The day of reckoning had come. As I walked into the departure day ceremony, it felt like the end of a long twisted dream. Having spent 6 weeks at Jungwon University, did I ever actually arrive in Korea? During orientation, I was always surrounded by Americans and contained in the isolated space of the university. When departure day arrived and we were thrown out into the real Korea for the first time, it came as a shock to my system. I met my coteacher (a fellow English teacher and my primary contact with my school) and principal in quick succession. My final meal in Goesan was quite a feast, large enough to feed all 100+ ETA’s, their coteachers and other school staff, and other stragglers who came for the ceremony. It was an eclectic mix of Korean and foreign foods, like a last desperate attempt to appeal to our sensibilities before forcing us out the doors to our new lives in other cities.
I was one of the lucky ones who only had an hour commute to my new home of Cheongju. My coteacher and I eked out a conversation about school policies, travel experiences, and other anecdotes about our respective lives. It’d already been a long day and I wanted to make a good impression, but my words were somewhat of a jumbled mess. We made it to Heungdeok High School after setting up my Korean bank account and I was immediately received like a celebrity. Dressed in my suit (or overdressed, given the humid weather) I walked around my new workplace with virgin eyes. It was a lot to take in: the curious stares of my future students, ogling of giggling girls, and trying to remember the layout of an oddly-shaped building [my coteacher introduced the school to me saying that from a bird’s-eye view it looks like a swastika].
My homestay mother came and picked me up from the school after I sat through a 90-min class watching an episode of Sherlock. Still trying to make a good first impression, I tried to hide the droplets of sweat on my brow and the pit stains from my day of exertion. But thank the lord above, my host mom speaks amazing English. In the long-term, I probably would manage fine with a family that doesn’t speak much English, but that day I was so grateful to have my language crutch so I could communicate clearly. Heaving my bags up two flights of stairs to the third-floor flat, I was greeted (more like ambushed) by a little white fluff ball of a dog. Let me tell you, this dog is a little not all there, off the rocker, mentally disturbed and the like. It’s mostly just yippy and obnoxious, but pretending it’s the purest form of evil is more fun. I actually quite miss the old man barks of my 14-year-old Griffin back home. Thankfully he still makes brief appearances in family Skype sessions.
My homestay family has five members, not counting the dastardly dog. The host mom, Adero (홍정화) is my main contact and her husband (박범식) works day and night for his company. In reality, some weeks he works day shifts and some night shifts, which quite literally implies working day and night. They have three kids, Christen (박민경, 21), James (박영훈, 19), and Kevin (박동훈, 16). Their eldest is currently living at home and commuting to Seoul (a 90-minute bus ride) every day to study German. James is in his third and final year of high school and lives at his school’s dormitory, about 25 minutes from the house. Kevin is in his final year of middle school and I see him the most often of the three. Every night we sit in the living room of the house watching programs like “the Masked Singer” and eating peaches [though like in the U.S., maybe we spend too much time on our phones :P].
As I adjust to the house, the school, and Korea (the Korea outside of orientation), I find myself more at ease with the change of lifestyle and my mentality. I’ve already been in Asia for 2 months and it seems to be flying by in a blurred hyperlapse, my days condensed into one stream of connected events. Here are some highlights of my experience so far:
Every day I wake up around 6:30am to my host mom’s methodical vacuuming before taking the bus to school. I intentionally dress a little nicer than necessary, hoping to present myself as a worthy 원어민 선생님 (native speaker teacher). I teach 20 classes at my school comprising all of grades 1 and 2. With almost 700 students’ and 65 staff names to learn, it’s been a challenge to remember many, let alone any of them. Some of my students have been trying to creatively force me to remember their names, putting post-it notes on my classroom computer or quizzing me to embarrassment after class. I meet each class once per week, so I only have to plan one new lesson at a time. The classes are gender-segregated and my all-boys and all-girls classes definitely have a different energy and dynamic. The girls are usually more talkative and like to outwardly participate, while the boys are sleepy and love competitive games.
Some of my classes are brimming with energy and spunk and some are dead as a doornail; I on the other hand try to find a happy medium with my own energy and enthusiasm. I put forth the same effort for all my classes, though some get the brunt of my inexperience as a teacher and I use them as my guinea pigs for attempting a new lesson. I never respected teachers who displayed outright favoritism, though I already have some favorite classes. So far, I’ve taught lessons on my self-introduction, famous U.S. landmarks, and tongue twisters using a Wheel of Fortune game. I am not required to use a textbook or give grades, so it’s been fun (and challenging) to devise lesson plans. When I see five people staring glossy-eyed at the board I know either everyone stayed up late studying for an exam or my lesson is probably a flop. Thankfully the response has been really positive so far and I can’t wait to feel at ease with the lesson planning process.
Maybe surprisingly, I haven’t had too many awkward cultural encounters at the school or in my homestay. I had to publicly introduce myself to the school (in Korean to the teachers and English to the students) and I think many staff members are impressed even by the little Korean I’ve spoken. In general, people are shy to approach me but I always bow and do my 인사 (greetings). Over time, everything seems a little easier and more natural.
In three weeks, I’ve already found ways to build bridges. So, funny story actually. My principal introduced me to the school as a tennis player and an a cappella singer. Ever since, I’ve been recruited for no less than 6 different clubs and extracurricular teams. Every Monday I play ping pong with the principal and other teachers. On Friday’s I play badminton with the club team. On Saturday’s I play pick-up basketball and on Sunday I play tennis with the vice-principal. Some days I go for walks with the office staff and the male teacher soccer team wants me to play the upcoming season with them. I love how inclusive the school has been, but I’m also wondering if they know I’m human and that simply communicating in Korean for an afternoon tires me out like nothing else. Maybe they think I’m Superman hiding in the form of a foreign English teacher. Either way, I really appreciate the warm welcomes and flattery toward my athletic abilities.
And amidst all the teaching adjustments, name-learning, and Korean practice, I still find time to have fun. I decided to continue studying Korean with a tutor so I can try to be conversational by the end of the year. My host family also does fun activities together on the weekends. Here in Korea, a popular trend is to go to photo studios and recreate wedding pictures. My host mom Adero won a contest to do this, so we drove over to a studio and dressed all spiffy for an hour-long shoot. I was surprised she included me in the photos, but it was really fun to see the family trying to model and laughing at the silliness of it. Last weekend, Adero and Christen and I took a spontaneous trip to the Western beach. Adero wanted to have a break from the stress of Cheongju and breathe in the fresh ocean spray if even for a short while.
I have also gone to dinner and for weekends drinks with the other Cheongju ETA’s. It’s nice to get together and reflect on teaching experiences and have nights of speaking mainly in English. There’s still a lot more to explore here in Cheongju and across the country. This fall has many testing days on which I’m not required to teach, so I have lots of opportunities to visit other ETA friends and wander around Korea. I hope to get involved in many ways and I hope to share some spotlights on people I meet throughout my year, in the style of “Humans of Cheongju/Korea”.
As I sign off to lesson plan (aka watch U.S. Open tennis YouTube highlights) I hope you are all enjoying hump day and the nice fall weather no matter where you’re reading from.
P.S. If anyone is thinking of visiting here in Korea, my official winter and spring breaks are: 12/29/17 — 2/4/18 and 2/10 — 2/20/18. If you are interested in other dates, let me know and I can plan around it!
P.S.S. Here is my mailing address in Korea, both in Korean and English. You can write it in English and it should be fine! Make sure to add my host mom’s name and phone number, so the mail service can contact her before delivery: