5 Things to Do in Preparation for a Year in Korea

In anticipation of my fast-approaching return to the peninsula, I thought I’d put together a list of things I’m doing to prepare. Going back for a second time, it’s nice to know a bit more of what to expect. While some of the things below may be a bit me-specific, I figured my list could be of help to any of the thousands of other westerners out there preparing for their year of English teaching in Korea, who happen to find this.

Should anyone stumble across this who’s been to Korea or happens to be there now, please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments!

1. Learn some Korean.


Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, only has 24 letters and very few pronunciation exceptions (unlike that other language I know). Do yourself a favor and learn it in advance, so you can read bus schedules and beer menus as soon as you step off the plane. It’ll only take an hour or two, so no excuses.

The best place you could possibly start is here:

Talk to Me In Korean
Hyunwoo Sun came to my EPIK Orientation in Seoul in 2010 and blew us all away with a Prezi presentation on Korean culture. I started studying with ‘TTMIK’ shortly thereafter and it’s still my #1 resource. The amount of awesomely helpful material they have available FREE on their website is mind-boggling. Go now!

I subscribed to their daily sentence/vocabulary emails nearly 2 years ago and have yet to receive any repeats. Their sentences can be a bit textbook, but the vocabulary is always helpful. They’ve even got audio to help with pronunciation. A word a day can never hurt.

2. Bring these things (especially if you’re a lady).


Things may have changed in Ulsan with its recent addition of Costco, but as of last year these were all hard to find and frequently requested in care packages from home.

— Shoes —
Unless you have a small, narrow foot. My 8-1/2 (US) sized foot was very frustratingly one size too big for all Korean women’s shoes. Should you happen to have a Korean-sized foot, you’ll be able to find street stalls full of cute, cheap shoes in nearly every city. Lucky you.

— Bras —
There are plenty of cute bras, but bigger band and cup sizes are in short supply and cheaper to buy at home.

— Make-up —
Your non-Asian skin tone will probably not be available, unless perhaps you’re in Seoul. However, Korea does have tons of make-up and beauty stores, where you’ll be able to get all kinds of products like BB Cream. While I’ve never tried it, apparently BB Cream is a thing worldwide, so maybe I should.

— Tampons —
They’re not very popular, so don’t expect to find many.

— Deodorant —
There’s definitely deodorant available, but nothing I could find that lived up to my sweaty American standards. I’ve heard from a few sources that once you stop wearing deodorant your body will adjust and stop being smelly. I’ve also heard that that’s definitely not true, so I’m not about to test it out for myself.

— Clothes —
I was almost tempted to put this into the “things not to bother bringing” category, because there are so many cheap clothing stores everywhere, and Seoul has Myeongdong. Ulsan even has a “big size” store for us of non-Korean proportions. But trips to Seoul are expensive, so I’ll be stocking up on jeans and some work clothes before leaving. I will however keep my t-shirt supply minimal as I’m always on the look-out for only-in-Asia finds such as this.

— Pictures —
Bring pictures of your family, your hometown, and you doing some of your favorite things and your first day of teaching is already set.

— Small gifts from your hometown or home country —
You are probably going to meet a co-teacher, who will have to do a ridiculous number of things for you to help you get functioning in a foreign country. This is a nice way to say thank you for all the trouble you’re about to put them through.

3. Don’t bother bringing these things:

— Basic Medications —
Korean pharmacies are awesome, and doctor visits are super cheap.

— Stationary —
It’s so prevalent, it’s inescapable.

— Hiking and camping gear —
Hiking is extremely popular in Korea, so there’s brand name and rip-off gear readily available. My personal favorites are ‘Red Face’ and ‘Black Face’ but there’s plenty to choose from!

— A Computer —
Thanks to an obsessive gaming culture, ‘PC bangs’ are on every corner, and you will more than likely have 2-10 that never close within steps from your apartment. They can however be a bit smokey and/or over-crowded with adolescent boys, so I’ll be bringing my laptop. Although not having internet would save quite a bit of money.

4. Work on your singing voice

After-festival noraebang-ing

It is more than likely that you will end up in a ‘noraebang’, or Korean singing room, with all of your co-workers and colleagues within your first few weeks in the country. Someone, probably your boss, will at one point give you the microphone and song book and demand a performance. You may as well be prepared.

On that same note, you could familiarize yourself with the many rules of Korean drinking. However, as a foreigner no one will expect you to know these anyways.

5. Get your fill of these things before you go, because you won’t be getting them in Korea.

Oh salty, cheesy, non-fish flavored snacks, how I will miss you.

This is probably more me-specific, as I really like food, but I will definitely be trying to enjoy all of these at least one last time before I go:
— International cuisine, especially burritos
— Good bread, sandwiches, and baked goods
— Good beer
— Cheese, cheesy foods, cheesy snacks, mac & cheese
— Peanut butter
— Granola
— American breakfast
— Pie

While many of these are widely available, they’re generally a bit expensive. $6 for a jar of creamy Jif? No thanks.

Ultimately, the best advice I could give to anyone going to Korea for the first time would be to throw any and all expectations you may have out the window. Because anything could happen, and it probably will …at the last second, without any prior warning. Be prepared!

How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…

Potatoes are not people!

Last week I was teaching my fourth grade classes a textbook unit that covered the sentences: “What’s for lunch?” “We have fish/salad/rice/chicken.” Which I think is awkward and perhaps entirely incorrect, but was in the textbook and so had to be taught (which is a topic for another post). My students were very interested in what kids ate for lunch in the USA, which prompted me to do some research into school lunches around the world.

This is a typical school lunch for me in Korea:

School Lunch

Every day we have some kind of rice, soup, kimchi, vegetable and protein (usually fish or chicken or tofu) . All of the kids, from pre-K through 6th grade, are expected to eat everything, and to eat enough to satisfy their teachers.

In my research, I came across this great blog What’s for school lunch? And apparently this is what kids are eating for lunch in the US:

Chili dog and fries. Yum!
Chili dogs and fries.

Nachos and fries?!
And nachos and french fries. Wow. Healthy!

Of course, my students were all insanely jealous that they never get french fries or nachos or hot dogs at lunch (although they do sometimes get a fried mandu or rice cake, albeit rarely). I tried to explain that many kids in the US are not very healthy, but of course my 4th grade students couldn’t care less about that aspect.

I know there’s been a lot of reform going on in the US to push for healthier school lunches. But today, I came across this interesting article on Slate: Congress wants the Agriculture Department to rethink its healthy school lunch proposal: it’s just too good.

According to the article, the school lunch legislation going through Congress has been derailed, thanks to the efforts of lobbyists from the National Potato Council and other interest groups. The proposed changes included limiting starchy vegetables and salt, increasing healthy fruits and veggies, and a stipulation that pizza can not be counted as a vegetable (that has to be a law? really?).

All of those changes sound like good ideas to me, but apparently not to everyone:

The Department of Agriculture created a proposal that fit within its budget and pleased nutritionists, public health experts and many school lunch officials, but it didn’t please the American Frozen Food Institute or the companies that provide much of the food served to kids at lunch—companies like Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and the makers of frozen pizza.

The article also sited the NY Times to report food lobbyists have spent $5.6 billion fighting these proposed school lunch changes. And it seems that’s enough to buy legislation away from the best interests of the country’s children.

In Korea, school lunches are planned by the school nutritionist, whose job is to create a healthy and varied menu each month. According to my Korean colleagues, the parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was talking to a Korean friend about this, who thought it was pretty crazy that the government would give the kids unhealthy food, which could lead to obesity and other health problems later in life, and then not provide them with the health care they’d need to take care of these problems. She thought it was pretty funny. I think it’d be funnier if it wasn’t actually happening.

It’s pretty hard to explain to my Korean friends that my country puts the interests of its potato industry ahead of its children! How ridiculous can we get? If I were in America right now, I’d take to the streets! I’d join them on Wall Street! And this would be my sign:

Potatoes are not people!

A Tale of Two Summer Camps

Summer “vacation” in Korea isn’t quite the same as most students and teachers have it back in the US – for most Korean students, it means just as much studying at private schools, and for me and other EPIK teachers it means extra teaching at special English camps. So while Korean schools don’t officially run year-round, students never really get a break from studying – ever (at least until they graduate high school).

Over July and August, I spent three weeks at a school in a remote location in Ulsan and 1 week at my school. Teaching for 6-10 hours a day can be quite stressful, but it’s not all bad. Really, it can be quite a bit better than regular school teaching. At camps, I’ve gotten to plan and teach a lot of my own lessons, and the students are generally much more motivated to learn English. After my overnight 5th grade English camp last winter, I saw my students’ levels transform, as well as their enthusiasm for learning which they still have months later. So when the option came up to teach another three-week overnight camp for summer, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Although I did try my best not to get assigned teaching grammar this time…which I found to be a rather unfortunate subject to be stuck with for 7 hours a day last camp.

A bit of background on these English camps – 5th and 6th grade students are shipped off to a secluded campus for three weeks (with breaks on the weekends) of intensive English studying with lots of foreign teachers. The camps are organized by the public system, and in Ulsan it’s done by the MOE (Metropolitan Office of Education). They have classes from 9 in the morning to 9 at night or later, only breaking for meals and perhaps a bit of PE time. To me it seems a bit ridiculous to have 10 and 11 year-olds in classes for 10 hours a day, but that’s just because I’m not Korean.

For summer camp, I was working with all 6th grade students off in the very southern corner of Ulsan at Seosaeng Middle School, on a tiny peninsula sticking out into the East Sea. Based on my two camp experiences and anecdotal evidence, the first day of camp generally goes like this: get picked up by a bus carrying a bunch of students. Meet the frazzled Korean teacher in charge of your bus. Make the ~1 hour drive to camp, receive some vague instructions about what to do upon arrival. Arrive at camp, find your room, try to follow vague instructions previously given. Receive different instructions several times while students and teachers wander aimlessly. Wait. Be prepared to be in a classroom of 16-60 tired, shy students eager to be entertained with no planned activities or help from a Korean co-teacher for 1-4 hours. Stay positive! After the first day, everything should settle down into a relatively set schedule.

Our dorm situation at camp brought with it some more interesting problems the first day: all of the foreign teachers were in one wing of the building, with one bathroom to share and no where to shower. Eventually, they told us there was one shower room for boys and one for girls, which was an open room to be shared with all of the students! The school dorm management didn’t seem to understand that this was not “OK.” But by the end of the day, they had it sorted out so we wouldn’t have to shower with the students, and we had a “sink shower” room for female staff with some semi-private shower curtains. Having living in Korea for a while and beet to the jimjilbang/public spas has made me a bit more immune to nudity, but I’m not quite ready to shower with all of my students…

Living in a dirty middle school dorm room for 3 weeks was a bit less than ideal, but it did have a very nice view:


Every day the class schedule was two hours of grammar, reading and vocabulary, an hour of speaking and an hour of “song”. That left two hours for “special activities”. I lucked out in getting a pretty laid back arts & crafts activity.


Little paper dragonflies that balance on their nose. It was a pretty simple idea suggested by my co-teacher, and the kids were totally into it! 아싸!!


The biggest obstacle of camp was preparing a song and dance for the Song Festival. Aiiigo, aiiiiiigo. I felt like it was a bit much to expect us to choreograph a dance and teach it and a song to our students within the little spare time afforded by the camp schedule, but the results were actually pretty great. Upon arriving to camp, we were told that the song we selected to teach each night would be our song for the festival. I had “Another Brick in the Wall,” which was quickly vetoed by my class as too slow and boring. They instead chose a song by some awful British pop act McFly, which had been in some Korean drama. It was beyond awful, but absolutely adored by the students. And it’s all for them anyway.

Teaching “Another Brick in the Wall” was an interesting failure… I thought something in it might resonate with the students, who are studying all day and at 12 are starting to feel the seeds of rebellious teenage angst. But it didn’t quite work out. Most students couldn’t have cared less, no matter what I tried. I think I reached about 10 students out of the 100-200 I had, and only had a couple of classes that I felt good about. Eventually I gave up and switched to James Brown “I Feel Good,” because at least it would make me happy and let me get totally goofy. And it actually got an entire class up and dancing! My best 20 minutes of camp.

One of the highlights was “Octopus’s Garden” by the Beatles. So cute! Next time, I’m choosing a song with an animal theme.

The boys from my homeroom class.

So camp was a big difficult, particularly aapting to the schedule hearing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” “Teacher! Teacher!” non-stop all day, every day except for the hours you’re sleeping. But then after 3 weeks, it’s over!! And you get all these letters:




And they overwhelm all of the bad memories of camp and you wonder…maybe I could do it again next time!

But apparently that won’t be a question to consider because the camps are no more! Or so I heard. I guess they’re too expensive. Ah well. They were …interesting while they lasted.


A week later, I had my school’s camp. Which was 6 hours a day of whatever I wanted to do with a group of 4th-6th graders. I was pretty excited about this never-before-had freedom, and got to work in a lot of group projects and non-English subjects. Each day had a theme: The World, Animals, Science, Fairy Tales, and Superheroes.

Animal Day:

I ripped off this mask design from something I found online but thought it looked pretty cool.

Summer English Camp
This is from “Oktapodi: the sequel” inspired from this great animated short.

Summer English Camp
There’s an alien fishing with a big worm. She sees the octopi and says, “Lets go with the cosmos.”

I also redid my dragonfly craft, which was great once again!


And I was really excited to do a reading and writing activity based around superhero comics. First we read a bunch of comics that I had made. Then we discussed how to make a comic, and the students had to make their own…


It looks like there’s something inappropriate happening between Superman and Wonder Woman. And perhaps Catwoman is having a wardrobe malfunction?


I like this a lot.

The comic book activity ended up being a bit too much about coloring, and a bit too little about English. But I think it could be modified into something really great. I was quite pleased with the results.

Looking back on summer camps after having started regular classes again, they look good. Even with all the work. And I’m happy that the last thing I do before I leave Korea for good in February will be my school’s winter camp. Oh, the possibilities…

Culture Shock of the Week: Korea and Butts and Lawsuits, oh my!

Sticker prominently displayed on the bus to English Camp...

This is a bit of a blurry picture, but what you may or may not be able to see is a woman from behind, wearing nothing but a thong and high heels and a dragon back-tattoo. This big decal was very prominently decorating the interior of the bus I rode back from English Camp with my sixth grade students. It seems like a bit of an odd choice of decor for your very public bus, but to each their own…I guess. You’d think having this in view of a bunch of 12-13 year old boys would cause quite a commotion, but none of them seemed to pay it any attention. Maybe they didn’t see it? That seems highly unlikely, as they’re 13-year-old boys and it’s a picture of a mostly naked woman…

But butts are really not a big deal in this country. Maybe it’s because everyone goes to the jimjilbang together (well, boys with other boys and girls with other girls) so nudity isn’t really a big deal. In the hospital, there’s hemorrhoid removal posters featuring big extreme close-ups of the point of surgery, and no one pays them any mind. Plastic surgery is advertised with really smooth and firm-looking bottoms. A nurse will give you a shot in the but without any concern for who else may be within view, because no one really cares.

Really though, it’s better that way, right? It’s just a butt. We’ve all got one. We’re so uptight about that stuff in the US. Can you imagine if a bus driver that worked for public elementary schools had that sticker on his bus in the US? I’m sure there’d be a lawsuit in no time. Or at least he’d be fired, immediately. Probably before he even got the chance to pick up any kids.

Today I was thinking about some of the differences between teaching in Korea and the US, at least what I know about teaching in the US based on growing up in the school system. In Korea, I can hug my students or give them a pat on the back and it’s no big deal. I can give students my cell phone number, although that’s not really something I’d want to do (many other teachers do though). I can “threaten” my students when they’re being bad..not that that happens a lot…but if I were to, say, mime kneeing a student in the face, I wouldn’t have to worry about repercussions. Not that that’s a mature way to approach classroom discipline… But the Korean teachers often discipline the students by having them hold their hands above their heads or stay in push-up position for a prolonged period of time.

In the school bathrooms, there’s often no soap at the sinks. I have my own antibacterial hand stuff, but I don’t know what the students do. Yesterday there was a bee hive/bee infestation situation in several classrooms, which still hadn’t been resolved today. Earlier this week the fire alarm went off in the middle of class, but we just waited for it to stop so we could continue. After class, the fire alarm light was still flashing in the hallway, and no one was paying any attention…

I’m pretty sure all of these things could be potential lawsuits in the US. In Korea, it’s no big deal. I was aware, but never really realized how much our sue-anyone-for-anything culture really influences life in America. Actually, I think that’s probably a big reason behind the differences in driving in the US and Korea…but that’s a topic for another post.

Punk ROK

I really love live music, and back home there’s a pretty good number of bands I try to see every time they come through town. Ever since I was 14 and started getting into “punk” music, going to “shows” has been a rather big part of my life, providing a sort of cathartic release with all the dancing, jumping around and singing along. While I may have outgrown some of the music, my concert-going days are far from over. Being on the other side of the world from all my old standbys can be a bit tough at times, and I’ve felt compelled to seek out some stand-ins. Because sometimes I’ve just gotta dance, and the K-pop/techno/top 40 music at the clubs doesn’t completely do it for me. Luckily when the need strikes, there’s a big enough scene here to keep me satisfied.

This list may best be summarized as “five bands for the slightly homesick American expat in Korea”:


Nachopupa is an incredibly stupid band name as far as I’m concerned (unless it means something in Korean that I’m unable to translate with my phone dictionary, which is entirely possible) but they play some good Irish punk – complete with accordion and tin whistle. They seem to do mostly upbeat covers of traditional Irish songs, similar to Flogging Molly, and they do a mean cover of “Drunken Lullabies” too (check out the video). They’re based out of Busan, so I’ve been able to catch them a few times and they’re always good for lots of jumping and sing-a-longs.

The Southbay

I saw The Southbay at Busan’s Battle of the Bands back in November, where they played a bunch of covers from Rancid’s …And Out Come the Wolves that had me bouncing off the walls reliving my sophomore year of high school. Most of their music sounds like it could be Rancid, if Tim Armstrong was singing in Korean. But regardless of whether they’re the most original band or not, I think their music and style are super fun. This video shows just how much they rock:


Nothing’s brought back high school memories as strongly as this band’s familiar blend of ska/punk. When I saw them in Busan, they even did a cover of Operation Ivy, which unfortunately I seemed to be the only one really excited about. They had lots of skank-able songs, and even encouraged “skanking” at one point – a culture-transcending dance move that’s just as popular with the kids over here as it is at a Bosstone’s show back in the US. It’s nice to know this music’s made it all around the world.


This is some of my favorite music from the past 8 months. Online I’ve seen them described as “street punk”, a genre I’m not very fond of as it’s usually associated with annoying teenage boys with ridiculously high mohawks and spike-covered leather jackets. But to me, their music is just super energetic and fun. I hope I’ll get to see them play some time so I can dance around.

Suck Stuff

These guys win for worst band name and lamest “tough-guy” picture, but I can’t help but enjoy the music. It’s also a bit reminiscent of Rancid, who seem to be pretty popular over here. I have yet to see them live, as they too seem to play exclusively in Seoul, but based on this amazing music video I can only imagine it would be tons of fun. I also can’t help but snicker at the accent on the one singer in this song.

My Byeongyeong-dong one-room

Welcome to my apartment.

This is where I live.

When I first came to Ulsan, my co-teachers kept talking about when I’d be able to move into my ‘one-room.’ It took me a second to realize what they were talking about. But I think ‘one-room’ has a much better ring to it than ‘studio,’ really.

This is where I live.

This is my square of wallpaper.
This is where I live.

How do you like my shower?
This is where I live.

This is the other part of my one-room, the kitchen:

This is where I live.

The kitchen is lit by a green fluorescent light. Which makes everything I cook look incredibly appetizing, as I’m sure you can imagine.

This is where I live.
Hope to add some pretty places from this side of the world soon!

I even have a mini laundry room! When I run the washer, the water runs across that tile floor to a drain on the other side of the room. This was quite a surprise the first time I did laundry.
This is where I live.

Also, please note the sliding glass doors. I like them quite a bit.

The view from my room isn’t half bad:
The view from my room during the day

The view from my room during the day
I think those are chili peppers drying on the roof next door.

The best part is probably that I can get a decent view of the sunset…

…and at night the lack of stars from light pollution is almost made up for by the twinkling/flashing city lights below.
The view from my 'one room' in the evening

So, this is where I live. It’s my first place all to myself, and I like it quite a bit. As you can see, there is plenty of floor space. Should you ever find yourself in Ulsan and in need a place to crash, you’re more than welcome.

Byeongyeong-dong (병영) is my neighborhood. It’s a bit of a hike from the city center, but the neighborhood has more than enough character to make up for its less-than-stellar location. I live allllllllll the way down this market street that is packed with a motley mix of street food vendors, little old women selling little plastic buckets of vegetables and crabs/assorted seafood, trendy clothing stores, trendy-looking bars and restaurants, sterile-looking cell phone shops, and fish tanks full of squids and octopi and eels. It’s probably one of my favorite places I’ve come across in the city. But! I have yet to photograph it. So more to come on Byeongyeong-dong later.

Things I have found interesting about living in Korea:
– This country composts its food waste. Both individual households and bigger places – like the university where we had our orientation and my school’s cafeteria. I find this pretty awesome.
– The lock on my door and the door to my building are electronic! I don’t have to carry keys! Instead, I just put a code into the keypad. This is also very excellent.
– I also have a video intercom. If someone rings my doorbell, I can check to see who it is! Very fancy.
– Something I find less than excellent is that you’re not supposed to flush toilet paper here. For some reason, the toilets or the sewage system can’t handle it. I don’t know if this is an environmental thing, or some technological oversight in the construction of the sewage system, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with this.

The only differences I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get used to are the sounds of dogs crying/fighting that occasionally drift in through the window, and the slightly sewage-y smell that occasionally drifts up out of my bathroom drain.

Other than that, life in my apartment in Ulsan is mostly like life was in my apartment back in NYC. Except this place is 3 times bigger than anything I’d ever be able to afford in NYC. And it’s missing some awesome roommates. And everything that looks like it’s made of that cheap Ikea-type-wood is actually plastic, including the floor. Other than those things, I’d have to say I’ve found apartment-dwelling to be pretty much the same over here on the other side of the world.

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.