A doorway to Korea

Three years ago I was broke and unemployed, bereft of options and battling burnout and uncertainty. I had lost my job, and after a decade and a half of impeccable performance I was surrounded by the wrong people, in the wrong place, doing the wrong work. Even writing, a staple of sanity through years of transitions and travel, had abandoned me. It's taken this long to simply sit at a computer again.  

Compare that to tonight, sitting at an upscale café with a window view of the river and a cappuccino in my cup, and a lot has changed. It's alright.   

Korea's alright, but it isn't about passion or dreams. It's pragmatics. Teaching here provides decent pay, accommodation, and airfare to and from home. Add to that a government matched pension, severance pay and, if you are in the public system, ample vacation time, and the basics of living are covered pretty well.

I've never been so bored in my fucking life.

And I’m not alone. Having settled here, the biggest question for almost everyone is how long to stick it out. No amount of initial research reveals anything beyond the above mentioned perks and long trail of asinine rationalizations from teachers trying to convince themselves foremost, and their readers second, of the transformative experience Korea gave them. Underline "had" as most of this drivel is written post-exit after a rapid departure once their first year is complete.

Korea is not transformative. It's not even terribly exotic. It provides the basic necessities within a cauldron of pervasive, and mostly unacknowledged, dynamics that dominate every facet of both work and leisure time. Some are good, some aren't, but collectively they are the most important factors in living here.  

First, the language. You are not going to learn it. Put the thought right out of your mind because it isn't going to happen. I have met exactly one foreigner who is fluent, and it's only because he stayed on and married. Beyond this outlier nobody comes close, not even those who have spent a decade here. The learning infrastructure is lacking, source materials are conflicting and inconsistent, and the nature of the language itself is ambiguous. Experiences dealing in Korean are baffling beyond expectation.

During my first month, a Korean coworker tried to help me find a gym. She researched several options, made phone calls, and gave me a printed map with locations and prices. There were four options and none of them were an actual gym. I got spas, medical rehabilitation centres and martial arts dojos, but nothing with a squat rack and elliptical trainer. I've been handed two cafe mochas after ordering a single cappuccino. A friend was given a case of bananas after asking for a single fruit. Blueberry muffins become blueberry shakes. It happens all the time, even when your Korean is perfect. Even pointing and counting will fail.

Learn the alphabet, figure out basic transactions and courtesies, and forget about the rest. It's not worth the guilt or the angst.

Cultural friction is unavoidable in travel. In Korea, a major challenge is that culture dictates expectations above personal needs and all common sense. The result is that Koreans are the most ego isolated people I've ever dealt with. My high school boys are in class until 10pm and attend school on Saturdays. Adults work long hours too, and while Korean culture gains praise for fostering hard work and education, in practical terms it's a false front. The human body cannot work continuously for 12 to 16 hours a day, so school life becomes an environment of sanctioned narcolepsy. People fall asleep all the time, at desks, in their offices, or after retreating to the nurse's room. When not nodding off, younger teachers would rather be playing on their phones. Productivity comes second to appearance, and after fulfilling their responsibility people want to be left alone. I can't blame them.

The students, more than anything, need time off. They need sleep. They need to play. They need to be kids. And because they have no chance to do this after school and on weekends, English class becomes a haven for acting out. Classes can easily become a den of rambunctiousness where students do not listen, talk incessantly in Korean, and jump out from their seats to hug or hit classmates across the room.

My classes run smoothly, credit for which can go to being a giant white guy of forty years of age. That helps, but far less so than having a committed strategy for classroom management and discipline. Your life will be miserable without these tools.

Your life will be miserable, but few will talk about it. That is the single biggest challenge of Korean life - the foreigner community leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the safety of the country and the stability of the work, most people teaching here are scared. Maybe it's the cultural barriers. Maybe it’s the brutal economy back home, which left few options aside from moving to the far side of the globe to make a decent living. Maybe it's the uncertainty of leaving behind friends and loved ones for an indeterminate exile. Whatever the bones of it, it exists. You can almost smell it. Foreigners pass each other on the streets looking like they've been caught fucking their own mothers – an improbable mixture of terror, avoidance, and sheltered motives. As a whole, foreigners adopt a retarded version of Korean face, a front of pretend competency and happiness despite the pervasive challenges that are common to all. It makes most relationships fleeting and insincere. I'm fortunate enough to have a couple of good friends here. The rest of my joy comes through chance encounters with locals.

My perspective can read like an indictment, but it's nothing of the sort. Korea is nation of kind- hearted people. The streets are safe and almost entirely free of mischief, let alone crime. For the well-organized and prepared English teacher, work is easy and undemanding. That said, it's important to accept things for what they are. As I recently told a colleague over drinks, "The thing is the thing".  

Korea is a doorway, not a destination. Those were my words as I climbed on an airplane a year ago, and they remain true at the start of my second year. If you don't accept that, the country becomes a prison for the cowardly, for those who want perks without risk. The frustration of foreigners is the deficit of their own agency. Why leave if the basics are covered?

You leave because that type of certainty is the death of the soul.

Korea is not transformative, it's not epic, it’s not dangerous or threatening. It is a fair opportunity afforded by a hard working and hopeful people. The intelligent traveler accepts this and leaves their students what value they have to offer. The ingrate runs home or settles into a state of permanent exile, slowly fading under the weight of a self-created story that no one will buy.

It's easy knowing your entry point to Korea. It's mostly provided. The art is in creating an exit.