I teach at four elementary schools. Each remarkably different. One is a 15-minute walk from my apartment, the other almost an hour away. One is home to three budding serial killers and the fourth is a Waldorf school where students learn through colour therapy and are arguably the most adoptable of the lot. The only thing they really have in common (besides the consistent amount of red pepper paste injected into daily lunch) is the ocean.
My main school, and where I spend the most of my time. This is the only school that isn’t directly opposite a beach. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the harbour. Still, some days I think I can smell the sea from my office window…
This is a little strip of village in the middle of nowhere. It’s where an old woman told me I had a “good face” and a mentally disturbed man tried to feel me up at the bus stop. It’s a weird little place, with weird energy, but I sort of like it.
Gong Hyeon Jin
There’s something kind of magical about this tiny, tucked away strip of road. There’s a hole in the wall that leads to the ocean. It might be my favourite discovery so far.
It’s always raining when I go to Cheon Jin. It’s also always Monday. Then one day, it wasn’t (raining, that is, it was still Monday). The waves here are always turbulent and your lips are always salty after a few minutes on the shore.
So you know that moment when everything you believe to be true and real gets turned on its head and suddenly you’re Alice, falling down the rabbit hole and all those true, real things are now upside down and inside out? That’s kind of what applying to teach in Korea has been like for me. The only difference is that my rabbit hole was a seemingly endless trek through mountains of paperwork and weeks of frustrating radio-silence.
Way back, I had initially planned to go to Busan, which is in the south-east of the country. Why Busan? Because the beaches looked pretty and kind of reminded me of Cape Town.
I didn’t overthink it. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be in Seoul or anywhere near the north really. The logic behind this was that I imagined Seoul to be overwhelming and claustrophobic and too near the scary North where agents of the dark lord would almost definitely kidnap me and sell me into a life of waygook slavery.
And okay, yeah you could argue that it’s all the same, a foreign country is a foreign country and the culture shock is going to sneak up on you no matter where you’re placed. And this is true. But in a process where you get very little choice at all and most things, like your school, the ages you’re teaching and your specific location are kept until the very last minute, it’s comforting to have one or two details to obsess over while the administrative cogs and wheels turn.
So I had my preference firmly placed in the south of South Korea, preferably somewhere near the coast. Then, I had my interview (which I was convinced I failed, but didn’t) and was promptly told that due to my late application (despite having planned this for months, my application was only sent in May due to things like not wanting to leave the perfect dream job back home), positions in Busan were all taken. The scary Canadian (not an oxymoron, I assure you) on the other end of the Skypeverse then suggested I change my placement preference on my application to Gwangju.
Initially, I was crushed. I wanted Busan. I had googled images of Busan. I had youtubed apartments in Busan. Now she was telling me to reboot my mental process and do some sort of geographical paradigm shift?
Gwangju. Not quite on the coast, but in the south-west, so that was good. I googled the images and youtubed the apartments and within two hours, gone were my feelings for Busan. All I wanted with all my heart was to be placed in that little city (the 6th largest in Korea) in the middle of Jeollanamdo Province. I was set.
Days went by, weeks went by. By early July all of my documents were in and people were starting to receive their contracts. People were getting their orientation information. I had received neither. I was worried. Then I got an email with those two dreaded words – Waiting List.
Anyone who’s applied or followed the EPIK program knows that this basically means that every position is full and the only way you’re getting to Korea is if someone’s grandmother dies and they drop out or if they’re kicked out of orientation for being drunken whores during orientation. (FYI, I was hoping for the latter.)
I had known this was a possibility. But it was hard not to feel a sense of doom and gloom and general whyisthishappeningtomeeeee- syndrome. At best, this meant I would leave two months later than anticipated, at worst it meant having to wait until the Spring Intake in Feb 2014. I had visions of lying on The Mother’s couch, wasting away 6 months, watching reality TV in a tatty robe, oozing with the stench of self-pity and despair.
For two weeks I moped and sulked and stared longingly at the little dot of Gwangju on the map, knowing that if I did get placed, it would most likely not be in my preferred area.
Then, just 5 days before the Fall applicants began orientation, I got an email saying that I had been accepted! My contract was on the way! I was part of the September intake! I was going to Korea! I was placed in Gangwon! I was… wait, what?
Here’s the thing about Gangwon. I knew nothing about it, except that it was a large province. A large province in the north. So north in fact, that it contained the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). So north, that it was at least 4 hours away from Gwangju. At this point, it should be noted that one of my favourite people in the known universe had been placed near Gwangju.
Upon hearing about my placement, I did what any excited, flexible traveller would do – I cried. I cried and seriously considered waiting those 6 months in my stinky robe. And after 20 minutes of glorious self-pity, I went to google images and tentatively typed, “Gangwon-do Province.” The images that came up were all sorts of pretty. Like, mountains and seas and forests kind of pretty.
I felt seduced against my will. Then I checked out the facebook group for expats living in the province. They were nice. Like super friendly, incredibly helpful nice. What’s more, these people seemed to actually like living there. Could it be that life in Gangwon was actually good? Was it true that one could traverse most of the country in just 6 hours? At this point, my poor brain was so tired of these geographical paradigm shifts that I think it short-circuited slightly and fell into an endless loop of “Gangwon! Yes. Pretty. Good. Fun time place.”
Which is sort of where I’m at now. A month away from leaving, and I’m excited. Really excited. So much so, that when my recruiter (TeachKorea) mistakenly sent me a letter confirming my placement in the city of Ulsan, my first reaction was, “NooooOOOOoo!! I must be near the north!! Winter is coming!”
Am I still concerned that I’m close enough to be kidnapped by Kim Jong Un’s minions? Mildly. Does it still suck that I’m hours away from places that I want to be not hours away from? Infinitely. Am I going to try and make the most out of this situation and eat kimchi with the best of them? You bet I am. I guess I’m trying out that compromise thing that seems to come hand in hand with moving countries and embracing new cultures. So far, it seems to be working…
*all images courtesy of the all powerful internets.