I’ve spent the last four years living in rural south Korea, out in the mountains. When you teach English in South Korea there is a possibility of getting a rural bonus depending on your location, but that doesn’t always mean you’re actually some place rural. You might still have a Starbucks, movie theater, chain restaurants and an E-mart. The small mountain town I lived in didn’t have any of these. It didn’t even have a cafe until a couple years after I’d moved there. So I figured I’d share my experiences. Some of these I’ll expand on for in general tips in other posts.
You can get almost everywhere in Korea from anywhere else. Just the further you are from a city the harder it gets and the longer your wait is going to be. If you’re near a train station it’s much easier. My rural town has a couples buses that can get me to a train station, however if I miss one there’s a good chance I could end up waiting up to an hour for the next which goes from me being early/on time to vastly late to wherever I’m going. I also have to spend a lot of time working out logistics. What time do I have to leave my house in order to be at the bus stop in time to catch the bus in order to get to the train to catch the fast ITX in order to meet my friend at the time we set? (This usually includes more logistics for once I’m in Seoul) It means that I can’t make plans for anything before brunch or right after work. Usually the earliest I can get to Seoul after work (work finishes at 4:40) is about 7pm and that’s if I’m lucky. But despite not having a car I’m still not fully trapped in my town, I can get out and go places it’s just not the most convenient. Especially when the trains run only once an hour or if I’m lucky every 40 minutes. The buses also don’t really start until 7am and finish at 10pm, the last train is also around midnight so I do have a Cinderella hour in which I’ve got to be back by.
What happens if I miss that 10pm deadline? I’ve got to take a taxi home. The trains continue a little bit past 10pm, till nearly midnight and I think there’s an intercity bus that drops off at the bus terminal at 1am. But to get to my house which is over 25 minutes away I usually have to take a taxi, and I’ve waited up to an hour in the cold for a taxi after the last train before. Thankfully taxi’s in Korea aren’t nearly as expensive as they were when I was in the states but it’s still between 13,000 won and 17,000 won to get home if I get home too late to take the bus and that adds up. (~$11.57-$15.12)
If you move somewhere rural and plan to stay awhile it may be a good idea to get a car. Practically none of my coworkers take the bus, except the other English teacher who plans to have a car next year and one higher up who hates driving and prefers to take the bus but also doesn’t live in the area but in a bigger city about a half hour away. If you like to drive and are not a patient person getting a car might be better suited for you and will open the rest of Korea up for you as well. Driving kind of freaks me out and driver’s ed is the one class I ever failed so I’ve been stubborn and only taking the bus.
If you plan to stay out late with friends or going to a bar you should plan ahead, book yourself a room at a hostel or hotel or even at a jimjilbang (bath/spa) if you’re trying to save money. There are some places that are open 24 hours and you could technically chill at a 24 hour cafe or restaurant until the trains opened again but it’s not fun or comfortable, especially if you have a three hour journey to get back home. That 3+ hour commute back home is a big reason I’ve stayed at so many hotels in Seoul because if I want to do anything in the morning (like go to a doctors appointment before 11am) It’s usually best for me to already be in the city. It also means I don’t have to keep an eye on the time while I’m out with friends for fear of being trapped in Seoul without a place to stay till morning. (Any time this has come close to happening I’ve had a friend willing to lend me their couch/floor for the night but it’s still not a fun panic)
My go-to getting around apps:
I’ll go more into detail about my travel apps and apps I use in general in South Korea in another post.
I’ve taught at two schools, the same two schools for the last 4 years. Here’s some things I learned.
I expected my students all to be vastly low level. I thought big cities=more money= hagwons and private tutors=high levels of English and thus on the other side of that would mean that I’d be speaking broken English interspersed with random words in Korean I knew. And in some cases I did have this. But I also had students who were fluent. Students who would run in and want to have long conversations about their favorite sports teams, band or whatever was going on in their lives. I did have students who were still struggling with ABC’s as sixth graders but less than I expected and even the majority of those students still could answer questions and were not as low level as one might fear when you talked with them one on one. No one wrote me novel length essays of their favorite recently watched movies but they always surprised me with the words the knew, connections they made and their growth. Teaching them for four years meant I got to watch students change, become more confident in their use of language.
Rural schools, especially elementary schools tend to have less students. I taught two schools and one was my “big school” and the other was tiny. At my main big school I taught between twelve and nineteen students and at my tiny school between one and four. I expected the second smaller school to be poorer, but they went on field trips all the time and had a 3D printer and so many hard working students that I learned quickly not to count them out.
I’ve been warned multiple times that one of the big differences between rural students and city kids is that the rural kids usually tend to be nicer and more polite. Which may be true, I may figure this out, but I’ve also had rural students who have punched me and screamed at me any time I went near them to help them with something in class. But I’ve also had students bring me coffee, snacks, and braid my hair. My students are pretty touchy and I’ve found my co-teacher come in and I’m stuck because I’ve been swarmed by students and unable to move. I’ve had a student whose too young to be in my classes spot me across the parking lot where her mom was putting her hair up in a pony tail, bounce up in down with her arms out and as soon as her mother let her go shot like a rocket straight towards me for a hug. All students are different and they change. That kid who screamed at me any time I went near them? Total chill by the time they graduated and actually could answer some basic questions in English. Pretty proud of their growth, but again total mixed bag. I’m expecting my new city school to be similar but with more students and really to just wait and see.
Because I teach at a small rural school I get invited to more things than my friends in the nearby small city/big town did. I went to a lot of dinners, spent my first year learning how to play badminton, if I stayed another year I could probably learn violin with my students (I miss the date last year and didn’t know I could until recently). I went on teacher’s trips almost twice a year to places I’d never been before and did so much. I got to attend several field trips with my students and almost every sports day at my secondary school. I ate lunch at the teachers table since there was only one. Sometimes I didn’t know what we were doing I’d just be gently led off to someones car and find myself after school wandering around a lane filled with cherry blossoms and taking cute pictures with my coworkers or eating bbq with everyone. Once I showed up at my small school and found myself less than an hour later on the side of a river with all my students letting very carefully hatched endangered fish back into the river to try and help keep them from going extinct. While I didn’t always get invited to everything or told about things I was invited to so many cool and interesting experiences. That even with the language barrier I was able to have fun with my coworkers.
I live in school housing, essentially a decent sized apartment but in a very old apartment. As far as I can tell the person I go to if there are problems is in fact another teacher or school maintenance people. So usually I just make do on my own since they’re already busy running around fixing things at school. For nearly 10 years only other English teachers have lived in my apartment, so there are little remnants of them like behind the recent new wall paper is some wall art that I know for a fact another teacher put up (we met). Parts of it are old and falling apart and a lot of it I’m kind of stuck with dealing on my own, like procuring my own heat.
In Korea most heat for water or for your house in winter is done with oil and via an ondul, which heats water beneath the floor boards. For me this means I have to check the oil level in my apartment semi-frequently and if it’s too low I have to either hike to the nearest gas station and fill up a container, lug it back and fill my tank or I have to call and have the gas station come and fill it up about half way. (I’ve always asked a coworker to call and make an appointment for me). I have a door near the entrance of my apartment that houses my water and floor heater. Sticking out of one of them is a clear tube, depending on how high the oil is in that tube tells me my oil level. Once I can’t see it anymore I know I’m completely out and there’ll be no hot water, so I try to have an appointment made before I get to that point. But because it’s on me I have come back from vacation to find I have no hot water or oil left. (Since it’s water pipes under the floors during winter you need to leave the ondul on if you’re gone for long periods of time so the pipes don’t burst, it’s a huge time consuming and expensive mess to clean up and you don’t want to pay for it.)
I also spent a couple months living in an apartment in downtown during renovations at our school apartments. This apartment was huge and nice, three bedrooms with a large kitchen and dining/living room and two bathrooms. It was meant for a family but the other English teacher and I managed to work it out as roommates. It was nice to have so much space and to have an elevator. That one had a landlord to talk to if anything went wrong.
It took me awhile to fully understand my small town. A lot of things were technically within walking distance which I appreciated. I could walk between my home bus stop and the bus terminal. I almost never went to the terminal though and didn’t go into town much. My Korean and ability to read and understand Korean wasn’t good and a lot of restaurants don’t tend to serve food for single people and since most of my coworkers lived elsewhere I didn’t have anyone else to go out with. I should’ve realized though when I saw so many army guys on the buses that I shouldn’t have worried about that because over time I saw a lot of them in town eating on their own. But hindsight is 20/20.
My town had a bank, a hanero mart, post office and when I first got here three convenience stores. The 7/11 near me was not open 24 hours so not the most reliable, and the other near my apartment was part of a house and sometimes the family would be in their house eating and thus it was very awkward to try and buy something there. The last one was across the bridge deeper in town so not the best place to go if you’re in an emergency and need to get somewhere. There’s also a taxi stand but I’ve never seen any taxi sitting there and chilling, usually I have to ask someone to call a taxi for me if I need one. There’s also tons of camping and pensions in the area, a fire department and police department and a ton of mom and pop restaurants that aren’t reliably open. The staff tend to be families so if they leave for a trip or get sick there’s no one to open, or if they choose not to open they won’t.
The small area in which my secondary school lived which was higher in the mountains did not have any of these things, but I didn’t live in the area around that school and instead commuted via bus. I highly doubt anyone new to Korea would be placed somewhere without some kind of grocery store nearby, especially if they don’t have a car or are familiar with Korean.
The town’s grown a bit, but it’s still a tourist town that’s somewhat sleepy most of the year and then once summer hits the whole town smells of BBQ from everyone camping and staying at pensions. The one road into and out of town backs up and you have to add so much more time to the commute just in case the bus is full of university kids on the weekend heading to the station. But it’s also peaceful and on clear nights I have a sky full of stars.