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To Live and Teach in South Korea

Living and Teaching in Pusan, Korea

Hae-dong Temple near Pusan, Korea
Hae-Dong Temple near Pusan, Korea.

Slowly breathe in then slowly breathe out. Inhale serenity then exhale my ego. Trying to do my best to focus my attention on myself rather than on the chatty tourists, I dove and made the inevitable journey inwards. I had no idea how much time had passed. Time seemed to have come to a standstill.

***

The Decision

I had just graduated from my university with a degree in English. Even though I loved literature and writing, I had no idea what I wanted to do when it came to a career. Being quite reserved and introverted, teaching was an option—though it seemed like a distant one. But I felt that I needed a drastic change in my life. It was not long before I signed up for a TESOL certification course and told the agency representing me that I was interested in working in either Taiwan or Korea. Having sent out one letter to each country, Korea was the first to respond, and my prompt response was about to accelerate my exposure to a new world.

Why Pusan?

For my entire life I had lived in the cold and often brutal northeastern coast of the United States. So when I had to decide where to stay in Korea, I knew that I wanted to live near the beach. I did not care if it was a small beach, a crowded beach, or even a dirty and polluted beach. I simply wanted to be near a beach. Pusan made sense to me because I hated the cold, and from the stories I had heard about the Korean winters in Seoul, I wanted to be as far away from the tundra as possible. With a population of over 3.5 million, it is the second largest city in the country. Even though it is second to Seoul in terms of population, it is still number one in a many other qualitative ways.

The Welcome

Rooted on the southeastern coast, Pusan is known for its exotic seafood, sultry beaches, rowdy baseball fans, and much slower pace of life compared to its big brother capital. Although salaries are relatively lower than average in contrast to Seoul, hospitality in Pusan makes up for the pay. In Pusan I discovered that it was not just a coincidence that so many expats trumpet the kindness of Koreans. Because the city has a smaller population than Seoul, there are fewer foreigners. This means that those who are not natives tend to be viewed in a special and often peculiar manner.

To illustrate the unusual kindness I found in Pusan, one of my fondest memories occurred when I was jogging by an elementary class on a local bike path. All fifty of their little faces lit up. Every one of them waved and said hello as if I was a rock star. Needless to say, I started to feel like one after a few months.

Even on the last day prior to leaving, I had people coming up to me continuing to offer a welcome to Korea. It is definitely a shock coming to a country when you are not used to receiving such kindness. At first it seems strange, but then you realize that such consideration is not a front but a driving force in their way of life. Becoming familiar with the fine points of their culture and language will not only help you out but will assist you in your assimilation by leaps and bounds. Koreans love anyone who takes the time to learn about their way of life and they will welcome you with open arms if you choose to do so.

Getting Around

It will not take long until one of your students wants to be your personal tour guide and shows you around the area. Even if you think that you can manage, Koreans want to make sure that you are able to find and get to everything with no problems at all. Do not be surprised if your Korean friends grab your hand when crossing the street or to prevent you from getting lost in a mob of people.

One benefit of living in a city such as Pusan is that the public transportation is excellent. Compared to Seoul, the subway system of Pusan only has three lines, making it much easier to get around. It is the best system of transportation for anyone new to the country because the subway map is in both Korean and English. The buses, on the other hand, do not all have English translations and you may find it confusing to figure out which route you are on. I treated getting lost on a bus as the sort of an initiation every foreigner must go through. Besides the bus and the train, the taxi can be an absolute life saver despite the higher cost. Before getting on a taxi, it is best to able to pronounce the town that you want to go to. Ask your Korean friends and students to help you with your pronunciation if you are having trouble. Although most taxis have a telephone help service, learning to correctly pronounce your destination will save you loads of time and trouble. Even thought taxi fares are increasing, they are still relatively low compared to Seoul and other major cities around the world. Most fares start at 1500 won ($1.20) and increase in 100 won (.70 cents) increments.

***

Adjusting my awkward cross-legged seated posture and my meditation cushion, I slowly rose and gathered my things. The giant golden statue of Buddha stared back at me. I stood up and tried to shake the life back into legs which had both fallen asleep. The sense of stillness remained.

***

Food

Being the fifth busiest seaport in the world, Pusan is the perfect place for seafood lovers. Tanks of eel jaang-oh and squid oh-jing-oh stand posted in front of just about every corner store. In the nearby city of Nampo-Dong—just to the south of Pusan—one can find the largest fish market in the country. Here at the Chagalchi market numerous potential a la carte oddities can be bought including sea squirt and jelly fish. Because of its prime location, seafood costs a fraction of what it would be anywhere else and it is possible to eat a meal fit for a king for a price affordable to a pauper. Like the rest of the country, the food is spicy. Soju, a vodka tasting rice liquor, flows from the cups all night to accompany the spicy food. Spiced cabbage kim-chi sits on every table. Tipping as a custom is virtually nonexistent. It is not unusual and even very much common for the teachers and students to dine and even indulge in a few drinks together. Do not feel awkward if your class asks you to go out for a bite at the end of the day. Pusan is certainly a party for your pallet—from the shrimp chips to the jerky-like dried squid served at the movie theaters and baseball games, Pusan is the seafood capital.

The Beach and Surrounding Areas

With its shimmering seascape and rocky ridges, Haeundae offers the most famous beach in the country and is host to a variety of events. There is a spiritual gathering called “The Awakening” which attracts so many people that the mass of humans can even be seen from space. Of all of the beaches near Pusan, including Song-Jeong, and Gwangan-li, Haeundae is the most popular of the three. Even though it attracts thousands of tourists each year, Haeundae still maintains its cultural identity.

Because a suntan is frowned upon, it is not uncommon to see women and men wear garments that cover both their arms and legs. Pale skin is not only sought after, but exposing a lot of skin is viewed as a bit disrespectful as well. Pusan is much more conservative than Seoul and the people who do wear revealing clothes on the beach are either from the capital or from visiting countries. Even though it is slowly becoming more acceptable, if you do choose to wear a bikini be prepared for stares and the infamous pointing of the finger.

Outside of Haeundae is the beach of Gwangan-li. Here one can go on the Ferris wheel at the Me World carnival, eat some of the town’s well known eel and take a postcard picture of the massive modern day Colossus of Rhodes suspension bridge. In October the beach is host to one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the world. Under the bridge, lasers, music, and rockets whiz through the air.

Haeundae Beach near Pusan, Korea
Haeundae Beach near Pusan, Korea.

Temples and Hiking

Besides the beach, Pusan offers some of the most magnificent temples in the country. Since Korea is a terrain that is carved out of a rough and rugged mountainous landscape. One has to hike to reach most of the temples. Clad in hiking gear and wielding their walking sticks, housewives (ah-jumas) and their husbands (ahd-ju-shees) line the countryside hills to participate in what is a year-round activity of hiking and visiting the temples. Just a few minutes from the beach crowd stands one enchanting temple in particular. Located off of Song-Jeong, Hae-Dong is built on the precipice of a cliff that overlooks the sea. After having been destroyed by the Japanese during WWII, Hae-Dong shows no sign of its reconstruction and the original aura still emanates from within the temple walls. Because of the temple’s isolated location there are no bus routes to and from it—which means that it can only be reached by car or by foot. Despite the tourist crowds, the temple of Hae-dong and other temple sites are places to escape the industrialization and babble of the urban atmosphere. Beomosa, which is the largest temple in the city, offers visitors the chance to participate in a weekend-long temple stay to see what it really is like to live as a Buddhist monk.

Since Buddhism as the dominate religion, the temple is one of the best places to immerse yourself in Korean culture. Despite the heckling car horns and jack hammers patterning on the pavement, the temple brings closure to the chaos. Away from the city lights, nestled in the heart of the mountains, the wispy ancient air is the true cry of Korea that every visitor needs to experience before they leave.  

***

Once I left the meditation room a kind elderly woman reached into her bag and handed me a rice cake tightly wrapped in a sandwich bag. Although I had only been meditating for 20 minutes in that room, my stay in Korea was like a year-long contemplation. I left the country a completely different person.

Teaching English in Korea

Ways to Avoid Landing a Nightmare Job:

  • Learn how contracts work and study the contract.
  • Ask a teacher who works in the school a few questions about the living and working conditions.
  • Research the reputation of the institute.
  • If possible, visit the school itself.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no to the contract: You are not going to hurt anyone’s feelings .

Resources for Teaching in Korea and Pusan

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