Continue making friends- How to avoid a midnight run while teaching English in Korea

You’ve arrived.

The seasons, the traffic, and the thoughts, are all racing past. You’re discovering that teaching English can be overwhelming, especially if you don't have experience in the field. There's lesson planning, disciplinary issues, and the fact that you're starting from scratch.

The seasons, the traffic, and the thoughts, are all racing past.

The seasons, the traffic, and the thoughts, are all racing past.

You’re in a foreign city and a foreign career. But again, YOUR PRIORITY SHOULD BE MAKING FRIENDS! Even if you've met tons of people at orientation, odds are, many, or even most of them are now scattered throughout the country. Thanks to the KTX, Reaching them on weekends won’t be an issue, but you'll still need a more local community.

"Well, won't I be busy with work during the week?" you may be thinking. Yes, that's correct. But trust me, in the evenings you'll want to blow off steam. Unlike jobs in your home country, as an English teacher in Korea, you'll likely be the only native speaker at your school. Granted, some of your coworkers may speak English, but the workplace in Korea may not be what you're used to. Korean culture is strict, and education is taken very seriously. So, even if your coworkers can speak English, you won't be able to chat with them like you may hope to.

"If I'm busy with work, and I don't know anyone in my new city, how will I make friends?" It's a great question, and one that I failed to answer as a teacher. But, I think I’ve got a few suggestions now, with the help from some intake classmates who’ve made it to the end.

Facebook and   Hellotalk   for the win.

Facebook and Hellotalk for the win.

How to make local friends while teaching English in Korea

1. Lesson plan

Giving thought to your lessons will be both beneficial to you and your students.

Giving thought to your lessons will be both beneficial to you and your students.

I know, it sounds lame. But odds are, when you're starting out as an English teacher in Korea, you'll have a ton of work to do. Because of this, it can be easy to think that you don't have time for friends. That just isn't true. There may already be lesson planning groups in your area, which you can find through pages such as EPIK (insert city and year) (example epikdaejeon2016), and they'll always be open to accepting someone new.

Groups like these not only make it easy to meet people, but they also offer resources which will ease your transition into teaching at Korean schools. Can't find an existing group? Start one! With Facebook or even Meetup, gathering English speakers in Korea should be accomplished without issue. Remember, those other teachers are in the same boat as you!

2. Meetup

In Korea, there truly is   a group for everything  .

In Korea, there truly is a group for everything.

In any city in Korea, you should find some sort of English friendly Meetup group. Shortly after arriving in Daejeon, I enrolled in "Daejeon international social gathering" "Daejeon paint night" and several others. And then I never worked up the courage to attend any events. If I had, I may very well be writing this from my desk at Daejeon Middle School.

3. Go out!

A night out in Hongdae

A night out in Hongdae

I'm not a big drinker, and I get the worst hangovers, so going out was never my thing. But, on the few occasions that I did go out, I met people! In Daejeon, there were several "international" bars, and even an English pub or two. Going to places like these makes it extremely easy to meet people, because unlike other places in Korea, you'll all have one major thing in common, your language! And everyone there will be dying to have a conversation that goes past "how are you?"

4. Language classes & Exchange

From day one, I had no intention of learning the Korean language. I was an absolute fool. In my placement city of Daejeon, Korean language courses were offered in beginner, intermediate, and advanced, all for free. The classes were held two days per week, and they were open not only to EPIK teachers, but to other English teachers throughout the city. These classes would have been an amazing way to meet people, and I truly regret not enrolling.

Language exchanges are common in cities throughout the world, and Korea is no exception. Often held at bars, these gatherings are as much about meeting people as they are about practicing language. I never did attend a language exchange in Korea, but I did finally have the experience in Barcelona Spain. My Spanish isn’t much better than my Korean, but that didn’t keep me from having a great time interacting with locals. And is often the case, the only thing I paid for was a drink.

5. Do the things you want to do

Snowboarding at     Muju     .

Snowboarding at Muju.

After three weeks in Korea, the excitement began to wear off, and each day became progressively more mundane. I'd met a few people at orientation, but several were in other cities, and the ones in town were constantly "busy". Snowboarding abroad is something I'd always wanted to do, but I couldn't find anyone to join me. I began that day sitting in my apartment, but something told me to get out. The following events ensued.

Long story short, do the things you want to do, and you might just meet someone who shares your interests. You may share other things with that person too.

6. Apartments are for sleep

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of avoiding the temptation to hangout in your dorm room during orientation. When you arrive at your apartment, it’s equally important to avoid this place. My apartment was a tiny sterile studio, with a small bed, a desk, and one window that faced a wall. Often, I’d return home from work, and sit awkwardly in my bed, either lesson planning, or thinking about being lonely. Even if you are lucky enough to get a nicer place, I still can’t stress enough how important it is to avoid using it for anything other than sleep!

So, you’ve met people, now what do you do?

Invest in the experience/yourself

Before going to Korea, I spent countless hours dreaming of places to visit. Tokyo, Shanghai, Jeju island, the DMZ. But as I settled into the Monday-Friday life, I began counting every nickel and dime. Instead of experiencing things, I decided to save more money, which eventually led to a miserable life, and an abrupt decision to escape. As a teacher in the EPIK program, you should be making about $1,800 US per month, tax free. And, you’ll be given a furnished apartment for which you don’t pay. So, although it can be tempting to save as much as possible, trust me when I say that spending some money and enjoying your time will leave you with more saved in the long run. 

Hiking trails in Korea   are abundant, beautiful, and FREE!

Hiking trails in Korea are abundant, beautiful, and FREE!

Go for the right reasons

I applied to teach English in Korea in April of 2016. I'd quit my first job out of college after just five months, and I'd managed to burn through every dollar of my savings, and then some. I was living at home, with credit card debt, no social life, and a burning desire to get out and have an experience. I saw the EPIK program as a way to pay off debt and eventually save money to put toward future travels. I didn't know much about Korea, and I really wasn't all that interested. From day one at orientation, it was clear to me, that I was the misfit. I made no effort to learn the language, to meet locals, or to be a part of a community. I wasn't ready for Korea, and it ultimately beat me.

Go for the experience. Live like a local. Put yourself out there. Keep an open mind. Don't try to pinch pennies. And not only will you make it through, but as several of my former colleagues have said, it may provide you with a lifetime of memories.

 

Go, for the experience.

Go, for the experience.

First make friends- How to avoid a midnight run while teaching English in Korea

It's lonely. Or it can be. It was for me. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE!

"Tyler, I'm worried about you, are you okay?" My co-teacher Dan Kim asked me somewhere around month two. I forced my head up and down in agreement, but my response was far from the truth. For a while I was alright, I'd met a girl to be excited about. But on April first she broke the news. She was leaving the country, and I wasn’t being fooled. I was a mess.

"Why do you ask?" I returned to Dan. "Well, when I ask the last two English teachers about their time in Korea, they both tell me the same thing. It's very lonely."

I thought a lot about this statement, and it ultimately played a huge part in my decision to leave the country early. The funny thing about being lonely is that the worse it gets, the less you want to try.

But YOU CAN FIND FRIENDS WHILE TEACHING ENGLISH IN KOREA!

I recently talked to several people from my Spring '18 EPIK (English Program in Korea) intake group about how they've made it through the year. Some of them are choosing to renew their contracts, others are leaving in a month, but all of them, said that they got through with the support of friends!

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So, how do you find friends while teaching English in Korea ?

Well, like with many aspects of the EPIK program, there's a lot of luck involved, but doing these things will vastly improve your odds.

Instead of splitting a hotel room upon arrival, as  my recruiter  suggested, I got my own. I took this photo from that room before heading down to breakfast, where I sat alone.

Instead of splitting a hotel room upon arrival, as my recruiter suggested, I got my own. I took this photo from that room before heading down to breakfast, where I sat alone.

Start Strong

The flight

Put yourself out there. It seems obvious, but all too often, people move to a new place, just to hide out in a room. I know because I've done it, several times. With teaching in Korea, you've already moved across the world, so why not make the most of it?

From the second your plane lands, or better yet, before, start introducing yourself. Don't know Korean? That's okay! Approaching western faces with "Hey, do you speak English?" is an excellent ice breaker. Understand that the other English speakers you meet are just like you. There's no reason to be afraid.

Arrival

Get some sleep, that time difference is insane. But when you're at the hotel breakfast the next morning, don't pick the empty table, find a place to fill an empty seat. On the bus, do the same. If you do these things, by the time you get to orientation, you should have made a friend or two.

Orientation

Once at orientation, you'll be surrounded by hundreds of foreign English teachers, all of whom speak your language. Take advantage. Use English.

You'll likely get your own dorm room, but don't sit in it! Sit in the common areas instead. You'll attend mandatory classes from 8:30am-5:00 on most days, and sometimes later. But don't let that discourage you from going out.

Sure, you've got a lot to learn, and teaching English can be stressful and consuming, but this is your time to build a foundation of friends. Having this support will make the difference in leaving early and making it to the end. So, buy some Advil if you must, but go out and make friends!

Arriving in your city

When orientation comes to an end, the intake class will separate into different cities. But that doesn't mean that friendships must end! Korea has an excellent train system, which connects every city in the country in three hours or less, end to end. But even with these weekend friends, once you get to your new city, you'll immediately need to get to work again.

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Looking Back

I still remember hauling those four bags through the international terminal at DFW. Two large suitcases, one duffle, and my camera bag, all filled to the brim. After nearly an entire year of anticipation, it was finally real. I was moving to Korea, and I intended to stay twelve months.

I had no idea what to expect of the culture, other than that my pescatarian diet would be challenged. I didn’t know where I’d be living. Hell, I really had no idea what the job would be like. But I needed to fulfill a years’ worth of festering curiosity, so I boarded that 777 to Seoul.

The first ten days were exciting. Shuttled straight from the airport, to a university dorm, the EPIK orientation process provided a comfortable, if not sheltered, introduction to Korean life. I was given a small, but comfortable modern room, in a brand-new high-rise dorm. My neighbors all spoke English. “Western” meals were served downstairs in the cafeteria, with subtle additions of Kimchi and Bulgogi.

From 8:30-4:30, with an hour break for lunch, orientation training was primarily aimed at preparing us for classroom life, with bits of cultural lessons to keep us intrigued. I believe it was on the fourth day that we left campus for a tour of a nearby historic city. But, as I fell into the routine, I began to worry that this wasn’t for me.

“Why’d you choose Korea?” It was a common icebreaking question, and as I asked and answered it throughout orientation, I realized that my motivations were quite different than the majority of those around me. “Well, I started watching K-dramas a couple years ago, and I really want to learn the language.” “My mother is originally from Korea, and I’ve always been fascinated to learn more about the culture, and my own family history.” Others spoke with passion in response, where as my primary answer was “I saw it as an opportunity to travel, and to save money.”

Once placed at my schools, in that dark studio apartment, in a secondary city, I found myself extremely isolated. The people I’d met at orientation were scattered. A few across the city, and others across the country. At first the job was overwhelming, but after just a few weeks, I realized what was expected of me, and allowed myself to get by with mediocrity. For a month, I lived out a wild and unlikely romance. It ended abruptly, and then came the unrelenting pain of reality.

I’d gone to Korea to make money, and to travel. Due to a strict and in my opinion, outdated, view of vacation, I found travel to be unlikely. There were of course the two main breaks. One of eight days, in August, and the other of ten in December, but outside of that, I was expected to be at my desk, even if the kids were at home on break. I’d heard of desk warming before going, but I never imagined it could be so frustrating. As for saving money, with an apartment provided by the school, and few other expenses besides food, I was able to save about $1,000 per month, but it wasn’t nearly enough to warrant the misery.

My time in Korea was complicated. From the outside, I can see how it could easily be perceived as a failure, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Yes, I intended to stay there for a year, and I left before even completing month three. But the memories I created during my time there, have served as inspiration, and I love that I went and fulfilled that curiosity.

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Preparing to go

As so often is the case, the thing that set the EPIK (English Program In Korea) apart from so many other international teaching options for me, was a personal reference. I’d spent weeks, scouring the web for opportunities. Chile, Argentina, Thailand, I considered several, more culturally appealing destinations, to no avail, before reconnecting with my old high school friend Wayne, over burritos in Austin. It was early April, and I’d been living in my childhood bedroom for two months. With no leads in the creative industry, and a persistent loathing of the corporate life, I found myself searching for opportunities abroad.

Wayne, a soon to be senior law student, certainly wasn’t looking to teach abroad, but he’d just recently spent a month in Seoul where his wife was stationed in the military, and he raved about the city in between bites of fried cod. “Hmm, Korea” I thought. It wasn’t at the forefront of my interests, and the political tension of the peninsula wasn’t exactly welcoming, but it was worth consideration. Before parting ways, he gave me the name of his friend who had just begun a contract with EPIK. It was through him, that I discovered “Reach to Teach”.

Based out of Taiwan, the California number that recruiter Jason called me from was a comforting sign. When dealing with international applications it’s nice to have a native speaker to help guide you through. The initial conversation was short, but I was sold. The deadline for submission for the Fall ’17 intake was April 14th, which left me just ten days to gather numerous documents, and enroll in a TEFL program, all of which was laid out for me by the recruiter. I immediately got to work.

Unlike the inquiries I’d made with other international programs, the process for application with EPIK seemed organized. And while the asks were lofty, especially under such a tight deadline, checking things off the list made me feel as if I were actually working toward something. For the first time in nearly a year since leaving my job in finance, I woke with purpose.

After submitting my documents on April 10th, I waited, for weeks, without word. It was during this time that I began my TEFL program. An online self-paced course through a British agency called “Global English”. The instructional material was primarily comprised of outdated video clips, and links to a few generic workbooks, and the assignments were more of the same. Heavily grammar based, with a strict British grading rubric, I found the course to be surprisingly difficult, yet at the same time, unhelpful in preparing me to teach abroad.

Nearly two full months had gone by when, on another hot night, as I laid down for bed, I received an email inviting me to schedule the interview. In the two weeks leading up to the interview, I finished my TEFL course, and printed my watermarked certificate from my home. I hadn’t learned much, but it was finished.

My heart raced, from the caffeine shot I’d ingested thirty minutes prior, acquired on that 1am trip to the convenience store, and from the overwhelming importance of the interview, that was about to take place. 1:27am, three minutes to go. I paced my room, sweating profusely, through my white shirt and wool pants, which weren’t even in frame on my webcam, but felt appropriate. I looked at my phone, it was 1:33, still nothing. After the months of waiting I’d already endured to this point, it was no surprise to me that the interviewer was late.

1:34 “Kim Lee would like to connect” the request flashed on the screen. I accepted. “Are you ready?” she typed. “Yes.” I said. Then she called. “Why Korea?” “Why teaching?”. She asked only a few of the many common questions that I’d prepared for, and then the screen went blank. Again, I was left waiting. I called my recruiter, Jason, and talked about how it went. The next two days were torture, as I pondered my answers obsessively, until another email came through. “Congratulations, you’ve successfully passed the EPIK interview” I didn’t even bother to read the rest, before finally allowing myself to sleep.

With that huge sense of relief, I again felt excited. Now mid-June, my departure to Korea was just two months away. I began researching Daejeon, my selected placement city, and mentally preparing myself to move abroad. I kept in touch with Jason, and with the John, the head of the recruiting agency, but as the calendar turned to July, I began to worry. On the EPIK Fall ’17 Facebook group, to which I’d been invited, I watched as entire groups of new teachers celebrated their placements. “Any day” Jason kept saying. And then, on that hot summer night, I received word that my departure had been delayed.

Originally viewed as a devastating blow, my delayed departure to Korea turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to experience my first seasonal job, and before I knew it, it was February. Despite being told that I would “be at the top of the list” given my situation, I was still far from first to officially receive my placement, which came in around December 20th. Before leaving, I visited a travel clinic for a few booster immunizations, and completed the mandatory online pre-orientation, and even attempted to study a bit of Korean. I’d say I wish I would have prepared better to teach, but then again, I never intended to take the job seriously, which goes back to my revelation that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Aside from a miserably lengthy application process, which consisted primarily of waiting, and my unfortunate status of delayed, which stemmed from a last-minute submission, I found the program to be fairly organized, and welcoming. It was fueled by my own misconceptions that I began my journey in Korea, where the following stories took place.

Interested in Teaching with EPIK?

Reach to Teach Recuiting- The recruiting agency I used was fairly helpful in helping me organize my documents, especially in the beginning of the process. Jason, my main point of contact, was always positive, and helpful, but after my interview, John (the owner of the agency) became my main point of contact. As several other Reach to Teach applicants would later agree, John was not exactly friendly, and as the process stretched on, I began to dread my dealings with him. After finally arriving in Korea, where John met us at the hotel he insisted we book, and then took us out to what felt like a mandatory Korean BBQ dinner, that we paid for, I met people who were far happier with other agencies such as Korvia, and others that had applied directly to EPIK. While the initial help was welcomed, if I could do it all over again, I would apply directly to EPIK, for the most efficient process.

TEFL Certificate- To Teach English in Korea, you must have at least a 4 year degree from an accredited university, AND a TEFL certificate of at least 120hours (unless you have teacher’s certification). There are tons of TEFL options out there, with a wide variety of fees, ranging from around $100 to well over $1000, which can make the selection process difficult. But, as is so often true, you get what you pay for. My decision to go with the Global English “Teach Korea” program was primarily based on making my application more attractive to EPIK, rather than best preparing myself to teach. Currently priced at $236.25 (due to an odd conversion rate), this is a Korea specific budget course that should look good on your resume. That being said, as mentioned before, I found the course material to be dated, and the assessment process to be rather unhelpful. Teaching English in Korea is a serious job, and preparing yourself to do so is a worthy investment. Look for courses that offer in-class sections, and if you find yourself taking the easy route, you may want to consider if you really want to teach.

YouTube- Cedric and I were in the same orientation class, and we were both placed in Daejeon. Although we never did hold more than a casual conversation, it was through hearing him speak passionately about his desires to explore Korean culture, that I first began to seriously doubt my motives. His YouTube channel is an excellent resource for all things EPIK, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering teaching abroad to binge first.

I knew

I wondered…

How I could get out of that room

How I could finally move away

How I could be financially independent

How I could find adventure

What it’d be like to leave the continent

What it’d be like to live abroad

What it’d be like to teach English

What it’d be like to fly overseas

What the weather would be like when I landed

How often it’d snow

How the airport would be

If my hotel room would be tiny

What it’d be like to meet English speakers from other countries

What it'd be like to see a Korean baseball game

What’d it be like to visit a Buddhist temple

How it’d be to eat Korean food

If I’d ever get the hang of chopsticks

If I’d like the taste of soju

How hiking would be

About snowboarding there too

How it’d feel to be a teacher

If I’d enjoy it

If it’d be difficult

What grades I’d be teaching

What my students would be into

How my workdays would go

If I’d like my co-teacher

How the school lunch would be

If I’d still avoid meat

If I'd learn to like kimchi

Where I'd buy groceries

If they’d sell avocados

If things would cost less

“what’s with those masks”

How my apartment would look

What it’d be like to live in a studio

What it’d be like to take a cab

What it’d be like to feel entirely lost

How I'd get around

How'd it'd be to ride the KTX

How’d it be to commute by bus

What’d it be like to live in a city

To live in a foreign city

If Daejeon would actually be boring

If they'd show English movies

How it'd be to visit Seoul

How much money I could save

How the people would dress

How the music would sound

How the streets would smell

How cherry blossoms would smell

What type of trees they’d have

How their sunsets would look

How much English they’d speak

What kind of cars they’d drive

How much I'd miss home

How long I'd stay

If people would stare

If I'd meet a girl

If it'd be lonely

How it’d feel to be a foreigner

How much I’d butt heads with their culture

...what it’d be like to teach English in Korea.  

I wondered what I'd do next.

I knew.

I wonder what it'd be like to spend a summer in Alaska.

🎶"Patience" The lumineers

A Mundane Day

6:50 alarm. Snooze.

6:55am With a reach, I crank the Ondol heating system clockwise.

6:55-7:07 am

For the next twelve minutes I scroll through Instagram, deepening a longing, with the highlights of my friends.

7:09- 7:18 am

Under a Luke warm trickle in the bathroom corner, I scrub vigorously at the tension in my skin as moisture covers every inch of the wet room. From the glass soap tray, muffled music plays from my phone. “Elysium” by Bears Den, makes me want to run away.

7:19 am

With one door and one step, I exit the steamy yellow bathroom and enter the damp fluorescent kitchen. In the cabinet, I grab a handful of cashews purchased last night at the market. One more handful and they’re gone. Out of the waste high refrigerator below, I crack two hard boiled eggs, and add two more shells to my assorted bags of trash.

One step, and one door.

7:33 am

Through a cheap pain of glass, with a slightly crooked track, I exit the white kitchen and enter the dark room. With the flimsy white wooden bed frame on my right; the small table and wooden chair crammed into the adjacent wall at its foot; the glossy white wardrobe on the left, and the long white television stand occupying the rest of that wall; with the white light of the kitchen diffused through the frosted glass at my back, and a small square of pastel orange leaking through the lone window in front of me, I sit criss crossed, on an inherited lavender yoga mat, at the center of this room.

7:44am

My phone buzzes, it’s Lucy.

“Tyler teacher, you have not send me ppt for today 2nd period”.

7:50am

Dress. Pack. Leave.

8:14am

The electric lock beeps twice as I close it behind me, entering the smooth, sterile hall. Down two flights, and into the small landing, I press the button as the glass door reveals a cool morning air.

Through the narrow backstreet, middle school children scurry between their school and the convenience store, staring at phones and eating candy. In a bright morning haze, I wait, as far back from the curb as possible as cars race past on green. 4…3….2… I hurry across the fourth lane before they resume.

In the shadows of the looming, multi tower Xia apartment complex, I pace past the ivy lined railings. Through the small cement park, the viscosity thickens. In a slow-moving stream of brown coated children, ages 6-15, I shuffle in my white converse toward school.

“Hello Teacher”

“Hello”

The children nag as I approach the foyer of 101-year-old Daejeon Middle. Amongst a stack of hangul tagged cubbies, I find “Tyler Austen Michalek” and slip on my black foam sandals.

Down the frigid hall, and up the chaotic stairs, I shuffle toward the office at 8:24 am. Across another hectic intersection, this one of boys, I step safely through the last door.

“Annyeonghaseyo” I say quietly to the two teachers on the left, and “good morning” to Lucy who sits between me and the menacing VP. “Tyler Teacher, you did not get my email?” “No, I did, I’ll send the PowerPoint now.”

8:30-9:00am

For the next thirty minutes, I scramble through last minute preparations, before my first class.

9:05am

Into an uncomfortable silence, I slide the heavy wooden door of class 3-1 open at 8:55am. Awkwardly, I arrange my laptop, as a lifeless class sits obediently at the order of my co-teacher. One last shout, then he turns it over.

“Hello class, how are you?”

“I’m good teacher.”

No, you’re not.

“Can anyone tell me what they did this weekend?”

“Game.” “Game.”

 It’s always the same.

45 minutes later, I return to the office, where the Vice Principal sits snoring from his command post.

“Hey Lucy, did you get my email?”

“Yes, but actually I think it’s too short.” “But second period class canceled today.”

For the next three hours, I stare blankly at a white screen, nervously listening to another podcast and tuning out the Korean conversations around me.

12:00pm

“Tyler teacher, it’s time for lunch.”

They tell me every day.

Under the freezing cold faucet, I lather the communal bar of soap between my hands before heading toward the cafeteria. Rice, kimchi, meat mixture, soup, chopsticks. I carry my silver metal tray toward the metal table and sit amongst the teachers in a metal chair.

Amongst hurried Korean teachers, I scarf down my food and filter out.

12:15pm

A shot of water from a small metal cup, and back down the cold damp hall. With 40 minutes ‘till my next class, I change into shoes and take to the school yard.

12:18pm

Around the perimeter of the dusty dirt grounds, and back, behind the tennis courts, I roam the edges of my boundary. “The Joe Rogan Experience” plays in ear.

“Tyler Teacher, 5th and 6th period class are cancel” Lucy greats me back to the office, where I sit, for two more hours.

Waygook.com “blocked”

Busyteacher.com “blocked”

Online lesson planning “blocked”

After several attempts to be productive, I resort to daydreaming.

“Hiking in Korea…. Korea summer hikes… Summer in the mountains… Summer in Colorado… Summer jobs in Colorado… Summer jobs in the mountains… Summer jobs in Alaska…”

3:00pm

Awoken back to reality with the sound of the 6th period release bell, I grab my plastic yellow basket and head toward the last class of the day. More lethargic kids, another agitated teacher.

4:30 pm

With an awkward nod of respect, I gather my things and head toward the exit. Out into the stuffy afternoon air I weave through more students.

“Hello teacher” “Hello”

4:44 pm beep beep beep, the lock flashes green as I enter my dark damp apartment.

Read, Netflix, Korea? Nap.

5:43 pm

In a groggy confusion, I fear it’s the 25th.

5:50pm

Dinner. Precooked chicken breast, Romaine lettuce, “hommos”, Kimchi.

8:pm

Still 2000 steps short of my goal, I contemplate sleep, but with a restless anxiety, I instead take to the streets. Through the underground mall. Over the river. Across the bridge. Through the empty market. And up the stairs.

At 8:45 pm on a Tuesday, I find myself wondering the halls of Daejeon Station, pretending the upcoming departures are mine. “What am I doing, I have to sleep.”

Back out into the night, I walk hurriedly through the neon lit streets. Past, Baskin Robbins, and Starbucks, the bakery, and the food trucks, I resist until relinquishing the battle at a CU for something sweet.

Sat criss cross on my lavender yoga mat, my phone rattles again. “I think we need to talk about today’s 7th period class. Tomorrow could u plz come to school little early?”

Alarm set, 8 hours 59 minutes.

“Train by day, Joe Rogan podcast by night” My eye mask slides back down, and I settle into my springy twin mattress.

On 04/24/18

It's not you, It's me

I quit my job. I did nothing. I moved home. I quit spending. I enrolled in grad school. I got a shitty tattoo. I grew my hair out.

After that first sour taste of the traditional route, I yanked the wheel left.

I applied to teach English. I said goodbye. I boarded a plane. I traversed the globe.

But, as I sit here at my three walled desk, slouched over my keyboard in this support absent chair, only further aggravating an achy back, with my vice principal glaring directly over my shoulder, in between sips of tongue smackingly chalky instant coffee that only seems to deepen this monotony induced mental drone, I'm writing to say that I've once again found routine, or maybe it's found me.

For a while it was fun. Like a week or two. There were those neon lights, in that alley by my apartment. Oh, and all the many cafes. There was the smell of the streets, and the excitement of the bustle, the mystery of the job, and the intrigue of the weekends. But, with the days of toxic "yellow dust", the neon lights have dimmed, the cafes have become an afterthought, the hordes of people a nuisance, the weekends pure dread, the job a routine, and the smells that of shit, no seriously, like raw human feces...

Okay okay, I know, I need to chill. I'm being harsh, and probably undeservedly so. I mean, I'm the outsider here. I insisted on coming, it's true. And honestly, I should have known better. No actually, I did.

When I first came across the English Program in Korea better known as EPIK, I knew it was a bad fit, but I pursued it anyway. Why, you ask? Well, in the midst of my ninth month stint home, like home home, in my childhood bedroom home, I sat there one week in silence, but screaming inside. All over Instagram my old friends and classmates were living, and there I was, wasting precious breathes of my youth. I needed an out, and I needed one fast.

Yet still determined to avoid the path of conformity, I searched abroad. Sure, I'd heard of others teaching English before, like that friend of a friend's cousin who once went to Thailand, or that great uncle who I'd never actually met, but it had only ever seemed like something that other people did. It wasn't that I was opposed to it, quite the contrary, but I didn't have the slightest clue where to begin. There was that, what's it called, a TEFALL? "Oh, and don't you need a bunch of shots and stuff?" "Wait, how the hell do you find housing?"

Overwhelmed by the process, I'd spent several afternoons over the course of my home stint before ever breaching any surface. Then, finally, I decided that I wanted to teach English in Chile. Yep, the "California of South America". With a seemingly infinite coastline, rugged Andes peaks, snowboarding, surfing, spicy food, and even spicier culture, home to Patagonia, and its vast unknown, and an incredibly interesting dialect of Spanish. From the moment I began researching Chile, I fell in love. But after two weeks of Rosetta Stone, and countless emails to EFL recruiters, with only a handful of vague replies, I once again typed "best countries to teach English" into my search bar.

A stark contrast from the disorganized Chile postings, the EPIK program provided an extremely structured path toward international indenturement, I mean experience. With an unbeatable salary, housing provided, healthcare, and paid vacation, EPIK made way more sense. But that, that right there is where I fucked up. After a year of running from conformity, of vowing to pursue intrinsic motivation, I caved.

One hell of an application process later, that included several hundred dollars of document expenses, a TEFL certificate, and numerous delays (one of them 6 months), I boarded that 787 to Seoul. Fifteen hours later my plane touched down on Korean soil, as the eastern sun sank through a thick layer of what I romanticized as ocean mist (more likely toxic dust) and into the Yellow Sea. And today, exactly two months later, I find my spirits sinking all the same.

I shouldn't have written this, and I definitely shouldn't have published it, but then again, sometimes I prefer to be irrational, to fly off the cuff, to quit pretending that all these rules matter, and to just follow my gut. From what I've seen in my short time here, Korea is a land of plentiful natural beauty, and rich history. Just two months in, I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of, but this structured Monday-Friday lifestyle just isn't for me. Not here, not anywhere.

In one last effort to clear things up, I feel obligated to say that the EPIK program has not been in the least bit misleading, as they've upheld every aspect of the promised agreement, and just about every interaction from orientation to placement has been pleasant. For those thinking of teaching abroad, this program offers unbeatable benefits, an incredibly smooth transition, and nearly all the comforts of home, plus kimbap from CU. It's me, not you, I promise. Peace.

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Meating reality

Through an empty school corridor, I walked hastily toward an open door. After three straight days of procrastination, and with a busy weekend looming, this Friday lunch hour was my last chance to lesson plan for next week. Determined to make the most of it, I shuffled down the concrete steps, and headed straight for the nearest “CU”. “Yoeboseyo” a friendly clerk greeted me as I rushed toward the back shelf, where several rows of my beloved Kimbap sat neatly on the middle shelf.

A stark contrast to gas station snacks of the states, at 1,500 krw for a pair (roughly $1.50), and available at any CU, Minimart, or 7 eleven, these little prisms of nutrition have become a go to of mine. “Ohbagchun won” I presented my “Hana” card.

Sat in a flimsy plastic chair outside, I peeled the ribbon of golden foil, revealing  that delicious flaky seaweed coating. I took a bite, and there it was. A savory sausage chunk of unknown composition, but delectable flavor assaulted my taste buds with delight.

Had I known this was sausage, I would have chosen otherwise, but then again, the surprise of that first bite is just part of my Kimbap experience. I never know exactly what I’ll be eating, but time and time again these convenience store snacks have provided me with consistently quality nourishment for next to no cost.

So, why am I writing this? Well, a little over a year ago, after an overwhelming frustration with factory farming, and the questionable, yet convincing propaganda of “what the health” I began eating a limited diet. Comprised almost entirely of non-meat options, and the occasional addition of seafood, I was, what most would call a “pescatarian”. For nearly an entire year I ate vegetables, salads, nuts, meat alternatives, the occasional salmon fillet, and a whole lot of carbs.

But, with an impending move to a meat loving culture, I questioned my commitment to the cause. At orientation I ate mainly seafood, and for the first week or two after, I relied heavily on noodles and rice. I picked out the meat of numerous dishes and informed my co-teachers of my diet. But, after weeks of carb induced hunger and numerous food comas, I gave in. Now several weeks later, and I’m a full-fledged omnivore.

The issue of meat consumption, and of factory farming is far more complicated than black or white or yes and no. It’s one that should be considered deeply, and as an individual. For one year I sacrificed my cravings in hopes of sparing at least one animal from the horrors of the factory, but after much thought, I’ve made the difficult decision to now prioritize my health. In the states, where fresh produce and meat alternatives are readily available at almost any local grocery, my decision was easy, but here in Korea, it’s either eat healthy, or eat morally, there really is no in-between.

Appreciate every bite. Cheers.

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The perfect placement

Its flashing neon lights, its abundance of restaurant options, its narrow cobblestone streets, the sensory overloading Jung-ang market, its riverside bike path, its street vendors, its plethora of aromas, its juxtaposing architecture, and its copious cafes, each somehow more perfect than the last.

As I sit here in a leather forest green tufted chair, surrounded by Edison bulbs, and sipping artisanal cold brew from a minimalist steel mug, the aromas of coffee and craft made chocolate, the smooth melodies of classical music, and the passerby’s outside my adjacent window, I’m reminded how amazingly lucky I was to be placed here. For years, I’ve dreamt of living in a place like this, a place with life, a place with action, all just steps from my residence. And while I never would have imagined that I’d find such a place in South Korea, my Daejeon neighborhood of Eunhaeng-dong is all that and more.

But, every now and then, the alleys feel a little narrower, and the buildings a little more obtrusive. The sky seems a little hazier, and the smells began to reek. The filth on the streets and inherently on my white converse begins to bother me, and my tiny studio apartments begins to feel confining. Two weeks ago, I spent an amazing day adventuring through the mountains, but since then, I’ve breathed only city air. So, when I woke up this morning, I had one goal in mind, escape to nature.

Halfheartedly, I typed “hiking in Daejeon” into my google search bar, already knowing what would come up. Gyeryongsan national park, a popular hiking destination at the northwestern edge of the city. But, I’d just done that hike three weeks prior, and in between the hour-long bus ride, the endless hordes of people, and the lack of options on the trail, I was in no hurry to return. I scrolled a bit further and found “Gyejoksan red clay trail”.

Again, I expected this result, as I’d come across it in my many months of predeparture research. And while it did seem a bit more unique than Gyeryongsan, it was also an hour away by bus, and I suspected it would be just as crowded. So, now 0-2, I adjusted my approach. Instead of trying to find an English post about hiking in Daejeon (a longshot), I pinched around my map in search of trails. Not five minutes later I’d found my target. With my camera bag packed, two waters, and a freshly purchased kimbap, I set out toward nature.

The hazy sky brought with it a gentle breeze, which spontaneously gusted much stronger. Dressed in black athletic pants and a long sleeve t, I was comfortable, if not slightly warm in the 53-degree temperature.

Down one street and a single left, not five minutes in, and I’d already found a point of interest. Stacked on top of a plethora of vibrant colored roofs sat a magnificent temple, with forest behind it. Reluctantly, I entered the grounds through a narrow opening in the front door. An older man, about 50 meters away, bowed politely and then continued tending to his gardening.

At the entrance to the temple I stood, unsure if I should enter, when two welcoming old faces swung open the door and waved me in. In a pristine prayer room, I methodically tiptoed across the polished cherry wood floors, attempting to find the right angle to capture its rich beauty. A statue of Buddha, at its center, and a million finely detailed panels of color populated the space, as a warm afternoon light leaked in from the windows. “Back to the trail” I thought to myself.

In a relaxed state of mind, I ascended a hill behind the temple, catching new views of the city at every turn. At the top, I sat on a bench, overlooking the very school I teach at, just a few hundred meters away. Excited to make this a daily routine, I pulled out my phone to drop a pin, and realized that I’d only just begun.

Back down the hill I jogged and hopped across rocks and leaves, until arriving at one last road crossing. Into a narrow stairwell, engulfed by shanty structures, plagued by many decades of harsh Korean weather, subpar building materials, and the remanence of war, I stepped carefully to avoid fallen scraps of metal, and even some remaining barbed wire. Then, out of nowhere, a sign for the trail.

The first hundred meters or so where sketchy to say the least, as I snuck past two snarling dogs, and even more barbed wire. But, as the horns of the city faded into the rustling of leaves, the trail opened up into something magnificent. At several hundred meters above the city, I’d found an oasis.

A densely populated forest of tall pines, oaks, maples, and more, lined the trail, as it wound on endlessly. Around rugged boulders, and over steep inclines, it hugged the side of the mountain, offering breathtaking glimpses of adjacent peaks and sprawling city throughout.

About four miles in, I found another temple. And as I continued further, two more followed. Perched high above the city, in an anciently constructed lookout, I sat for a while, admiring the splendor of the scene, the gratification of the day, and the luck of my perfect placement.

Just two hours later and here I am. Showered and dressed, sipping coffee at yet another new favorite café. Outside the sky is dimming, and the lights are just beginning to glow. This is life in Eunhaeng-dong.

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I already forgot everything I said

It turns out room 2-1 is on the third floor. I learned this, after combing every inch of the second. Up a flight of stairs I turned a corner. Through a mess of flailing hands, and flapping bowl cuts, I saw the sign. 2-1 it read, at the very end of the hall. Through a mob of rough housing middle school boys, I weaved my way through the halls, paying close attention not to drop my laptop. Pushing and shoving, and laughing, and running, the students ruled the halls with no authority figure in sight. With two minutes to spare, I slipped into the room, only to find more rough housing ensue. "Teacher!"Teacher!" They yelled at me in excitement, as I stood there with a nervous smile, waiting for help to arrive.

You see, at the grace of my main co-teacher, I had been scheduled to shadow for the first week. No responsibility, no stress, just observation. But as the clock struck 9:55, and the jingle signaled that 2nd period had just begun, there I was, standing at the head of the class, with 25 pairs of dark black eyes staring straight at me. As the first words of nonsense began to form on my quivering lips, the door slid back open, and a frazzled co-teacher stumbled into the room. Out of breath and clearly unprepared, Ms. Park set her things down, and joined in on the stare.

Unsure of what would occur next, I whispered to Ms. Park "I'm only scheduled to observe today", but still, she just stared. A few moments of awkward silence passed and I tried again. "I have nothing prepared for this class, I was told I'd observe". "It's okay", she said, and again, nothing happened. In the midst of my nightmare, the one where I show up on exam day, entirely unprepared, I turned to the board, and began writing an introduction. "Hello, my name is Tyler." I wrote, and then read aloud to the class. "It's very nice to meet you!". "Hello Tyler Teacher!", the students replied, and then it hit me. This wasn't some college presentation, or an impromptu speech, it wasn't for a grade, and it wasn't for pride. In this room filled with fascinated Korean students, simply being there was enough. With that in mind, I took a deep breath, and let the class flow. I took the pressure off myself, by having the students introduce themselves, and before I knew it, that friendly jingle rang out again.

Through nine days of orientation, and a week thereafter of anticipation, I had almost entirely lost sight of the very reason I'd come here. Surrounded by the stresses of my peers, a list of expectations, and of course the unknown, I'd hyped this thing up to epic proportions. Now, as I sit here on Friday, just moments before another class, I'm feeling much lighter. Before coming here, I told myself that this wasn't about the job, it wasn't about money, it was about experience. I've been given the opportunity to learn and explore for a whole year. To immerse myself in an entirely new culture, to challenge myself, and to document the journey along the way. I'm certainly not the first person to say it, but for the first time in my life, I feel as if I now truly mean it. No matter what "it" is, it's only ever as stressful as you make it. Perspective is everything. It's time to go research.

"I already forgot everything you said" -the dig

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live & in person

The car accelerated swiftly, as a parking lot filled with scattering foreigners faded into view. From my backseat window, I watched a sterile city skyline, filled with judicial complexes and science centers, become a chaotic mess of wires and tin roofs. Alongside a river, the car wound back and forth navigating spontaneous pedestrians, stray cats, and numerous other obstacles. Past the exotic smells of a traditional market, through steam spouting manholes, and eventually into an ally, the driver, my co teacher, one of two, performed several death defying maneuvers all while bantering with my other co teacher. Blocked from a hazy morning sun, the car stopped abruptly in a damp and dark garage.

From the car to the lift, we stood there in silence, as the moment gained steam. "Beep, beep, beep", a green light flashed on the lock box, as the handle gave way. On a cold patch of tile, I took in the room. A fragment of kitchen hugged the left wall with a washroom on the right. Through a frosted glass sliding door, the main room beconned, with a bed, a small desk, a dresser, and a tv stand. From there, the sandy grey wooden floor continued through another sliding door which concealed a laundry room. The space was small, but clean, and functional. Relief.

Rushed off immediately for a long list of errands, I returned to the apartment that night, and immediately fell asleep. The next afternoon, after a morning at school, I sat in the space, contemplating my next move. Based on my drive in, this area looked rough, but curiosity prevailed. Down the cold marble staircase, I descended from my third floor flat onto the first narrow street. In an increasingly heavy rain, I walked swiftly, splashing through puddles, as I found my way. Not ten steps from my apartment, and I'd already found a cafe. Another five, and there were two more, each with their own feel. A mess of telephone, internet, and other wires connected the brick, granite, and wooden facades above.

A right, then a left, revealed my first taste of lights. Down a cavernous brick road, I wandered, under a shower of multi colored raindrops against the flashing neon sky. Past restaurants and tattoo parlours, bakeries, and bars, a bowling alley, a batting cage, and a thriving outdoor market. Under the shelter of the "sky road", an umbrella of screens, I turned slowly in awe.

Back at my flat, I shed my wet clothes and layed on my yoga mat, warmed by the traditional Korean floor heater. With my window cracked open, I listened to the sounds of the city on that rainy Wednesday night. The tap of the drips on my radiator outside, the honks of the horns, the motors of the scooters, it was all right there.

Eventually, I showered, and layed down for bed. With my widow, and both sliding doors closed, the room was silent. But, as I closed my eyelids, and drifted into a deep slumber, I thought about how amazing it is to live it in person. For months, I'd researched Daejeon, but now it was real. No longer a two dimensional screenshot, or a place on a map, this city, and this area, was now a place I could feel.

Use your toe edge

On paper, it's simple. To turn one direction you raise your toes, rock your ankles back, and apply pressure to your heels. You keep your knees bent slightly, and your torso tall. Your head guides your direction, and your board begins to follow.

To turn the other way is much the same. You point your front knee forward, and rock back to the ball of your foot and toes. You alternate direction to form and s, and then you form a ribbon of s's, some wide, some thin, you're snowboarding.

But of course, snowboarding isn't done on paper, it's done in freezing cold weather, often with low visibility, on unforgiving terrain. It's done at high altitudes, in bodies that probably aren't in shape. And most importantly, it's done with minds who rarely face such dyer consequence. For my 7 year old mind, the thought of leaning down a mountain to turn was far too terrifying to attempt.

In fact, despite a love for the mountains and the experience that was fostered on that initial trip, for the next decade, I stuck exclusively to the seated comforts of my heel edge. I'd slide around the mountain and even slip down a few intermediate runs from time to time, but only ever as a "heelside hero". I was cheating myself out of the full experience.

Then, at age 17, I took a trip with my father, and I had no choice. In order to keep up with him, I had to use my toe edge, so I did. And after all that time, I found myself able to make more precise turns with it than I ever had on my heels.

This year, as an instructor, I encountered numerous Heelside Heros. People of all shapes and sizes, various ages and fitness levels, all held back by the same thing, fear.

Often pitched as an extreme sport, these days I find snowboarding to be nearly meditative at times. When it's just me and my board, carving softly across an untouched hill. The trees towering above me, but at times revealing vast views. The silence of fresh snow below me, as the board floats with ease.

For the majority of my life I was scared of snowboarding, and now, after allowing myself to give it a try, it affords me a connection with nature and adventure that I've never known elsewhere.

About an hour ago I boarded a plane. This flight is to Dallas, but my next one is to Seoul. All my life I've dreamt of travel, and all my life I've been scared to go too far. I had an opportunity to study abroad in college, but didn't. I talked about teaching English for years, and never pursued it. But after a season of instructing, of watching the limiting effects of fear, of experiencing the rewards of a leap, I'm leaning down this mountain and taking control. I'm finally using my toe edge. 

🎶"O"