In Korea, A Student In Teacher’s Shoes

by Dano Vukicevich

Recently, I decided to walk home from work instead of hopping on the usual 30-minute metro ride to my apartment in Busan, Korea. I desperately wanted to avoid the sleep-intoxicating atmosphere of the modern metro commute. The last few hours of work had not been particularly difficult, but had put me in an uncomfortably lethargic, unsatisfied mood. I figured a quiet walk through the warm night would improve my mood before I got back to the apartment I shared with my girlfriend.

Aerial view of the Busan, South Korea waterfront and city
Aerial view of the Busan, South Korea waterfront and city by Dano Vukicevich

The route home took me along a wooden walkway, which parallels a wide river that divides the Suyeong-gu and Haeundae-gu districts of Busan. When the walkway fed into a cobblestone-clad path next to a marina, I began to have a minor epiphany about why I was working in a foreign country to begin with. I felt a smile creep across my face as I watched neon shop signs, which advertised everything from fresh seafood to karaoke bars. The strangers I passed were suddenly infected with my spontaneous glee, and the rest of my walk was highlighted by glowing smiles.

Sometimes, working as an English teacher in Korea is uneventful and melancholy, but the feeling of satisfaction that comes with living abroad jumped back into to my mind. I found myself happy all over again that I’d decided to move overseas. During the rest of my journey home, I thought about how much I truly loved traveling, and even if my current situation was momentarily stationary, I was happy to be somewhere new.

I decided to teach abroad during my last semester of college in Colorado, because it was the quickest way I thought a financially strapped student could travel. The last time I was abroad was in during a month-long trip with my girlfriend, my brother, and his girlfriend in Peru. We flew home after a month because we needed to finish our last undergrad semester, and we were broke.

While I dined on top ramen for the entire next month, I thought hard about what I was going to do after I graduated. I was studying news and editorial journalism, and finishing up a double minor in history and political science — but I hadn’t even thought about attaining an internship that would jump-start some sort of career move. The only thing I could think about was how will I travel again? and, most importantly, how can I make the next trip last much longer than a month?

Both my parents are teachers, so obviously, growing up, it was the last career I aspired to pursue. But as soon as I started to really investigate teaching English abroad, it became clear that this was one of the fastest ways I could get on the road, and one of the few schemes I hatched that could provide a reasonable, steady income while abroad. 

I pored over travel blogs, Dave’s ESL Cafe, and teach-abroad recruiting websites, until I narrowed down my choice of country to either teaching abroad in South Korea or in Vietnam. At the time, I was working in a small, family-run Korean restaurant across the street from campus. The food they made was incredible and more unique than the Asian food I was used to. After letting my boss spoon-feed me bite after tasty bite of kimchi, bebimbap, and kimbab, I began to lean towards South Korea as the next place I would call home.

When I told her about my decision to teach abroad in South Korea, it became her mission to convince me to live in her old hometown: Busan. The pictures of the city I found online was the final push that convinced me. Busan has a population of more than four million — but is woven in between small mountains and an ocean, making the city seem much smaller and friendlier, not too unlike the town of 1,200 people I grew up in.

I emailed several job openings I found online, and all responded immediately and enthusiastically. I had never thought that getting a teaching position overseas would be so easy. Suddenly, I had options. I studied each area of Busan carefully, and compared different working conditions — specifically, who I would be teaching, and how far away the beach would be. Once I made my final decision, my recruiter guided me through the process of acquiring a teaching visa in Korea.

That turned out to be the easy part. Then I was finally forced to confront the unknown profession of teaching students a second language. Though I had been studying alongside teachers my whole life, and grew up with two wonderful teachers in my house, I knew nothing about performing their role. Even while I was on the airplane over the Pacific Ocean, I still had no idea what to expect. 

I landed in Busan late in the night and was greeted by several of my coworkers and one of my new employers, Admund, whose English skills were limited to “hello” and “let’s go.” They took me around town, even though it was a school night, and made me feel entirely comfortable with my surroundings.

My first day teaching was extremely scary, since I had never been the best public speaker. But my kindergarten and elementary-aged students were thoroughly entertaining and welcoming, as were all the Korean kids I met. After the first week, I couldn’t walk down the school’s hallway without a high-five or hug from a student, and I realized that, hmmm, this whole thing might work out for me after all.

Now, after eight months teaching in Busan, I occasionally get burnt out from the workload but remain very happy with my decision to teach abroad in Korea. Living as an ex-pat in a foreign country is very different than traveling through foreign countries. I am so fortunate to have a much more intimate insight into the Korean culture and society. Korea has really taken care of me — whether it was my boss driving me to the hospital during a nasty case of food poisoning, or locals constantly inviting me into their home for a meal. All Korea seems to want from an ex-pat is a smile, and they return one’s good intentions with unmatched love and kindness.

Relocating to a foreign country brings challenges and situations we never face at home. This is both a blessing and a curse as it helps you to become better at adapting to different kinds of stress. In my case, the school where I taught abruptly went bankrupt, and I was suddenly out of a job. After only a few months in South Korea, though, I had already built up a handy network of local resources and contacts. They helped me find another job in Busan until my visa expires. I will be forever grateful for the friends I have here for cushioning the blow of losing a job unexpectedly.

I am working part time, which has freed up my mornings to discover new areas of the city. Every time I go out exploring, I am reminded of how wonderful it can be living alongside a new culture. This is a feeling I never want to lose. I am not sure if I will teach abroad again, but I can say with absolute certainty that I will live abroad again. I don’t know where that will be, or where my next journey will take me, but I would never substitute the inspiration I have felt from living here for any other opportunity. There is a rather large, incredibly beautiful world out there, and I am determined to plant my feet in each corner of it.