For the months leading up to our big move, I tried to keep my expectations of what was to come in Korea low, nonexistent even. In a situation that was totally out of my hands, speculating about where I would be placed, what my school would be like, or what my apartment might have seemed like an opportunity to be disappointed. We came here with the understanding that we might not be placed in the same city, but, knowing we were both placed in Jeonbuk Province, we figured we would be able to make whatever placement situation we were faced with work.
I didn’t realize the degree to which I was expecting for Joey and I to be near-ish to one another until arriving at the Jeonbuk Office of Education, opening our envelopes, and discovering that we are placed on opposite ends of the province — Joey in the western farm-city of Gimje, and me up in the rural mountain town of Muju. Within the hour, we were picked up by our respective co-teachers and whisked to our new, separate realities. I looked out the rain-splattered window as we ascended the foggy mountain, the weather reflecting the dreary thoughts in my head. As we rose up to meet the clouds hanging low in the valley, this adventure together started to feel a whole lot more like a solo mission.
And the hits kept coming. As we neared Muju, my co-teacher informed me that my apartment was not quite ready for me yet. In fact, the (should be) former tenant was, in fact, still living in the apartment and I would not be able to move in for two weeks; it had been arranged for me to stay with the landlady until then. I lay in a strange bed that night, in a stranger’s home-office-turned-guest-room, in a tiny town I had never heard of before today, struggling to remind myself of the reasons I was here, again, in a fraught situation in Asia.
I woke early the next morning to kitchen sounds — metal clinking against ceramic; a sink being turned on and off. I came out of my room to find the landlady, Mrs. Chu, setting out an elaborate breakfast spread. Alongside a bowl of soup and another of rice, she was filling the table with a variety of side dishes, known as banchan. Speaking loudly and clearly into her phone, as Mrs. Chu speaks no English, she told me via the life-changing “conversation” feature of Google Translate, to, “Please, eat a lot.” I did my best, despite my residual uneasiness and the early hour, grateful for her nurturing kindness. People like this, I thought: This is why I am here.
In Thailand, I was an English teacher at one high school. Here, I am a Guest English Teacher at three schools: an elementary school, a middle school, and a combined elementary-middle school. Joey is in a similar situation, teaching at two elementary schools and one middle school; nearly everyone we have met through EPIK teaches at multiple schools. This structure presents its own set of perks (example: a monthly bonus for each additional school you have) and challenges.
Remember how I mentioned that Muju is a rural town? Yeah, I’m talking 30 kids in the entire Kindergarten-Elementary-Middle School combined. My class sizes range from 1 to 9. On my first day at my first school, after missing my bus and arriving minutes before the would-be bell (there are no real bells) I was thrown in to 4 back-to-back-to-back-to-back classes and told to teach. Having learned my lesson in Thailand (never come to class with nothing prepared, even if it’s your first day and you don’t know the English level/grade level/class size/current lesson/anything at all about the class), I had a get-to-know-me lesson loosely planned, and fell clumsily into my slightly rusty teacher shoes.
The rest of the week was more forgiving than this first jarring morning. I met my students, but was not expected to teach just yet. My co-teachers provided me with textbooks to loosely follow and an idea of where I should pick up with each of my classes the following week, once I had time to lesson plan. By my third school, I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I sat down at my desk and powered on the computer. I spotted a file on the desktop marked, “HERE NEW ENGLISH TEACHER!” and opened it. The guest English teacher from before, Bill, had left me with his old lessons, PowerPoints, games, and resources, neatly organized by school and grade level. I smiled at the screen incredulously. People like this, I thought: This is why I am here.
On Tuesday I was woken before my alarm by a knock on the bedroom door. Mrs. Chu came in, enunciating carefully into her phone: “I have something to show you,” she said, motioning for me to come with her. I sleepily followed her out the front door, down the hallway, and into apartment 302: my apartment! Apparently, I could move in today — now! I spent my free time in the following days cleaning and moving in. The other foreign teachers in my building were there to answer my questions, offer advice, and pass along Bill’s parting gifts: pots, utensils, a rice cooker, a kettle.
By Friday it had been a week since Joey and my’s rushed and slightly traumatic goodbye as I was whisked into the unknown mountains. Now I sit across the table from him, writing and drinking coffee. I’m happy to have him going through his own adjacent experience right here with me. It is reassuring to have someone here who gets it, who supports me, to experience the ups and downs with, even if we only get to be together on the weekends. People like this.
Moving to a new country is hard, and the initial adjustment period is the hardest. Here we are: one week in. We are getting the hang of things, but there is a lot more to learn and discover. Is it different than what we were expecting? You bet it is. Are we going to make it work? You bet we are.