363 days later...

Busan Travel Blog

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i wasn't sure i'd make it a whole year.  it's gone by so fast, so many ups and downs.  life here is easy: the work can be hard enough, but we all (english teachers) have so much free and idle time that the job is hardly my life; we can get by without learning the language; we make enough money to live more than comfortably while still managing to save for travels; housing is paid for, transportation and food are easy and cheap, and the people are more than willing to show you around.  you can get a 45-minute scrub at the local bathhouse for $15, phenomenal food for $3, and i can go hiking in the equivalent of my backyard for hours... but i've found that life here can be too easy.  i work hard to make english fun for my middle school boys, i work out, i read, i try to see what the city has to offer, i'm taking korean lessons, but i still feel like i haven't accomplished much.  i look back at the (almost) year i've been here, and it's gone by so fast.  i've learned a lot about myself and culture and life since i've come.  i'm here until the end of may, so i have enough time to satisfy whatever that unfulfilled something in me is....

the people here are so kind.  many koreans i've met are eager to find out what brought me here, where i'm from, what foods i like, what i have yet to see, and what they themselves can show me.  they are curious.  they are generous.  they are helpful.  i'm lucky to have a few coworkers who have shown me parts of busan and given me different foods i likely would never have seen or eaten had they not been generous with their time.  most of my coworkers greet me with a smile and a friendly 'ahh good morning, maggie!'.  my students do the same.  they are kind and welcoming and i always get a little rush when i walk into the classrooms of 35 middle school boys, who are still a little surprised that they have a foreign teacher in their classroom this very minute.  i've run into koreans at restaurants, bars, ice skating rinks, and on the street who just want to say hi, practice english, or show me a good restaurant... but for every kind korean who has shown me the positive side of korea, i've met one or two who have discouraged me or reminded me that living overseas can be a challenge.  not a bad ratio, no doubt, but there are days when it sends me straight to my computer to check for emails from my family... for example, i have a nutty coworker who does everything strictly for promotional purposes.  'i took maggie to lunch for my birthday' (because the other coworkers were busy),  'i took maggie to the beach and pool this weekend, look at these pictures!' (for the sole sake of showing the vice principal that she's doing overtime), and 'i invited maggie to lunch but she refused' (invitation never extended, but say what you'd like).  it doesn't sound bad, but i've never worked with someone who's constantly requiring me to second-guess her motives and actions.  she purposefully misleading and dishonest, telling me that certain weekend events/ conferences are compulsory when they're not, telling me that she's very busy when i need to ask her a pressing question, playing it off like she helped me with my lessons, and mincing words to improve her position and bring down mine (probably in that order).  i found out yesterday that the dates given to me for our long vacation were not correct, but when a coworker called the school to confirm for me, she was told to not tell me the dates we had off for fear that i would leave the country, thereby breaking my contract.  not a big deal (perspective, perspective!), but i can't stand being intentionally misled and lied to! 

the importance of business here is clear.  people and the economy are struggling, and whatever it takes to do well in your business, well, is necessary.  i understand that.  and i understand that i'm from a different country and therefore can't truly comprehend how deep some of the cultural differences are.  i also come from a country whose passport enables me to go nearly anywhere in the world.  my native tongue and TEFL certificate similarly enable me to find a job nearly anywhere on the globe.  so to me, sometimes i find it difficult to invest so much in a job that is only satisfactory.  but that's because my position here is temporary, as is my life here.  i think this is where problems come to the surface.  people are expected to miss family events for work dinners that are planned (or at least you're told about) at the last minute.  they are expected to go out and drink and spend loads of money on potential business clients, coming home in the wee hours of the morning during the week.  admriable, yes, that they can and will and do do this for the sake of their companies and jobs.  but so very different from what i'm used to!  family and private life, for me, has always come first in terms of temporal priorities.  if i can't make a company dinner 'because of family', then that's that.  no questions asked.  sorry you can't make it, maggie, hoepfully next time... koreans place family very high on their list of priorities, but it shows in different ways.  i suppose this is more economical than anything else, given that good jobs are so rare and difficult to find and hold that people have to do whatever it takes to maintain that position.  but i find it frustrating for me because i tend to view the weekends and afterschool hours as maggie time.  i can do what i want in my free time.  partly because of the language barrier but also due in part to cultural differences, when there is a dinner or event for school, i'm told that i must go.  'maggie teacher, you must go to dinner today after school with work.  all teachers will be there.'  i know i have to be more understanding about it, but i've had to cancel plans with friends numerous (though, admittedly, not that many) times because of dinners that had been planned weeks in advance but only told to me hours beforehand.  i've requested that i be told earlier, to no avail... i suppose the coldness that many koreans view this way of doign business becomes clear in the cultural contrast.  we in the west tend to separate completely work and private life.  this separation, as i know it, is very important and valuable.  when the clock strikes 5, i'm ready to go home and live my other life, but most at school stay after school to work, chat with other teachers, or go on outings with coworkers.  i'm just not in that boat...

anyway, i'm tired now and will write more later.  i'm not good at keeping up with these things, but as the countdown for my time in korea continues, i hope to post more about my thoughts and cultural observations i've made throughout the year.  i've learned a lot, and coming here was probably one of the best decisions i've ever made.  it's opened me up to new ways of looking at the world, communicating with people, and thinking about myself...

thanks for reading :)
waeguk says:
I have been working in Korea for over 6 years. Teaching is quite the job, but like you my time is coming to an end soon. For english teaching information please visit www.esldaily.org
Posted on: Jan 26, 2008
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Busan
photo by: yasuyo