Great transportation and health care. Friendly locals. Teaching. Race with security. These formed a wonderful memory of South Korea.
I told a friend about teaching abroad years ago and forgot about it. With a weak economy in the States I re-discovered teaching in South Korea where the pay is said to be better, an apartment is included, and flights were provided. It seemed like a great opportunity to save money and learn. Apple was not treating me fairly so it was time to move on. The urge to travel returned. I saved hardly any money with Apple so needed somewhere the flights were included. With the lower taxes and a more affordable cost of living, I would receive the equivalent of a 50 percent pay raise. I began to search for what was available.
I signed a contract working off trust and naivety without reading it closely. I relied on someone else to do the work and proper research I should have done.
Jacqueline, a very nice woman at the visa office, processed my visa in less than 24 hours. The earliest option they offered was four days. She said I owed her a cocktail. She received a box of chocolates.
After a long flight and a bus to Gumi I arrived. The roads were probably better than in the US. Transportation is decent and easy to travel around on. The people picking me up from the Gumi bus station were late. I was concerned if they were even going to come. After a half hour Sally and Young hurried in. They brought me for something to eat and Mr Ha dropped me off at my apartment. My room greeted me with a complete mess. Nobody cleaned it. Garbage, dishes, dust, and cigarettes were everywhere. It was so disgusting I would not even remove my shoes. They promised someone would clean it but never follow through. Over the next two weekends it took over 22 hours to clean.
The school required a medical check. My tolerance of needles is extremely low. During the blood test a little boy about five calmly stared right at the needle as they stabbed his arm and drew blood. When I sat down I felt silly looking away attempting to shift my mind elsewhere. The dentist said I had cavities that needed to be filled. He changed his mind after I mentioned that three months ago my dentist said my teeth were fine.
Two teachers were unexpectedly "fired" so the school could avoid paying the contractual year end bonus and return flights. Their pay was in jeopardy if they said anything to me. After they received part of their money they told me all about it. I thought they must be negative people even though other teachers said they were doing great and caused no problems. Any story about why they were forced to leave was opaque. If I was positive I would overcome any problem. I brushed off their warnings, put on my blinders, and plowed forward. I thought I would leave happy with my bonus and return flight.
Because the teachers left I taught the kinder kids until a replacement arrived. The 10-15 year olds were more well behaved. The younger kids were difficult to handle. They were downright stressful bundles of energy. I stopped a fight on one side only to have another break out elsewhere. I rushed everywhere. Another set of kids laughed elsewhere. Suddenly another received a nosebleed. Where did he receive the nosebleed? All the emotions of the human spectrum were packed into every class. I had not seen so much blood in years. Two page lesson plans with 16 words took at least a 45 minute class period. It is very challenging and stressful teaching elementary kids. Probably the most challenging but positive thing in my life, even more difficult than college. I understand why people want to discipline kids by hitting them. They are full of energy. They seem to perpetually have twice the energy I do as they constantly run all over the room fighting or crying. I had a lot to learn. I wondered if I was that rambunctious as a kid. If I did the teachers possessed a tremendous amount of patience.
Sara, one of the kinder students, was relatively well behaved. She is on the left front in red and reminded me of a friend of mine. They looked and acted similarly. Sara was motherly, helpful, and caring. When one kid misbehaved she yelled loudly for quiet. And they listened. She sometimes rounded up students by literally dragging them across the floor, and shoving them in their seats. When one girl bit her lip and started bleeding Sara grabbed tissues to help clean it up.
It feels like 80 percent of the students are secular. A question I asked was, "What religion are you?" One student answered best by looking at me blankly and responding, "What's religion?" Most students were non-religious. I grew up in a culture where we were taught to believe the unbelievable. It is much harder to mislead kids here. They think more rationally and logically. I performed a sleight of hand trick learned from my middle school science teacher. I hold a coin in one hand and pretend to grab it with the other. The kids catch on right away that it is in the opposite hand they think it's in and point it out. When I dropped the coin in my sleeve the kids immediately said, "No, it's in your sleeve!" In the US it is much easier to trick and keep fooling people.
Three more teachers left unannounced on December 10th after receiving their pay. I was more shocked than the school. It became clear this was normal here. There was no warning. They requested I teach the kinder classes again. Now they needed me so were trying to be nice by paying overtime. That was the only time they did that. A couple new teachers took over the kinder classes shortly after. Chev and Pren both loved teaching them which was a huge relief for me. A third new teacher Dame and I primarily taught the older kids.
It was very cold in the school. Central heating and cooling were not widespread. This was how we dressed during the winter. At my apartment the main room was heated but the bathroom and entrance were not. I only used the restroom for the shower and toilet. I did everything else at my kitchen sink.
I befriended Korean teachers. Marie and Sunny showed me some of the places in Gumi and took me out to eat. Sunny brought me bowling with her friends. They were friendly and helpful like nearly all Koreans. Many Koreans use two names, a real name in Korean and a name used for English speakers.
For the new year Chev, Pren, Dame, and I caught the train to Seoul. We were often shushed in taxis, trains, buses, school, and public places when we were out. Especially Chev. People were expected to avoid disturbing others. Eventually I appreciated the peace and quiet.
The public transportation is amongst the best I ever used. It is far better than any public transportation in the States. It is affordable, efficient, clean, and modern. At one point it may have been true the States was a leader and example for other countries to strive for. It is now obvious through examples like public transportation, trains, internet speeds, cellular speeds, and education that things have flipped. Countries that used to emulate the States have become the standard for the rest of the world. The States has been surpassed by other countries that have created a leading and higher level of success to be admired.
We went to the Bosingak Bell Pavilion to ring in the new year. Dame and I worked through the crowd to push as close as we could. We pushed with much force to squeeze through the thousands of people. It felt like all of Korea showed up. At times we allowed the crowd flow to transport us. We always experienced people pressing against us on all sides. We reached a TV van with an unlocked door. People were climbing to the top for a better view. Dame and I wanted to join in. Security was closing in to prevent people from climbing up. They were three meters (three yards) away and could press through the crowd in a minute or so. I boosted the guy in front of me and started to pull myself up. Only seconds from reaching safety and a prime view of the New Year event, I felt a hand on my leg. This hand was certainly not trying to boost me up. I tried to pull up with more effort, only to have him resist even more. I couldn't pull both of us up so relented. He understandingly looked at me and moved to the next person. Dame and I experienced the New Year with a big van blocking our view. And it was wonderful. When the guard moved a bit away I turned around to see Dame halfway up the van. The guard worked his way back, this time from two meters away. The guard was too close and pulled him down in an ensuing struggle with Dame nearly losing his pants. Security prevailed.
We waited longer. Once security was on the opposite side of the van we started another attempt. This time Dame interlocked his hands to boost me up. Meanwhile, security was returning. Another race was on. I was really quick. He followed right behind using a nearby tree to wedge against it and the van to clamber up. I grabbed his hand to help. With the tree, his efforts, and me pulling, we finally prevailed. We soaked in the crowd and energy for a while.
I wonder if the van driver was reprimanded for failing to lock the door.
If you are reading the abridged version, you may skip to the next highlight.
One of the weekends Rachel took Dame, Pren, Chev, and I to her home in Daegu. We met her mother, brother, and sister in law. They stayed in a nice apartment complex. Apartments are common because of space restraints. It was larger than many homes I have seen. Their family graciously welcomed us in. Rachel showed us around Daegu. In the car in downtown Daegu, traffic and people were holding us up. Pren held a stuffed dog from the back seat as if it were looking out the window. Then I barked. Pren moved it towards the people walking by. All of us laughed as they stepped away in surprise. Chev later stated, "I thought you guys were being retarded." Some people looked irritated after they jumped while others laughed when they recognized it as a toy. Every reaction was hilarious for the five of us.
An ambulance was moving slowly through traffic because of rush hour combined with cars not pulling to the side. It was a strange realization that people care more about arriving somewhere without delay than allowing an ambulance to pass. It was of little concern a person may be dying. This seems to be true throughout the world. Many of us put our unimportant plans before unknown lives.
Dame, Pren, and I hiked around the mountains forming a backdrop to the city. This was a nice perk about our location, hikes were very accessible.
On the hike we enjoyed a great view of the city. On the return we wandered across mounds with stone markers at the base. I asked a student what they were for. Many Koreans are buried in the hills and mountains.
On this long weekend us foreign teachers traveled to Gyeongju. It has large mounds of earth containing centuries old royalty. We hiked to the Bulguksa and Seokguram temples. These are Buddhist sites not destroyed during the Japanese invasion. The large Seokguram Grotto Bell is on the way. In Buddhist religion, flags and bells are believed to disperse goodwill for the world. Messages of hope are for the benefit of everyone regardless of their beliefs. Legend has it the sound of one bell is the scream of a sacrificed child thrown into the molten metal during construction.
Marie and her friend brought Dame and I to a nearby mountain for a hike. It was a snowy and icy winter. Inside the park a beautiful frozen waterfall clung to the cliff. We ate at a nice restaurant after. We were all famished.
After most teaching days Dame and I ate at a restaurant on the way home. The employees started to recognize us. We learned a few words of Korean to order the always tasty and affordable food. Us foreign teachers spent much time together going for dinner, a movie, or another city on the weekends.
It is common to see people drink alcohol in Korea, even during lunch. Part of the culture involves saving face. It is about being non-confrontational. Drinking allows them to break social etiquette and discuss problems. Employees could openly address their bosses. As such we saw what Chev called kimchi flowers on the sidewalks and streets. People threw up even mid-day. It was the bystanders fault if they were unexpectedly given a kimchi flower. We tried to be cognizant of our surroundings.
The school asked me to help with the kinder kids. On the way Dame said, "You're the President." I wondered what he was talking about. My role was to sign for the lead of the school, Mr Ha, Myung Ho. I practiced a few times to develop a new signature. After a few dozen tries a teacher said, "Okay, good enough." I signed his name on all of the kinder "graduation" certificates. Everyone who sees the certificates will assume it was his signature. It reminded me of how a friend signed forms for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The people receiving them never knew the difference. It made me question all the signatures on documents I have received.
Something very counterintuitive happened in South Korea. At first I wanted the students to have fun and like me. It became difficult to discipline and teach them as some refused to behave. After experimentation I found having them stay after class worked best to discipline them. Every time the younger students misbehaved I simply put a -15 on the board after their name. At the end I totaled it and requested they stand facing the board after the bell rang. I found the students I perceived as problem students were much more manageable. Students who were not obvious troublemakers sometimes racked up more time than the ones I devised it for. The students, even those who received the most time, began to respect me. Students started to police each other and ensure I punished everyone fairly. Some started to talk after class and began to show unexpected signs of affection such as giving hugs. I realized it is much better to be respected than liked.
Three young teenagers were initially my most obnoxious and unmanageable students. They were at the age where they preferred doing anything else. I made seating arrangements for them and had them sit apart. They still deliberately disrupted the class by turning around and loudly talking and laughing across the room. One parent did not care about her daughter which made it more difficult for the Korean teachers to work with her. The Korean teachers allowed me to use detention. I allowed three strikes resulting in a half hour detention and simply wrote: "||| = detention". They could sit by each other and deal with any consequences of disruption. They misbehaved once and I gave a "|". When I let them sit where they wanted and had clear and visible punishments they became much more well behaved and even started to participate and engage in class. They self enforced my policy and may have even started learning. I noticed other students in the class were also obnoxious and they nearly received detention. There is always issues to manage. When one goes away we notice another.
If you are reading the abridged version, you may skip to the next highlight.
We had to be careful about how we treated and disciplined students. They attended public school during the day and came to the "hagwons" for private English studies so parents did not have to watch the children. The classes are optional. Hagwons are businesses first and English centers second. It was important to appease parents. Students bumped up levels after complaints from parents. Class programs changed based upon one parent, even if it would not lead to optimal learning for the students. It really was not about teaching English but rather about keeping the parents happy so money flowed in.
Most of my classes and students were well behaved. My favorite class had three mid teen students who spoke English well. We talked and conversed in the class with the flexibility to talk about anything. One day we played a game. The first person to make a mistake was to perform as the opposite sex. I was the first out so acted feminine. I unintentionally called myself "Sally" which was the bosses name. My classroom was next to her office. I started my skit with them laughing hysterically as their teacher acted like an odd woman. The boss Sally rushed into the room to see what was going on. I realized after that I was always spied on in and out of the classroom by the owners.
A student discussed how he perceived education in South Korea. As he said the students were taught to act like machines where they were not taught "why" but rather "what". They performed rote memorization. He would have liked to be taught in a way that involves critical thinking. When I asked students "why" questions it took a long time for them to answer. They often stared at me blankly even after understanding my question.
The students formed a different perception of load management. Their schedules are crushing with required school followed by English classes. They are always busy. I allowed some of my students to sleep in class as they were perpetually exhausted. If a students schedule became full they compensated by waking up earlier. Extra activities were not removed from their schedules. They are pushed extremely hard. Education is about status. Attending certain big name schools set the students life path. The jobs they could find were often based on the schools and education they received. I felt conflicted between on the one hand feeling bad they were overworked and on the other being grateful the system afforded me a job.
I had long disregarded claims that grammar, spelling, and formal English are important. Instead I reasoned that it only mattered that we understood each other. Teaching English forced me to change my perception. Switching word order or substituting words can change the entire meaning of a sentence. When my students changed something it may have resulted in failed communication between us. Formal language rules help facilitate clear communication.
In the school the restrooms were connected. One room served both males and females. Sharing a restroom took adjusting too. There was a divider to split the urinals apart, but they were still very much the same room. The stalls compensated by usually going from floor to ceiling instead of leaving a gap.
My testicles were tender, swollen, and required a doctor visit. I asked Marie, a Korean teacher, to help find a doctor. Since he did not speak English nor I Korean she called one. She translated the call and relayed everything over the phone. The other Korean teachers were all sniggering in the room creating an awkward situation. They shut up after Marie shouted at them. It became less awkward as we continued. This was part of the conversation she relayed: Where does it hurt? At the base of my testicles. Has this happened before? Yes, periodically they will be sore, maybe once a year. Will you describe what is happening? Well, in the past it has been a sharp pain that lasts a few minutes and goes away. This time, it has lasted for at least a week and has increased in severity. Does one or both testicles hurt? It switches, but the right one hurts more.
By that time after much pressure my school gave me my health insurance card. Half of the insurance cost was taken from my pay with the school covering the rest, which amounted to about two and a half percent from my pay. The visit required I pay 20 to 50 percent of it and about 30 percent of the medication. Insurance paid the remainder. The doctor saw me a few minutes after handing them my insurance card. It was very quick, efficient, and affordable. World class service. I pulled down my drawers, he manually inspected my testicles for a couple minutes, and sent me off with a prescription. That was 4000 Won (~4 USD). The pharmacy downstairs filled the prescription in a couple minutes, charged 5000 won (~5 USD), and explained the medication instructions in English. Marie explained what I developed, a simple case of epididymitis, apparently a common infection. The infection began to clear immediately and returned to normal after a few days. The health system is amazing. I experienced how wonderful, efficient, and affordable public health plans can be.
We were paid so enjoyed dinner at the local Mexican restaurant. It was a nice last supper in Gumi. Days before leaving Avalon told Chev she would be fired as of the next month. We knew they would not pay the money they owed her and we were already fully committed to leaving. The timing worked out perfectly because we were already secretly packing everything that could go unnoticed. We considered leaving earlier but needed the extra money. We were tired of Avalon breaking their promises and obligations. Sally said one thing one day and claimed there was a cultural misunderstanding and language barrier the next. She suddenly stopped understanding English when convenient. When we were teaching Mr Ha and Sally visited our apartments using their keys to enter and spy on us. The lies, money issues, withdrawal of holidays, and reality that we might not even be paid for staying caught up to us. On Monday morning the four of us, Chev, Pren, Dame, and I snuck out and headed to the bus stop. Dame left to Australia and the rest of us went to Busan. I did not relax until we were out of Gumi. Alec and Rose allowed us to stay with them as we searched for a new job. In the meantime we toured the city. Busan is a very nice place to stay.
By this time over a dozen Korean and foreign teachers came and went. I learned to do proper research before accepting a job, talk to the employee I am replacing on Skype when they are alone, and talk to former employees who have been working there for many months.
It was off to Japan to see my buddy "Matt" for a few days.
We had to cancel our teaching visas by leaving the country. We were permitted a month to leave until we received a fine for overstaying our visa. On the way out I turned in my South Korean Alien Registration Card and asked them to cancel it. It was no problem to leave the school and the country.
Before returning Pren informed me we needed to find our own place. Alec and Rose told us the landlord received complaints about us. They are two nice people and did not want to hurt our feelings by directly saying it was too much for them to host us. We enjoyed their hospitality and understandingly moved out. Chev moved to Daegu with her boyfriend and Pren and I found a nice place in Busan. Pren is a wonderful travel companion. It is usually easier to travel alone but some people have complementary personalities making it easy to travel together. Her personality is conducive of enjoyable and easy travel.
Pren and I searched for jobs but eventually decided we already experienced South Korea. Instead of staying we opted to travel Korea for a month.
JK, a hostel owner in Seoul, invited us to eat out. We ate octopus and other seafood. The octopus' tentacle pieces writhed and continued to suck to our fingers and tongues.
The De Militarized Zone (DMZ) was ironic being it is one of the most militarized areas in the world. A Joint Security Area (JSA) was where we technically stepped into North Korea in one of the buildings on the border. Some guards looked like statutes as they stood extremely still with porcelain like skin. Some of us even discussed if the guards were statutes. It was only when he was in a different spot when we walked back we could see he was human. Only men over a certain height can work at the border to look more intimidating to the North Koreans. It was a tense trip. Security was very strict and tight. Photo restrictions were enforced. We could photograph North, but not South. A tourist said they were free to take unrestricted photos of this area in North Korea. In that way there was a greater level of freedom in the North. He continued by saying in the rest of the North were strict photo restrictions. Our guide stated in the North security by the border is always in groups of three. Two face each other and a third stands a little bit away to form points of a triangle. They stand like that to prevent the others from defecting into the South by shooting anyone who makes an attempt.
This is the Panmungak building. If you look closely you can see a North Korean soldier standing by the middle of the building to the left of the door.
They mentioned the unification of the two countries is an ultimate goal. However, it felt very hostile and like that was one of the last things they wanted. Guns are aimed at each other, security is tight, and tensions are high. It did not feel conducive of sending a warm message towards each other.
There are tunnels made by North Korea using forced labor. They were found and closed by South Korea. There is a possibility of other undiscovered tunnels. The tunnels are large enough to support running thousands of troops an hour to support an attack against the South. Yellow spay paint on the walls marked bored holes in a direction indicating they were from the North.
We visited Jeju when the cherry and canola blossoms were peaking. The island was full of white, pink, and yellow blossoms.
I was in the restroom at the hostel when suddenly a panel in the ceiling swung open. The noise startled me and I twisted by back attempting to move away from the sudden noise while looking at what caused it. Instant pain hit my back and I laid on the ground until it receded.
We walked on hardened lava flow inside the islands underground lava tubes. It contained a double lava column, reportedly the only one like it in the world.
On the way to the Manjanggul Lava Column were perhaps ten Korean men photographing canola fields with professional equipment. Koreans are generally much more reserved and quiet than Westerners. Today was an exception. A Korean man stopped Pren. She understood bits and pieces of the Korean they were speaking. They wanted to photograph us in a canola field. We obliged and posed for them inside one. After taking a few photos they wanted us to do something else. We could not really understand so one man came in the field, picked me up, and spun me in a circle! He pointed to Pren so I would do the same to her. My back was still in pain but I tried anyway. All of the men were photographing as fast as they could. I felt like a celebrity.
They started saying something else. The men were pointing and shouting at us from where they were shooting at the edge of the field. Pren picked up one thing, bboe bboe! I had no idea what it meant. She told me, "My kinder kids say that to me all the time, they want us to kiss!" We looked at each other. She shrugged and gave the "What the hell, why not!" look. So we gave each other a long picture perfect kiss! They clicked away and seemed quite pleased as we continued on to wherever we were going.
If you are reading the abridged version, you may skip to the end.
Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Mountain / Peak) was beautiful with an even more fascinating history. Off to the side where hardly anyone goes are around 20 man made caves carved into the cliff side. They were used by the Japanese as launch bases to send out boats of explosives to blow up target ships. It was a desperate suicide mission during WWII. I visualized troops hoping they did not see any ships that day, and if they did, that it was someone else's turn.
On the way to the Sex and Health Museum we explained where we were going to the bus driver. He laughed and said he would tell us when to disembark. The driver loudly announced our stop. Half of the bus started laughing and cheered us off. It took lengthy negotiations with the government to allow the displays into South Korea because of conservative decency laws.
The self proclaimed largest botanical garden in the world contained a bunch of koi in a lovely pond. The koi were so used to humans that when I put my finger in the water they eventually started tasting it. Their soft and rubbery like mouths feel interesting.
Seogwipo has interesting lava formations. The combination of hot lava meeting cold water formed these honey comb like structures.
A submarine tour took us as low as 30 meters underwater. We did not understand any of the tour since it was all in Korean. A diver outside fed the colorful fish to bring them close. The submarine rested and bumped into the coral leaving scarring abrasion marks. It may not remain beautiful for long as tourism, which I contributed to, was ruining it. Regulations and restrictions about how close we can come to plants and corals are necessary to preserve the beauty.
Pren left back to her home after we flew to Seoul. It was time to wrap up everything in Korea. I learned a lot teaching. Even though the boss was terrible, the teaching was enjoyable. I grew close to some students and the Koreans were almost all very friendly, accommodating, considerate, helpful, honest, and kind. Overall I really liked it, enjoyed my stay, and left with a very favorable impression of Korea. It was clean, modern, and efficient. It felt like the locals charged us the same price as Koreans. It felt safe everywhere and anytime. My most important lesson was that it is better to be respected than liked.