Howwhywaz, Howwhyam

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the moment I decided I really wanted to come to South Korea and teach English. This certainly what I thought I’d be doing right now as of a year ago. If someone had been able to explain to me how this all came to be, I would have probably been even less likely to believe it. Because I still find the past year rather hard to believe. It’s just been that kind of year, I guess.

Especially now that I’m in Korea, everything pre-arrival seems very far away, but in time more than in space, like everything happened years and years ago. It’s almost like my brain can’t comprehend the massive distance it traveled, and so it perceives things that happened back in the US and earlier this year as having happened in another life. Or maybe it’s just that starting a life teaching and living here in Ulsan makes ‘the past’ feel like a lifetime ago.

Anyways, a year ago, I was very much focused on New York City and non-fiction filmmaking, gradually starting to drift towards a Portland, Oregon/animation focus. By the end of fall, I found myself working seven days a week and still just barely able to pay off my NYC-rate rent and student loans. New York was quickly losing its appeal.

Things got a bit more interesting just after Thanksgiving, when I decided to move to Istanbul to start a rather serious relationship with an English language learning website. But, two months later, approximately 36 hours before my flight, the language learning website rescinded its offer.

Having already sublet my apartment, quit my job and packed up all my belongings, and not wanting to waste a perfectly good flight – and even more not wanting to face the rather unappealing options of staying in NYC or moving back home to Michigan – I went anyways.

And so I landed in Istanbul with no plans other than six nights booked at a hostel off of Istiklal and a return flight to JFK three months later. I am quite aware that people travel this way all the time, but for me it was all quite terrifying. I really had no idea what I was doing. But, with much encouragement from friends back home, and the excitement of everyone I met at the hostel that week (go to Syria! go to Beirut! go to Greece!), I spent the next three months traveling.

Of course, I learned many things over that time of traveling around Eastern Europe by myself. One of those things was how not into filmmaking I was at the moment. Having felt very passionate about all of these things only a couple of months before, it took a while for me to really realize that the passion just wasn’t there anymore.

The last of my six evenings in Istanbul, I was walking back to the hostel down Istiklal with a Parisian engineer who was 11 months into a bike trek from Beijing to Paris. It was 4am, but the street was still alive with people, the clubs were still going (and promoters still trying to get us in), and our way lit by an endless string of Christmas lights overhead. Istiklal was quite magical.

The engineer asked me what I did before I left for Istanbul. I think I probably tried to glam it up a bit and said I was an animator/amateur filmmaker.

‘Do you miss it?’ he asked.

After six days of exploring one of the most interesting cities in the world, during which time I had seen all manner of fascinating sights, eaten all varieties of new foods, and met all kinds of interesting people, there was no way I missed sitting in front of a computer in NYC.

When I told him this, the engineer replied, ‘Oh, well then, you’re in trouble. If you really liked it, you’d miss it. I can’t wait to get back to my job in Beijing.’

At the time, I didn’t really believe him, because how could I miss anything while I was in such a magical city? But his words kind of stayed in the back of my mind. And over the course of my three months traveling, they seemed to become more and more true.

Filling the void left by this loss of passion to filmmake came a strong desire to travel. Everywhere. Volunteering on farms in Europe or South America, PeaceCorps in Africa, I’ll take it all, please. Perhaps it’s all youthful idealism, but after meeting people of all ages ‘on the road,’ it kind of started to seem like maybe it really could be a plausible lifestyle.

Another thing in particular was about opportunities to teach English abroad. I suppose I always realized this was a possibility, but never really thought about it, until an evening being snowed in at a hostel in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. A couple of Australians couldn’t stop raving about this EPIK program to teach English in public schools in Korea, which they had done for three years and managed to save up enough money to be spending traveling around eastern Europe. I was, naturally, very curious, although it didn’t really sound like something I would actually do. Teaching English? To kids? It just wasn’t for me.

But they were really enthusiastic about it. ‘I think they’re still accepting applications for the fall. If you’ve got nothing going on when you’re done traveling here, you should really apply.’

I assured them I would, but was really thinking that there was no way it was happening.

So then, how did I come to apply to teach English in Korea? Through this EPIK program? I believe the decision was thoroughly fueled by the difficulties of moving back in with my parents after traveling (not that there’s anything wrong with my parents – they’re great – but there’s still a rather difficult loss of independence that comes with such a move after living on your own), and the gradual realization that moving to Portland really probably meant spending all of my time on shitty freelance jobs, barely able to support myself and stuck in front of a computer all day. In an ideal scenario. When a recruiting agency contacted me through Monster about teaching English abroad, and had the EPIK program listed on their website, I really didn’t need much convincing.

And so, here I am.

Why South Korea?

This question came up frequently from concerned family members before I left, and has been asked by many Koreans now that I’m actually here. At first, it was really just because the EPIK program seemed so reputable and well-reviewed. They would pay for my flight and apartment, and on top of that enough for me to pay off my loans, all of which were necessary for me to be able to afford the move. Many people travel somewhere and try to pick up English-teaching work on their own, but that really didn’t seem like a possibility without the guarantee of an income.

But beyond the money, there are other reasons I’m excited to be here specifically. I want to practice yoga, learn more about Buddhism, maybe take up Taekwondo or some other martial art, and hike and camp and be out in nature more, all of which are extremely popular here. Buddhist temples are scattered all over the country’s mountains, which seem to be never-ending. Here in Ulsan I’m nearly surrounded by mountains, and the ocean isn’t very far away either. The landscape alone is enough for me to feel quite satisfied with my decision to come here.

As for the tension with North Korea, none of the residents here seem at all concerned. Which is enough for me to feel pretty comfortable.

Maybe being in Korea first will shape my experiences of China and Japan differently, when I get there…

All in all though, South Korea – and Ulsan especially – seems to a pretty easy place to transition to teaching English abroad, because there’s so many other expat English teachers around. And while I’d like to see all of the rest of the world (eventually), Korea seems like a very good place to start.

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