I moved to Korea in 2003. I was living in Toronto and had just finished writing a book about travelling around Europe after university. I had a beautiful apartment on the top floor of an old house near High Park. And I had a girlfriend (or somewhat of a girlfriend – she had moved up north to go to college and we knew that things between us weren’t permanent).
I was working at my old high school friend’s restaurant on King Street (right downtown). I served soul food while listening to Funk and R&B bands play live. It was fun.
But, one afternoon, while out on the patio, my old high school friend’s friend came to visit. I had met him before, so I fell into easy conversation with him. He had told me that he had just come back from Korea. He had been teaching there. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know that such a thing as teaching abroad was even possible.
He assured me it was. That he had been teaching English at a school for a year. That they had flown him there and back and had given him a place to stay, on top of a pretty good monthly salary.
I asked him how he found the job. He gave me a website. Three weeks later, I was in Korea.
It really did happen that fast. I had put out three resumes: one to a school in Japan, another in Taiwan, and the third in Korea.
I don’t remember if I received a response from the school in Japan. The one in Taiwan appreciated my interest and told me to check out their website and contact them for an interview. The Korean school was a lot simpler: “Great,” the email read, “Let’s talk soon so I can send you your tickets.” Honestly, it was that fast.
I suppose I should have been a bit more suspicious. I was looking for a job abroad and had been seemingly hired with nothing more than a Honours degree in Sociology and a lot of waitering experience. I did also have to send them a photo of myself, which I now know had more to do with anything on my resume. They wanted “Western” looking people, born in Canada or the U.S. That was all.
(I’m not going to get into the whole idea of what a “Western” looking person is. I know that there are thousands of different types of us, all shapes, sizes and colours. But, in Korea, that understanding wasn’t as broad. At least, not at the time. I know it has changed a lot since.)
I thought about it for around seven seconds, then sent my response: “Great! I look forward to speaking with you.” It was the easiest of the choices I had in front of me. It was also the most direct: I had the job, they would fly me out. Done.
My family was supportive (although probably a little bit scared). My girlfriend was supportive too (she always knew that I wanted to keep travelling). I told my boss (a.k.a. my old high school friend) and gave him two weeks notice. My landlord was fine with it too.
I didn’t prepare much for it. I figured I could buy a lot of what I needed there (which turned out not to be true). Everything I took fit into one big backpack and one small one.
I don’t remember the flight or how I felt on it. I don’t even remember who dropped me off at the airport. I’m assuming my mother did. She always picks me up and drops me off, even now (Thanks, mom!). But I really have no recollection of any of it. All I remember is arriving in Incheon in the middle of the night, grabbing a taxi with a Korean woman who spoke no English, and being driven to the Domestic Flights Airport, where I had to wait for my flight to Yeosu.
Yeosu was the name of the city I was going to. It was in the far south. Population around 700,000 people (which, I was soon to find out, means a SMALL TOWN in Korea).
I knew nothing else about it. Aside from a quick internet search, I simply didn’t care. I was going to live there. I would find out all I needed to know soon enough.
I arrived at the Yeosu airport and was picked up by the foreign teacher I was going to replace. I had been told that I could have the weekend to relax, get used to my surroundings, and adjust to the time difference (it was 12 hours difference). I was taken to a hotel to do so.
By the afternoon, I was in the classroom, meeting my new students.
The director of the school had thought it was better for Blair (the teacher I was replacing) to introduce me to the kids. It didn’t matter that I could barely stand from exhaustion. It was fine that my mind was swimming in confusion. I just had to stand there and say “hi”. Which is what I did.
I only stayed in Yeosu six months of my year-long contract. My director had said that they didn’t have enough money to keep paying me. Personally, I think it was because they had hired a Korean teacher who had lived in the States so they were pawning him off as the “foreign” teacher while paying him Korean wages (which, unfortunately, was a lot less that us “Westerners” made). But I wasn’t too upset about it. I hadn’t been enjoying my time in Yeosu as much as I had hoped. I’ll save that story for another time.
For now, all I wanted to let you know was that, in 2003, I jumped on a plane and moved to Korea with nothing more than three weeks preparation. It was a move that shaped the next twelve years of my life. It’s what made me who I am today. And I’m more than glad that I did it.