In May 2012, I graduated from Indiana University South Bend with a degree in communications (journalism is what I focused on, but I had no job lined up and no idea on how to go about becoming a paid writer). In June, two months before I received my diploma, Christie Pierce—one of my best friends—asked if I was interested in teaching abroad and, after a lengthy period of mailing, waiting, filling out documents, background checks, and apostilling, I received a visa to teach English in Changwon, South Korea.
For those aimless university students graduating into a generation of uncertainty, the only requirement to teach kindergarten through high school in Korea is a bachelor’s degree (in anything) and a presumably clean police record. No teaching experience is required. With a TEFL certificate you can make a little more in salary and with a CELTA certificate, you can teach most anywhere.
South Korea, compared to its northern component, is highly westernized with ubiquitous English signs, multi-floored department stores stocking high end designer goods like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and slews of American style restaurants. They take direction from China and Japan and have positioned themselves as a G-20 economy. A highly developed country, they lead the way with many technologies such as LG, Kia, and Samsung. Middle school and high school students teem from Starbucks and McDonalds in big cities, clutching expensive smartphones the size of tablets.
A large charm of Korea is its construction which is strategically built up-wards to preserve the natural geography of the peninsula. There are large expanses of rugged mountains with close cropped shrubbery, Korean and Japanese cherry blossoms in the spring, and hidden temples and pagodas overlooking lakes and rivers that are flanked by dogwoods.
I lived in Changwon for a year, as most contracts are this long, traveled all over Korea, ate various dishes including kimchi (a spicy dish of fermented cabbage), made friends with over 100 people in Changwon (the foreign community being very close-knit), and learned to read, write, and speak a little Korean. My Korean director cared for me very well, bringing me home-cooked meals, and I often went on trips with co-teachers during the weekends. I was very lucky. My school asked me to stay but I wanted to see my family and friends so I left, but not before visiting Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand first.
Back home with seemingly no opportunities and little gained experience in the field of published work, I found a very alluring position in Busan (in Korean Hangul script: 부산), a city in the southeast tip of Korea with beautiful beaches and a cultured population. Busan, home to Haeundae beach, Gwangali beach, Gwangan Bridge, and big city department stores, is locked against the coast by the Geumjeong Mountains. Korea’s largest river, Nakdong, streams though the west side of Busan and exits into the Korean Strait. With a population of around 3.5 million, Busan is Korea’s second largest city. Seoul’s population is somewhere close to 10 million. For perspective, it’s important to understand that South Korea is only 2,273 square miles larger than Indiana.
Frustrating paperwork finished, luggage accounted for, and goodbyes said, I was given a flight from Chicago on the 31st of March and would arrive in Seoul on 1 April, April Fool’s day—something Korean’s celebrate—hoping the job wasn’t a prank.
Flying fairly often, planes were never a problem, and this time around I even phoned the airline to inform them of my plant-based diet so that I wouldn’t have to rummage through the complementary dinners. This time, however, I was greeted with the oldest cliché in bad flight etiquette: I sat next to a weary mother and her hyper-excited child. The child, John, never ceased speaking for more than ~10 seconds, reciting, “Mommy” hundreds of times during the trip. He fluctuated his volume during speaking and got louder at the end of each sentence/word and prolonged the last vowel so that “mommy” was, “Ma-ME-E-E-E”. The only seats that were available to switch to were directly behind me and in my same row, in the middle. Multiple times the mother, who never once told John to lower his voice, would exit her seat and leave John alone with me, disappearing to walk the distance of the plane. John would touch my face, put his feet on me, yell for mommy, etc. At one point the mother even left him for an hour and sat in the vacant seat behind me, ostensibly to escape the insatiable child.
I arrived in Seoul with my nerves shot and body dead tired. I bused to another terminal, caught another plane, and finally arrived at 7pm in Busan, my new city, where I met with my recruiter, Christine. She helped me find my way to my apartment and discussed with me her love for Western film. Christine, who never took an English class, spoke better English than any student I’ve had and was able to understand me at full speed, speak almost fluently, and use euphemisms nonchalantly.
After arriving home and passing out, I woke up early because I started work the next day. Observing my location before meeting my Minnesotan co-teacher (Some schools have multiple foreigners. My Changwon School did not. My Busan School is a much larger franchise with two floors), I found that I was enshrouded by five convenient shops (just on my block), three department stores, five coffee shops, and a Bennigan’s western restaurant (In Changwon I lived across from an Irish pub (O’brien’s) and down the road from an Outback Steak House and Bennigan’s). This is common. Luckily, five minutes walking, I found a Gimbap Chungook (Gimbap Heaven), which is a cheap, fast, traditional style Korean restaurant, for penny pinchers with a monstrosity of a university loan.
Gimbap is the Korean version of Japanese Sushi. It is wrapped in seaweed and has radish, carrot, ham, crab, and egg, generally. Common dishes in Korea are meat based soups (Jigae), noodles, usually spicy, various kinds of jeon (a batter mixed and fried to resemble a pancake but with additives like kimchi and squid), and bibimbap, which is a medley of vegetables (carrots, lettuce, sprouts) given to you in a hot bowl with spicy sauce and an egg on top that you mix together yourself. Bibim translates roughly to do-it-yourself.
My school, Eastern English, has 12 Korean employees and two foreigners. I work on the fifth floor. It’s in a location that’s hidden away from the main hustle and bustle of the city, a place behind rather pricey apartments and in an older sector of buildings. After a 15 minute subway ride, 10 minute bus ride, and 10 minute walk, I arrived. My English co-teacher, Rachel, who was entirely accommodating and friendly, helped me situate myself and prepared me for what to expect. This was opposite the events my first trip in which I had no chauffer telling me how to teach. The majority of my students are middle school students (15-16 years old), and we focus mainly on writing and speaking.
I am paid salary each month and pay my own utilities bill, groceries, travel, etc. My school pays for my rent, which is wonderful, as well as for the flight here and back, and pension for my last month of completed work. With apartments, it’s the luck of the draw: you could get a terrible, old apartment, or you could score a modern, roomy one. My Changwon apartment was only a little bigger than a cubicle size whereas my Busan apartment is decent. Couples that are hired by the same school luck out by getting family sized apartments. My girlfriend lives in the same city, but we were hired at different schools and therefore weren’t given the larger apartment option. A 20 minute walk from my Busan place is Haeundae beach, the most popular beach in Busan and a beautiful area in the summer. In three months my director plans to move me to a secluded beach area called Gwangali, which is highly coveted by Koreans.
Teaching can be highly enjoyable in Korea, in public or private schools. Elementary students are always entertaining and fun and mostly apt to learn, and middle school students are adept and studious. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a class full of middle school girls that giggle and squeal over their latest K-pop (Korean Pop) boy band crush, middle school boys that want to tell you about their favorite English-language movies (usually Superhero oriented), and hordes of elementary kids belting the words to the latest Disney film.
There’s plenty of free time as an English teacher to explore the country and experience as many festivals and events as Korea has to offer. Transport is mostly cheap, especially from city to city. A bus from Busan—the southernmost city—to Seoul—the northern most city—costs around 30 or 40 USD. You can go to a bar and leave your wallet/purse/phone/backpack unattended and not worry about theft (though I don’t suggest doing that). Crime is abysmal on the face of things. There are no weapons and police only carry knight sticks.
From time to time I’ll update the blog with Korean adventures I undertake that range from topics like festivals, culture, music, geography/travel, food, and everyday thoughts.