‘”Where’s that?” was the first reaction I got from almost everyone when I told them I was going to Korea. Most, at first, thought I said Croatia. In my area, very few people went to life abroad and those who did went to English-speaking countries. So for me to announce that I was heading off to a country that was technically still at war was a big deal. At the time I was 22, I had a great job, great friends, great family, a car and great prospects and there I was choosing to spend a year teaching abroad. A long way abroad.
If you had asked me in college where I would be in 5 years, I would never have said Korea. I would never even have said Asia. But as my college course moved on, I got more and more involved with the International students and organised trips around Ireland for them. This shared time lead to the exchange of great stories on how life is on the other side and how differently we do things in Ireland. As luck would have it, in the semester of my final year, I awarded a place on the International Summer Program at Chung Ang University in Seoul.
I spent three amazing weeks learning about the culture, the food, religion, people but it was during our free time I got to experience first hand, life as it could be. Shopkeepers were encouraging us to stay in Korea to teach and upon return to Ireland, a little research proved this correct. So, I saved up, did my TEFL and applied for a job.
I got one and before I knew it, it was time to leave. The whole last week was a blur of parties and preparation. I laugh when I think of the effort that went into packing. It took me days and it was the worst packing EVER! I had a years supply of toothpaste, contact lenses, deodorant, shampoo for a small country. USELESS!( I clearly hadn’t paid attention to the fact that all these items were readily available in Korea!) This epic packing effort was halted by visits from neighbours wishing me best of luck and questioning if “you really know what you’re doing”. The final week, the only source of annoyance were the questions. “Shauna, it’s an awfully long way, what if something happens?” Shauna, do you know how close Paju is to North Korea?” “Shauna, what are ya at?” Shauna, what is it all goes wrong?” I knew it was a big deal but I could have done without the interrogations. My goodbye party was truly amazing. I still have most of the gifts that people gave me because they were really thoughtful and, surprisingly, practical.
All too soon, it was airport time and my Dad left me with great advice “Shauna, if North Korea attack, RUN! “. Mum, having more of a sense of adventure gave me the usual pep talk and saw me off with an” if I think you’re going to stay there for a long time, I’ll go to visit you”.
Fourteen hours later I arrived in Incheon. It was so clean. It was so big. A train just to go collect your bags. Wait, is that efficiency I see in action? A stamp? On my passport! Thanks! But that was the end of greatness. Reality set in when I saw my agent holding a card with my name. Then it all became real. The journey to Paju took an hour and he was driving on the wrong side of the road!!!!!
My first week was a complete disaster. There’s no way, even I could put a positive spin on it. I had to be escorted to and from school every day by my co teacher Michelle. I was like her leech for the first week or so. Everywhere she went, I went. Everyone looked the same, all the buildings looked the same. It was hot. I got bitten by mosquitos but didn’t know about the magic medicine. I didn’t have one word of Korean and could barely identify foods in the supermarket.I had a phone but couldn’t just call Mum if I got in trouble. I worried about EVERYTHING. Was my apartment safe? Was it safe to leave that much cash lying around? When will I get a bank account? Should I really be walking alone? Is it normal for Koreans to be so interested in the colour of your skin? I didn’t have a clue. How to teach, where to start, nothing. I’m so glad Michelle was kind enough and experienced enough to share her hints and tips.
Everytime I sent an email, I tried to be really positive because I so desperately didn’t want to fail. I knew I had to stick it out for the year to prove that I could.
LIke all great adventures, eventually everything started to click. I was able to navigate my own way around Geumchon. I got into a routine in school. I made friends. I started socializing and I’ve never looked back. The greatest skill I learned in that first week was the ability to listen. When people gave me advice, I took it. Some of the songs I use in my classroom today, I learned from other teachers, in those first few weeks.
These days, I still count Michelle amongst my closest friends here in Korea and yes, we are both still here. I’m pretty good in the classroom but learn new things every day. I still get lost, go the wrong way on the subway, get out at the wrong stops and exits but whatever, it’s still an adventure. At least now I can read Korean and I’m fluent Konglish.
Better than all that, I’ve finally reached ” a long time”. My Mum is coming with my sister next month to see me for the first time in two years. (I’ve been here for four years and have only made it home once.) It’ll be their first time in Asia and I’m super excited to see how the take to Korea. Stay tuned because you know there will be a blog!