It was my first time outside North America. The first time I’d gone further east than Orlando, further west than San Francisco, further south than Tijuana or further north than British Columbia. I had just crossed an ocean and my passport was about to lose its virginity.
Incheon International Airport is designed to serve Seoul, the capital of South Korea and a metropolitan area of 24.5 million people. It’s really big. I don’t think I have ever gotten my luggage from baggage claim without assistance even in a small airport and, as such, Incheon threatened to permanently separate me from my clean underwear. Thankfully an exceptionally tall, pre-pubescent looking airport employee spoke enough English to get me my bags. From there my new employers had commanded I should get on the shuttle running from Incheon to downtown Seoul. I found it through a combination of dumb luck, trial and error. There were many signs in English, but I was too distracted by the Chinese, Korean and Japanese script written alongside to make any sense of them.
The bus was huge, brightly colored and trimmed with grey fake velvet. I grabbed a seat next to the window and got my first real look at the country whose children I would spend the next year educating. I saw mountains rolling off into the horizon, the Han River cutting its way to the ocean and an almost complete lack of suburbs. Cities begin in one place, wilderness abuts the city and there are no single family homes on 1/8th acre plots to ease the transition. I also noticed the most spectacularly ugly automobiles in the world. Google “Ssangyong” if you want to see exactly what I’m referring to.
The bus reached Seoul’s incredibly dense outskirts around 10 pm. The horizon was no longer defined by mountains but by enormous apartment towers glowing a gentle green through their energy saving, specially coated windows. It took another hour driving at normal speeds in light traffic to reach central Seoul. We arrived at the COEX bus station and I caught the Chungdahm affiliated taxi service to my hotel. I found my room without any problems, laid down for a quick rest and woke up 14 hours later.
Becoming a pedagogue
Chungdahm trains all of its future employees in one central Seoul office. To keep the operation going smoothly the academy also rents several rooms at the very nice Coatel Motel year round. They usually put two trainees per room. The Coatel features restaurants, spas, a mini-mart and lots of places for overwhelmed foreigners to gather and converse. That last feature would turn out to be most important for my fellow newbies and I.
When I woke the next day I wondered down to the lobby and out onto the streets where I noticed two things immediately. First, little old ladies walking home from church will not hesitate to run your ass down if you don’t move in time. Second, men on scooters use the sidewalks as passing lanes. Feeling a little like a refugee from the Frogger video game, I looked to a convenience store for both refuge and my first Korean meal.
About the meal … I had decided before leaving that I would not shy away from new experiences. I would do as the Koreans did and I would leave my Americanness in America. As such, I decided to only purchase things I didn’t recognize during my first week in Seoul. One of the bilingual Koreans in my training group, upon examining the wreckage, later told me that my first breakfast had consisted of kimbab (rice, meat and seaweed wrapped together), 40 proof rice wine, a strawberry health bar and a drink for women designed to fight off menstrual cramps. No wonder the clerk had given me such a strange look.
That Monday I rose at 7 AM and had breakfast with some of the other trainees. Some were Canadians, one was South African, two were exceptionally annoying Irishmen, and about half came from the United States. None of us had the slightest clue what we were doing until the bilingual Korean trainees took pity on us and told us how to order breakfast, explained where to exchange our money for Korean Won and assured us that the bus to training wouldn’t be by for another three hours.
Which brought me to my first realization about the Korean national character, the people I met had very indulgent attitudes to the idiot foreigners who were doing everything the wrong way and generally making a mess. The native Koreans I dealt with could have cheated me out of my money a hundred different times, they could have told me to buzz off and they should have yelled at me for screwing up their work. None of that happened even once.
The training program itself was nearly worthless. Mock teaching helped, going over the books helped and watching videos of experienced teachers while they worked helped. Unfortunately those things together covered barely four hours in the 20 hours of classroom time. The rest we spent learning the intricacies of scheduling, the importance of never exceeding five minutes for warm-ups and how respectful the students would be.
Unfortunately, at the time our instructors led us to believe that a large percentage of new arrivals would fail and then be evicted from the country. They convinced us that memorizing the schedule and the order of classroom components was of utmost importance and they encouraged us to form study groups. This all became a source of annoyance when at the end of the week everyone, even the ones everybody knew would make awful teachers, passed the final tests. The only person I even heard about not passing was a girl who cried all the way through her mock teaching and even she only had to retake the training course. So, to summarize, if you get a teaching gig in Korea you should study hard but you probably don’t have to.
At the conclusion of the week I jumped on the comfortable and inexpensive 190 mph KTX bullet train and headed to the city I would call home, Daegu.