It was just over three years ago that I first arrived in Korea, ready to immerse myself in something new. “To everything, there is a season,” Ecclesiastes says. These past few years have certainly brought many blessings, including meeting my wife, paying off my student loans, being challenged by another culture as I never have before, and seeing many other beautiful places in Asia. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on and extended our stay in Korea longer than anticipated, life here has become increasingly dull, routine, and, at times, downright irritating.
Earlier this month, I celebrated my 30th birthday. As I enter a new decade of life, I could not be more ready to move on to “bigger and better things.” I often tell people that while I will always cherish the memory of my university days, I would never want to go back now. Likewise, while a trip to Chuck E. Cheese may have been great fun as an 8-year-old, it probably wouldn’t have the same appeal today! Korea has been a formative experience in my life, but now, it’s like an old pair of shoes that needs to be replaced. At this point, my feet are getting sore, because I’ve been putting off replacing them for too long.
So, it’s official. My wife and I have both handed in our official resignations to our schools. We’ve booked plane tickets back to the United States July 3, and plan to start a new life together in her native Canada, where I’ve applied for permanent residence, soon after. Emily has already accepted a job with Teach for Canada, which will bring us to an as-yet undetermined First Nations community in rural Ontario or Manitoba. I’m hoping all of my immigration paperwork will be settled in order to start this fall as well.
Before diving too deeply into our plans for the future, though, I’d like to share my final thoughts on Korea as I prepare to say goodbye for good.
First, a note of gratitude
There is no doubt that 2020-21 has been year+ of testing for most of the world. A deadly pandemic, the likes of which humankind hasn’t seen in more than a century, altered everything about the way we live our lives. At the very least, we have all experienced some inconvenience and disruption of our plans. Others have had their world turned upside down by illness, the death of loved ones, and the worst economic situation since the 1930s.
As far as the impact of the pandemic on my own life is concerned, I have been supremely lucky. I have been in South Korea for the duration of the pandemic, and the country has received international accolades for its great success in containing the virus (although not so much with its glacial-paced vaccine rollout). In the town where I teach, I think there have been only two cases of the virus during the whole pandemic. While we all take precautions, of course, I have little fear of contracting the virus as case numbers have always been low. And while there have been some restrictions on larger gatherings since December, just about everything is open and daily life is about as normal as can be expected given the circumstances. When I read the news and hear stories from friends in family in the U.S. and Canada about the strict lockdowns that have occurred during the past year, it all feels quite remote – even surreal.
As a public sector employee, I have also been largely insulated from the economic impact of the pandemic. Even when online classes were in session, there was never a question as to whether I would receive my paycheck. In fact, native-speaking English teachers in Korea seem to have even more job security now than we normally would, given the difficulty in bringing in new teachers from abroad at a time of major restrictions on international travel.
All things considered, I’ve more or less hit the “pandemic lottery” by being in Korea during this time.
And yet. . .
. . .it’s had its ups and downs. My wife and I had hoped to be returning to North America by now. I’ve spent about 5 of the last 6 years abroad, and she has been away for about 8 of the last 9. We haven’t seen family in the States or Canada since the summer of 2019. That’s the longest either of us have gone without so much as a visit to our home countries, and the last visit was far too short – only about a week each in the U.S. and Canada. We got married in Korea in 2019, and wanted to have a proper ceremony for family and friends in North America in either the summer of 2020 or 2021. Although we’ve met each other’s families, we haven’t been able to introduce them to each other yet. With the border between the US and Canada closed, and travel back to North America from Korea being both risky and difficult, it doesn’t look like the ceremony will happen until around Christmas at the earliest. At that point, we’ll have been married more than two years.
Then, there’s the cultural fatigue. . .
Of all the countries I’ve travelled to and lived in these past several years, it’s safe to say I’ve found Korea that hardest to adjust to culturally. Frankly, I’ve never felt particularly comfortable here. At best, I’ve coped with living in a culture with values that often seem diametrically opposed to my own. Prior to the pandemic, I never imagined I’d spend 3+ years here. As time has dragged on, coping has becoming increasingly difficult, and my patience has often worn thin.
Professionally, my English teaching role is getting a bit boring and repetitive, and the Korean education system’s obsession with passive memorization and test-taking to the exclusion of all else seem unlikely to change any time soon.
What’s more, the culture’s workaholism, collective denial of its mental health crisis, rigid social hierarchy and strong focus on social conformity have always been hard for me to adapt to. All of this, along with the obvious problem of the language barrier, has contributed to a strong feeling of limitation in all that I do here.
I’m looking forward to immersing myself in a radically different culture with radically different values, and I’m sure that a Canadian First Nations community will fit that bill. I also look forward to the peace and quiet, wide open spaces, and natural beauty of rural Canada. It will be a welcome reprieve from 3+ years of overcrowded, overdeveloped, and noisy Korea!
Still, there have been some highlights this final year
I don’t want to make it all sound bad! This final year in Korea has included some wonderful experiences as well.
For one thing, I’ve finally had the opportunity to teach middle and high school after three years of elementary teaching (in Korea and the Czech Republic). At first, I was working exclusively at tiny schools in the countryside ranging in size from 12-30 total students (yes, you read that right). I had the lightest class schedule of my career for about four months. In August, our schedules got reshuffled to make up for the shortage of foreign teachers due to the pandemic. That gave me the chance to work at a large girls’ middle school and a technical high school as well.
Since February of 2021, I’ve been working at a large boys’ middle school, one of the same small country middle schools, and a large technical high school. It’s the busiest teaching schedule I’ve had in Korea, but the variety has also been really nice. Some of my schools have also given me the freedom to teach lessons about Western culture rather than the textbook, which has allowed me to teach my students the rules of American football, music and wildlife around the world, and about holidays and traditions in Canada and the US.
Outside of school, although we haven’t been able to travel outside the country since our trip to Thailand in January 2020, we’ve been making the best of our free time here. Something that’s been especially rewarding is the ecology club that I started last year through the Gwangju International Center (GIC). It seemed to come about on its own. At first, I just wanted to write an article about caring for the environment, inspired by some of the ideas in Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know as Possible. Myself, Emily and a few other friends had recently done a litter cleanup at the beach in Yeonggwang. This is something I’d been doing informally for years, without ever mentioning it to anybody. Next thing I know, I was invited to give a talk at the GIC on the subject, and after the talk, the GIC offered to provide financial support for our club, courtesy of the Gwangju city government.
Since then, we’ve organized dozens of litter cleanups in Gwangju and Jeollanamdo and hosted a successful vegetarian food festival at the GIC. Since December, our activities have been limited due to the ban on more than 4 people meeting. But that’s allowed our core group to become close friends while we continue with our more humble Gwangju cleanups. Our friend Ashu is a scientist and has recently been teaching us how to make compost from some of the litter and household food waste. I’m hoping to be a good enough student to share this project with future students in Canada!
As much as I’m ready to move on, these last few years in Korea have been very important ones that I’ll always be thankful for. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be where I am in life if it weren’t for these formative experiences. As with many things in life, though, there comes a time when we grow out of a situation. I’ve never been more ready to move on to something new!