It’s been just over four months since Luke and I started again; four months since we packed up our lives into two overstuffed suitcases and got on a plane; four months since we landed in a foreign land with a foreign language, new alphabet to learn and a shockingly different work culture to acclimate to.
It’s been a challenge. I’ve written before about how work hasn’t been easy. That first month was an emotional roller coaster. From the moment we were picked up from the bus terminal by our director, we were on the clock. We had lost our bags, but that didn’t seem to matter much, we were still expected to come to work the next day, even if we didn’t have a change of clothes.
That first night we lay awake in an unfamiliar apartment on the other side of the world and wondered what the hell we were doing there. I remember thinking something like “we don’t have to stay if this isn’t going to make us happy”. Maybe I said it out loud, maybe I kept it to myself. But I remember distinctly feeling like I’d made the wrong decision.
A lot has changed since then. Work is still a rollercoaster. Some days I am buzzing from the success of the kids. We have gotten to know each other, they know what winds me up and I know how to get them to be engaged (most days anyway). I am in awe of myself sometimes, with my patience and my ability to step outside the situation and see things from their perspective. It’s a constant learning curve. I have never stood in front of a group of children and tried to teach them anything. My mom used to be a teacher when I was growing up and I would come into her classroom sometimes and read to the kids. It was fun, they seemed cute. That is the extent of my experience in a classroom.
There was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know I would be a behavior manager, a disciplinarian and therapist, dishing out hugs and cuddles as my prescription. I didn’t know kids were so complex. Kids are emotional and funny and full of imagination. They’re quirky and weird and far more interesting than I have ever given them credit for. I feel lucky that I get to bring some of that out of them everyday. I look at some of them sometimes and I cannot believe how much I care for them. They are by far the most rewarding thing about my job; they are my motivation for getting up and going into work day after day.
That’s mostly because the work environment when I’m not in the classroom is quite deflating. There are a lot of office politics, a lot of hierarchy and bureaucracy (and this is coming from someone who has worked in local government!) and a lot of gossiping both in English and Korean.
I am not a saint. I take full responsibility for the fact that I too perpetuate this problem. But it’s like a poison that takes over you when you’re there. It’s become almost like a defense mechanism.
There is a clear divide between the Korean teachers and the English speaking teachers (or foreign teachers, as we’re called) that makes me quite sad. It feels like a missed opportunity to make connections with people doing a similar role with similar problems (seeing as we all have the same students and same boss). It’s not that they aren’t nice, because for the most part they are, there just isn’t any effort put into building relationships here.
Teaching English was really only a gateway to getting us to Korea. It was never the main reason we came here. It just so happens we spend a majority of our time there. On Friday nights we do our best to leave it all at the door. We have made some great friends not only with fellow teachers, but other expats in the area as well as making several Korean friends. Our language exchange group has become a great outlet and we somehow manage to make friends with a new local every time we have a few too many beers at our nearby pub.
We have a buzzing social life that includes nights out, hikes and picnics, dinner parties and an absurd amount of Korean Barbeque. Luke and I try to reserve one day for just us two and head off somewhere new. Although we work in the same office and gripe about our classes while we’re at our desks, we’ve found having a day out together an essential part of the week.
We have gotten to know our surroundings really well and I now feel confident about maneuvering my way around Seoul. We have scouted out our favorite suburbs and tasted the delights of many Korean foods. Our holiday away to Busan and Tongyeong was much needed and when we got back it truly felt like we were coming home. That’s how I know, despite all the shit, that this is home right now.
Pyeongtaek might not be perfect, but it’s my imperfect little place. My school might not be the best, but it certainly makes for good stories and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (right?!).
I am genuinely happy when I unlock the door to my flat, kick my shoes off and switch on the hallway light. I love my apartment and my view of the rice fields. There’s nothing better than brewing a cup of coffee in the morning and sitting on the balcony overlooking so much green space. I love my neighborhood and how locals wave to us when we walk past a shop or restaurant that we frequent.
Perhaps it took getting away in order to realize I have created a pretty good life for myself here in this place I call home.