[Seoul Lounge] Our indelible life in an island village

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[Seoul Lounge] Our indelible life in an island village

Some fellow Canadian friends of mine introduced my husband Andy and me to the prospect of teaching in Korea. They raved about their life and teaching experiences in such a foreign land, and our interest was piqued instantly. The more we looked into it, the more we thought it was the perfect step for us as newlyweds, the main draw being the adventure of living in another country (we are both avid travelers), and also being able to make some money to pay off those pesky student loans, as we had both just completed our university degrees. Andy had graduated from teachers college, so teaching overseas would be a great way to broaden his experiences.

Coming from rural northern Ontario in Canada, we were used to a simple, quiet life, and so we hoped, despite the drastic population difference between the two countries, it would be possible to live in a rural setting in Korea. Our recruiters, Canadian Connection, graciously fulfilled this request by setting us up with two small island schools, where we would be the first foreign English teachers to live and teach there.

And so we became the English teachers at Docho and Bigeum Island’s elementary, middle and high schools. We were given residence on the Docho Middle and High School campus where I teach, so Andy has a 20-minute ride to the Bigeum schools every day over the bridge connecting the two islands. Upon arrival, we were immediately taken aback by the beauty of our new home: long, secluded beaches, green, climbable mountains and of course, the sea, lapping away at all sides of the islands. We were greeted warmly by a community who had never or seldom seen foreigners, as well as by our principals and fellow teachers, who did everything in their power to ensure we were comfortable and happy, providing us with as many Western amenities that they could get their hands on.

It was very easy to sink into our new job. The students are extremely respectful and attentive, something that is rare in the Canadian classroom. They took a great interest in Andy and me, and we have gotten to know the students outside of the classroom, going on hikes and enjoying sports like badminton and soccer together.

Although we enjoy the slow-paced atmosphere of the islands, we have no trouble keeping ourselves busy. On the weekends we love climbing the numerous mountains, going fishing with local people and when the weather permits, just relaxing on the beach. We really enjoy Korean food, although it did take some getting used to. I’ll never forget the look on Andy’s face (although I probably had the same look on mine) when a plate of squirming, live octopus was brought out at a teacher’s dinner one night. Or the time I went fishing with some fellow teachers and we ate the fish raw and still very much alive with a chunk of garlic - it doesn’t get much fresher than that! And although we couldn’t have imagined it when we first arrived in Korea, kimchi and rice have become staples in our diet; a meal just isn’t the same without kimchi and rice.

Island life does pose its challenges. Docho Island has been in a state of drought for the past two months, so we only have water one in three days. Also, the ferry, our only means of transport to the mainland, is often cancelled due to high winds, making it difficult to plan excursions to the city. However, these things just make our lives more interesting, where everyday is an adventure. We wouldn’t want to be teachers anywhere else in Korea.

We feel very lucky as Westerners being immersed in Korean culture to such a large degree by living on these islands, and we think of our experience here as truly unique and special. Living on an island, we have had the opportunity to befriend many of the local people. There is a couple who have come to have a special place in our hearts. We met them the first day we came to the islands. My principal took us on a tour, and we finished our excursion at their beachside restaurant for dinner. Since my principal and his wife had quickly become our oma (mother) and apa (father) in Korea, they insisted on being called “Oma-Two” and “Apa-Two,” especially since they have three sons and Oma-Two had always wanted a daughter.

Taking our scooter, we ventured to their restaurant one night on our own - a challenge because we couldn’t speak any of each other’s language. A warm greeting welcomed us. After ordering bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables) we sat outside with Apa-Two, drinking beer, making little conversation and enjoying the natural beauty of our surroundings as Oma-Two worked her magic in the kitchen. Soon she presented us with her version of bibimbap, the best that we have had since we have lived here.

But it wasn’t the food that touched us so much as the fact that they pulled up chairs, set themselves places beside us and enjoyed the delicious meal with us. We truly felt part of their family despite the difficulties that the language barrier poses. After a laughter-filled dinner, we helped clear the table, do the dishes and clean up the kitchen, and we finished the night with tea under the almost-full moon. This experience was very special to us as we were treated with the same love and care that our own parents - a half a world away - would treat us with, and we were left with such a warm impression of Korean people in general.

by Jane Kennedy
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