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November 20, 2002

Travelers' Tales - Ten Weeks in South Korea

Sandra Schwab

(This is a series on the adventures and mishaps that befall writers and educators on their travels. We would love to hear your story, too. We will publish the best in this column. Submit your story using our Contact Form.)

Greetings -- after reading Chuck Sandy's tale in Colombia I was inspired to share my experience in Seoul. I was so excited to be accepted to teach English at the English Children's Center (ECC) in Mok Dong, Seoul, South Korea. I had my telephone interview in June, 1998 with a woman with a decidedly English (as in England) accent. At the conclusion of the talk she said it would be just a few days for an answer.

I had previously submitted enough paperwork to document a building with a well-run governmental building permits department. I had applied through the JET program for Japan and was turned down -- my paranoia kicked in and I concluded it was my age. I knew I wanted the Asian teaching opportunity, having graded several thousand tenth grade English language writing examinations with many former overseas teachers a few summers previously -- if they can do it so can I! A credential in education was not required. With my bachelor of science, a year of law school and five years of subbing I could travel the seas along with everyone else!

I was accepted. During the telephone interview the nature of my current reading material was discussed -- "oh yes, Conversations with God", "How to Negotiate Everything..." (written by a lawyer). The interviewer learned I was vegetarian, a non-smoker. Off to get the visa from the Korean embassy in Chicago.

And on July 24, 1998 away I went with my computer, shearling winter coat, answering machine, pretty dresses for class, presents for my new supervisor, wonderful plastic-covered placemats showing maps and flags of the world. A copy of 'Simple Abundance' presented to me by my Wednesday morning 6:00 a.m. women's book group, which I had been attending for over five years. An additional $600 in shipping charges to cover all those extras for my year's teaching contract.

When I arrived, it was 3 hours before my supervisor and her supervisor found me. They had been looking for me. I looked different than my photo. Ah, they seemed embarrassed. But I was having a blast. Never had I seen anything like the Kimpo International Airport. Well maybe the Bahamas. So barren and void of pretty trinket shops, fattening American food. And guards with guns. Whoah! My poor administrator had a time getting all of my luggage into his small Korean car.

Later that day we had a Korean lunch with a fish with the entire head, kimchi, and other Korean delicacies -- the men all sat at one table and I sat with my Korean supervisor, a student and her mother. Beautiful, delicate, small-boned women who were so demure. None of this women's lib stuff here. These women were so shy.

My experiences quickly turned to nightmares when the "I'm a good teacher" checklist left on the table in the teacher's workroom was covered by a list of horror stories from Western women teaching in Korea. My wallet, taken from my backpack which had been sitting on my chair behind my desk, was found on the floor of my classroom by a student and given to a fellow Canadian teacher who said nothing like that had ever happened at the school before. When I told my Korean supervisor she accusingly said "this has never happened here before" like it was my fault.

My girlfriend sent my bicycle to me for my birthday August 9. On August 7 it arrived into the country and UPS phoned me at my school. When I arrived at the UPS office at the airport to claim my 12 speed, the UPS employee said I had to surrender my passport in order to get my bike. Not knowing one never ever gives up their passport I gave it to this little man. Luckily, I had made friends with an employee at the USO on the Youngsan Military Base in Itaewon. She had her Korean assistant get on the phone to yell at the UPS employee to get my passport. After 3 days, the passport was available to me at the Criminal Division of Kimpo International Airport. Imagine my dismay.

On another occasion I was teaching English to the five-year olds. The Korean teacher using the tape player immediately before my class had no trouble with the unit. When I turned on the unit it would not work and sparks flew from the plug leading me to conclude that it had been tampered with to my detriment. I had to break my anonymity with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with a Korean teacher because I needed her aid to locate an English speaking meeting. She said "I have never met anyone with that problem before."

I felt so alienated and isolated. One evening, I found 5 pairs of black boots in my apartment, a 'Conversations with God' book, a book on recovery, a vegetarian cookbook, a book on negotiating, Korean language tapes -- all items reflecting me.

A Korean teacher accompanied me to the National Museum. While in a lunchline in the museum cafeteria, I turned and behind me was a Korean male with a cut on his head -- which had been bleeding. He said he incurred the cut while drinking. The cut also was coincidentally in the same spot I had cut my head during a drinking accident. Smiling, I said to him "we wouldn't see a hung-over person at a museum in America. Good luck."

He immediately left the line and later, when my colleague and I were seated eating lunch, he reappeared and left a striped, brightly colored bag and a gaily wrapped box of five celedon ducks. (Celedon is a national pottery for the country and the duck represents life/luck). The striped bag also represented good luck. There were five Korean teachers and five native English speakers at my school. Could there be a connection? My friend/colleague didn't think it odd that he appeared. I found the exchange very odd and unsettling.

The Korean children were so dear. Eager, quick learners. Hard workers. The adults were wonderful -- kind, sweet, intelligent, hard-working. Twelve million people hustling and bustling around a city with expensive, 5 star high-rise hotels, yogwons (like motels) in the middle of the city, men pulling carts with hats from the '30s on their heads, running along the street next to the big Mercedes-looking Korean cars. Street vendors with Korean food all about. On Friday nights little stands would pop up all over Mok Dong and sell their food wares. A park where all the residents walked nightly and another park where the Korean males would play soccer in pouring down rain.

Culture shock? Irrational fear? Whatever, my teaching experience lasted only ten weeks. I was very glad when the Delta plane landed in Portland, Oregon on September 30 minus my computer, shearling winter coat and bicycle. I was back on soil where things made a little more sense. Will I venture off again? I hope so!

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