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Living in South Korea: A Farewell Party

Myeong Dong street downtown Seoul.

The snow’s been late coming this winter, but now it is here and it is relentless. Still a long way from developing my snow legs, I am determined that nobody see just how unsteady I am on the icy roads. Everything is on a hill here, and I take tiny shuffles down the slope. Korea is the land of hills and nobody is moving too quickly.

The snowfall is doing a good job of hiding the endless concrete. The bright flashing neon lights lining both sides of the street shine on through. Children — in Korea always out playing in the middle of the night – run in groups, throwing poorly-formed snowballs and slipping over on the new ice again and again. It is a strange and wintry fairyland.

We arrive at bright yellow door of an otherwise traditional building, and our large group removes our shoes and settles around the table. It is only our first destination for the night: in Korea there is a “three venue rule” that dictates a night out is not complete until revelers have been to three places; perhaps a galbi (barbequed meat) restaurant, a hof (pub) and a noraebang (singing room). Hot coals are placed under the (rack?) and steam rises up as meat is barbequed in front of us.

The Farewell Party Begins

After living in Korea for some time now none of this is foreign to me, but tonight is different; tonight is my farewell party.

Yes, I am yet another English teacher finishing yet another 1-year contract at a private language academy, or hagwon as they are known here. Teaching in Korea is a phenomenon that is not going away any time soon. The options for the “Native English Teacher” are endless. Adults enroll for classes before and after work, while children who are still not old enough to attend regular school attend English kindergartens. Young and old and everybody in between are desperate to improve their English skills, be it for business, study, or just to keep up with their peers.

I watch my boss Mr. Kim eye the soju bottle again as the ajumma (the married lady of the establishment) comes over to hack up the rest of the meat with a pair of scissors. My legs are cramping up as I sit cross-legged on the cushion, but there is no room on either side of me to stretch out. I bash the foot that has gone to sleep while I watch in horror as Mr. Kim fills my shot glass once more.

Eventually the food stops coming out. We are putting our shoes back on when there is a commotion I cannot understand. The owner is chasing after us and gesturing back inside, and before we know it shoes are back on the shelves and we are sitting back on the cushions around the table. We are unable — it seems — to leave until we have been served big bowls of strawberries. This has never happened before, and it is suggested that it is something special for me.

On Expatriate Life in Korea

I am not the only foreigner in this neighborhood, but there are few others. It can be isolating, and yet it can also work in my favor, with people happy to help me with anything from paying bills to putting groceries in shopping bags when I start to look a little lost.

The expatriate network is there if you need it. Seoul — and the rest of the country — is a center for foreign business, with everything from the major automotive and technological companies to the EFL industry attracting thousands upon thousands of people from other countries. As a result, people from almost any Western country will find a support network to suit their needs for everything from assistance finding imported goods from home, to the organization of social gatherings to reminisce about home.

The Party Continues

My Korean is far from stellar, but in the rushed conversation that takes place outside the restaurant I hear the word noraebang and I start to feel a little queasy. We are off on our way before I have an opportunity to protest.

Many of the restaurants are still pumping music over loudspeakers and onto the street, the steam of sizzling meat blowing out into biting air. It is just our luck that Siberian wind has chosen now to start blowing through the city. We reach a tiny doorway in a darker part of the main street. The gruff little man at the desk remembers us, no doubt because our group has foreigners in tow.

Noraebang. For some crazy reason I thought I might be able to avoid it tonight. It is best explained as karaoke in a private room — the word translates as “singing room.” Mr. Kim hands out tambourines. I try and hide behind the table in the middle of the booth while a tray of beer appears out of nowhere and is placed on our table. Indistinguishable multicolored snacks arrive in little bowls. No matter how badly people sing they are awarded with a high score splashed across the screen at the end of each song. I shake my tambourine and hope they do not notice I have still not sung a single note. This time our drinks are left unfinished as we head off to a hof.

At the hof we are ushered into a tiny curtained cubicle that we must to pass through the kitchen to reach. By now a few of our group are looking like they would rather be in bed, and the revelry slows considerably. Though it is well past midnight and we probably should have eased up on the food and drinks some time ago, everybody is still bowing and showing respect to superiors where appropriate.

The Old and New Coexist

Old and new sit firmly together here, and I found as an English teacher I was expected to bumble along and take part in the Korean traditions as well as the more recent cultural imports. There is always a huge margin for error afforded to non-Koreans, and if my rice cakes for Chuseok (a holiday often described as “Thanksgiving”) were a little misshapen, or if I did not quite get the rules for one of the traditional games I was playing, I was always forgiven. “Hanbok” — the distinctive and voluminous national dress — is still worn for many an occasion, with the locals thinking nothing of changing from the latest Western fashions into ancient-styled silk and back again.

Traditional culture is alive and well in central Seoull.

Finding the Way Back Home

I finally find an opportunity to make my escape and I start off in what I hope is the direction home. The concrete apartment towers rise — identically — in every direction. I try to recognize some of the neon signs, and keep walking. A bunch of school kids in British public school-style uniform break in their conversation to yell, “Hello!” at my retreating form. Why they are out so late is beyond me. I suppose I should be a little concerned about being lost in a big city, but I always seem to find my way home, and the people around me regard me more with awe than malice.

There is no doubt the urban Korean landscape can be less than inspiring. A crowded population combined with a trend for apartment living has resulted in rows of identical grey towers stretching for many miles in many directions. It is only after coming to terms with this uniformity of lifestyles that the expatriate can start to dig deeper into the culture and discover how much really does go on and how many ways the Korean people have found to make the most of their time.

Emerging at an intersection I find what I have been looking for — my small apartment building in my little corner of Korea. It is far too hot inside — Korea’s under floor heating system, ondol, is surprisingly effective — so I throw the windows wide open and watch the snow falling silently. A man stands outside my building, contemplating his car. It is snowed into the gutter. He gives up and tramps off down the road.

It is two in the morning and I have a suitcase to pack.

For More Information

Korean ESL Cafe Job Forum : The definitive site for English teachers in South Korea. Here you will find information on everything from finding a job, to paying bills, to where to socialize.

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