It’s weird to think I’ve spent most of my young adult life overseas in a country where I didn’t really speak the language and had to learn how to do a lot of things I took for granted. Simple things like figuring out how to use a washer/dryer, the heating and cooling system, how to get around or order food or the worst ones of all: banking and paying bills. The learning curve was steep.
My first weekend in South Korea I went to a party hosted by the agency that had helped me get my job. I’d been determined to go and was actually really surprised no one wanted to go with me. The other English teacher in the area had no interest in leaving the town to go to Seoul and the other teachers drove and weren’t particularly interested in heading downtown. So I got on a bus for the first time by myself and headed into Gapyeong. It was a shock. I hadn’t left my remote village yet and the buses were in Korean only. I didn’t have wifi or a working phone yet, I thought I had plans to meet a friend and yet had no way to confirm these plans with her. I’d written down the name of Gapyeong station and got very stressed because I didn’t know that there was a Gapyeong Terminal and Gapyeong 역. It took quite a while to realize Terminal meant bus terminal and the 역 stop was the last stop for the bus which meant it was the train station. After that I found my way to the correct platform but hadn’t been told there were two different types of trains at Gapyeong, the regular trains and the ITX. So of course, I got on the ITX without realizing it until a group of teenagers came up and talked to me and told me I was in their assigned seat. Whoops.
Getting to the party wasn’t a problem. I found it early and then just wandered around Hongdae too nervous to try and figure out what to eat, not realizing that in Seoul almost every place has English, and ended up having an ice cream waffle for lunch because it was only 1,000 won (~$1) and the price was on the side of the street vendors cart. I was so proud of myself for getting up the courage to order that and it was quite good. Ice cream and waffles hadn’t really been on my food combination list before. Let alone a waffle filled with 5 different flavors of ice cream. Not the healthiest lunch, but it was nice.
At the party I met Nathalie who had also just arrived and lived nearish to me out in Pyeongnae Hopyeong. An actual city or town with an Emart and movie theater and wide variety of shops, cafes and restaurants. For several years we lived nearish to one another and I’d go to PH whenever I could for grocery shopping, cafe visits, movies and holidays. And I played novice film person helping her with her youtube videos aka just holding a camera. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if we hadn’t met at the Korvia party when we did. I don’t know if I would’ve stayed in Gapyeong for as long as I did. Whenever I told anyone I lived out in the rural mountains they laughed and said they did too, but when they came to visit me they realized exactly how rural I was actually living. (or when I said I didn’t even have a cafe they’d realize it) If I wanted to grocery shopping or have some convenience I had to travel over a half-hour in either direction from Gapyeong to do so and it already took me a half-hour to get into Gapyeong.
The people at Korvia introduced me to other people in my area who lived in the actual city of Gapyeong. And from them, I learned that the trains heading out of Seoul into places like Gapyeong stopped leaving Sanbong station early and I’d probably already missed the last one to get home. This was something I would’ve thought anyone else would’ve told me before I’d left my small town. (i.e. coworkers, bosses, the other ESL teacher) But there wasn’t really a welcome packet. (When I left I made one for my replacement and when the other ESL teacher left I also made sure to tell these things to his replacement). So I panicked and tried to introduce myself to every single person there who looked like a safe possible new friend to see what they were doing. Almost all the Native English Teachers had been in Korea long enough to have researched this all before hand and had booked hotels or jimjilbangs for the night. I was honestly hoping some group would let me join them on their adventures for the evening, but no one passed that invite along. I collected a full Kakao list of new acquaintances but that was it. So I had to reach out to the friend who I’d failed to meet earlier and tell her in a panic that there wasn’t a way for me to get home and asked if I could crash on her floor. She agreed, even though she also lived outside of the city and we didn’t have long for me to rush to meet her before the trains stopped running to Bundang, where she lived.
We met at Seoul Station which was a difficult place to meet people. Even long after I’d gotten used to living in South Korea. You can say something like “Let’s meet at the Dunkin Donuts” and then be standing in/outside of one of the three different Dunkin Donuts within the place. We eventually met up and I followed her, absolutely drained to her apartment, and crashed on her floor. The next day she wrote down instructions in Korean to ask the bus driver if they were going to my village so I could show them the paper and we went to Daiso so I could by things I didn’t have. Like an attempt at curtains since I lived on the first floor and one of my walls was sliding glass doors leading out to a balcony with more glass windows that looked out into the parking lot. By the time we finished hanging out and her showing me things I needed to know It started to get late, so I hurried to get to Sanbong and then onto the over 1 hour long Korail ride out to Gapyeong.
I found the bus stop at the station, arms and bag full of stuff from Daiso and showed the driver the paper asking if he went to my little village. The driver nodded and I got on. It got dark and I didn’t know the way. I listened hard for my stop and heard what I thought was my stop so I pushed the button to get off. The bus driver said something. I think it was like “Hey, this isn’t the stop you asked about” but I was too nervous to stop and I didn’t understand him or realize he was talking to me. And I got off. Onto an unfamiliar spot. There wasn’t a street lamp at this stop and there was a fork in the road. I waited for another bus, none came for a long time. I wondered if I should walk back down the road towards where I’d come from or continue on, but which way? A bus came but it didn’t stop because there wasn’t a light at the stop I stood at so there wasn’t a way for them to tell I was there. Panicked realizing the bus wouldn’t pick me up I followed the way it went. It was dark out. There wasn’t a sidewalk and I was surrounded by the tall trees of the wooded mountains. I lived in the valley which meant I had to follow the mountain road to get down into the valley, in the dark. I heard animals in the woods and tried to keep to the side of the road while also not stumbling. It was scary, I worried I was going the wrong way and wondered if I should go up to a house and show them the piece of paper my friend had written out with my address on it to see if I could get directions or help. I passed houses and thought about it but didn’t stop until I was into the valley and found a bus stop with a light over it. A bus eventually came and I took it a couple of stops left to my home.
After that I determined that if I got home at night I’d take a taxi. Which became the only option at night anyway, since the last train arrived in Gapyeong around 12am/1am in the morning and the last bus left at 10pm. So anytime where I caught the last train taking a taxi was a necessity. But eventually, I figured it out. I learned that there were two school locations about 5 stops apart. The first one was not my stop. The second one was. I learned to push the button after seeing a star lit up on the side of the road and used that as my marker and that the stop after mine was the town terminal and a short walk but longer walk than my stop. So I always told myself it’d be better to miss my stop then get off too early. And thankfully I never got lost on my way home again. I did, however, learn that the bus system was a mess. That the buses came rarely and trying to get anywhere on time required watching the bus app like a hawk so I wasn’t waiting outside for 40 minutes to an hour and that if I missed my bus I’d end up waiting anywhere from an hour to being several hours late to where I needed to be.
Despite everything I loved my small town. I stayed there for 4 years. My students were sweet (for the most part) the teachers were helpful and kind, and I was left alone and to my own devices. I had my own classroom out of the way and the workload wasn’t much so I could do what I wanted. I had a lot of free time and I lived near the school so I could be home fairly fast. The post office was full of helpful and kind staff and never busy. I had friends a short drive out of town that would invite me over for dinner or snacks or to go shopping. There weren’t a lot of restaurants in town and the town didn’t get a cafe until I’d been there for a couple of years. The grocery store was small and closed early and I think that’s a big factor in why I eventually had to leave. Eventually, my health plummeted during my final year in my small town. Part of it was probably stress and isolation. While I loved being able to see the stars at night and my students and school the fact it was out in the middle of nowhere and so far from my friends meant I spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t eat the healthiest because there weren’t a lot of options. I could buy things in bulk because I lived in a tourist town but the options were small and most people drove out of town to buy their groceries. And then there were multiple family emergencies in my fourth year and I realized as much as I wanted to stay to watch my students graduate and I continued to learn that the isolation, the distance from the airport and hospitals and just other people made it very difficult to stay. The people I’d been told to reach out to in case of emergency had left or were usually busy with their lives meaning, especially during holidays I was usually the only one in my apartment complex. There weren’t any 24 hour places nearby and it all just took a toll.
So I started looking for a job somewhere else. I wanted to stay in Korea at least a little while longer, but I needed to be able to get to the airport easier, to find more food and expand my diet. I needed to be able to move about easier and not be on a Cinderella time where if I don’t move fast enough then I’m stuck. To an extent it became okay my fourth year if I got stuck because Nathalie had moved to Gangnam so worse case scenerio I could crash with her or other friends I’d made.
My going away party was emotional. I wasn’t the only one leaving. Our principal was retiring and I slowly moved from group of coworkers to group of coworkers giving them hugs and promising we’d keep in touch. Telling them thank you, over and over again. The school nurse gave me a coupon for a free milk tea at my favorite milk tea shop, a favorite of Nathalie’s and mine from when we’d meet at Sanbong station to go into Seoul and I was so excited at the prospect of being able to possibly walk to this cafe if there was one in my town. Because there wasn’t one in my town or even in Gapyeong.
Moving was a bit of a nightmare. All ESL teachers move around the same times as do college kids and other teachers, so booking a moving company is difficult. The other ESL teacher helped me and an older man with a truck met me, moved all my stuff into the back of his truck, and drove me to my new place. I’d been warned to bring him drinks and snacks as a way to say thank you but instead, he’d filled his car with drinks and snacks for me. We stopped at a rest stop and when I got back in the truck he’d fallen asleep. So I just sat and read until he woke up. And when we got to the apartment complex everything was a blur. While I was on time apparently my apartment wasn’t ready and everything was behind schedule. It was a rush to move all my stuff into the hallway outside my apartment to wait for my room to be ready, which led to in that rush, me not realizing I’d left my winter jacket in the back of the truck. (This was because the driver had taken it from me and thrown it behind the seat where none of my other stuff was) So I had to call my ESL teacher friend to call him to meet me again to give me my jacket. He was cheerful with me about it because I paid the toll/for his gas to bring me my jacket, but very cranky about it with my friend.
I ended up sitting in the hallway with all my stuff for almost 6 hours. A cleaning service had been hired and I wasn’t allowed in until they got there and finished cleaning. (They sadly didn’t do the best job, as I spent a lot of my evening cleaning after they left, spots that had been missed) I did leave to go buy food and eat dinner at the nearby shop and when I eventually was allowed into my apartment was kind of dismayed. My previous apartment had been the home to no one but ESL teachers for over 10 years. And whenever an ESL teacher left they left things behind for the new teacher. Bedding, cooking utensils, all the basics you need. The teacher before me even left behind food in the freezer that had never been opened. I never ate it though and spent my first week living off of tteok my coteacher had given me which are essentially rice cakes. I got sick of them eventually and then struggled to eat them the rest of my time in Korea unless I was starving.
My new place didn’t have these things. There was nothing in the drawers, nothing to cook with, no fans or vacumn cleaners. I’d left lots of things behind not realizing that my first apartment wasn’t the norm. It meant I had to once again head to Daiso and it felt like I was starting over, like a newbie even though I’d been in Korea for over 4 years.
But my last year in Korea was different. My new job was in Gunpo., a city to the south of Seoul. I lived in a nice apartment with a security front desk and made friends in the building fairly fast. The apartment complex was a lot newer than my old place, less mold, less insects, and other unwanted visitors. (snails in my bathroom) It was like all the ESL teachers in the area had been given the same apartment complex to live in. And within the building was a 711, a lot of cafes, a couple of restaurants, and even a movie theater. My bathroom had the shower off to the side with a curtain between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. This meant it wasn’t always a soaked mess. The fan worked to dry everything up and my washer was in the bathroom. There was more shelving but nowhere for me to hang up my stuff to dry. Thankfully a friend had an extra. What I didn’t end up buying at Daiso friends usually helped me find, thankfully.
I also didn’t have to catch the bus and go about a half hour into town to the nearest Daiso (which was built after I’d been in S. Korea for over a year). Instead I could walk a couple blocks to the nearby Lotte department store and go to their Daiso or another shop to fill in the gaps. There was also many restaurants, cafes and another movie theater in that space. Or I could go to Emart which was within walking distance or one of the mom and pop grocery stores. There were so many options that I got back to a healthy weight, my health got better to an extent.
An extent being that my new job stressed me out. The students were from a richer area, there was a very large discrepancy in their English levels in every grade. And rather than being helpful and wanting to answer every question like my old students these kids were more…bitter. They didn’t want to be in my class because they knew all the answers. They weren’t having fun. And because I was new I was at the bottom of the ladder. Instead of being an English teacher with four years of experience who’d spent 3 of those years leading English classes at two small schools, creating programs, and doing a lot of stuff on my own, now I was an assistant who pretty much just pushed next on the computer program and created power points. I couldn’t create change, I couldn’t be helpful in 99% of my classes. I didn’t have my own classroom and instead shared it with my boss. Even after school programs and camp programs which are notoriously Native ESL teacher only, I was not alone. The only class where I felt I made much of a difference was the one class I taught with another new teacher where we worked more like a team. More classes were added to my schedule as a way to offer new English projects for the kids. My lunchtime was cut up to fit more classes during different times of the week which at first was very stressful. Some things for the kids were fun, others were not. And it was pretty easy to tell. But eventually, I got used to it. And I got dropped from other classes so as to not get paid overtime. Which was a mess in and of its own. I didn’t get to know the other teachers as well as I wanted to because I was told to not bother them because they were all too busy and that they didn’t want me to talk to them. Which led to summer and winter vacation times or after-school teacher meetups where they laughed and said they thought I was shy and I realized they’d been wanting to talk to me but we’d all been misinformed.
While my location and isolation at my old school had been stressful, my new school was stressful in different ways and I felt like I always had to be on and ready for anything while simultaneously being isolated again. I was already pretty flexible but this tested that. I ended up going to the doctor a couple of times for different things. Chest pains and upset stomachs that eventually led the doctors to telling me I was just too stressed. Since I couldn’t really fix the stressful work environment I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol which were newer things in my life anyway. I spent more time with friends who knew about my work situation and had offered their homes as places for me to come vent and I took them up on that a lot. After I got my job when I reached out to Gina to tell her where I’d moved and about my new job and she reprimanded me for not talking to her before I took the job because she’d known a teacher at that school before hand and it was on her own personal blacklist. But I survived the year, kept in touch with my consulting agency, befriended, and hung out with my coworkers when I could, and just tried to enjoy the other aspects of my life.
I went to the movies as often as I could. Especially on the last Wednesdays of the month. (Culture Day= discount) I’d leave work upset about something that had happened, get home and put my things away and go to the movie theater in my building and all the frustration or anger or whatever I was feeling would melt away. Or I’d treat myself to pizza in town or kimbap. I settled into a schedule. Once a week I’d meet my friends in Anyang, a nearby town and I’d meet one friend at the store and buy something for dinner and do some shopping at the HomePlus. Then we’d walk the rest of the way to our friends apartment and meet other people and sit around and play games or just chat and catch up. Then on other days I’d take the bus to another bus about an hour away and with a book in hand would head out to Gwangmyeon to meet my friends at the Coscto there to buy things in bulk and to have their pizza. It was always fun to walk around with them and try things and buy what we needed and things I hadn’t had access to in a while like pumpkin pie. Our friend who usually hosted the Anyang dinner parties had a car and would drive us home.
In January I went back to Gapyeong to say goodbye to my old students and coworkers. I’d seen a couple of coworkers before at a coworkers wedding that I crashed. (Technically I was welcome because of the way the weddings in Korea work and because you essentially pay to attend). And the other ESL teacher I worked with and I met up fairly frequently. Through her I surprised my students and coworkers and was surprised to see an old coworker who’d left a couple years prior who hadn’t wanted to leave was now the vice principal and was very happy to see me at graduation. I had wanted to see my students graduate so badly. I’d wanted to stay there to watch them graduate, but my health, physically and mentally, made that seem like a bad idea. And they’d grown so much in that short time. There were new kids who didn’t know me of course. But it felt like coming home after a rough year. Some of the students were shy at seeing me again. A couple mobbed me and I spent a lot of time standing in the gym in a group hug with crying students, trying to comfort them, that made me feel even worse that at this point I knew I was leaving Korea. It wasn’t like I could come back because my old school’s contract and funding for a native English teacher was also gone so the teacher who replaced me was also leaving. It was nice to sit and drink the cinnamon punch I loved and had greatly missed, to say hi to my coworkers and the staff I knew and cheer on my old students graduating from middle school and elementary school and talk to parents who stopped me to tell me how much their kids missed me. The teachers invited me to join them for lunch but I had to go. I had a flight that evening (Paris) and still had to get all the way to the airport which was always an ordeal from my village outside of Gapyeong. It was so strange to see how much had changed in the year I’d been gone. Less than in reality. The changes the other ESL teacher told me about in his duties. The charm he’d also found in this peaceful town and all the things he’d accomplished because of it. The little booths set up around the bus stops in Gapyeong to protect from the winter cold. The changes in the bus schedule that seemed somewhat more convenient. (Somewhat being the keyword).
I tried to make the most of my final year in Korea. And to an extent I did. There’s things I still wanted to do, places in Korea I had wanted to see. I wanted so badly to buy souvenirs but my suitcases were full. I actually pulled a muscle trying to close them. But the contract for a native English teacher at my school was over and the funding was gone and it felt like a good time to leave. They weren’t going to hire anyone to replace me which seemed like the best anyway. I took a couple of vacations (Paris and Okinawa) and then as Covid-19 hit I was more or less in the way at school which was under construction, so I was sent home. In normal circumstances it was the perfect time to explore Korea. But due to the pandemic I just packed and took my time tying up all my loose ends until it was time to go home.
I miss Korea a lot but it was time to go. I couldn’t stay where I was and I couldn’t go back to where I had been. Lots of funding for ESL jobs were drying up almost everywhere I looked which had been foretold years ago when EPIK and GEPIK more or less merged and due to a change in educational politics. And most of my friends still in Korea, while generally pretty safe from the pandemic due to policies in place and protocol, are still burnt out from teaching during a pandemic.
This really is all to say that I loved teaching in South Korea even if I am too burnt out to pursue that vocation in the States. I’m having to relearn how to be American (or whatever that means) and dealing with reverse culture shock during a time where I can’t really reintegrate back into society due to the pandemic. And because of this, I haven’t traveled. So this is my last travel post until the pandemic is over. It’s time for a hiatus. A semi-hiatus. I’ll still write book reviews when I’ve got time and I’ll do my year in review of course at the end of the year. But I’m not traveling. I’m a hermit right now. I might write an update at some point about what I have been up to since I’ve been back stateside and if you’ve got any questions I’ll make sure to do my best to answer them.
The podcast which I’ve been having fun with will continue for a couple more episodes and then also go on hiatus/a season end. This is because it has shocked me by how much time has been eaten up making it. Interviewing people is so fun, fast, and easy, but editing the episode, making the transcript and then the blog posts/social media content for it has been very time-consuming. So there’ll be 9 episodes total before it too goes on hiatus so I can work on things to get my feet underneath me again. I feel a bit like a leaf or seed being buffeted about in the wind struggling to get a foothold on solid earth or heck I’d take rock at this point. And I know I’m not really alone with this type of feeling. So thank you for joining me on my adventures. I’ll be back when I can be. Until then I’m going to continue to social distance and hope for a better non-pandemic filled future.