“THUD” went the heavy rubber stamp onto my application, sealing my fate. Still somewhat surprised by the informality of my interview, which had lasted all of five minutes, a soft “thank you,” was all that I could manage to mutter. I scrambled out of the interview room of the Korean Consulate in Atlanta and called my mother to tell her the news; I had just been approved for a one year visa to teach English as a foreign language in Seoul.
The sudden approval was a bit of a shock to me and still sinking in. Just prior to my interview, I had been living for more than a year as an unemployed teacher in Orlando, Florida. It was undoubtedly one of the worst, darkest times of my life. The fact is, I genuinely like to work, I enjoy being busy, and teaching has always been a significant part of my identity. Not having any form of employment was draining, and robbed me of my dignity on many levels. After searching for a job, ANY job, attending pitiful, time-wasting job fairs, emailing out my resume several times daily, attending costly career counseling, and still coming up empty-handed for months, I made a decision that drastically altered the course of my life.
And now, here I was, with guaranteed full-time work for at least a twelve months. Halfway across the world.
Was I nervous about this giant leap of faith that I was going to take? God, where could I even begin? I was giving up everything from my “old” life, including my car, most of my worldly possessions, my cat, my then-boyfriend, and being in my stagnant, but predictable comfort zone.
“I’m going,” I had to tell myself firmly, trying not to risk any second thoughts that would lead to me chickening out.
I arrived wide-eyed, nervous, and still slightly nauseous from the 19+ hours of travel at Incheon Airport at around 5pm on September 14, 2008. I officially started my job at the Wall Street Institute of Korea the next morning (at their request). Right down to business. My head still spinning, I was jet lagged out of my mind for the first week or so, nearly falling asleep in my classroom. As time went on, I also wound up working in a primary school through a company called Edubest, teaching 6 and 7 year old students with the help of a bilingual Korean co-teacher.
Though working for institutes (also known as hagwon in Korean) took up the majority of my time during my time in Seoul, it did not account for the vast majority of my experiences while living there. Truth be told, there is nothing that could have prepared me for what I was about to learn, see, feel, and experience, and although I was on the opposite side of the desk, I had a far sharper learning curve than any of my students.
I learned a great deal while living on the other side of the world, but here are just some of the highlights:
The Korean answer to vodka- It tastes like burning. I’m not a drinker to begin with, but after being peer pressured to sample it, I’d personally prefer to down gasoline mixed with sulfuric acid. It pretty much amount to the same thing. Best to be avoided.
Seeing two barbershop poles next to each other in Korea means many things; getting your hair cut is not one of them. I lived in one of the poorer areas of Seoul, but didn’t think much of the spinning blue and red barbershop poles that seemed to be on every other street corner in my neighborhood. Until someone finally clued me in that they were actually brothels. Oh.
Not English. Engrish: As the English language becomes evermore popular in the Republic of Korea, an inevitable erroneous hybrid of the languages is the hilarious result. Sometimes it has to do with spelling (such as substituting a “b” sound for a “p” sound (see my pic below)); sometimes it has to do with just delightfully odd mistranslations. In any case, it’s fairly easy to find throughout the country, though fairly hard to keep a straight face and not take a picture. Not to be confused with Konglish.
So close, yet so far away in many senses, North Korea is a delicate issue, to be treated tactfully and with sensitivity. It’s not just that the untraversable neighboring country is a considerable threat to the South (hence the mandatory two years of military service for young South Korean men). It’s also because so many families were tragically separated at the 38th parallel border decades ago, some of whom are still alive, worrying about and wondering what became of their beloved relatives. The general vibe that I got from living there is that while it would have some major potential economic ramifications, uniting the two Koreas is something that many people that I spoke with ultimately hope for one day.
Sasha Fierce Pek Bora (백 보라):
Call it (another) alter ego to add to my identity crisis, but in Korea, where it was a challenge for some people to correctly pronounce and remember “Lauren,” I decided that it would be cool as well as respectful to my host country to take on a Korean name. After consulting some of my students, we decided on 백 보라 (pronounced “Pek Bora”), which translates to “White Violet.”
Guns are Illegal in South Korea:
How do I know this? During my second week while living in Seoul, unbeknownst to me while working, my apartment was broken into. I came home at around 10pm to find the door unlocked, the window ajar, and my computer opened and used (though thankfully nothing of value was taken). Of course I tore out of there like my hair was on fire, unsure of what to do. I finally fished my manager’s business card out of my purse and called him using a stranger’s cell phone, who I had frantically stopped in the street.
What did he tell me? “Go back home. Guns are illegal here. We’ll figure out what to do in the morning.”
Yeah, Wall Street Institute managers have better things to do than worry about the imminent physical safety of their foreign employees.
I Must Lose “My” Weight:
Whether it’s something lost in translation, a cultural misunderstanding, or complete strangers simply being tactless and insensitive, Korea is not the place to be even slightly overweight (and someone my size? Pfffft…. Forget about it). Let’s see… There was the time the saleslady at a store blatently blocked the entrance to the fitting room when I wanted to try on a sweater (lest I stretch it out beyond recognition); there was also the time some random woman on the subway placed her palm on my stomach and asked me, “Baby?” There was also the time that I was told in all seriousness by a male student, “You could look like Britney Spears if you lose your weight.” Ouch. The occasions of being fat-shamed while living there are too numerous to name. Not a very positive experience at all.
When it Comes to Relationships, Korean Men Don’t Take Foreign Women Seriously:
Please, please, please don’t get me wrong. I personally know of several cases of Korean women marrying/having long term relationships with men from Canada, the U.S., Australia, and so on, but have NEVER heard of the reverse being true. The fact of the matter is, at least from my personal experience, as far as Korean men are concerned, Korean women are to marry, whereas foreign women are to sleep with. It was like a VIP club from which I would have always been excluded. I had tried my hand at going out with a few guys while living in Seoul, but the outcome was always the same, and let’s just leave it at that, shall we? [Use your sordid and shameless imagination here]
My experience in South Korea was abruptly cut short when, two days before Christmas, my manager called me into his office. He explained that Wall Street had over expanded itself in the country and that, in order to prevent bankruptcy, the company was calling for 35% layoffs, effective almost immediately (“but try to have a nice Christmas”).
It was a few short days later when that chapter of my life closed and the most recent one opened upon my arrival to Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires less than two short weeks later. Though I can’t say that living in Korea was all rainbows and lollipops (or Pocky sticks), in retrospect, what I experienced there happened for a reason and changed me.
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