Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Back to the grind, back in Korea

EDIT: This is being posted one week after I wrote it.

I'm writing this in Korea. In a cheap hotel on Jeju Island, Korea (Google maps it) to be more precise. I'll be spending the next year here (although hopefully not in this hotel room...), working as an English teacher. While this is not the first time I've done this, it is my first time on Jeju. I spent a year teaching English to elementary- and middle-school students in Tongyeong (Google maps it, too), from August 2010 to September 2011. Why am I back in Korea?

Well, after dabbling in more “career paths” than I care to admit, teaching English in Korea has been the best option I've thusfar been able to make happen. Probably not the best based solely on financial gain, but certainly the best based on the combination of financial gain, quality of life, and opportunities presented. I made a bit more money as an Engineer, during my brief tenure as one from mid-2006 to mid-2008, enjoyed my day-to-day job more as a lift operator in New Zealand during the winter of 2008, and had more free time as a waiter / handyman in Australia in 2008 and 2009, but none of these jobs have provided quite the net personal benefit that teaching English did during my last adventure in Korea. So during the five months I spent back home in Colorado, from June through October, 2012, I spent a considerable amount of time looking for new teaching opportunities in Korea, hoping to quasi-replicate the amazing year I had here previously. And the fact that I've only worked for about three of the last 13 months and have been broke, living rent-free in my parents house (I'm now 30, by the way) while back home meant it was time to get back to work.

I landed at Incheon International Airport, one of the world's busiest airports (it lies just outside of Seoul), on the afternoon of October 24, and had about three and a half hours from the moment my flight touched down until my next flight would take off – from Gimpo International Airport, Seoul's other international airport. During this three and a half hours, I came to remember a few things that I loved about Korea. In order to get from Incheon to Gimpo, I had to (1) collect my checked baggage, (2) pass through customs and immigration at Incheon, (3) find my way to the inter-airport subway, (4) take this subway / rail line – a ride of 35 minutes, (5) collect my boarding pass at Gimpo, (6) go through security, and (7) get on my next flight. Would this have been doable in the United States? I don't really know, but it would be a lot more stressful, given the longer times required for each of the steps in this process. In Korea, I made it to my next flight with over an hour to spare. AND I wasn't forced to pay an excess baggage fee for this leg of my flight. I WAS forced to pay a $70 “extra bag” fee to take my camera gear from Denver to Seoul, and it would have been $270 if I hadn't just barely managed to get the weight of my primary bag down from 52 to 50 pounds, by means of transferring 2 pounds of stuff to another bag. Bear in mind this is just a transfer of weight. The plane was still carrying the same amount of weight. But the gate workers made me go through the loops, all over two pounds. Argh, whatever.

I landed in Jeju at about 8pm on October 24th, and after getting a ride to my aforementioned cheap hotel, I enjoyed a delicious meal of black pork, a Jeju specialty. I learned last night that it is only called “black pork” because the skin of the pigs raised on Jeju is black. Does it count as racism to charge more for black pigs? Regardless, it tasted about the same as normal pork. Delicious. Kind of like how black people taste the same as other races … delicious.

More than a little jetlagged, I fell asleep more solidly than I can remember having happened in the last few years. In fact, I woke up at 3 in the morning to find that all my lights were still on.

So far, so good. And then I had a shitty experience.

I was picked up outside my hotel by “Jimmy” (Korean name unknown) at 9:30 AM on October 25th. Jimmy was the guy who got me my job. He's basically an intermediary between potential public school teachers and EPIK (English Program In Korea), which is the Korean public school system, on Jeju. We spent the next five hours doing paperwork and whatnot that was required for me to teach. First, we went to the hospital, where I took a drug test that involved taking 4 (yes, four) vials of blood, and a urine test. Then, we went to the Education office, where I re-signed a contract that I'd signed earlier and emailed to Jimmy. Next, it was off to the bank so I could open an account so I could be, you know, paid. And then the ugliness.

Let's go back a ways. Prior to my five months in America, I'd spent about 3 months teaching English in Vietnam. This was roughly March – May, 2012. Long story short, I ended up leaving Vietnam with about $2,900 US in Vietnamese dong – yes, their currency is the dong, and yes, the currency I had with me in America was a gangsta-style half-inch-thick roll of 500,000 and 200,000 dong notes. I never exchanged it for American dollars because I wasn't able to find anywhere with a halfway decent exchange rate and was under the impression that it would be a different story once I was back in Korea. Turns out I was wrong.

After opening my new bank account with NH Bank, I asked if I could deposit my Vietnamese currency and was told, “Nope. Y'all gots ta roll inta one dem ekchange banks t' do dat.” Not verbatim. I explained to Jimmy that I needed to go to an exchange bank, and we went to Jeju's branch of KEB – Korea Exchange Bank – with whom I banked with when I was here before and had had nothing but positive things to say. We were in a rush at this moment, so I didn't bother counting the bills the teller had given me. The currency exchange accomplished, we carried on, taking care of the rest of the paperwork necessary for me to spend a year here as an English teacher. It seemed that everything went fine, and the rest of the day's interviews and paperwork breezed by. At about 3:30, I was back at my hotel with no obligations for the rest of the day, and looked at my financial situation.

At KEB, I should have been given about 2.8 million Korean Won. I'd even been given a receipt that said I was given about 2.8 million Korean Won. Unfortunately, I had only been given about 1.8 million Won. Only now realizing the situation a couple hours after the exchange, I panicked, and counted my money again. Panic, again. After re-re-confirming that I was about 1,000,000 Won (something like $900) short of what I should have been, I called Jimmy, and briefly explained the situation to him. He seemed a bit disbelieving, but suggested I return to the bank and explain the situation to them, with the stipend that if I encountered a problem, I was to call him. Heart racing, I walked back to the KEB, and pulled a number from the queue machine.

My number was called, but it wasn't pulled by the woman with whom I dealt earlier, so I pantomimed that I needed to speak with a specific teller. A few minutes later, I was “conversing” with the teller who had shortchanged me $900 a couple hours before. I went into this situation with the assumption that, no, she hadn't tried to steal $900 from me (she's Korean after all, and Koreans don't steal, right? Is that racist?). This assumption was based on my previous year here, during which I heard multiple stories of wallets being lost and subsequently returned with ALL the money contained therein untouched. Her reaction, however, just led to more questions.

When I explained that I was short one million Won, she didn't dispute the fact at all. She simply grabbed a million Won and handed it to me. She gave me $900 without batting an eye, checking records, or contacting a manager. I don't know whether this implies she knew she'd been caught stealing, or if she had, after my departure, realized that she'd shortchanged me, and just wanted to fix the situation immediately. I think this will remain one of life's unsolved mysteries.

Ah reckon that's just about enough for one entry. I'm going to try and be more vigilant about writing, and I'm optimistically saying that I will, in general, try to put up a new post every other week or so for the duration of my time in Korea. Next story: the first weekend. Spoiler alert: it involves a hospital visit...

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