My decision to move to South Korea and teach English was a knee-jerk reaction to something that I was not too acquainted with as a fresh-faced relatively successful 22 year old college grad: failure. I had just spent the last 4 years preparing for what I really wanted to do and then when I actually go to do it, I didn’t like it.
My student teaching experience went nothing like I expected and it left me reeling. In retrospect, I probably watched too many teacher movies. That’s the problem about these teacher movies, they make them about the very few that actually succeed in inspiring students, no one sees the failures who end up as overly educated baristas at Starbucks. What most people don’t realize is that even the ones that are idealized in these movies, their personal lives completely fell apart. Robin Williams gets canned in Dead Poets Society, Jesse Escalante, in a twist of irony, face plants on a flight of stairs in Stand and Deliver and Ryan Gosling turns to hard drugs in Half Nelson. That option certainly didn’t appeal to me, but I had to do something. I wanted to get away, maybe travel a bit, but I had just accumulated so much debt that it seemed impossible. I began researching teaching English abroad. I was desperate. I filled out a few applications, did some skype interviews, watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain No Reservations; and to everyone’s surprise, even my own, 2 months later I was in Ansan, South Korea.
I took a job at a small, private, after school English academy. Classes were small, I taught grades K-5, and besides one hellish kindergarten class, and that little devil “Jake-uhh,” it was an easy way to make a living. In the beginning I really wanted to forget about life and student teaching and anything else that reminded me of getting a “real” job, and all of those other things that come with being an adult. The only thing that I wanted to do was explore; not only places, but who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.
I will always look back on Korea with nostalgia because the places I visited and the people I met made me realize that the “go to school, get good grades, get a degree, get a good job” story was outdated and that life was not that scripted (thank goodness!). I could not have learned this lesson in a more enjoyable way.
My students soon began to call me “Dora the Explorer” because I was always going somewhere during the weekend. I drank more coffee in South Korea than I ever did. I often found myself coming back home from a trip early Monday morning, sleeping a bit and then starting the work week. At the time I had absolutely no idea that I would spend a total of close to 4 years in this country so I was not wasting any time, besides, at the time I felt like I had all the weekends in the world. At the same time I met one of the coolest people I will ever meet, Warren Kim (or as we liked to call him ‘Bubbles’ or ‘Warren G’).
Warren was a 30-something Korean who quit his job in the corporate world and started a hiking group for fun, this group became a kind of weekend family for me for the next year or so. Warren was a lively fellow with a round face, chubby cheeks and large glasses – always a smile on his face. A few months after starting his trips he was taking groups of about a 60-100 people on trips all over Korea. There were a lot of English teachers in Korea at the time and this was a great way for them to see the country. After my first trip to Jeju Island, I was convinced.
I remember sprinting to the number 4 line subway to make it in time for the 11pm departure from Seoul to Mokpo, a city on the southern tip of Korea where we would make our departure for the famed Jeju Island. I arrived just in time, meeting up with Duncan, a crazy Canadian I had met at a local language exchange cafe; besides him however, I didn’t know anyone.
Duncan was the kind of guy that would make his Korean language exchange partner teach him phrases in Korean that went something like this: “I looked out the window and saw a penguin water skiing in Canada socks across the Han River.” He was always the life of the party and that is why I liked him, and that is why I hated sitting by him on the way back to Seoul. He would always start drinking hard during our final dinner and then dancing during karaoke until he worked himself up into a sweaty, smelly mess.
We got on the bus, it was quiet, it always was in the beginning. We drove through the night and arrived at our destination 6 hours later.
In Mokpo we boarded a huge ferry. I noticed the Korean passengers, in groups of 15 to 20, were carrying what seemed like equipment worthy of an Everest summit. I felt unprepared for the hike we were to go on the next day.
The ferry was very basic. It had large rooms with commercial tile flooring. Before we could even sit down on the floor the Koreans had 6’x6’ mats sprawled out everywhere. These people were mostly in their 40s and on, many were older retirees. The rooms in the ferry were about 75 feet by 50 feet and there were many of them. We took a walk and as soon as we reached the hallways all of the rooms began to take up various smells of soups; kimchi-jjigae, sun du bu-jjigae or tofu in red pepper paste, or doenjang-jjigae, a soup made from fermented soybeans. To our surprise the Everest bags were filled not with climbing equipment but with food and cooking stoves, and of course lots of booze. The different smells of red pepper, seaweed, fish, fried zucchini filled the different rooms where the now red-faced Koreans sat drinking Jinro soju, a type of Korean rice vodka (which is actually the number one selling alcohol in the world!). For me, this was an entirely new way to travel.
Koreans are generally reserved people, but about an hour after departure, we heard some chanting – groups were playing Korean drinking games – the social lubricant at work. We were observing a rather rowdy group of retirees. All of them red in the face, all of them wearing hiking gear, and all of them grinning. One man looked over at Duncan and I and asked the standard 3 questions we would get from just about every Korean. “What is your name?” Duncan replied, “Duncan, like Dunkin Donuts.” That was his go to explanation as these donut shops are everywhere in Korea. The old man smiled and said “ahh, where you are from?” Chicago and Vancouver. The man yelled “OK! very good, America very good, Canada very good! Come.” He padded the place on the mat next to him where Duncan and I sat. Duncan and I tried to say something in Korean “한국 종아요, we like it here, we came just a months ago.” The woman to our left begins to pour shots to everyone and puts two in front of Duncan and I. The group starts chanting “Baskin-Robbins-thirtyyy-one, 1, 4, 6, 9” then came our turn, everyone stared at us. We got a quick lesson “add 1,2,or 3 to the last number.” The person that gets stuck with 31 drinks a shot. Somehow, Duncan and I became the targets and we quickly had to down 3 shots each. I couldn’t believe these people in their 70s and 80s were playing a college dorm drinking game and were ganging up on us so that the number 31 would land on us. There were smiles ear to ear from everyone in the group. For many of them this was their first interaction with foreigners and they were excited to share their booze with us – we were even more excited to drink it. I looked over at Duncan, we were thinking the same thing. We haven’t even stepped foot on Jeju Island and already we were having a blast!
We arrived at Jeju Island at around 1pm and jumped on a bus. Warren always managed to somehow attract what seemed like the coolest people in Korea for his trips. He eventually formed a sort of clan that would go on all of his trips. The trips were cheap (I don’t think he even made any money from them), well-organized, and Warren’s goofy lines in broken English always made the bus a fun place to be. My favorite was his line for letting the bus know we are stopping for a bathroom break. “Ok guys, so there is a bathroom, go do something there.”
The next day we visited Mt. Hallasan, the now dormant volcano responsible for the creation of the island 10,000 years ago. The volcano is 1950m tall, the highest peak in South Korea. It has a gentle slope for most of the journey up and the sights of the island from the top are beautiful. Hiking was always a treat as you could use the time to get lost in your thoughts. The views and beautiful nature surrounding you were positively inspiring. I started to think about my student teaching experience less and less, and became focused on enjoying my time here and growing as a person. I liked it so much, soon enough I also became a groupie.
The air got cooler and cooler as we reached the top. The closer we got, the wind picked-up. It stung the cheeks bringing out color. While taking in a deep cold breath, you still could get a hint of the fresh ocean surrounding the island. Snow began to appear near the peak. As the bright sun shone down on it at just the right angle, it radiated a prism of colors like tiny concentrated rainbows beaming at you.
We reached the top and found a crater. Our group of about 60 people began to reach the top in intervals. We high fived each other and Warren took out a bottle of maekolli, a Korean rice wine that is often known as a farmer’s drink, in order to celebrate. We got a special Jeju brand that was made of mandarins which grow all around the island at lower altitudes. In celebration we also took off our jackets and sweaters and posed bare chested by the peak’s signpost for pictures, this was definitely one of Duncan’s bright ideas. The Koreans at the top stared at us laughing, it was like we were a zoo attraction or something.
While sitting with my maekolli , the most even layer of clouds began to cover the north side of the island so that when you faced north, it looked like you were on a peak above a puffy row of cotton balls. We were literally above the clouds! Whatever problems I was going through before, I was now separated from them. It was like being in heaven.
The next day we visited a Mongolian horse show. Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan used the island as a logistics point as he loaded horses onto ships and tried to invade Japan, it was unsuccessful but the ancestors of those horses remain. We went mandarin picking. We even visited a penis park and a sex museum with thousand year old paintings of Indian orgies and the history of sex in Korea (the explanation for this being that this island is a popular honeymoon attraction).
The dinners are what I will remember most. When you ask any traveler what they remember most about Korea, they will always tell you it’s the food. Each night Warren picked out a special restaurant representative of the region. On Jeju it was wild boar, crab and abalone, a large sea snail. Koreans usually serve a main dish surrounded by a number of side dishes (the better the restaurant the more side dishes). Anything from caramelized anchovies, seaweed, pickled asian radishes and other vegetables and the obligatory kimchi, a fermented cabbage spiced with red pepper paste – and these you could get refilled free of charge!
We sat in long rows sitting on the floor along two long tables. The large pots with the main dishes cooking on portable stoves in the center of the table in front of us. I noticed the abalone still wiggling around in its shell but Warren assured me that it was normal. It was unsettling, but I’ve had lobster cooked live so I thought what’s the difference. We started with the side dishes, then ate the abalone and crab soup. It had a light broth but it was spicy and excellent with kimchi added to the broth. Everything was new; new food, new people, new places. I was enjoying myself and learning so much.
This was the way my life looked for the next year. I used the workweek to recover from whatever trip or excursion I was up to on the weekend. The lady at the Tous Le Jour cafe on the first floor would greet me not with a “good morning” but, “so where did you go this weekend?”
When I got my first contract extension, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Time flew by so fast I had no idea I had been in Korea for 11 months already. I had traveled 3 weekends out of the month. It was time to take a break. Instead of “tripping”, I did some solo hikes in the local mountains just to soak in everything that just happened in the past year.
In the meantime, before I could even make up my mind about re-signing at my first job, I got a job offer from a friend’s referral at a top 20 company in Korea, a company with over 100 schools and in the process of implementing a tablet based curriculum bypassing paper altogether. This was definitely a step up and in a few short months I would end up at the headquarters as part of a research and development team.
I was consumed by my new job. I eventually caught up with Warren after about 3 months later but it wasn’t the same. The extended family I was used to was nearly all gone. Many of them going back home after their year was up, and others moving to different cities in Korea. It was not the same. My priorities were not the same.
I was annoyed by all of the same questions that just a few months back seemed necessary and interesting: “Where are you from? Where do you teach? How is your school? Why Korea? What’s your plan after?” etc. etc. I had heard it all and seen it all before. Most of all, the feeling that I had all the time in the world to travel was now a relic I would leave behind with the old me. I was on to a new beginning imbued with a new confidence and excitement.
I appreciated Warren, Duncan and all of the other friends I had met that year but I knew it couldn’t last forever. I was now aware that life is more than a rat race and had met so many people that were 30 and still didn’t know what they were doing, they just lived in the moment. There were more ways to live life than just one. I didn’t feel like I needed to put life on hold anymore. I soon began to carve out a new path imbued with a new feeling of excitement and confidence.
I look back at the moment I had decided to come to Korea. I was filled with anxieties and uncertainties and had no idea what it would bring, but I am sure glad I did.
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