you hadn’t even really thought about before. I’m sure there was a lot of adjustment and learnings that you had to do on the fly. What were those first couple of months like when you were actually on the ground there in Korea?
Peter Kersting [0:24:12]: Ironically, David, I think the less prep you do, the better off you are in a lot of ways when you’re going somewhere that different. What I mean by that is the hardest thing, the thing that is going to make you the least likely to succeed is to have a preconceived notion of how things should be when you go live somewhere else. I don’t know if I was just being smart or if I was just like, all right, let’s go, let’s see what happens, just being gung-ho. I did zero research as far as what Korea looks like, or I didn’t even know where I was going to live, because it’s kind of a Russian roulette system for where you get placed. I was like, I’m not going to put in a preference. I don’t know where I show up. I don’t know what any where’s like, I don’t want to spend hours and hours being, oh, the perfect place to go is Seoul. That’s where I want to be. I think that allowed me to just look at everything that happened and be like, oh, that’s what Korea’s like. The countryside, they don’t live in huts, they live in skyscrapers. Okay. I didn’t know anything.
David McNeill [0:25:23]: Yes, it’s a good point. Actually, I think the expectations that we can set up about what it’s like to live in a certain place or how the culture works or how the job’s going to be. Even if you’re staying domestic in your home country, the expectations and frankly, doing all the research that you can, can sort of be a bit distracting because ultimately if it’s not pushing you toward actually achieving your goal, which might be to get that next job or to go abroad, then in a way it’s not that it’s wasted time. It’s just that it’s not time that could be best utilized and actually to make those things happen. I like your approach. Did you find that other people had a similar mentality when they were there? Or were you one of the few that was just so kind of open-minded and leaving it wide open to new interpretation?
Peter Kersting [0:26:13]: First of all, I don’t mean to say that I have the right attitude about everything and that’s why I did so well. I think I was incredibly blessed that the school that I ended up at loved me and we connected really well and that I ended up being kind of a local celebrity and I don’t mind attention. If somebody else doesn’t like to be noticed all the time, maybe they would’ve hated that. There are certain things that just line up that we’re like, This is perfect for me.
But on the other side of that, I think my attitude in life, when I’m doing well, when I’m really succeeding, I kind of have that attitude more often. It’s like, “well, this sounds interesting, I’m going to try it, I’m going to see what happens.” I’m really flexible and ready to pivot. The entrepreneurs and people I’ve met who I really admire, I think that is a characteristic they all have is that they’re willing to try stuff, it’s never like, it has to work perfectly. Just pivot when it doesn’t work, you make an adjustment, you do something different.
The worst-case scenario when you move to another country is that you hate it and you leave. Yes, there’s some headache that happens with that of course, maybe a little bit of guilt, telling everybody you’re going to be there for a year and you only made it three months, but really, it’s not that catastrophic if it’s not for you. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question.
But I find when I try to advise people, because there are people who still ask me, Hey, what do you think about Korea? If I was going to go there, what would it be like. I try to pay attention to their personality and keep in mind for them… I have a couple of friends that are interested in moving and the guy is a little bit more open minded and flexible and the girl is a little bit more routine. I wouldn’t say A type, but she likes to know how things are going to go. She’s very organized. I honestly think a lot of times, if you are that way, it’s harder for you to be willing to pivot when you need to. Because you’re used to having this attitude of how things should be. This is how I will need things to be for me to succeed.
Part of being overseas in another country is expanding your comfort zones, that I think is the key element. Are you willing to be uncomfortable? How do you look at something different? Do you see it as an inherently negative thing? Or do you see it as an inherently exciting thing or a positive thing? I’m lucky, and I think the reason why I love to travel as much as I do is because anything different is cool. Remember I told you, I didn’t want to go where my siblings went. They know what that’s like, I don’t want to do the same thing. I want to do something different. No one in my family went to the Netherlands. I’m the guy who knows what it’s like. Something about that is exciting to me and I could go on and on about the opportunities that presented themselves because I did that. I think that’s the key element, are you willing to be uncomfortable? Can you see cultural differences or those weird setbacks, if you will, as exciting things rather than like disruptions.
David McNeill [0:29:48]: Sure. In the case of your job, of course, you talked about it giving you some great structure and sort of that overall security or foundation for your time abroad, but how did you actually really like being an English teacher? Is it something that you found fit your personality and fit the type of work that you like to do? What type of people do you think would make the best English teachers abroad? Because I know it’s a common route for people to go abroad and people have different mixed opinions on it or feelings about it. It’d be good to get your thoughts on it.
Peter Kersting [0:30:16]: Yes. That’s actually a pretty nuanced answer. I don’t know if I could get like a one-size-fits-all approach to this, but I can give you what I think made me successful and what I think some other people should be considering, at least.
First of all, I told you I did no research. That’s not totally true. The research that I did was about the culture itself. First of all, I have teaching experience. I taught in varying degrees before I went to Korea, never taught English as a second language, but I taught in a classroom and worked with kids a lot. I knew that I liked working with kids and I know that I naturally am a pretty good teacher.
That side of it was easier for me to understand what it was like going in. The other research I did was trying to understand, for example, how much Korean culture is based on Confucianism, hierarchy, and things like that. Because then when you go in, the more you can understand the way that people think, the more when you have a disagreement or something where like, why are they not on the same page with me? You can kind of step back and be like, well, is this a cultural difference? Is there something happening here that’s like a language barrier issue? Rather than this person has a problem with me, even though sometimes it really feels personal. A lot of times it becomes personal because you’re don’t understand.
David McNeill [0:31:57]: Sure.
Peter Kersting [0:31:58]: I think that’s honestly bigger than are you good with grammar or How good is your composition? Or something like that. The other element of this is a lot of the people I met who ended up being a little bit disappointed with their job is, not because the job was too difficult, but because it was too easy almost. They were expecting to teach their kids so much and how to really make this huge impact. Of course, I think I made an impact to my students. I was also okay with the fact that like the bar was set at a certain level and there’s a status quo, and they want me to do things a certain way. I’m going to do what I can to teach my students to the best of my ability, but also like do what the teachers want me to do because I’m employed by them. I’m working for my students, but I’m also working for the school.
When things happened and I was like, I really could be teaching these kids a lot more, I was like, Okay, the kids like me, the school likes me, don’t try to fix something that’s not broken. The American saying. That’s one element of it. I think the other thing for me personally, this is more in lines with like what made me successful, I guess. I went in there with very clear goals of what I wanted to achieve for myself. This is the first time I think when I moved to Korea, this is the first time I’d really had this intentional approach to, what am I supposed to be getting out of this experience? I think it paid off a lot for me.
There were a couple different things I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to learn how to be alone more often and be comfortable alone because I’m a very extroverted person. I’m always doing a lot of things and I’m very social by nature, but I wanted to feel like if I’m by myself, I can still work on me and be comfortable where I am. I was provided that opportunity in spades because I was living in the Korean countryside and I’d work from 8:00 to 4:30, but then a lot of days I would go home and I’d be by myself the rest of the day. I think because I went in there with that, Hey, I don’t know the language. Maybe no one is even going to know how to talk to me, but I still want to work on these things. I think that really helped me with the first couple months of culture shock that they say happens. I didn’t get that because I was too busy exploring and also exploring myself, I guess.
David McNeill [0:34:56]: Yes. That’s a great way to think about it. To that end, I’m quite curious, what it was like to be in the Korean countryside in this role, because I think when many people think about life in Korea, they imagine the life in Seoul and everything they see on TV and K-Pop and all that stuff. Since you were given that great opportunity to be able to go there, work there, teach, and of course ultimately be in the countryside, what was that like? It sounds like you got some attention from the local people as well. It’s a different perspective. Love to hear about it.
Peter Kersting [0:35:32]: Oh my gosh. Yes, it was perfect for me. Honestly, I think this gets back to what I was saying before, if you can align your gut feeling with something and just not overthink it and just go, those are the times, at least for myself that I’ve just really done well. It happened for me when I went to the Netherlands, I was just like, Hey, this program looks cool. I like the advisor I’m working with and everything sounds like it’s going to be good, so I’m going to do it. and I went and it was awesome. I didn’t overthink it. Didn’t question Oh really? The Netherlands is cool, but maybe I should try Spain. No, I was Okay, well this is it. I’m going to go, because it feels good.
That was how I felt about going to Korea too. I had a couple of different things I wanted to work on. Paying off debt was one, spending time alone was one and then I really wanted to try to learn the language as much as I could as well. The reason I think I succeeded so well in the countryside was no one spoke English. I was one of very few expats. As they say with language acquisition, the more you can totally immerse yourself in the language, the better off you are.
On the same hand, I had a couple of very key people that I could hold onto when I really needed to. I could call my mom, if I wanted to talk to somebody in English, I had a neighbour right above me who was another American English teacher. I could talk to him if I needed to. I made and this was also key, a couple of the younger Korean teachers were willing to speak English with me and I would listen in Korean oftentimes to their conversations. If I wanted to communicate, I wanted to socialize I would oftentimes find myself just listening to all the Korean. Then I would just respond in English or in a mix of Konglish is what they call it when it’s Korean and English. That was awesome because I could really connect with these younger teachers.
That was very formative for me. Also, the fact that I was really open to doing whatever the school wanted me to do in the early going, I think I created really good relationships with the school, and so everybody loved me. I just was really fortunate that way. I was comfortable in my school position, I liked spending time with the teachers and the students outside of a class which is a huge deal. You’re supposed to spend a lot of time with your school. You’ll go after school to do a huge dinner with all of your co-workers and the principal who’s basically like the Empress of the school and you go drink together, it’s different, but I was like, it’s so cool. Of course, I’ll go.
I set myself up for success in those ways I think and then the other element is a little bit different in Europe maybe, but in Asian cultures, I found there is zero expectation for you to know the language or to understand them. As an expat, they just expect you to be a oegug-in/ a foreigner, they don’t expect you to know anything. I don’t know what they expect you to be. If you can say hello in the language, you’re already like blowing people’s mind.
David McNeill [0:39:22]: Same in Japan.
Peter Kersting [0:39:23]: There’s a certain element there where they’re like, whoa, your Korean is so good. and then like, oh, you know what Nunchi is? which is a concept of how you treat other people, and how that, you know, pay attention to the, I think in Japanese, I forget the term, but it’s, it’s called like the translation is something like feeling the air.
David McNeill [0:39:44]: Kūki wo yomu.
Peter Kersting [0:39:45]: Yes. I love that and I embrace that wholly. I think people respected me for that because they could tell, oh, he’s a white dude, but he’s trying to understand us. I like that. I think that element really made it a good experience for me, and then the other thing was people stared, look at you, whatever, I was just like, well, yeah, of course I’m the only white dude in a very large radius. Like you’ve never seen someone like me before. It didn’t bother me. I was really lucky to make a lot of Korean friends. That is something I guess, is not that common. I don’t know. A lot of the other expats I talk to, they just become friends with other expats which is cool, but I really wanted to make local friends. For me that was way more rewarding.
David McNeill [0:40:47]: Starting out, why was it that you had this desire to be able to speak Korean? Given your goals in terms of going over there, because it’s an interesting one, given that you didn’t have, it sounds like much forethought into going into Korea. Whereas in my case, my journey with Japanese started when I was 12. I was always gung-ho about that. Why was that one of your main goals as part of this process?
Peter Kersting [0:41:15]: It was less about Korean and more about learning the local language. Because there’s a saying that I’m probably going to butcher, but it’s like when you can communicate with somebody, you translate your ideas from your mind but when you can speak to them in their own language, you can speak to their heart. I guess for me, I want to understand this culture and embrace this culture as much as possible wherever I am. When I’m visiting Vietnam, I didn’t learn nearly as much Vietnamese. It was way harder for me, but I tried to speak Vietnamese a little bit, at least. If I visited Singapore or Malaysia or whatever, I tried to pay attention to what are the customs like and do those things, which I just feel like, you’re missing an integral element of the experience if you’re not trying to become as much of an expert on the way that life is in this place as possible.
For example, the more I was willing to speak Korean, the more people were comfortable talking to me. I think it’s similar in Japan. You can tell me if I’m wrong. People are terrified, absolutely terrified of speaking English. I would walk up to somebody and you could see them, just freeze, because they’re like, Oh my God, it’s white dude walking towards me. I got to pull out my eighth grade English. I don’t know. It’d be like the equivalent of you’re in the US and you see somebody from Mexico or France or wherever, walking up to you and you’d be like, Oh my God, I don’t know enough French. What am I going to do when he talks to me? Then if they come up to me, I speak in Korean, you could see them just relax and also freak out at the same time. I know English, I don’t know any Korean at all. I didn’t know that going in, but that was a pleasant side effect is that the more Korean I was willing to speak, the more relationships opened up to me and the more profound experience became.
David McNeill [0:43:40]: How did you pick up the language? It sounds like obviously you had people to practice with, you heard it, you tried to use it, but did you go in sort of any formal course or do you have any resources that you’d recommend for people out there trying to pick it up?
Peter Kersting [0:43:54]: For picking up Korean?
David McNeill [0:43:57]: Yes.
Peter Kersting [0:43:57]: www.talktomeinkorean.com is amazing. www.talktomeinkorean.com is free for the most part, at least, and it integrates really well with the language app Memrise. That podcast that they do is really, really good because first of all, it’s two or three or four Koreans who are doing it. It’s just very casual. They’re fun to listen to. They make it entertaining, but also the guy is a really good linguist. I wish I remembered his name specifically, but he’s really good at explaining Korean to an English listener in making you understand because for me with language acquisition, if I don’t understand why you say that grammatically, I actually have a really hard time knowing when to say it.
They did a really good job of being, this is the phrase, and this is why it’s the phrase. I didn’t take an actual course of any kind although that probably would’ve been awesome. I just learned the alphabet before and then while I was there, I spent a lot of time listening and very little time talking, which is not normal for me. I think that was actually another really pleasant aspect of the experiences that I got a much better at listening and paying attention to body language. They say 55% of a message is from body language, another 22% is from the way that you say it, and then not that much is the actual work. You’d be surprised how much you can understand, even if your actual vocabulary level is like very small. I was pretty confident. I knew what people were saying after a while, even though I could only understand a couple of the words.
David McNeill [0:45:59]: Good way to think about it. Yes, I’ve seen that in my case as well, over here in Portugal or in Germany. That’s good to know. It sounds like in general that you were having this great experience there, you were teaching, you were learning Korean and you were making a lot of friends and getting really settled in the culture there, but at the same time, now of course you’re back in the US. Could you just walk us through your decision-making process there? What happened and what brought you back?
Peter Kersting [0:46:29]: First of all, I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t hard. There was certainly a lot of really hard things. The funny thing is people would always say Oh, the first three months are going to be so hard. You’re going to wish you were not there. That never happened to me in the first three months b ut like month five or six, for whatever reason, I was feeling very alone. I’ve felt isolated for a while. Part of that was, there was a teacher at the school that I became really good friends with and he transferred to another school halfway through the year. All of a sudden, this Korean teacher that became really close with was no longer there.
There’s a period of time where I just really had to push through some of the things. There are times when you are surrounded by a bunch of people that you don’t know what they’re saying, and they don’t really know how to interact with you, and you can feel like you’re alone in a room. It’s not to say it was all good all the time. But I find in my experience that pushing through those things is what makes the experience. Like I said, pushing past your comfort level is actually what allows you to create a new comfort level.
The thing I’ll end with on that note is that I have no negative memories from my time in Korea. I don’t remember the negative things, which at a human level is not common. You pay way more attention than negative memories, but I honestly only remember the good stuff. It was a really good experience for me. If you could do that, wouldn’t you? If you could know, Hey, I’m going to spend a year doing something and I’m only going to have good memories from it. You’d jump immediately. There’s that. As far as coming back, it was really hard. I remember I was nearing the end of the school year and I was telling my students, Hey, you know, I decided not to be here next year. I don’t think they got it at first. I remember I was going into classrooms. I was like, Oh, they’re going to be all sad.
David McNeill [0:48:51]: You were hoping to get some tears, elicit some responses let’s say.
Peter Kersting [0:48:56]: Yes. Instead of blank stares.
David McNeill [0:48:59]: Okay. Have fun. Bye bye.
Peter Kersting [0:49:01]: Yes. They’re like, All right, teacher, we’ll see you later. I was all sad. They were just like; I don’t think they got it right away. Then as the school year was nearing its end and my sixth graders were graduating, they were all really sad. I was like, well, thank God they’re going to miss me it makes me feel little better.
One of the challenges of moving a lot, whether it’s within the US or traveling abroad is you get really good at setting down roots and making deep relationships. But the roots never go deep enough that you stay in one place necessarily, but it’s always painful to pull them out. If you plant something and it’s starting to grow really well that means the roots are starting to spread underground and pulling up the roots you’re automatically going to be taking some of the soil with you.
If we follow that metaphor, on the one hand, it’s really painful because you’re ripping up, what has become your life. One way I knew I succeeded in Korea is that I’d be walking around and I’d have a realization to be like, Oh, I’m in a foreign country right now, that’s how comfortable I was able to become. I was like, This is my home. I think a big part of that was making so many local friends and all the positive experience we talked about. On the other hand, that’s really hard because I really was going to miss all these people and who knows when you’re going to see them again.
It was a difficult choice to leave. I could definitely say in hindsight it was the right decision but at the time I just knew I didn’t want to get stuck. I had seen too many expat teachers who they love the first year, they stayed a second year, then the third year and then fourth year and now they’re just comfortable and they’re not staying because it’s the right place for them. They’re just staying because what else would I do? As much as I love teaching, it’s not the main thing I wanted to do. I think that was the main reason I decided not to renew my contract, and then as providence would show, the coronavirus came like literally right before I left. So, I ended up being better off, I think.
David McNeill [0:51:44]: You were quite fortunate with the timing in a sense you had to deal with the difficult challenge of actually making the decision to go back and go through those different emotions and things. Ultimately, I guess as you say, as providence would have it that happened anyway. Your timing was quite interesting for sure.
Peter Kersting [0:52:07]: Yes. To put it in perspective for those listening, I arrived in Korea in February of 2019 and I left Korea in February of 2020. In fact, my departure ticket and my return ticket are the exact same day and I have both of them still, which was not planned. If you think about the timeline, we didn’t start experiencing the coronavirus in the United States until about February or March, but in Asia it really was around in November. Then people knew about it in December or maybe early January, I think. I was traveling probably while I was first going around and then I was packing to leave at the height of the craziness in Korea. I remember my bus from the area I was in to Seoul, which is a four-hour bus ride. I was the only person on the bus. There was nobody else, just me and the bus driver and I was way in the back.
David McNeill [0:53:19]: Yes. That must have been a bit surreal. It’s hard to even imagine.
Peter Kersting [0:53:23]: Also, because those buses are usually packed full of people as they want to leave the small town to visit somewhere else. It was weird.
David McNeill [0:53:32]: You made it back to the US, sort of, in a sense, just in time as things were getting locked down obviously. A very different experience than you might have expected coming back to the states, but how’s it been since then for you and how have you managed these last 18 months or so, or more I suppose, and what’s new for you or what’s next for you rather?
Peter Kersting [0:53:56]: Yes. First of all, I will say people always talk about culture shock going into another country, but I think reverse culture shock is much more real, to me anyway. Returning from the Netherlands and being back in the US and like having to drive all the time was weird, for example. Then having to deal with passive aggressive people again. Returning from Korea, ironically is the exact opposite of culture shock.
One of the things that I recognize now that is so awesome is the Netherlands is the most outspoken straightforward cut all the BS culture in the world. Asian cultures are pretty much exactly the opposite. I have been able to experience both sides of the coin, so to speak. In one culture, you just say it, it doesn’t matter if they’re older than you, younger than you, like your boss, whatever you tell them what you mean and people respect you for it, and then in Korea or Japan or China or somewhere like that, you don’t do that. That’s the last thing you want to do. You need to be way more diplomatic.
There’s pros and cons to both. But I remember I was flying back and I was like flying into like Dallas or something, and the air hostess was just like, I felt like she was in my face because I was not used to people being like very assertive and vocal to me anymore. When she was asking if I wanted the Kimbap, I was like, first of all we don’t call it that, and second of all, why are you so close to me, why are you talking to me like this? It was hard at first.
Then the other thing was, all of a sudden, I was back and I had to figure out what was next. Those transition periods are always very challenging for me, figuring out, what is the next step. Once I know what it is, it’s a lot easier for me to just go, but the first couple months were difficult that way. But I guess that’s where the podcast starts coming into play a little bit more, and then my voiceover business, which I now own.
I had started the podcast Alone with Peter while living in Korea. It was originally just this meta idea, almost a way for me to journal my experience and talk about some of the things I was trying to work on because as I told you before, I was trying to work on a lot of self-growth. I’d share my thoughts on new year’s resolutions and culture shock and travel and things like that.
As time went on, I started to interview people, just people I’d met traveling or who I knew were really interesting. It kind of started to grow into something a little bit more for me where I was like, I don’t know if anybody is going to listen to it, it might really just be alone with Peter; me myself and I but I’m going to go out and start putting these out there. I had studied journalism. I’d worked as a TV news anchor and a radio guy and a newsprint guy, but this was my first foray into podcasting, it reminded me how much I liked the audio format. As I was saying to you before, one of the reasons I left Korea is because I knew teaching wasn’t something I wanted to do long term. That’s really when the idea of voice acting started creeping in a little bit more for me.
From February of 2020, until now I’ve been just slowly dipping my toes in more and figuring things out. For a while, it was just taking a class and doing some Lego stop motion movies with friends of mine. I just played some characters, just for fun, very low stakes things. I’m not getting paid, but I’m just practicing for a cool project and as luck would have it come this last summer, I started my company, Peter Kerstin Productions. I’m launching season two of the podcast. It’s been good. It’s been a crazy, very weird year and a half or whatever it’s been, but it’s been very productive for me as far as figuring out what the next steps are.
David McNeill [0:58:36]: Where can our listeners or viewers find more information on those different projects?
Peter Kersting [0:58:42]: First of all, if you want to go to www.peterkersting.com. That is my website. You can find my voiceover stuff there. You can request a demo and you can also check out the show notes for any upcoming episodes of Alone with Peter on there and subscribe as well. That’s the easiest spot to hit everything. I’ll also give you a link tree, which will go to each of the individual platforms because I have a couple different social media platforms, but if you’re interested in the podcast Alone with Peter, that’s my Instagram, or if you want to follow my personal professional profile, that’s the.real.Peter.k.
David McNeill [0:59:28]: Excellent. Yes, definitely put those in the show notes and send some folks over there and hope that you’ll get some great traction with the new season as well. But just to wrap us up here, I’m curious about what you see in the future for you. Of course, it’s been a challenging year and a half plus that goes without saying. You’ve definitely made the most of it. It’s great to hear about your new projects, but do you see yourself trying to get abroad again, the future when things become a bit clearer or like what you’re thinking about it?
Peter Kersting [0:59:58]: Yes. I fell so in love with Asia that I knew I wanted to go back and I met my now fiancé during this last year and a half or so and convinced her to get title certified. We just finished our application to Japan. The JET program fingers crossed and we’re also going to apply to go back to Korea. Part of my thought process here is to continue to pursue my voiceover company, but while also teaching English in second language, because one of the huge pros that I did not mention before is because your schedule is as regimented as it is, you know exactly what’s expected of you. Honestly, at least to me, it’s not that challenging of a job. I had a lot of free time to work on other things. To able to travel, pay off debt and pursue your own projects at the same time while teaching in another country is something I couldn’t do in the states. The next couple years, I hope that looks like teaching in Japan or Korea and expanding my voiceover business so that whenever our stint as teachers ends, I’ll be really, really kind of positioned well to really scale the business and grow the podcast and all that good stuff.
David McNeill [01:01:36]: Awesome. I love it.
Peter Kersting [01:01:37]: Meet you in Portugal and talk about what’s it like in Europe?
David McNeill [01:01:41]: Yes, of course. Yes. Definitely. Hopefully I’ll be swinging by Japan one of these days when we can. Maybe we’ll find a way to meet up one place or another around the world, but thanks so much for sharing your story today. It’s been awesome to hear about all your adventures and definitely wish you the best of luck and your future endeavours. Thanks again, and look forward to keeping in touch.
Peter Kersting [01:02:03]: Absolutely David and excited to have you on Alone with Peter, we’ll have to talk more then. Sounds good.
David McNeill [01:02:09]: Talk to you soon.
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