365 days ago I stepped off a plane, tired (I don’t think I had slept in 30+ hours), excited, hopeful, nervous, and just wishing that I had made the right decision. At the time, a year seemed like a long time. I had never been away from home that long, and even though I had always wanted to travel and live abroad, it was still a pretty daunting thought knowing that when I landed, I was alone. I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t speak the native language, and even though I had watched a ton of Youtube videos and read a ton of articles, I still felt like, for some reason, I was unprepared. I was obviously excited though, just ask any of the friends I hung out with before I left. I felt like I was making the right decision, but obviously there’s always going to be the “what ifs”.
Thankfully, my gut was right. Korea has been absolutely amazing, easily the best and most exciting year of my life so far. I’ve started to learn a new language (although progress has definitely slowed these past 6 months, unfortunately there’s not really any language exchange groups in Dongtan like there was in Jeonju), I’ve eaten (and tried) food that I had never heard of a year and a half ago (I was forced to try Silkworm Larva (번데기) a couple weeks ago – the texture is terrible and I pretty much immediately spit it out (I got some Soju out of it though, so I guess it wasn’t too bad) – many of which I’ve come to love (Dakgalbi (닭갈비), whenever I return to the America, I will miss you). I’ve met friends from all over the world – from Canada to Ireland to England to South Africa to Palestine and, of course, Korea. I might have grown up in what is now one of themost ethnically diverse city in the US, but I feel like I’ve certainly been exposed to a lot more variety of people here.
Some of my favorite memories from this past year have been:
- Noraebang Nights – I definitely haven’t gone to Noraebangs nearly as much in these past 6 months as I did the first 6 (where I think there was a good 8-10 week streak where we went to them one or twice a week), and that’s kind of disappointing. I had laryngitis one time, I literally couldn’t talk. The second I was feeling better I was back in the noraebang. We were at one for a good 4 or 5 hours for a Korean’s friends birthday, and ordered so much food and drinks that we had enough free time to last us another 4 or 5 (although we all had work or school the next morning, and I don’t think our vocal cords would’ve liked us). It’s always fun to get some nice galbi, down some soju and somek, and then head off to a noraebang and sing your heart out (and probably even more so when you can’t actually sing. One of my favorite quotes since I’ve been here is definitely “Ryan, I love your rapping but please never sing again”. I know you all secretly like my renditions of “Your Heart Will Go On”. Don’t lie.
- PC Bang Nights – The 2nd night I was in Korea, I was taken to a really sketchy PC Bang that smelled terrible and looked like a dungeon by one of my coworkers (who definitely became my first friend here and introduced me to the place where I would later meet many more friends). We joke about it now, because it was definitely one of the sketchiest ones we’ve been too. We were there until 5 or 6am (which, luckily more me, was incredibly easy to stay up ’till because I was still used to Texas time). There’s been more than one time when we’ve done that again. I don’t play League of Legends on my own anymore (I’m kind of over it), but it’s still fun to just go chill with people while playing on giant monitors and battle stations more powerful then my laptop.
- Game Nights – I haven’t gone to many PC Bangs since I’ve moved to Dongtan, but every Tuesday a few friends and I get together, play video games, watch terrible 80s movies, and just hang out, have fun, and enjoy each others company. It’s always a nice way to get over long days at work.
- Winning Story – In Jeonju, I would go to a study cafe 3 times a week (sometimes more); twice a week to help out with an English study group, and once a week to get help learning Korean. I desperately wish we had something like this in Dongtan, I miss it a ton. There was almost always someone there wiling to hang out or so something, and it’s where I met the vast majority of my friends in Jeonju. I miss it a lot, and I make sure to stop by anytime I happen to be in the area.
- League of Legends’ World Finals – Seeing 40,000+ people gather in a stadium built for the Olympics just to watch one game (that was best of 5) was just awesome. The growth of esports in America over the past few years makes me happy, because it would be awesome to watch something of this size back home too.
- Being woken up 3 or 4 times in one night by one of my Korean friend’s moms. I was staying at his house and had a small cold. She kept giving me bananas, medicine, tea, and blankets. I’ve just found this echoes the kind of hospitality I’ve found Korea to offer (maybe it was her version of service).
- All nighters. Whether it’s been staying up with a friend to watch the first sunrise of the new year, or partying in Hongdae or Itaewon, these are always fun.
- Experiencing Korean health care. $15 for a doctor visit (and that’s including the medication)? Yes please. Oh, and that’s not including what you save with insurance.
- Korea’s transportation system. Korea’s internet. Really, just about anything to do with Korea’s infrastructure.
- Not Korea’s websites. They’re awful. I don’t want to download 60 million and a half security programs just to order something or check my bank balance. Get with the times.
- Korea’s geography. It’s beautiful.
- Honestly, there’s too many other things to list. These are all things that popped into my head while writing this, but I know I’ll think of of other things that could’ve just as easily made the list down the road. It’s been an absolutely incredible year that I’ll always remember.
Oh, and this is what I’ve been up to these past 2 months:
Shortly after I last posted, I bought a new camera. I was previously shooting with a Canon T1i, which I had been using since 2009. I bought a Sony A6000, which I’ve absolutely loved so far. As far as photography goes, I’ve taken pictures of Korea’s Pride Parade for an article for AsiaNewsWeekly that friend wrote and I’ve also started contributing pictures to an online magazine that’s just starting up. Who knows if these will lead to future gigs, but it’s still fun to get contribute to something.
Busan and Birthday Parties
In June, a couple of my Jeonju friends took me to Busan (the 2nd largest city in Korea) for my birthday. It was a ton of fun. The weather wasn’t too great (it was a little foggy and looked like it was going to rain), but we still hit up Haeundae Beach, probably the most famous beach in Korea (you can see it get destroyed by a tsunami here). After the beach, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then accidentally ended up wandering into the World’s Largest Department store (we went there to go to Spa Land, or as CNN calls it “the world’s most outrageous spa“). After the spa, we decided to catch a 1:30am (or was it 2am?) showing of Jurassic World in 4D. Our seats moved, air was blown in our face, water was occasionally shot at us (although it was more like mist), and it was overall a pretty cool experience, although I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you would pay for multiple times. After the movie, we watched the sunrise at some other beach who’s name I can’t remember, then went our separate ways (they went back to Jeonju, I went back to Dongtan). On my actual birthday, I ate cake and galbi, drank soju, went to a noraebang (you better believe Ramenem got 100% on Lose Yourself) and then drank more soju when I wanted water. Not the worst way to spend a birthday!
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)
In early June, a wave of panic swept over South Korea as a disease called MERS made an appearance in the country. My city was one of the earliest hit (I think the first or second death happened here), and school were quickly shut down. Ended up getting an unexpected week and a half off, so that was nice. Unfortunately, it was kind of a day-by-day kind of thing (my school’s director would shoot us all text messages each night telling us if we had to go into work the next day), so I couldn’t really go anywhere that wasn’t super close. If I had known that I was going to get a week and a half off, I probably would’ve tried to fly back home for a really quick visit and see my sister graduate high school. Oh well, I’ll try to be there for college.
In late May, I saw the Seoul Shakespeare company put on a play of “Titus Andronicus”. I’m not a huge Shakespeare guy, but I really enjoyed it. Definitely the most violent play of his I’ve seen. One of my friends did the lighting for it, so it was also pretty cool to see months and months of stressful work come into fruition.
4th of July
To celebrate the 4th of July, some of us went to Muuido Island. To get to the beach we stayed at (we rented huts!) , we needed to take a bus to the airport, a bus to get on a ferry, and then another bus after the ferry. It was definitely a fun time though. The interesting thing about the beach we were at is that the tide brings the water really, really far out (I’d say it was probably a good mile or so away), which makes it really muddy. Families come out and go hunting for little crabs, which are incredibly common and easy to find once the tides brings the water out.
I definitely think my favorite thing about the island though was that parts of it look like the island from Jurassic Park – it had some ridiculously cool looking rock formations and cliffs.
Once the sun set, we all had fun celebrating ‘Murica day by watching one of our friends’ fire dance and enjoying the bar we all contributed into making (which we named “Bar 39”).
While this technically didn’t happen my first year (missed the mark by a few days), it is one of the things I wanted to do while I was here, and it’s not my fault if it’s not a year-around thing.
This past Friday a bunch of us hopped aboard a private party bus we chartered and made way towards a town about an hour and a half-ish away called Boryeong. Any other time of the year, this isn’t really a place anyone pays attention to (as far as I can tell anyway), but for 2 short weeks thousands of people flock to it for an even called “Mudfest” (it supposedly attracts more international visitors than any other festival in Korea). What is Mudfest? Exactly what it sounds like – it’s a festival geared towards the benefits of mud, whatever those happen to be. For most people though, you go to have fun an get dirty. You can go down giant inflatable slides that are, of course, covered in mud. You can wrestle in mud and enjoy a number of numerous “competitive events” where the losers are dosed in mud by the winners (although by the time anyone is declared a loser, most people are covered in mud anyway). It was a ton of fun, and if I’m still here next year I will definitely be going back.
Outside of the designated mud area, there’s an outdoor concert (a friend and I ended up one stage – we followed random people up there. We played a game, but didn’t really understand the rules. It didn’t seem like much of the Koreans playing did either), street food, and a pretty nice beach to enjoy. At night, the beach the festival is on pretty much turns into an even bigger party, and most people hit the bars or the beach.
So What Now?
When I came to Korea, I was expecting to be here for 365 days. July 15th, 2014 – July 15th, 2015. My current contract is up on February 29th, 2016. I haven’t quite decided what I want to do after that. I have at least a few people here who are trying to convince me to stay another year or so, and a couple friends who have been here even longer. One of my best friends just moved here, and he’ll be here until July, and my cousin is also moving here soon, so it would be nice to stick around and experience this country with them too. It’s definitely a pretty easy life, so staying here for a while more is definitely an option (although I don’t think I want to be here forever). I’ve also been told that I can get a master’s degree for almost nothing here thanks to scholarships, so that’s something I wouldn’t mind looking into.
There’s obviously the option of going back to the US and figuring out something there, but it seems to be a pretty common theme that people go back home without any plan of action, and then end up back here sometime down the line.
I do know that if I decide to stick around here another year, I’ll probably look into another Elementary + Middle School. Preschool and Kindergarten is fun, but it definitely seems to more of a headache then that age group was, and at times it feels more like I’m working at a day care then a school. I love the little ones, but I also miss teaching older kids (which is funny, because they’re the ones I was worried about teaching when I first got here. Back in the US, I only had experience with K-5).
Another benefit of staying here a little longer is that I’d be able to travel the world a little more (or at the very least, Asia). I’m going to Hong Kong next month, and a round trip flight there is only about $300, which is even cheaper than it was to fly from Houston to Phoenix and vice-versa when I was in college. It’s definitely not the only country around here where something like that is an option. In the US, if I want to travel to another country, I’m pretty much picking between Canada or Mexico unless I want to spend some big bucks (although I definitely want to knock the cross-country road trip off my list sometime).