365 days ago I landed at Incheon International Airport and immediately began one of the biggest changes in my life. In spite of some difficult times I’ve had an incredible experience full of adventures. So I guess its no surprise that this year living in South Korea has flown by! Sitting down to start writing this I was getting ready for the biggest adventure of my life when suddenly my 2nd (awesome) job in Korea begins to ask about renewing contracts 6 months down the road. It gave me something to ponder in my month of backpacking around Vietnam and I am leaning towards signing a 2 years contract at my current school. But before making that decision I’d rather reminisce about some of the great experiences I’ve had in my first year here!
Before coming to Seoul I heard that hiking was a big past time in Korea but I had no idea how much I would get involved. Sure I loved hiking and camping in America; I even did an awesome backpacking trip in my final weeks but I never would have guessed that I’d have the opportunity to climb so many mountains and hike through different national parks every weekend! I started out with some solo exploration and small group trips into Bukhansan National Park. I quickly realized that this was a habit I wanted to continue as I fell in love with the landscapes and ease at which I could escape the bustle of the megalopolis.
Over the next few months I would travel all around South Korea 2 or 3 times a month with SHG to cities, temples, beaches and mountains around the country and I am looking forward to being a trip helper in the fall. With Warren Kim’s help (the leader of SHG) I have visited dozens of UNESCO world heritage sites and can’t wait to keep exploring the culture in between the mountain air. I have a new favorite hike in Seoraksan National Park, getting to Dinosaur Ridge is a grueling journey that began early in the morning but I can’t wait to go back!
I’ve visited dozens of temples, & a handful of palaces; Ben helped me tour Seoul and I later explored lantern festivals and all the sights and tastes of this new wonderland. In large part, I’ve fallen in love with the culture of South Korea especially trying crazy new foods. Everything from silk worm larvae on my first weekend to raw octopus and raw beef salad has made its way to my plate. There have been intestines, pigs ear and all kinds of crazy delicacies but my favorites are the many types of Korean Barbeque, a lengthy list of soups and most definitely 오징순대(ojingo soondae) or squid sausage!
Teaching, the good the bad and the ugly
I came here to teach and starting in Korea at a Hogwon immediately was unsure of that decision. My “school” was poorly run by an administration of businessmen and marketing professionals who had zero understanding of English or teaching pedagogy. These telltale signs quickly revealed how scandalous the school was as I was greeted with repeated late paychecks, a stolen pension and we discovered that rent & health insurance had ceased to be paid! The story grew deeper with sit-ins, lawyers and regular yelling matches with the boss while all 11 foreigners sought new jobs. In spite of it all I still loved my students and we had a blast learning English through songs, dances and games as the little munchkins taught me about Korea.
Luckily I got out and went to a fabulous new school where things couldn’t be better! Sure every class has its bumps along the way and summer in Korea can be so hot that sweat just pours down your back forming an awkward “butt-river.” Yeah its gross. I wish I could wear shorts! But that being said my new job is still freaking amazing. I teach in a Western style school on a team with amazing coworkers and (see paragraph#1) am already considering another year or two. My 4th grade has an amazing co-teacher and 36 wonderful students; we take regular field trips and deal with highly appreciative parents and professional administration. A highlight of working here is definitely the vacation time (roughly 4 or 5 times as much as my former hogwon) which let me backpack for a month in Vietnam and will allow me to come back to America for 3 weeks in the winter!
This is probably the toughest part of living abroad. Sure I’ve dealt with a shitty job, the occasional rotten apple in the classroom and parents who don’t get it but when a friend you’ve been bonding with and hanging out with for the last year reminds you they leave the country in 2 weeks its certainly cause for a crazy night out. Well how else would you gonna handle it?
Its easy to make friends with fellow expats here; you have more in common than the average person back home and can certainly commiserate over culture shock. So when you meet someone that you actually become friends with the connection instantly grows deeper. That being said we all seem to find ourselves flittering over the surface of friendship for fear of being hurt when they leave.
Most people teach abroad for a year or two. I’m looking at doing about 3 and a half years but that still means I’ve got an end date. Every 6 months a new influx of foreigners arrives which means there’s a large exodus too. Saying goodbye to new friends has been rough but I will always cherish the memories that we made together and will look on the bright side. Now I have even more couches to crash on and locals to show me around as my buddies return to their respective hometowns and move on to bigger and better things in Europe and around the world!
Noraebong (the first story of many amazing stories)
The story begins one Saturday night in early September; I’d been living in Korea for just a matter of weeks. It was only my 3rd or 4th weekend and I was hoping to meet some European friends I’d made hiking the week before; they said jump on the subway to Hongdae and meet them at the park. Easy enough, I’d been there once before and would just finish a blog post and be off.
At roughly 11:30 I left my apartment rearing for a night out only to enter the subway and find it abandoned with no trains in sight. Oh well I thought, must be on the late night schedule. I realized something was wrong after a few moments in the eerie quiet and not seeing a train approaching on the monitors. I didn’t have a working Korean phone yet which meant no internet access and I’d have to ask for help the old fashion way. As luck would have it the lone attendant spoke exactly zero English. Even so that was enough for him to wave his hands and point to the clock making me remember that someone had uttered these dreadful words “subways in Seoul actually shut down at night” (unlike NYC). As the passing comment resurfaced in my memory I knew I just find an alternate route.
Distraught but not at a complete loss I decided to hail a cab. As a stroke of luck there were 3 waiting on the curb and I gave my best Korean “Hongdae” pointing to a map of where I wanted to go. It felt like a story straight out of a sitcom where each cab stared blankly before shouting a definitive “NO!” and driving off. Well, now what?
No internet at home yet, no idea where to go I opted to pop in 7-11 and grab a beer while sitting on the curb in front of a pizza joint that I knew had open wifi. Might as well regroup and enjoy a brew before I give in to an early evening. Suddenly my coworker Susan walked up; she too was hoping to have a 7-11 beer and joined me on the curb. I told her my sad sob story about not making it to Hongdae and we both laughed. Then we laughed again at how I had asked her a few weeks earlier if her apartment also didn’t have hot water since I couldn’t find the right button. Oh the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.
One beer led to another as we people watched from the curb when a Korean man stumbled over (he had clearly had a few beers by now). He introduced himself and brought an offering of shrimp chips. Being courteous Susan accepted and the gentleman was off, I had never tried them so we dove right in (they taste slightly better than they sound). A few moments later he returned carrying 2 beers and insisted that we take them too!
As we were enjoying our new free beer another coworker walks by with the same 7-11 idea for his evening. We fill Brian in and give him one of our extra beers as the mysterious Korean returns with more beer, more chips and 2 other drunk businessmen. After we exchange drunken introductions he invites us all to noraebang (karaoke room). Brian and I had never been so we exchange glances and ask how much it costs. Once again he insists that he’ll pay so we follow him down the road for what was to be one of the most memorable evenings in Korea.
We cautiously entered the private room to find a massive horse shoe couch on one end and table already laden with soju, beer and snacks in one corner. On the opposite end were two fans and a massive television playing a scene that could have been from the mountains in a Sound of Music. Our Korean friends grabbed the remote, plugged in their favorite Korean song and began belting out some tunes. It took us a moment to figure out which buttons to push but eventually we queued up some Bon Jovi, Oasis, and some other English classics.
After a Build me up Buttercup duet our Korean friends decided they were either too drunk to sing or just wanted to hear our heavenly voices echoing throughout the chamber. Moments into my glorious rendition of Bon Jovi’s Its My Life I was presented with a standing fan; I’m not sure if it was supposed to cool me off, provide a cool reverberation or act as a mic stand but I went with it. By the end of the song our drunk Korean buddies were attempting to belt out the tunes while everyone jumped between the couches.
Moments later Wonderwall began and once again all the foreigners grabbed the mics and started serenading our new friends. Turning towards the fan I sang my heart out when suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder. Spinning around I found our Korean businessman holding a fire extinguisher on his shoulder and pretending it was a video camera! Behind him one of the other Korean men was trying to show his affection for Brian’s wonderful singing by hugging him dearly (and possibly licking his cheek in an awkward scene that belongs on a train in Eurotrip) while the rest of us continued to sing.
This absurd evening became a basis for my noraebang expectations but in spite of many attempts to recreate the chaotic splendor nothing has since compared. Especially when you consider how we darted out of there giggling like school girls and afraid that the gentlemen would decide to re-neg on their offer to pay for the evening. We ended up finding a new hangout in Mokdong as reverberations of our escapades echoed down the alleyway culminating a story that I have now retold countless times.