Today it will be three years in the Land of the Morning Calm. I live in Jeonju, a city of 650,000 in the central west region, capital of its province. Estimates vary, but it’s generally believed that between 300-400 expatriates are living in my city as teachers. The majority of us are from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Although there are many mixed-race teachers, the schools for the most part like their foreigners white, with a preference towards blue-eyed and fair-haired. The more Aryan the better. They want us to look like the people they think they see on TV.
A day for me starts when I get up in the morning and ride my cheap Daewoo 125cc motorcycle down to the academy, where I teach a private lesson for $30 per hour to a 34-year-old lawyer whose English is pretty low. We’re working on basic vocabulary and simple conversation. Practical material. At the end of every week he pays me in a white envelope full of green 10,000 won bills. After he leaves for work a van painted in primary colors picks me up and drives me 20 minutes through the city and out of town. There we take a country road through terraced rice paddies, white herons hunting over the crop, until we reach the school. For the next three hours I babysit a classroom of fourteen kindergarten kids. We play games of hangman, they pick their noses unselfconsciously, and at lunch the cook implores me to eat more rice. Once I’m finished with that, I go back to the academy to teach one more hour of phonics. Then I’m done for the day.
In the end, life remains easy here. This expat game was once played by transients, outcasts, but the circumstances have changed. Now there are few jobs to go back to so there is little choice of whether to stay or not. Korea is a land of limited opportunities in this time of broken economies.
The other day I walked through the prostitute district, looking in at all the sad girls behind the windows, sitting on stools, in halter tops, skirts, and high heels, staring at the ground, wondering how they got there. It probably started with a credit card. I felt bad for them. They weren’t as lucky as we were. They didn’t have a Korea they could move to.