Helpless and Clueless in South Korea
It’s been only three weeks since I’ve been in South Korea but it feels like months. It must be due to the fact that so much has happened in the last 20+ days. I left home sweet home Chicago, flew halfway across the world, had an intense but rewarding week-long orientation, arrived at my new apartment in Daegu, met my school staff and started teaching! Just the way I like to live my life – as productively as possible.
I said goodbye to Chicago for good on Feb 17th and was relieved to do so because those last few days were insanely hectic. In a matter of 4 days, I packed up to move out of my lovely Chicago apartment, moved out of said apartment, had two going away parties and tried to fit my entire life into two suitcases. One never really understands how much crap we own until it’s all sitting right in front of your eyes. To my surprise, I felt extremely calm and collected throughout this process. I expected to be freaking out slightly more as I kept saying goodbye to friends and family but it all just felt right. No emotional roller coaster, anxiety or nerves of any sort. It was weird for me but I welcomed it. It was until I packed my suitcases and weighted them that I lost it. One was 65lbs and the other near 70! The limit was 50… I was devastated because as any woman understands, parting from shoes and clothing can prove to be quite difficult. I am still sad about the unnecessary belongings I left behind. Leave it to me to have this moment be the one that drove me into a bout of anxiety! I ended up taking one overweight bag while saying goodbye to the rest of my stuff. I figured I could start fully anew in South Korea anyway.
What an EPIK week!
I cried a bit as I said adios to my parents and as I sat on the plane, waiting to lift off, I cried again. This time from happiness, because I was finally doing what my intuition told me to do (I urge everyone to seek this feeling). I slept like a baby on the 14-hour plane ride. Comfortably flew over the Arctic and the Siberian Mountains as I watched the Martian. I arrived at Gimhae airport in Busan with no hiccups. I met another EPIK teacher while standing in line for immigration and made fast friends with her. It turned out we were staying in the same hotel! That night, I met my good Busan friends Ruth, Martin and Richard, all from the UK. We successfully rode the pristine Korean subway system in search of Korean BBQ and beer. It was a stellar first night in Asia. The next morning, we returned to the airport to meet with EPIK representatives. EPIK is the English Program In Korea and places native English teachers in Korean public schools. There are many different ways to teach English in Korea but I chose this route because it is well established, offers stability and a great salary + benefits.
Around 270 other teachers were driven to the University of Busan Foreign Studies, in which we would live for a week. The campus was striking – modern, big and surrounded by beautiful mountains. Future teachers from Daegu and Busan were in this orientation. This in-between period allowed us to bond quickly and form friendships that will be our support system when homesickness and other issues arise. The EPIK Orientation was sort of a boot camp for teaching English in South Korea. It was overwhelming, exhausting, informative and fun. We were up by 7am, started classes at 9 and concluded our days around 8:30pm. We did this for 7 days. All of us moaned and complained at the excessive schedule but it was also extremely beneficial. We learned about South Korea’s history, culture, language, the way public schools work, how the English program is run and so much more. This information overload was delivered to us in the form of lectures, classes and workshops. Despite this insane schedule, we still managed to socialize and explore the area we were in. Even with an 11pm curfew!
Finally the big day arrived. The day in which we would find out what grades we were teaching and the area we’d be living in. The Daegu folk filed into one big lecture room while we nervously yet excitedly awaited our fates. I was grateful to discover I’d be teaching elementary kids. No, thank you to teenagers. Even though our areas were printed on our envelopes, it meant nothing to us, as we’d never been to Daegu. We’d find out what this information actually meant the following day, when we were to meet our co-workers, or co-teachers as they are typically called.
Settling into my new life
While riding the bus to finally meet our co-teachers, I felt anxious and nervous. I’d read horror stories of bad co-teachers. These people have the power to either make or break the experience, I’d been told. What if mine hated me? What if they didn’t help me at all? What if they thought I was a horrible teacher? Endless what-ifs popped into my mind during the hour-long bus ride but I decided to quell them because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I’d soon find out. The EPIK teachers filed into another large lecture hall type of room and we were separated according to elementary or middle schools. As my school name was called, I spotted my co-teacher and approached her. We basically ran to fetch my luggage and quickly loaded it on the car. Balli, balli is South Korea’s mantra! It basically means hurry, hurry and is quite representative of the Korean lifestyle – fast paced.
As my co-teacher and I drove to my apartment, we chitchatted and I was pleasantly surprised with her English fluency. I was so happy to find out that my apartment was literally across my main school. I could see it from my window! And my second school was only a 10-minute walk. Thank you Universe! We loaded my extremely heavy luggage to the third floor of my building and I finally saw the place I’d call home for the next year. I was relieved. It was cozy and had all the furniture it was supposed to have. It was, however, dirty. I was aware this might be the case. I’d spend a good 3 hours the following day making it spotless. I spent the next few days navigating my area. I live in Suseong, in the east part of Daegu. I am about a 25-minute metro ride into downtown but I prefer my lively and vibrant area to the crazy hustle and bustle of the city center.
Before going to South Korea, I spoke to several people that had taught and I was assured getting by without speaking Korean was doable. Now that I’ve been here, I am not so sure I agree. Surely one can get by, but with a permanent sense of helplessness and cluelessness. I’ve felt like that a lot during the past three weeks. I’ve accepted this but it can be crushing yet comical to walk around aimlessly for 40 minutes in search of a place to eat that has pictures to point at! Going to the supermarket to buy groceries is a victory every time. Everything takes extra time and mental power. Because the Universe likes to be funny sometimes, I happened to get sick during my first weekend in Daegu. I've had what seems to be a bronchitis cough for the past two weeks. It really sucks because I feel exhausted all the time but this week is the week I visit the Korean doctor and plead for some medicine that will make me healthy again. Wish me luck!
I’ve officially taught English for an entire week. I’m a bona-fide teacher now! Not. I am extremely fortunate to have 4 lovely co-teachers. All of them are awesome but have very different teaching styles. My job is to successfully adapt to them. It can be frustrating and challenging as I still find myself confused half the time I am preparing lessons. However, all the worries and doubts wash away as I deliver the lessons alongside my co-teachers. I am teaching third grade through sixth and let me just say Korean kids are adorable. Even the attention-seeking troublemakers that are too cool to speak English! I am confident that as time passes by, I’ll get the hang of lesson planning. In the meantime, I am just going with the flow and doing my best. As all the other teachers are too.
While there is plenty of moments when I’ve felt overwhelmed, doubtful and homesick, I’m happy. After all, I wanted growth and self-development, didn’t I? Trust me when I say I am doing a lot of things that are challenging and pushing me out of my comfort zone. Every day so far has been exhausting. There is so much mental power exerted to try to make sense and cope with everything that is happening. But at the end of the day, when I am ready to go to sleep, I feel fulfilled. Because I know that the best things in life are never easy.