Let’s face it: I was stuck. I was a full-grown man with awful prospects and a credit rating that would make Greece blush. My girlfriend had just sent me packing and I was – how do you say – between careers. I was thirty-three years old and temporarily crashing with my parents, after whimpering back to my hometown with my tail quivering between my legs. By that age, Mozart, Hendrix, and Cobain had not only written all of their music, but also had the good sense to check out and die. Jesus Christ was thirty-three when he saved all of mankind from its sins. What had I done? More importantly, what was I doing, besides thinking about borrowing obscene amounts of money for grad school and unloading trucks at the Target warehouse?
Okay, things hadn’t always been so dire. I graduated from college some nine years earlier and made a go of it as a theater artist, which is a slightly less reliable way to earn a buck than say, writing poetry, translating Esperanto, or psychic healing. Even so, I did have some successes in that endeavor, but any of those old accolades were now just hollow husks: You can’t eat good reviews. The one thing I did have was my diploma, a BFA in Acting, but even that would be of more value as a gussied-up paper airplane. As I scoured Craigslist for a way out, there was no light for this moth to fly to. Those stony-faced predictions of my high school guidance counselor had come to fruition: Theater grads were definitely not in demand. If only I had listened to those jaded, old failed actors, who, when faced with a room full of starry-eyed hopefuls, inevitably croaked: “It’s a cruel, tough business. Don’t go into showbiz. If you possibly can, do ANYTHING else.”
And then one day I saw it, singing to me on the computer monitor, right in front of my eyes:
Have you ever wanted to get to know a foreign culture? Do you want a taste of adventure? Come teach English in South Korea! All that is required is a college degree in any subject.
I answered it immediately. Three days later I was interviewed over the phone. The next day I was offered a job and within three weeks I boarded a plane, flew across the whole of the Pacific Ocean, and began my so-called Asian life.
Like most Americans, I knew very little of Korea before actually coming to the country, other than some reading I had done about the Korean War. I knew a handful of Koreans from school and interacted with some in daily life—mainly when buying beer or smokes or hot dogs from convenience stores—but that was all really. I knew that the country was sandwiched between two often hostile neighbors and that the average Korean worked harder than three of us combined. Yeah, I could find it on a map and had a general idea of what the country was about, but such shallow knowledge proved to be an empty bag of tricks to draw from once I was actually on the ground. As I staggered off the plane and went to meet my contact, I realized, to my shame, that I couldn’t speak a grunt of the language. I hadn’t even bothered to learn the word for hello. This was going to be a long education.
Those first days in Korea were dizzying. I was abuzz with the thrill of being in a new country and dove straight in, hard and deep. I wandered the streets, overwhelmed by the sheer activity: there were people everywhere, buying, selling, eating and drinking. Korean street-life makes American cities seem positively sterile. This is especially true with regard to the markets. There was a traditional street market across from my apartment building, and I went there every chance I could get to get down, to take marvel at the sights, breathe in the smells, and get down with all of that crazy food.
My first breakfast in Korea consisted of rice, soup, fish, and kimchi—that pungent concoction of cabbage, garlic, and red pepper paste that is thrown into clay pots and fermented. I strolled into a tiny restaurant filled old leather-faced locals, sat down at a table and just pointed to what the grandfather next to me was digging into. The matron cackled as she brought out my dishes, joking to the hardscrabble patrons at my expense. My first dinner was at another joint in the very same market; it consisted of small octopus, garlic, and onions, fried up in heaps of spicy pepper paste. This time, the whole staff—a group of middle aged women—poked their perm-haired heads out from the kitchen and laughed as the blistering dish had its effect on me. It was August and Africa-hot, so the sweat poured forth in embarrassing streams, my face a ripe tomato.
I loved Korea from the day I arrived. Time and time again I was convinced that I had made the right choice in coming. Within the first week I had gotten a new job, a new apartment, a whole new set of friends and a new girlfriend. It was as if, when coming off the plane and stopping at immigration, I was handed a bad containing a brand new life. I felt like I had entered the Witness Protection Program. I could hardly believe my good fortune. For the first six months I used to have nightmares about going home. I would literally wake up, covered in sweat, with my heart slamming its way out of my chest and look around, only to be reassured that it was indeed just a dream. I’m still in Korea. I’m still here.
I was lucky, I have to admit. I had taken a job in Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city and main port. My neighborhood was right near Korea’s most famous beach, and it was the height of summer, so the nation’s biggest party was just ten minutes from my door. I met good people right away. The friendships I struck up then continue to this day. They formed the foundation for many of my relationships in this country. And furthermore I got a good job. Like most everybody who comes here to teach, I worked for a private language institute (known as a hagwon) catering to kids. But unlike some, mine was well-funded and efficiently run. We were always paid on time and every contractual benefit was honored. My boss was decent and honest and spoke English well. The facilities were brand new and better than most classrooms I had seen back at home. It seemed luck was on my side.
However, teaching was not easy. I was pushed into the acid bath straight away, with no prep or training whatsoever. I arrived in Korea at 9pm on a Wednesday night and was in the classroom at 10am the next morning, stumbling my way through my first class. My boss handed me a textbook, made a quick introduction, patted me on the shoulder and walked out the door. You’re on your own kid.
And the children were universally cute, but ruthless. Like wild animals, they would attack at the first whiff of fear. One hint of insecurity on my part and the classroom would erupt into pure chaos. This flew in the face of all of my preconceived notions about Asian students. I had somehow believed that, in this part of the world, there was no more esteemed position than that of a teacher. I imagined the pupils sitting obediently at immaculate desks in perfect rows, treating me with a mixture of deference and awe. I pictured them rising and bowing each day when I entered the room, greeting me in unison with a clear, “Good morning, teacher.” My first inkling that this may be otherwise came during that first phone interview. My interviewer, Scott, was the head teacher and a very polite Canadian. When I asked him if the students were respectful and well-behaved, he paused, thought, took a breath, and replied: “No, not really.”
Teaching English in Korea has worked out well for me. It seems I finally found a line of work in which that BFA and theater background actually served me. Why is this? Because teaching in Korea is more about entertainment than anything else. Anyone who comes here to be a serious teacher is in for a rude awakening: the Korean ESL classroom is no place for pedagogy, at least on the part of us foreign imports. This is especially true at the private institutes, which make up the bulk of the employment opportunities. The kids come in the late afternoon and evening, after their regular classes. That’s right—school after school—so you can imagine how thrilled they must be.
Given this regimented schedule of nonstop study, it’s no wonder that the kids just want to have fun; if they do have fun, they are much more inclined to want to stay on at the school. And at the hagwon, student retention is the name of the game. The owners are much more concerned with the profit than with actual education, and having foreign teachers–especially ones who are shiny, young and white–is seen as good for the bottom line. The fickle mothers are much more apt to enroll their kids at the school with fresh-faced foreigners on the brochure and in the classroom. But the actual teaching and discipline are usually handled by the Korean staff. The foreigner ESL teachers are just expected to entertain the troops. Yes, they arm us with books and CD players, but in the end we are mascots more than anything else. If this truth is too inconvenient of a truth to swallow, then the gig may not be for you.
It must also be mentioned that everyone’s teaching experience hasn’t been rosy. There are plenty of stories of teachers being cheated out of pay, bonuses, and airfare by unscrupulous bosses. Some people have been unjustly fired right before their contract expires. The hagwon industry is still relatively unregulated; things are generally safe, but there are some sharks in the water, so it pays to really check out a place before taking a job.
Whereas teaching English takes a certain kind of person, so does living day to day in “The Land of the Morning Calm.” Despite my initial euphoria when making the leap onto the peninsula, I quickly found out that life here doesn’t agree with everyone. Korea is a small, mountainous country, with very little practical space for building. Stuff some 50 million people on such a tiny hunk of land, and you’ve got serious overcrowding. Whatever you want do or wherever you want to go, at least 10,000 people will have the exact same idea. This is not a great country for those seeking solitude. The cities are jam-packed with cars, buses, motorcycles, and human beings. Just walking through a market or taking the subway can be a Darwinian exercise in pushing, jostling, and throwing elbows—watch out—the grandmothers are deadly. Smoking is widespread, as is spitting in public. And despite the fact that they are some of the warmest folks you’ll ever meet in private, Koreans often publicly put their grumpiest faces forward, greeting the world with a tough, weary scowl.
Korean culture is 5,000 years old. Throughout that time it has managed to carve out not only a distinct identity, but a unique language and cuisine. But outsiders have not always done well by Korea–the country has been invaded, subjugated, and colonized on many occasions. The wounds from the Japanese occupation of the 20th century are still very raw, and it was two foreign powers, the USA and the USSR, who drew a line across the 38th parallel, dividing the nation to this day. As a result, Koreans have traditionally held a somewhat jaundiced view of foreigners. This periodically erupts in spasms of xenophobia, such as the anti-American demonstrations that swept the country in 2002 following the accidental killing of two school girls by an American army vehicle. But with the influx of foreign laborers, businesspeople, engineers and ESL teachers—not to mention the internet–the country has become much more globally-minded and multicultural over the past decade.
However incidents still occur: Multi-racial couples are at times harassed. Sensationalist media reports sometimes portray foreigners as immoral, decadent, and dirty, victimizing helpless Korean women. In 2006, some colleagues and I were arrested and interrogated after performing a sketch comedy show that satirized both us and some aspects of Korean culture. We were initially told that we were taken in over “visa violations”, but it soon became quite clear that the authorities were bent out of shape with the content of the show. All of us were eventually let off with a reprimand, but the point was made.
Korea is a hard drinking country. The booze culture is legendary, and downing large amounts of tipple is the pastime of choice for many an expat. It’s too easy to do. This place is like Disneyland for alcoholics. The bars are open all night: there’s literally no last call. Alcohol can be bought cheaply and most anywhere at any time. There are very few restrictions or sanctions to drinking here. Often you will be expected to attend nighttime work functions where drinking is pretty much required. To refuse a pour of soju will likely cause you to lose status in your boss’s eye. In fact, you can show up to work, reeking of drink, eyes bleary and bloodshot from the night before. Your boss will pull you aside and ask:
“Yesterday, many drinking?”
“Uh, yeah,” you’ll reply.
“Very good! Very good!” He’ll say, slapping your shoulder. In fact, you’re more likely to get that raise.
When I came to Korea, I planned on just staying for a year, but my quality of life received a massive upgrade, when, after a year of slogging it away at the hagwon, I managed to snag a full-time gig at a university, with its less demanding weekly schedule and massive vacation time. Since then I’ve been able seriously pursue my travel addiction, which was one of the reasons I came to Asia in the first place. I’ve been all over the region, including Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even New Zealand, visiting many of the countries on more than one occasion. Korea has served as a launch pad of sorts, fueling my love of travel, which has in turned fueled my love of writing, which has now blossomed into a part-time job. This I could never have predicted, but such is often the case with the more satisfying things in our lives.
My time in Korea has been among the happiest, despite the fact that it’s also been a period of great emotional tumult. My father passed away in 2008, with my mom following less than a year later. My parents were in declining health when I moved here in ’04, with both of their slides toward death hastening with each year. Being so far away was a kind of torture. My veins iced every time the phone buzzed; each of my brothers’ emails sat menacingly in my inbox—it got to where I was afraid to open them, since the news was always bad. The cocktail of anger, sadness and guilt burned a hole in my gut; I attempted to soothe it with booze, which only served to burn it further. But living and working here allowed me enough time and money to fly back home when I needed. I spent several good months with my parents while they still lived, and I made it home just in time to say goodbye before each of them slipped away. And now that they’re gone, I know that home isn’t a place, but rather something I take with me wherever I go.
It’s been eight years now and even though things are very familiar, I’m still sometimes surprised at the sublime weirdness of it all. Just yesterday I was coming out of the subway station near my home—a huge, state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar complex with free wifi, digital ticketing machines and LED monitors. There, just ten feet from the exit, on the sidewalk, was a ninety year-old woman selling three dead octopuses and a pile of tree bark. It was weird and I loved it for that.
So I am here now, in wonderful, weird Korea. This is my home and it will be for some time to come. I have friends and roots here. I have a beautiful Korean fiancé. I wrote a book on my experience that was published last year.
Sometimes I think about where else I could be or what else I could have done, but then I look around at my apartment, the buildings, the streets, the mountains, and the rocky outcroppings into the sea. I look around and know this is exactly where I want to be.
Chris Tharp has recently published a book “Dispatches From the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea”, which has been getting rave reviews. Check it out here: