As the entered Gangwon province, we looked outside the bus at the scenery that greeted us. What we saw was a stunning visual landscape of mountains and trees as far as the eye could see. There had been a typhoon warning, so it was raining moderately, and the landscape was caked in fog and clouds that dipped into the valleys and back out again. As we rose into the mountains we could see the fog below us, and when we descended, we couldn’t see past the closest tree line. I realized then how remote this really was going to be.
The bus arrived in Gangneung, a city of about 220,000. Each of the people on my bus got called to leave one by one. We hugged, said our goodbyes, and they were gone. I was one of the last to be called. I walked off the bus and met SuJin and SeongHee. Sujin was middle aged and SeongHee looked to be in her mid-20’s. Both were smiling and very friendly. Because it was pouring rain, we quickly got into Sujin’s car and we were off to Imgye.
I was told the drive would take about 45 minutes, so I talked with my coteachers and we got to know each other for a bit. Once we got out of Gangneung, I was once again blown away by the environment around us. As the rain subsided, I could see more clearly the jutting mountains, the endless forests, the seas of farmland where I could see rice, cabbage, ginseng, apples, and other vegetables that I could not identify. I was enamored by the beauty of our surroundings, but I was also reminded of the remoteness of where we were going.
We finally arrived in Imgye around 3:30. The town was very small, maybe 6 blocks by 8 blocks, surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was wearing shorts and a tshirt as we were informed that schools were closed because of the typhoon warning, but my coteachers told me that the teachers were still in school and that they wanted to meet me and that it didn’t matter what I wore, so we drove over to the school, which surprisingly, was beautiful and pristine. It was a long brick and glass structure, with a lovely green (fake) grass soccer field as its front yard. As we walked in, we left our shoes in cubbies and I was given my school slippers. We then walked into the teachers room and I met my coworkers. We were all smiles and they were all quite friendly. I also met my principle as he was on the way out. He wore an open suite with no tie, was very cordial and had an official air about him. He smiled and introduced me to his grandson, who I learned later was in the school’s kindergarten.
After we had our initial introductions, we got back into Sujin’s car and drove over to the apartment that I’d be living in, which was about 3 blocks away. I was greeted to a long 2 bedroom apartment, the 2 rooms separated by the kitchen. I dropped off my luggage, and the 3 of us went next door and they helped me pick up some things from the supermarket. From there, we went back to the apartment, and Sujin gave me a small packet, made by the previous teacher, Lindsey.
At that point I sat down with my coteachers for a short while and we discussed my responsibilities. Essentially, I’d be teaching 22 hours a week, from kindergarten through 6th grade, which included after school classes. From Tuesday through Thursday during traditional school hours (before 2pm) , I would be teaching 3rd-6th grades with my coteacher, Sujin. She would take the first 20 minutes and introduce the key words and sentences and then I’d take the last 20 minutes to do an activity or game. I would be the only teacher for after school classes. Mondays and Fridays I’d also be on my own, but I would have Kindergarten-2nd grade, and finally, I would be teaching a parent class on Fridays on my own as well. Yikes!!
We then talked about the next couple of days. That evening I’d make an introductory powerpoint. Then tomorrow, I’d be introduced to the school at morning assembly. At that point, we’d have classes as usual. Since it was the first day, Sujin would use her 20 minutes to introduce the upcoming chapters for the term and then I would present my powerpoint, introduce myself to the students, and take questions.
With a plan formed, Sujin and SeongHee left me the key, I gave my deepest thanks and bow I could give, and they were on their way.
I sat down with the packet that Lindsey, the previous teacher, had left me and gave it a good read through. Essentially She explained what to expect from my coteachers, and what my responsibilities were. She also gave me some sample lesson plans to use if I needed ideas. Finally, she said that it was in my best interest to recommend a new apartment as soon as possible. I looked around and didn’t understand, the apartment seemed fine, so I read on. “The apartment is not fine, though it may look so,” she wrote. Because the aparment was in the center of town, and Imgye was a town that big trucks drove through in the middle of the night, bringing all sorts of goods across Gangwan-do, she would get constantly woken up by the din of these massive vehicles. In addition, the insulation was very poor, and she reported paying over 300,000 won to heat just one of her rooms. Finally, she said that the sewage system was very poor, and the bathroom would sometimes emit a terrible odor.
I made a mental note to recommend a new apartment as soon as I could. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to live out of my bags until then, so I did a little unpacking, and was surprised to find that the internet still worked in the apartment, a blessing which I expected to last for the final days of Lindsey’s last payment to the internet company. I took stock of the furniture and the items in the apartment. The cabinets were stocked with dishes, there was a great desk and shelves, a large dresser with cubby hoels for clothes, and a queen sized bed. I did notice how loud it got when trucks passed and I tried to tune it out as I completed my powerpoint and went to sleep.
OK, so it’s been a long time since I’ve written, so here is an abbreviated update:
The orientation was amazing. It was 8 days packed full of classes, eating meals, going out once or twice, and sleeping. Basically we would get up every morning, eat breakfast, and go to teaching classes until 12:30. Then it’s lunch and then back to class until dinner. Then it’s dinner, survival Korean class and then a couple of hours before sleep. The facility in which we were in locked its gates at 10, so we didn’t have much time to see the nightlife around Daejeon, but we managed to get see a very chilled out underground hookah bar, a noreibang, and a patio bar down the road that we celebrated our last night in.
The orientation was very intense. The staff that ran it were all Korean post-grads, though the EPIK leaders were all English speakers. EPIK has members from the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand (though no one was there from New Zealand). The teachers of our classes were all people who have been here for many years and had honed their skills and now they were going to pass them onto us. We had classes in “edutainment” in which the teacher taught us fun group activities. We had a class on PowerPoint, in which we learned that PowerPoint video games were going to be our best friend (3 weeks in, they’re definitely mine.) We had a class on classroom discipline, on the Korean curriculum, on how to deal with co-teachers, on classroom management, and my personal favorite – what life will be like in Korea – where our teachers, the guy who actually interviewed me when I applied actually – told us the real deal, how to treat our coworkers, how to expect to be treated, and what life would probably be like.
When we first began orientation, we were all split up into groups. I was in group 3, a class of about 50 who were all going to Gangwon province. What I didn’t realize was how large Gangwon was. One person could be in Sokcho, which is at the far eastern shore, while another could be in Yeongwol, 1.5 hours from seoul, and probably 2 hours from Sokcho. This meant that we had no idea how close we’d be to each other. There could feasibly be people closer to you in Gyeonggi-do or Seoul than people in your own province. this all stemmed from Epik’s inability to tell us what town or school we’d be placed in. When I talked with one of the EPIK instructors, they said the reason for this was that when they told the teachers ahead of time where they’d be placed, their call centers got inundated with complaints. He even added that some teachers went back home. To respond to this, the Provisional office of Education withholds the placement of all teachers until the last day of orientation.
The format of orientation goes the following way: Arrive, go to orientation, opening ceremony, medical check, classes for 6 days with one bus tour day, on the last day, the director of the POE of your province pays a visit and you receive your school placement along with your final contract which you sign on the spot. That night, you have the closing ceremony and the next day you get bussed to central locations around your province where your co-teachers pick you up and drive you to your new home for a year.
I was placed in Imgye elementary school which is in Jeongseon district. I guess you could call it a county. I was placed with 2 other people. I was the only one in my program in my town. That made me a little nervous. A million questions floated through my brain and I kind of understood why they didn’t tell us until the last day. I wondered how small the town was that I was going to, if there would be other Americans there, what my apartment would be like, how difficult it would be to reach major cities, and so on and so forth, all answers which I would only be privy to only once I’d gotten there.
Surprisingly, the whole ordeal went quite smoothly. The only part that really sucked was sitting on that bus in Gangeung hugging each friend as they got called to leave the bus and meet their co-teacher, saying goodbye and good luck, wondering, after 8 days of living in a bubble, when I’d see them again.
The plane landed at around 4:30pm Korea time and a video from UNISEF came on requesting donations to feed the hungry in Africa. From then, the plane made a very easy landing, and I stepped off the plane and into Incheon International airport. The airport is immaculate and upon reaching the baggage carousel, my bags arrived within 5 minutes. At that point, I was faced with a “now what” feeling.
The first thing I did was stop off at the money exchange and switch up my money. The conversion rate is approximately 1,100 won to the dollar. Paper money comes in 1k, 10k and 50k increments. Coins come in 5, 10. 100 and 500 won. I then made my way to the Epik Counter at the far end of the airport. On the way, I passed a 7-Eleven and Dunkin Donuts. The Dunkin Donuts looked surprisingly familiar inside, but most of the products that the 7-Eleven sold were foreign, save the starbucks coffee drinks. At the Epik counter, they provided us with a piece of paper with a number on it, corresponding to a bus # which would arrive in 20 minutes to take us the 3 hour trip to Daejon. While I waited, I was able to stop by an internet kiosk and fire off a quick email to my family saying I had made it safely.
When they called my number, I got on the bus and had my first meeting with other Americans that I’d be spending the next week with at orientation. I sat with Maggie from Wisconsin and Andy from NYC, who would be teaching in Daejon. We talked about our homes, shared our excitement for what awaited us both in the coming week and the coming year. As we entered Daejon, we remarked at all the stores we recognized (pizza hut, starbucks, 7-11) and many we didn’t (Café Bene, Paris Baguette). We finally arrived at the KT Human Resource Center in Daejon at around 8:30, got off the bus and lined up in the main lobby. From there, a nurse walked the line and took each of our temperature with an electric thermometer and we were instructed to tell her if any of us felt sick. From there, we were given our room keys and a nametag on a necklace which we were to wear at all times on campus. We were also given a goody bag containing two hand towels, one shower sized towel with the Epik logo on it, an Epik T-shirt, a plug converter, a network cable for internet in the rooms, and our Epik workbooks, wheh we’d be using throughout the orientation. This was a very professional shiny spiral workbook with about 240 pages. From there, we went off to our rooms.
I got to my room and the first thing that occurred to me was that I had no idea how to turn on the lights. I consulted my neighbor (all the guys were on my floor. Girls on the 2 floors below us), and learned that the keychain fits into a slot on the wall by the door, which activates the power for the lights. So when you leave with the key, all the lights turn off automatically. This helps save on power, which Korea seems to have a big initiative on saving. With the power of light, I took stock of my surroundings; The room had 2 beds, 2 closets, 2 desk with lamps with 2 tubes of toothepaste and a bar of soap on each desk, a network port, a sink with mirror, a bathroom with a toilet and a shower (no bathtub; just a showerhead to the floor with a drain in the corner), a pair of plastic slippers in the bathroom and a pair of floor slippers next to each bed, and finally, a rack for drying wet clothes.
After about 15 minutes, my roommate arrived. Tim is from Philadelphia and is in his mid 20’s. this is his 2nd year teaching in Korea and will be teaching in Busan this year. He was a huge help on giving me tips and pointers on living in Korea. We talked for a bit but it was clear we were both pretty exhausted and we both went to sleep fairly quickly.
I met my family at check-in at JFK. My father, step-mom, mom, step-dad, grandmother, Aunt, and cousins were there; a big Jewish family, converging to see one of their own off on an adventure. The last time this happened to me, I had finished my senior year in high school and was leaving to spend a year studying at a seminary in Israel. This departure felt different. Israel was something familiar. I knew Hebrew, and being raised Jewish, it was a land full of my people. It was the Jewish homeland. I knew the language, and could easily get around the entire country. It was also the only place my family ever traveled to anymore because my sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids lived there. Israel was the fated homeland, the place where all the Jewish people would someday converge on when the Messiah arrived, and here I was, off to a foreign land where they spoke the language that I did not know. Where I would be the foreigner in a land that I had no idea how to navigate. To me it was exhilarating, to my family, it was terrifying.
While waiting at the gate, saying our goodbyes, a large group of green suited, pretty flight attendants passed by us. They were Korean, very pretty, all smiling and chatting. As they passed, my mom instinctively said, “We’re no
t in Kansas anymore.” They were used to American or Israeli flight attendants and this was something completely new to them. We said our final goodbyes, hugged, and I went through the security check-in, looking back often to wave as I waited to go through.
When I got to the gate, almost everyone was Korean and it finally hit me that I was becoming the foreigner. The announcements at the gate were first in
Korean, then in English, and this protocol continued on the plane as well. I boarded and sat. The young girl next to me was watching a movie on a device I’d never seen before, a Sky Vega, which I’d never heard of and guessed was a Korean electronics manufacturer. To my left, a friendly Korean man who let me
borrow his pen when I needed it for my customs form.
Once we were airborne and at a safe altitude, the flight attendants brought us our first meal, which was bebimbap. Rice and Korean vegetables and a spicy chile paste, along with a fishy soup and fruit. I remarked on the meal, so different from the airline meals I regularly ate. The flight path we took surprised me, as I looked up at the map on the front screen, I noticed that instead of going straight west, we went north up through Canada to the top of the globe, then west, then down though Russia, China, along the West coast of Korea, and then entered from the West into Incheon. It’s my guess that this course was taking so as to follow the tradewinds, but since I don’t have internet on the flight, I can’t be certain. ( I can get access to email, but it’s expensive).
While over China, I looked down on the landscape below us at an unfamiliar land, The hills and valleys unfamiliar, I looked around me on the plane at a people around me that are unfamiliar. Upon our descent, they played a Unisef video encouraging travelers to donate their money to help child poverty in Africa. We touched down easily and then I was in Korea!!
It was 4:30 and time to go. I had already created the email I would send to my coworkers, expressing my appreciation for the time we shared together. “If you are receiving this email then you had a positive and personal impact on my life,” I wrote. Ron, Vannal, Kay, Ted, Joey, Nev, Ellen. These were all good people, people who I shared an office with 8 hours a day. I can confidently say all of us are under-appreciated at that office, but I doubt that is a unique situation. Under-appreciated and underpaid. Hi ho.
I sat looking at that email, knowing that once I sent it, I’d leave my keycard at my desk and never see my cubicle again, possibly never see these people again, and while I didn’t love my job, I felt tender feelings for my coworkers. Kay was my dictionary, the quiet genius. Ted was the teacher, clear and instructive. Ron, the sage, knowledgeable and always willing to help. Vannal was the trickster, sporting his Cheshire cat-like smile. Nev, the Russian, though I don’t even think he was actually Russian. I’d spend almost a year and a half with these guys and now I was going away. It was Wednesday and I was leaving for Korea in 4 days. I sighed, looked around me one last time, sent the email and left.
I should have said more goodbyes, but I was leaving with no notice. A dick move, I know. Most of my coworkers knew I was leaving. Management didn’t. I only found out I was going to Korea on Monday. I needed to take Tuesday off, and now it was Wednesday. I didn’t mind not telling management. I mean, I would have preferred giving them two weeks notice, but I harbored no love for my managers. My immediate manager, G wanted nothing to do me. I only saw him if I took too long in the bathroom and there was a high call queue or if I came in late and he wanted an explanation. Whenever I passed him in the halls, I would look at him and nod and say hey and he would look at me as if someone just farted. I preferred not seeing him when I said goodbye.
The director of the department, J once took me into a meeting because I had gotten really sick and missed a couple of days. He said “we need warm bodies in those seats,” he said. I’m pretty sure that’s how he regarded us; attending to call volumes, making sure the numbers stayed up. If you got sick or you were going through a divorce or your mom died, I don’t think either of my managers cared. What mattered most was when are you coming back so that seat didn’t stay empty.
It wasn’t a bad job, I got to wear whatever I wanted. Jeans and tee shirts every day. They were also pretty flexible on what 8 hours you worked as long as you got them approved and were consistent. For vacations, they’d alternate Memorial Day and presidents weekend, and thanksgiving and New Years Day. So if you got off on Thanksgiving, you were coming in New Years. It sucked, and it didn’t make much sense when we had an outsourced company in India who could have handled the meager holiday call volumes. The pay was bittersweet. 30k was the lowest tech support salary I’d seen in the entire region, according to salary.com, especially for a NY based software company, but It was still better than not having a job. Most of the people I know who left, did so because they found higher-paying jobs. I was leaving for a different reason; tech support was never a career choice. It was a job that I could rely on while I finished my degree, and now I was finished. Fast forward to my getting this teaching job in Korea, and there really wasn’t a reason to stay anymore.
I looked at the screen, at the office around me, I sent my email and walked out. I met Kay in the lobby and we walked to our cars together. She had recently gotten a significant raise and I knew she deserved it, in fact she deserved a lot more. The company’s raise put her at most starting salaries in our position. We both knew it, but it was still a big raise and I was glad that she got it. We talked about the future, about staying in touch, we hugged and I left. While exiting the parking lot, I took one last long glance at the huge 20 floor structure, that building on the hill, that I had knew, or at least hoped, that I wouldn’t work at again.
My contract and Notice of appointment arrived yesterday at 10:30. Finally! I really can’t believe it. All the documentation I’ve had to get the interviews, the hurrying up and then the waiting. All of it is over. I got the contract and felt a brief sense of relief. I’m starting. This is getting real fast.
I quickly made copies of everything, got all the materials i’d need for my visa application, and hightailed it to NYC. When I got there, on the elevator up the 6th floor, everyone’s talking Korean. When I walk through the door of the consulate (See the pic to the left), it hits me. Everyone in the room is Korean. most of the posters on the wall are in Korean, some of them have English below them. There is a guy with a white sash in Korean who appears to be an information rep. He spots me and asks if I need any help. I explain why I’m here and show him my docs. He acknowledges that they’re all in order and refers me to one of the lines.
The place basically looks like a Korean DMV.
There were 2 people in front of me and I waited about 20 minutes until it was my turn. I presented my docs, paid the $45 application fee, handed over my passport and was given a small voucher indicating my pickup time will be Thursday 8/16/2012 at 3:00 pm. The whole process took about 10 minutes.
From the embassy, I went to B&H photo to get a camera. The B&H experience is a weird one, that is unless you’re used to Hasidim everywhere. B&H photo is the largest non-chain photo and video equipment store in the United States. When you first walk in, you are hit with the impact of how large this place is. It’s basically the size of a department store, but this department store is run mostly by men with in big beards, long sideburns and big velvet beanies on their heads.
I already had a camera in mind, so I went directly to the digital camera department and met the woman at the kiosk and received a slip for the camera I wanted, the Nikon SE9300, which cost $260, $40 bucks cheaper than Microcenter. From the kiosk, I was advised to go to the side desk where a man in a beard and a velvet yarmulka reviewed my purchase and asked me if I wanted to buy a kit including an sd card, case, and a protection plan, which I declined. From there I was pointed to a cashier downstairs where I paid for my purchase and then finally, I was pointed to the merchandise desk, where I picked up my camera. Though it sounds tedious, the entire process probably took 15 minutes, not bad for the price I was paying.
My contract and notice of appointed arrived this morning from EPIK!!! I’m about to depart for the Korean embassy to submit my visa application (processing time: 2 days)
Here is what I have to bring:
Normally, the embassy would ship my visa when it’s ready, but since time is of the essence, I’ll need to go pick it up in person. I’m also going to be mailing my tax exemption application so that my salary this year will be tax-free.From the embassy, I’ll be stopping by B&H to look at cameras, then it’s on to Burlington Coat Factory to search for a warm coat. Since Gangwan is designated for the 2018 Winter Olympics, I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s going to get a bit nippy in the wintertime.
Either meeting Dad for coffee or doing an early dinner.