The day finally came. The night before, I slept not a wink – tossing and turning in the Gatwick hotel room I’d booked. I’d said I wasn’t nervous, but my body was clearly telling me otherwise. On the morning of February 17th, I woke up long before my alarm, rubbed my blurry eyes, and told myself it had finally arrived. I was going to Korea. Problem was, it would take nearly a day and a half’s travel to get there.
My journey was London > Amsterdam > Doha > Seoul > Busan. A mammoth journey, on a minimal amount of sleep. I touched down in Busan 30 hours later, adrenaline coursing through my veins – even though I was exhausted, I was buzzing. That night, in the hotel I stayed at, I couldn’t sleep again. My roommate, luckily, was exactly the same. We chatted through the early hours of the morning, ready to start the next leg of our overwhelming journey.
We are here to teach English with the EPIK program. It places native teachers in schools across Korea in an effort to get kids in touch with real, native speakers of English. We had all come from around the globe to be a part of this. We, however, would not just be sent into schools willy-nilly – first there was an 8-day orientation to attend. During orientation, the English Program in Korea would be giving us thorough lectures on culture, teaching, tips and tricks, and the Korean language.
Busan University of Foreign Studies was the setting for our training period – a beautiful, modern campus in glorious mountain surroundings. We shared a dorm room for the 8 day period – I was lucky with my roommate. I don’t know how many others were! The first day on campus, we were all still exhausted but immediately went out to explore what the neighbourhood had to offer. Korea in the daytime, I have to say, is not the world’s most beautiful of places: but this is understandable when you think of what Korea was like almost half a century ago. The country was destroyed by the war, and Japanese occupation. The Korea that you see today is fresh and new – there is hardly anything that was still standing at the end of the war. Bear this in mind when visiting Korea. It makes everything they have accomplished that much more incredible. Suddenly, the streets you walk don’t seem so ugly.
Orientation was a series of lectures and classes designed to help us as EPIK teachers – there were people from all walks of life. Some people had taught before, others had little to no experience, and some were simply wishing to try the program out as a way to experience a new culture. Whatever we were there for, we all bonded and slipped into friendships quickly, much like at university. When everyone is new to a situation they use it to bring them closer. Eight days with perfect strangers might be scary to some (myself included – I’m not too good meeting new people), but in this new country it was easy, unforced, and definitely a lot of fun.
We also had to undergo a medical test (again, ridiculously early in the morning – sensing a pattern here?), which none of us were all too happy with, but was over rather quickly. We were weighed, measured, x-rayed, and tested on our eyesight – and last but not least, blood and urine samples were taken. Though not together. Our results would be given to us within a few days…all was well!
Lectures were broken up by a field trip out to Haeundae beach – where skyscrapers tower over the seafront, glistening in the sunshine. A flat in one of these is said to cost billions of won – meaning they don’t come cheap. For a pure, unadulterated view over the East Sea, and practically all of Busan, it might be worth it. The design of these buildings was also striking, compared to the uniform high rises seen all over the city. Barcelona is a hectic mess of old and new, closely crammed in together. It is beautiful because of this, a complete mesh of architecture. Korean housing simply shoots up into the air, and doesn’t do much more than that visually. Looking out over Busan, many districts seem to be a repetition of the same photograph – blocks upon blocks of flats have everything in common.
Our day out was brought to a close by a visit to the UN Peace Park. This is a memorial to those who fought from the UN in the Korean War. I haven’t studied too much about the war, and thus was interested in learning more about it. There is, however, not too much information given at the memorial park. I was met, unexpectedly, with a wave of emotion. A wall of all the US soldiers who died in the Korean War snaked around a pretty pond. Columns and columns of names went on and on, making eyes smart in realisation of just how many people lost their lives in this terrible conflict. Names from all over the globe were engraved there, and we were all shocked into silence as the list simply became a blur – too many names to take in. Over 30,000 US soldiers lost their lives, and over 1,000 British. The UN memorial is home to 837 of our British soldiers’ graves – more than any other nationality buried there. It is a quiet, contemplative place, where I hope they have found peace.
The rest of the week rolled on with further lectures, classes, and information. Visiting lecturers came, talking about Korean culture, engaging us with funny stories, and teaching us how to deal with alien concepts such as co-teaching, which is the widely used format over the EPIK program. In all, it was a tiring, but informative week, that I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience. Being thrown in at the deep end would certainly have been difficult to deal with – a new school, new apartment, and new life all at once might make anybody consider returning to their old life.
Then, finally, the day came where we were to leave orientation and meet our new co-workers: our co-teachers, in fact. Nervously waiting with our luggage, one by one teachers came out with signs, calling out our names (or how they thought our names might be pronounced). Finally, after an agonising half an hour or so – two voices piped up with my own. My co-teachers loaded my very heavy luggage into the car, knees buckling under the weight, and drove me across town to my new flat. My eyes were as big as saucers as I looked out over the city hustle and bustle – being confined to the university meant we hadn’t seen much of Busan life yet. It was just as you might expect Asia to be: terrible driving, hundreds of people crossing the road in all directions at once, and rows of tall buildings with bright, beaming lights. I was attracted to them immediately – like a moth to the flame.
The teachers chit-chatted away to each other in Korean, and asked me some questions. After some nervous laughter we began to talk a little more, and I learned small things about them, the area I would be in, and what kind of food I should try. As we drew up to my apartment block, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The flat inside was a pleasant surprise – quite large (we’d been told flats were a mixed bag), with a double bed, separate kitchen, and plenty of storage space. Underfloor heating is a complete revolution for me and I doubt I will want to give that up at the end of the year. Now, decorated and cleaned, my flat feels very homely. I’m very pleased with my lot.
The area I live in is called Dongnae, and I explored it at once. It’s very busy, due to it being right opposite the local market, and I loved it right off the bat. So many sights, sounds and smells were there to take in. Ahjummas sitting at the side of the road, selling all sorts, from kelp to ginseng, from sea slugs to hotteok – a hot Korean pancake stuffed with a cinnamon syrup filling. Navigating the Megamart (the local hypermarket) was a stress-inducing experience. Too polite to simply barge through the aisles with my trolley, I spent most of my time waiting for a gap in the throng, weaving in and out late-night Friday shoppers, getting everything but the kitchen sink.
I’m still finding my feet here, but I’m getting used to the idea of living in Korea. It still isn’t as real as I expected it to be, and I’m sure the culture shock and homesickness will set in soon – but until then, I’m going to enjoy strolling around the food stalls, singing my heart out at the noraeban (karaoke bar – yep, Korea loves them too), trying not to buy everything that has a cute face painted on it (even sponges do), and assuring the restaurant staff that spicy is absolutely fine, thank you. Korea, so far, is everything I ever hoped it to be!