Teaching: Where I Teach

As an EPIK teacher (the English Program in Korea) there is little you can do to request where you will teach. The process of placement can be a bit frustrating and nerve-wracking. However, you are able to request a general area of the country to be placed in when you apply, though that can place you in a 2 hour + area within a large city or in an agricultural province. In my situation, I requested to be placed in a very rural province called Jeollabuk-do (nicknamed Jeonbuk). Here is a map of South Korea that shows the country’s provinces:

Full Korea Map

Jeollabuk-do is a small  province that is mainly agricultural and has small cities in comparison to the very large metropolitan cites of Seoul, Daejeon and Busan (among others). Here is a smaller map showing the province of Jeollabuk-do:

jeollabuk do map

In the province of Jeollabuk-do there are a few medium-sized cites including Jeonju, Namwon and Iksan. These cities are not huge, with the largest being the capitol city of Jeonju at about 650,000 in population. While I live in Jeonju, I often spend my free time in Imsil or in Namwon, which are much smaller cites about 30-50 minutes away by bus and about 15-30 minutes away by train. One of the most rural areas in Jeollabuk-do is Wanju county, the county that I teach in.

In Wanju county I teach at two schools: Bongseo Elementary School and Dongsang Elementary School. These schools are more different than I could have imagined.

Bongseo Elementary School is a massive school that is expanding as we speak, in order to accommodate more students for the coming year. Even with its current size, it’s host to some 1,000 elementary students k-6, making it the largest elementary school in the Jeollabuk-do province.  At Bongseo I primarily teach 6th graders, 7 separate classes worth, each with about 30 students. I also teach one 5th grade class, as well as a class devoted to teaching my fellow Korean co-workers to improve their conversation skills and confidence when speaking english. Each class is so different! My students have such wild personalities and interests. It really is an adventure teaching so many different types of students. Here are a few pictures of Bongseo Elementary School:

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Dongsang Elementary School is almost the complete opposite of Bongseo. This school is tiny. I teach grades 3 through 6 here, but all together, the total number students I teach here is less than one of my classes at Bongseo. In fact, the whole school has less than 30 students (27 to be exact). Because of the small classes, each student gets more one-on-one attention. Grade 6 has four students, grade 5 has five students, grade 4 has ten (the largest grade in the school), and grade 3 has three students. This school is so small because it is nestled away in the mountains on the edge of a lake. It is overwhelmingly beautiful and peaceful, though the journey to get there takes about 2 hours by bus from Jeonju. Here are some pictures of Dongsang:

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I love where I am teaching. My students make the long days of travel well worth the time. Though it is difficult adjusting to a new culture, language, and job, I couldn’t have chosen better schools if the choice had been mine. I am constantly thankful for the kindness my students, co-teachers, and the people I encounter on my travels through the countryside. I am looking forward to the next year ahead and what new teaching and learning experiences it will bring!

Discovering Korea: Suncheon, Jeollanam-do in Fall

While out and about on an EPIK field trip with fellow GETs (Guest English Teachers) we were allowed to explore the natural beauty of Suncheon in Jeollanam-do. Known for its ecological park and Suncheon Bay gardens, its a perfect way to spend an autumn day.

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Chuseok – Hiking Mount Seorak and Around Sokcho

This past Chuseok, a Korean holiday similar to Thanksgiving in America, Rowdy and I went to Sokcho in the Gangwan-do Province. Sokcho is famed for its quaint town, morning sunrises, and beautiful natural surrounds. The sunrise over the ocean was breathtaking and the hiking was well worth the challenge. Needless to say, it was a wonderful place to spend a long holiday weekend.

We spent about 5 hours hiking one day and another 3 or 4 the next day. The only hitch in our weekend was that our legs were aching and, because of the holiday, most of the restaurants were closed for the duration of our stay. We did however, luck out with our accommodations in Sokcho.

We stayed at The House Hostel. It was centrally located, affordable, offered complementary simple breakfast fare, and the English speaking host was especially accommodating and helpful. The host even took time to sit down with us and a map to mark out our desired destinations in the city, as well as give us restaurant recommendations and bus routes. Oh, and I don’t want to forget to mention that there are free bikes to take out for the day! And a beautiful terrace, guest accessible kitchen, and coin laundry. I couldn’t recommend this place more!

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Random Acts of Kindness

Living in a foreign country can be tiring. You are constantly surrounded by foreign culture, language, food, people, and customs. Some new behaviors come naturally, while others take longer to learn. Though there are many differences in American and Korean life, there are a few things that I have found to be universal: food, laughter, and kindness.

I want to share two short experiences I’ve had so far that have really made me smile and feel good about my decision to move to Korea.

My first experience happened while waiting for the bus to arrive after school in the middle of no where (and when I say no where, I mean a 3 hour bus ride from the “big” city of Jeonju, to the tiny village of Dong Sang in the mountains on the edge of a lake). While waiting for the bus, a group of aujjima (old Korean women) who were sitting across the street from me beckoned me over to them with their polite “come here” wave. Knowing my bus wouldn’t arrive for another 15 minutes, and not wanting to appear rude, I went to where they were sitting and joined them. They offered me a fresh chestnut from their shared afternoon snack and I proceeded to remove the shell to the best of my ability, which is unfortunately very low. Seeing my struggle, one of the women used a knife and peeled a chestnut for me. All the while, the rest of the women in the circle bombarded me with questions in Korean. I have close to no idea what they were asking me, even with their attempts at hand gestures to get their point across. So, I used what Korean I could and told them I was an English teacher that lived in Jeonju. They smiled at me warmly at my attempt to communicate with them. As the bus approached, they all got up and helped me flag down the bus driver so that he didn’t leave without me. In Korea, aujjimas are known as a force to be reckoned with, but their hospitality and kindness to me made me feel welcome, even as an outsider. Something as simple as sharing their afternoon snack with me bridged a gap between us when our language failed us.

My second experience happened in Jeonju. Buses in the city tend to get very full and cramped, so if you have the opportunity to get a seat, it is a big deal. On this occasion, I had with me my backpack on my back, full to the brim with books, my computer, a few changes of clothes and necessities for the weekend. I had everything prepared for a weekend away. Needless to say, my backpack was full and heavy. Luckily, I got on the bus when it was moderately empty and I was able to get a seat. As the bus started to fill up, more people crammed in and the seats were limited.

It would be good to mention that Koreans, as a whole, are generally very respectful to their elders, especially on the buses. It is customary that a seat on the bus should be given to someone older than you. Unfortunately, many other young Koreans in Jeonju tend to ignore this unspoken rule on buses and stay seated even when an old man or woman is hanging on the rails around sharp turns, all the while the young Korean is texting or playing a game on their phone. Personally, I choose to represent myself and the foreign community as best I can by following Korean customs whenever possible.

So, as the bus started to get busy, I got up from my seat and allowed an older man to sit down. At first, he insisted that I keep my seat because of my heavy bag, but I thought giving him my seat was the right thing to do. After a 15 minute bus ride, I was able to get another seat as the bus emptied a bit more. Just a few stops before my exit, the older man that I gave my seat to got up, and started to look around the bus for what I now know was me. He finally located me in the back of the bus, came up to me and said sweetly in English, “Thank you for your kindness” and got off the bus to wherever he was going.

It may have been a simple gesture to say thank you, but it was something that touched my heart. In an ever changing nation like Korea, common pleasantries and customs of the past are moving to the wayside. Korea’s growing, busy, globalized lifestyle, sometimes called “bali bali” lifestyle, is much different than traditional Korean culture. Sure, there are some cultural and social norms that are constant, but the little things that make Korea unique seem to be less important to the younger generation than they are to the older generation. It seems that we can see that trend away from more traditional, respectful culture in many countries, not just Korea.

I think these two experiences have left an impression on me and my short time in Korea. Sure, it is easy to live the “bali bali” lifestyle, always being on your cell phone, not taking care to help others, or chat with someone you’ve just met, but I think there is something precious about taking time to go the extra mile and be truly kind to people. You never know how your small kindnesses will affect someone else, and I think it feels good to not always take the short cuts in life.

O.K: Extra Large Teddy Bear, Only in Korea…

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While on a walk around Imsil, I came across this giant teddy bear. It was sitting near the trash area and had a sign taped to its forehead. I’m sure there is some simple explanation written on the note that was taped to it like “Please forgive this huge inconvenience Mr.Trash Man, but we’re moving and can’t take this big teddy bear with us”, but since I can’t read the note, I found myself making up all kinds of weird scenarios to make sense of the weirdness.

I imagine some love-sick boy giving this teddy bear to their girlfriend and the girl’s family just waiting until they could throw that thing away. It looked decently heavy… I can picture some heartbroken girl dragging this huge, heavy bear down the stairs and into the elevator after a bad breakup.

Seeing this also raised a bunch of questions for me as a foreigner in Korea. I have often wondered where and how you can discard unwanted items. Can you really put huge items like that near the trash cans and recycling centers with the hope that someone will discard it for you? But really… who thought it would be a good idea to own this big of a teddy bear in the first place? Where did they keep that thing in a small Korean apartment? How did they get it upstairs/downstairs? Why does anyone need a super sized teddy bear? This was definitely one of those weird things that you don’t expect, but seem totally normal when you see them in Korea.