“You’re doing what?”
“Moving to Korea!”
“I’m bored here, I need to shake up my life and try something new. Besides, you remember Amy from the Eastern Philosophy class we took in 4th year? I ran into her a couple of weeks ago and we had coffee and caught up with everything that’s happened since we graduated from university. Talking to her put the idea in my head.”
“She went to Korea to teach English a couple of years ago and loved it. It made me think about what I was doing, and how my job and life were kinda getting bah. Besides, I haven’t travelled anywhere or had a new adventure in ages! So I contacted the recruiting agency that Amy recommended, they sent me some job offers and I accepted one of them yesterday. I’m moving to Seoul at the end of the month!”
“And you’re just telling me now! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I think I was afraid that you might try and talk me out of it. Ever since Eric and I broke up six months ago I’ve been at loose ends and we don’t see each other as much anymore now that you’re married. There’s really nothing keeping me in Toronto. I need some fun and excitement in my life. Besides, I miss the tutoring I did in university so teaching will be fun.”
“Okay, okay… I’m happy for you. You certainly seem excited about it! And you’ve been so quiet recently so maybe this is just what you need. How long will you be gone?”
“A year at least, that’s how long I just signed my contract for. But who knows maybe I’ll fall in love and stay.”
“Don’t say that!”
“What? You don’t want me to fall in love?” she said laughing.
“Of course I want you to fall in love! Just not with someone on the other side of the world. Damn it Mandy, you’re my best friend; you have to come home!”
“Don’t worry, I will. What are the chances of me falling in love in Korea?”
Flying to another country is comforting in some ways – airports are generally so similar – so my first impression of Seoul, or rather of Incheon International airport, was that things in Seoul weren’t so different. Walking through the hallways on the way to customs and the baggage claim area, I could have been at pretty much any major airport in the world. I always find it vaguely funny that no matter which airport I’m at, I always get to the baggage carousel before my bag. That little bit of familiarity was a comforting start for my adventure.
But man, was I about to be proven wrong about things not being different. Luckily though, as soon as I exited customs I saw a sign with my name, Mandy. Oh, I just realized we haven’t met and I’m about to tell you all about my adventures in love in the land of morning calm, better known as South Korea – I’m Mandy! The past year has been such a roller coaster that I just need to tell someone all about it. An exciting, sad but ultimately wonderful roller coaster! See that handsome guy over there, that’s… oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Where was I? Oh right, I’d just cleared customs and saw my name on a sign. Thankfully the recruiter I used to find my teaching job in Korea offered to meet me at the airport.
“Hi! I’m Mandy Hampton.”
“Anyounghaseyo! Hello, I’m Minji Kim from KoreaStar Recruiting. Welcome to Korea!”
“Thanks! Ko-map-sam-ni-da. Did I say that right?
“Yes! You can speak Korean?” Minji said as she smiled and starting leading me outside.
“No, not really. But I once I decided to come to Korea to teach English, I bought a book to learn Hangul and some of the basics. I would love to learn more though,” I replied while following her to a small car.
“It’s good that you are learning some Korean, many foreign teachers don’t. Your time in Korea will be easier.”
“I’m really looking forward to it!” I replied as we started to drive into the heart of Seoul.
I was starting to get really excited. Everywhere I looked the signs and billboards were in Korean. I really was in a different country. This was just what I needed to shake up my life and have fun again. It was going to be an adventure! I was staring out the window of the car at everything, trying to take it all in. The airport might have been familiar ground but looking out the window, I realized that Korea was different. It was going to be a fabulous adventure exploring it. My first impressions were of city, cars, people and red crosses. It was all so busy!
“We have about a 30 minute drive so would you like me to tell you a little about the area you’ll be living in and your new workplace?” Minji asked.
“Yes, please. That would be very helpful. I read all the stuff you sent but would love to know more.”
“Okay. Seoul is made up of major districts and you’ll be living and working in the district of Songpa-gu. Gu means district. Each district is made up of different neighbourhoods, smaller areas, and you’ll be in Bangi-dong. Dong means neighbourhood.” Minji started to explain, “Don’t worry; you are in a nice area. It’s close to Olympic Park and Lotte World.”
“Sounds good!” I replied, thinking I already had a couple of places to explore.
“Your work, the academy you will be teaching at, is a medium-sized one. There are five native speakers; two foreign teachers and three Kyopos there.”
“What’s a Kyopo?” I asked.
“A Kyopo is a Korean born in a foreign country.”
“Oh, like a Korean-American?”
“Yes. So it will be easy for you to make friends. You’ll be teaching from 3:00pm to 10:00pm with an hour of prep time each day so you need to be at the academy at 2:00pm”
“No problem. I’m really looking forward to teaching! I used to do a lot of tutoring in university and miss it.”
“That’s good. Here we are. I’ll take you in to meet your academy director and then to your apartment.”
“Okay,” I replied as I thought ‘Oh crap, I look horrible after traveling for almost 20 hours. Hope he understands that I won’t wear yoga pants to work!?’
We got out the car and it’s all I could do not to stare at everything around me like a tourist. Oh wait; I was kind of a tourist even though I would be living here for a year. Everything’s so different. It’s perfect! But wow, are there ever a lot of people and it’s the middle of the afternoon. Seoul seemed so alive and vibrant. Not only did it seem like there were a lot more people but the business signs were so bright and colourful.
The academy was in what looks like an office building and we walked up to the second floor. After walking through glass doors we stopped at a reception desk and Minji spoke to the receptionist. Knowing I’m too tired to follow the conversation even if I could understand all the Korean, I look around. The academy strangely looked like the prosperous child of an office building and a school, at least from the reception area.
“Hi!” a girl about my age says, breaking into my thoughts. “You must be Mandy, right? I’m Emma. I’m also from Canada and can help show you around if you like?” Which just goes to show that first impressions are always right as I thought she was Korean until she spoke, I thought to myself.
“Hi.” I reply “Yeah, that’s me. It’s nice to meet you and yeah, I’ll definitely take you up on your offer. Once all the shiny newness has worn off, it will be nice to have a friend who knows the ropes… and where the grocery store is.”
Emma laughs, “Very true! Is this your first time to Korea?”
“Can’t you tell? I feel like I totally stand out because all I want to do is stare at everything. It’s all so cool. What about you? How long have you been here?”
“I’ve just started my second year at the academy but I’ve visited Korea a few times before. My grandmother still lives here, although most of my family now lives in Toronto. So if you have any cultural questions, feel free to ask! Where are you from… oh, here comes Director Kim. We can talk more later!”
“Hello, you must be Mandy. I’m Director Kim, NA International School’s principal. I see you’ve already met Emma, she’s one of our best teachers and can show you around on Monday when you start. I know you must be tired so I’ll let Minji Kim take you to your apartment. Here are your keys. Everything is all ready for you there. Oh, normally your workday will start at 2:00pm but please be here at 10:00am on Monday for your orientation. You’ll shadow James, the teacher you are replacing, for the first week but I want to go over a few things with you first,” Director Kim said.
He was a middle-aged man who surprisingly spoke like a native speaker. Hmm, perhaps my preconceptions about life here are wrong I thought as Minji ushered me outside and back into the car. All the excitement was starting to wear down and I was getting tired. But I couldn’t wait to see my new place. I’d looked at pictures, of course, but you can never be sure. We drove a short distance, maybe eight or ten blocks, and Minji pulled the car in front of a five-story building.
“Welcome to your new home!” she said as she got out of the car and grabbed one of my suitcases. “Your apartment is on the third floor so I’ll help you carry your bags.”
We walked up the stairs and she stopped in front of a door which said “3D”. Cool, I thought, at least I won’t be living in 2D and then cringed at my corny attempt at a joke. Man, I must be tired. We walked in and it actually looked just like the pictures Minji had sent me. One main room which was to be my bedroom/living room, a bathroom, a small sunroom that doubled as a laundry room as there was a washing machine in it, and a small kitchen that was divided from the main room by a partial wall. I already knew to expect no oven in the kitchen, as there was just a two-burner stove but the bathroom might take a little getting used to as it was the most unusual of all the rooms. There was no bathtub or shower stall, it appeared like the entire room was the shower. At least the toilet looked normal. The best part of the apartment was it was clean and new looking. Okay, actually the best part was the walls were a lovely light violet but clean was good too!
“I’ll let you get settled. Here’s my card. Call me if you have any questions. But don’t worry, NA is a good academy. I’ve placed four teachers there, including Emma and your friend Amy, and no one’s had any problems with the academy or Director Kim.” Minji said as she shook my hand and prepared to leave.
“Thanks for everything, especially picking me up at the airport.” I replied. “And don’t worry; I’m sure I’ll be fine!”
And so my Korean adventure began!