It was a year and a half ago that I packed my bags and headed to Newark Liberty International Airport: destination, Seoul, South Korea. It’s fair to say that my life at that stage was not at a high point. After coming home with great expectations after a year teaching in the Czech Republic, I had spent 9 months in the U.S. that had – suffice to say – not gone according to plan. During that time, I experienced the disintegration of a relationship, unanticipated financial hardship, many unanswered job applications and – the icing on the cake – making it through 3 rounds of interviews for a job I really wanted, only to be told in the end “you are an excellent candidate, but we have decided to go with somebody else.” I was in a bad place, and I not only wanted, but needed, a change. The job market at home was proving to be tough, and I’d heard that South Korea was a good place to make some money and get back on my feet. Although I had never been to Korea before and frankly was not particularly enamored of the culture before arriving, I decided that I would take the leap to save up some cash, if nothing else. In addition, I’d enjoyed my previous years living abroad and figured that I would meet some kindred spirits along the way.
I don’t share any of this for the reader’s sympathy or to put forth the notion that my struggles were anything unique. Rather, I share this because I can imagine somebody in a similar position reading this post right now. With how much things in my life have changed for the better since, it’s hard to believe I have only been here a year and a half. In that time, not only have I been able to pay off about $15,000 worth of student loan debt, I also met my wonderful partner Emily (whom I will marry in less than a week!), made many fascinating friends, traveled all over Korea, and even had the chance to take fascinating trips to Malaysia and Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong: it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows, and there are definitely aspects of life here that I detest. But by and large, I am supremely grateful for the way my life has been transformed by the experience, and plan to stay for one more contract – a total of nearly 3 years.
During my first year, I taught at an “English town” at an elementary school in Naju. For those who are not familiar with the concept, this is a place where students come for a field trip once a semester and take part in a variety of English-based activities. For example, our English town had an Easter Egg Hunt, a Christmas craft corner where students made Parol (Filipino Christmas lanterns), a Halloween-themed haunted house, and an escape room at various times of year. If you think this sounds easy and fun, you’re right. It was not a stressful year given that the only prep required was at the start of the semester, and for our seasonal English camps. The downside, however, is that I was leading the same activity every day for three months at a time. As you can imagine, this became quite boring and monotonous. So, after a year, I decided I needed a change, and I requested a transfer to Yeonggwang.
Life in Yeonggwang
Emily has taught in Yeonggwang for over four years, and I got to spend a lot of time here during my first year as a result. It is a small town, about an hour’s bus ride from the nearest large city (Gwangju) and about 30 minutes from the coast of the Yellow Sea. Yes, one of my favorite things about living here is being able to get to the beach by bus for less than US$1! The definition of “Yeonggwang” is a bit ambiguous, since it is the name of both the county and the town it centers around. I’m unsure of the town’s population, but I know that the population of the entire county is about 70,000. I work at some very small schools in the countryside. And when I say small, I mean small. My main school has just 60 students from kindergarten to Grade 6, and my travel school has only 22! It’s a bit of a curiosity to me that both schools are still open, given that they are only 2 bus stops (about 5 minutes’ drive) apart from each other. One of my co-teachers told me that there had been a plan to merge the schools, but that the parents had “declined.” I assume the political clout the parents had to do this has something to do with the Hanbit nuclear power station in Yeonggwang, but that is just my speculation.
The small student populations at my schools are not unique in Korea, where the birth rate has plummeted to about 1.1 children per family. Shortly after moving here, my friend Saul found an article in the New York Times about a particular school on the east coast that recently closed. The reason it closed was because its sole remaining student finished the sixth grade, and there were no other children left in the village. Another story in the New York Times discusses how some schools in our province (Jeollanamdo) have started to accept elderly illiterate women in their elementary classes to make up for falling student numbers.
My half-year living Yeonggwang has been great thus far. Most importantly, I feel much more a part of my school community and have enjoyed getting to know the students over the course of the year. Sure, their English level is quite low, especially at my travel school, and English education isn’t given high priority here. But I have seen how the students have grown throughout the year, and the small class sizes have given me the opportunity to learn most of the students’ names at build relationships over time that were impossible in my previous position. The local education office is quite supportive as well. Just last week, they sponsored a full day’s retreat for all over the foreign teachers at a local meditation and yoga center, and we also went on a hike as a group and learned about Korean culture. Next month, they will start provide free Korean classes for interested foreign teachers twice a month, and we will get to leave early to attend. I have never heard of this anywhere else in Korea, so I am quite grateful.
The town itself offers more conveniences and is home to 16 other foreign teachers who teach in the town and surrounding country schools. That is a much better social situation than was the case in my placement in a rural part of Naju. Yeonggwang is also interesting for supposedly being the birthplace of Korean Buddhism, with Bulgapsa Temple said to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Korea. There seems to be some debate as to whether this is actually the case or simply local legend, but regardless, the temple and surrounding countryside are amazing places to visit.
As a nature lover who truly enjoys the natural beauty of Jeollanamdo, living in Yeonggwang has been wonderful fir its many mountain trails and country roads. I’m so glad to have a bicycle to be able to enjoy exploring the area in the evenings and on weekends. On a completely different note, Yeonggwang has a very convenient direct bus link to Seoul (well, 3.5 hours – as convenient as it gets around these parts). This has allowed me to spend more time in Korea’s capital and main link to the outside world. It’s been nice on occasion to be able to go there and experience non-Korean culture and cuisine, which is virtually impossible in Jeollanamdo. After a year of being totally immersed in Korean life, this is a welcome respite!
Life as a second year resident
As far as stints living as an expat in Korea go, mine is relatively short. It is not uncommon for people to spend 4-5 years here. Emily is on her fifth contract at the moment. Having met others who have been here a decade or longer, I would hardly call myself a veteran. Having said all of that, I feel much more comfortable here than I did initially.
My Korean is still very limited, but I’m able to read and have basic conversations about food, likes and dislikes, and practical matters. This has made things such as ordering food at restaurants, asking for directions, and other such day-to-day concerns much less stressful than they once were. It also does wonders for building rapport with my students, managing the classroom, and translating words that they don’t understand during my lessons. Don’t get me wrong. My Korean is still horrible, about on the level of a two-year-old. I know a hodgepodge of random words and some basic phrases, and my grammar (or total lack thereof) and pronunciation are endlessly entertaining to my students. But the ability to understand some of what they are asking me, talk to them about their favorite foods, and ask them which singers they like in their native language really goes a long way. It also serves as a bridge when they attempt to speak with me in their limited English. Often, our conversations involve a little bit of English, a little bit of Korean, and a whole lot of charades and deferral to google translate. I don’t expect to be anything approaching a fluent Korean speaker by the end of my time here, but it feels good to be able to use the language on some level, and really makes the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding than it originally was.
Another benefit of having been here a while is that I experience culture shock much less often than I used to. I won’t mince words: Korea is a totally different world, not just compared with America, but with the many other countries I visited and lived in prior. I’ve grown used to feeling like I’m living on another planet among people who generally think and act in ways that are totally foreign to me. Truthfully, I am not at all enamored of modern Korean culture, with its emphasis on competition, conformity, appearance, and status. K-Pop songs still sound like nails on a chalkboard to me, and the total lack of encouragement of creativity and independent thought in the school system sadden me. But living here has been immensely valuable in that it has challenged me to live out my values in a completely new way, adapting to a culture that would see most of the ways I think as radical. I’ve also happily made some Korean friends recently who view life quite differently from the dominant culture, and it’s been fascinating to get their perspective on it.
Happily, as I’ve mentioned before, we as foreign teachers really aren’t expected to integrate fully into the culture. And that’s just fine with me. I like my lifestyle here. The friends I’ve made are awesome, the challenging work experience has been invaluable, and it’s been a great base for exploring Asia during vacation times. I originally thought this would be my last year in Korea, but over time I’ve grown more fond of living here than I ever thought possible.
New things on the horizon
I’ll admit it: most of what you just read was written a few months ago, and updated slightly to account for the months it sat in my drafts! Alas, I’ve been busy with life here, planning our wedding, and other writing I’ve been doing. I also took my first trip back to the U.S. in a year in August, met Emily’s friends and family in Canada, and began the long and daunting process of applying for permanent residence in Canada and planning our next steps there. Maybe I’ll write about some of these things in future posts. But fear not dear reader (or readers, if you’re not the only one still reading, Mom)! A total revamp of this website is in the works, along with a plethora of new posts about my upcoming wedding, a guide to being a vegetarian in Korea, and much more. Until then. . .