For one week, I joined 60 new and experienced English teachers at the Shin-Yang Park Hotel in Gwangju for the JLP (Jeollanamdo Language Program) Orientation. Looking back, orientation was as cushy as an adjustment experience could be. It felt like college without the exam crams, disappointing dining halls, or dilapidated dorms. On the other hand, the coffee binges, 50-minute lectures, group activities, and late-night extracurriculars gave me flashbacks.
Sunday afternoon, after a four-hour, jet-lagged, soju-soaked sleep, I checked out late and returned to Incheon Airport to meet my future colleagues. I spent the day in the terminal fumbling through small talk introductions, oscillating between feelings of awkwardness and excitement.
The bus ride to Gwangju comprised of 20-minute naps punctuated by sudden brakes or speed bumps. I jolted back to reality. Looking out the window, all I saw was darkness and isolated Hangul neon oases. My apprehension-addled and fatigue-riddled mind continued to parrot, “Wow. We’re in Korea. For real. No turning back. This is happening. Man, I’m tired. I’m just going to put my head here and-”. Take a 20-minute nap. Repeat.
Fortunately, during the first day of orientation, excitement triumphed over anxiety. Every morning started with a breakfast buffet. I indulged on bacon (such good bacon), smoked salmon, boiled eggs, vegetables, and kimchi. More importantly, I consumed copious quantities of coffee. Urination station was a frequent destination (another college flashback).
While breakfast offered a balanced mix of Korean and Western viands, lunch and dinner were more authentically Korean. We sat at tables of four and enjoyed feasts of rice, soup, stew, meat, fish, vegetable side dishes, and some kimchi to wash it all down. It was an optimal opportunity to use chopsticks (poorly), converse with my fellow teachers (convivially), and adapt my stomach to Korean cuisine (painfully).
I was grateful for the opportunity to dine. Back in the States, I feed more than I dine. In other words, I stuffed my face as fast as possible with the sole goal of satisfying my stomach with sustenance. During my first week in Korea, eating with chopsticks helped me take smaller bites and tablemates helped me stretch the time between bites. In other words, I re-learned mindful eating.
Jet lag kicked my butt for the first four days. Fortunately, the very first speaker (a lovely woman from the education office) allayed my sleepy concerns.
“I know you are probably very tired,” she said sweetly. “If you show up and want to sleep, it’s okay. Sleep. Just be on time.”
Punctuality prioritized over alertness? It was a fair and tempting offer, but my excitement prevented me from taking advantage.
One night, I impetuously decided to join some teachers downtown for beverages. It became the best impromptu decision I made in a long time. Early on we struggled to find an open bar. However, we later found a swanky-looking joint called Rooftop. Carousing, story-swapping, and laughter put a bow on another day in paradise.
At the end of the night, while approaching the register to pay my share, I muttered to myself in Korean, memorizing my lines.
“Mek-ju-say-jan-ul-ma-yay-yo” (How much for three beers?). Nailed it. The two bartenders looked impressed. I smiled, happy to learn that blank stares weren’t inevitable. They commented on how tall I was and pointed to their co-worker, saying she wanted to give me a hug.
Standing 13 inches above her, I thought this would be funny and agreed. I spread my wingspan for an embrace. She cowered ever so slightly and let out a cute squeak of laughter and shock. It finally hit me. I won’t blend in here. However, she recovered and we hugged.
As the week wore on, interacting with individuals from across the English-speaking world awakened my inner linguaphile. For example, I enjoyed learning South African English words like brai (an outdoor barbecue with a campfire). I also noticed a subtle distinction in question intonation between British English and American English speakers. (There is a slight difference in the timing of the upward interrogative inflection.) (e.g. “Are you goING?” vs. “Are you GOing?”) I could geek out on this stuff for hours.
Much of orientation felt like a promotional timeshare trip where you partially enjoy idyllic leisure in exchange for sitting through long sales pitch meetings. However, the week also taxed my inner introvert. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated the near constant socializing. However, at times I felt burnt out. I conversed more in one day that I would in a week back home. However, when I chose to lean into this discomfort, I pushed my social skills forward and grew stronger from it.
To be honest, I didn’t learn a lot of useful, specific information in the lectures. It wasn’t due to poor lectures or poor note taking. I enjoyed every lecture in a semi-awake stupor with pen and notebook in hand. However, every school, living situation, and class are unique. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching. Therefore, the most valuable takeaways came in the form of distilled main ideas that could be explained in five minutes (be flexible, be ready for unexpected changes, understand and accept your low place in the school status hierarchy, design fun lessons, take care of yourself).
Regardless, orientation provided immense value in terms of cultural adjustment. I am beyond grateful that JLP offers its teachers a full week to adjust to Korean time, culture, and food before thrusting them into the workplace to fend for themselves. The opportunity to hang out with 60 other teachers, learn new card games (like Egyptian Rat Screw and Werewolf), and cultivate support systems is irreplaceably helpful. In addition, the chance to empathize with individuals who just a week ago lived a world apart from me was unforgettable.
Looking back, orientation felt like a week-long educational vacation. I spread my wings in a new country and floated on cloud nine. However, My Icarus bliss came to an abrupt end as I plunged into the deep end. I had to leave my newfound friends and resume adulting.
This is the view of Mokpo from a friend’s balcony. By Korean standards, this is considered a very small city. Walking in the shadow of the tall buildings make me feel otherwise.
I took this from a Buddhist temple in Wolchulsan National Park. Green mountains are everywhere and never fail to fill my eyes with wonder.
Indoor archery ranges are very popular here. Not too shabby for my first time. An even bigger win was an injury-free weekend.
I find one of these stores every 500 meters at most. One can acquire ample soju and hangover remedies for the affordable price of ₩7,000.
Yes, it is. With Kalbi sauce on top :).