Interview With an Expat: Amanda Segal on Living and Teaching in Korea
In this, the first of a series of interviews with expats, teachers, and other vagabonds living in Korea, I interview Amanda Segal, an expat teaching in Yeoju. Here, Amanda shares some of her experiences adapting to life in a small town in Korea.
Originally from Cape Town, Anthony has lived in Korea for three years. Besides writing for the Expat Lounge, he enjoys drinking mulled wine in the snow and experimenting in the kitchen.
While not being interviewed, Amanda enjoys making people laugh, and going to the movies just to eat the popcorn. She blogs at: flylikeasegal
Anthony: Let’s leap right in and ask the obvious question that every expat in Korea has to answer: How did you get here; What’s your Korean “origin story”?
Amanda: Well, I had always wanted to live abroad after college, and a friend of mine that I studied abroad with in Israel in high school happened to be living in Korea and teaching in this town. So, when I was applying for jobs at the beginning of 2012, I said to her “Oh, I think I got an interview in Yeoju!” and she said I should definitely come.
Wow, so, you weren’t considering Korea because you knew someone here, you just happened to land a job interview in the same place as someone you had lived with in Israel?
Yeah, it was a total coincidence! I was offered a few different positions: one in Daegu, and one here, and she said “Oh! That’s where I live. It’s great.” So I took the job.
What was that process like for getting the job?
Well, at first I was considering both hagwon and public school jobs. I wanted to work with older kids, high school kids and, while for some people the hagwon schedule- that 2pm – 10pm kind of schedule works – for me, I decided that I would probably never see the light of day, so I went with the public school job.
Was that the only factor you took into consideration in choosing between public and private schools?
No: the particular hagwon I was offered a job at included a strange clause in its contract where for two months of the year – I guess during vacation time? – you had to work a lot of overtime, and I just couldn’t get anyone to clarify how much or how the payment worked, and something about it made me uneasy.
I think that’s definitely one of the appeals of public schools: the standard contract.
It was hard though, because the hagwon job was in Daegu, and I’ve heard a lot of great things about that city. But, yeah, now I’m in the countryside.
Well, Yeoju is what, an hour out of Seoul? And the countryside in Korea is not really countryside like anywhere else.
Yeah. Most people who live as far out as I do still have access even to the subway, or at least to trains. Yeoju is only bus; they’re building a KTX out here, but it won’t be completed until 2016 or something like that.
How have you found life in a small town in Korea, both in terms of your own comfort, and adapting to Korean culture?
I love Korean food so that’s something that doesn’t bother me. It’s cheap and delicious so I don’t have to cook for myself very often. One of the biggest perks of living in the countryside is the space; I mean my situation is very unusual, because I have a huge apartment: three bedrooms in a big complex. Some of my friends living here in Yeoju, they teach at the middle school, have a beautiful view of the mountains from their apartment.
Other than that, the adjustment was hard at first, but I got through it. I discovered that I live next to this massive park and river with this biking trail along it, so I really got into biking and running, lost a couple of pounds, learned to really enjoy having less people around and being more independent.
I never thought I would enjoy it so much but it’s really grown on me, so much so that I actually signed on to stay out here another year. Normally, I would have thought “oh, I need to move to Seoul.” But I think anyone who lives out in cities like I do, near Seoul or even just in other parts of Korea, will be able to tell you that they all have the same amenities; we still have Paris Baguette, Tous Les Jours, movie theaters, PC bangs and Skin Food: All the same stores you can find anywhere else in Korea.
That’s fantastic. It sounds like you really landed in a pretty good situation out there; but also you’ve adapted to it really well. A lot of people would have hated not being able to get western food or being so isolated from English speakers. Did you have any problem with finding community?
I think what you will find is that a lot of smaller cities still have an expat community. My city, Yeoju, has a population of about 70,000 (which is really small for Gyeonggi-do) but there’s still an expat community; there’s probably 50 teachers – there’s a Facebook group – and all of these smaller cities are like that: You can find people, whether through Facebook or friends of friends and everyone hangs out together.
One of the differences, we always say, is that if you see a foreigner in Seoul you never say “hi”. But if you see a foreigner in Yeoju you flag them down and are, like, “Who are you? How did you get here?”
I think that if you live in the country, yeah there’s fewer Western restaurants and fewer English speakers, but I think those things make it better: if I’d lived in Seoul, I would probably never have learned that much Korean, whereas now I can speak it on a basic level, and it’s really improved my relationship with my students as well as my daily interactions.
Yesterday for instance, I always go to the same little shop to get these cheap dosirak (도시락) meals, I ran into the store owner who doesn’t speak any English who offered to give me a ride back into town, and we had a little conversation in Korean on the way, he told me to beware of Korean boyfriends…
It’s experiences like that, if you live in a big city and don’t have to branch out and really interact with people, you really don’t get to experience.
[note title=”Express Bus reservations” align=”left” width=”175″]To reserve the express bus online you’ll need to navigate the Korean site here.
On the English-language site you can check bus schedules and seat availability, then book your ticket in person at the Express Bus terminal.[/note]That’s definitely true. We were talking earlier about how easy it is to travel, to get around Korea. Have you traveled very much around Korea?
Probably not as extensively as some people, but I’ve been down to Busan which, speaking of transportation, even my little town has a direct bus to Busan, and it’s very nice with big business-class airplane-style seats.
Oh, yeah, the udong (I think they’re called), the deluxe buses, those are amazing!
Yeah! I was so shocked when I first took one on a weekend trip to Busan. Those bus seats are great. They’re unbelievable. Where else have I been? I’ve done some WinK trips, so I went down to Jeju over Chuseok with them last year.
Just to clarify, WinK is the travel group “When in Korea,” right?
Yeah. They plan trips to coincide with expat’s vacations and national holidays, and they do day trips and weekend trips all over Korea. The people who run them are super fun and super friendly. I know there are other groups like Adventure Korea but I haven’t tried them; I’m sure they’re all good, but I’m a WinK fan. (laughs)
I went with them down to the Jindo Sea Parting Festival. That was really cool, we went all the way down to the southern tip of Korea where, at low tide and only at certain times of the year, the sea parts to reveal this narrow strip of land from Jindo island to another little island. WinK actually got us tickets so we could take a boat over to the small island and then walk back to the big island – which most people don’t do.
I did get sucked into being in the parade, and had to carry a 20-foot bamboo pole – it was very light but very awkward – back across the slippery rocks. It was scary but pretty fun, and the Korean military were there too as well as a bunch of other groups. It was really cool.
That is very cool.
Another shout-out I’d like to make is to Climbing in Korea – I really like doing day hikes, and even if you’re not into hiking you’ll probably be like me and get into it. Korea is so beautiful – I’m pretty close to Gangwon-do, where Seoraksan is, and I spent my first three months just taking day-hikes out in Gangwon-do, often with Climbing in Korea. Out there too are beaches – Seokcho and Gangneung are really nice.
Have you seen in Gangneung the massive hotel built like a cruise ship on top of the cliff?
No, I don’t think I did see that; I’m sure I would have remembered it.
I went up with a friend and tried to get a room but it was far too expensive – over W160,000 per night on the weekend – so we just went to the rotating bar at the top and drank some overpriced beer and played cards while watching the sun set.
That’s what I love about Korea: being able to go to tiny little towns just about anywhere, grab a motel room really cheaply, and just enjoy the local sights. And every one seems to have some strange sight or attraction.
Yeah, that’s my biggest plug for living in a smaller town: you never know what you’ll find next. I mean, going around Yeoju recently, I discovered this massive sculpture park filled with replicas of ancient monuments and temples. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Oh, that’s really cool.
To get on to more serious topics, how have you found the experience of teaching at a Korean high school?
I think I’m lucky that my coteachers are very present, and help out a lot with disciplinary issues; fortunately there haven’t been any major ones, but it is taxing. High school students here are very run down: they’re studying a lot, and you really have to understand where they’re coming from. It’s not your western high school experience.
What are the positive aspects of teaching in Korea?
Oh well, of course it’s difficult, but I’ve only been here for almost two years because I really enjoy it. With every lesson that goes well, and every student you’ve helped and who comes to you during lunch, you feel like, “I am doing something right with my life,”
That’s really great. How about your coteachers? Everyone seems to have a funny coteacher story; one of my friends tells the story of his high school coteacher who would stand at the back of class in front of a mirror practicing his badminton shots.
Yeah, I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things. I would say that my coteachers are all very helpful in class. A lot of people like to blame their coteachers for things going wrong, without realizing that they’re under a lot of stress, and answering to a lot of people. A lot of the confusion comes down from the principal or the department of education, and coteachers don’t have a lot of ways of dealing with that.
I realize that it’s a little different with a hagwon, but for public school you need to be a little flexible.
OK, quick quiz time: What’s your favorite type of kimchi?
I don’t know that this is necessarily a type, but, kimchi fried on the grill is pretty great.
What is your go-to noraebang song?
Love On Top, by Beyonce
Alright, Jjimjilbangs: Yea or Nay?
Total yea. I like being able to just go and relax. You are never going to see those people again, just go and enjoy your jacuzzi. It’s awesome.
I totally agree. OK, Paris Baguette or Tous Les Jours?
Tous Les Jours, for me.
Favorite place for a night out?
Ooh, I’m a big Hongdae fan. I like the kind of dive-y bars. I don’t like the clubs so much as just that area, generally.
And, finally, what is the one thing you wish you had known before coming to Korea?
I think a lot of the advice I said about working with your coteachers; generally learning to relax and go with it. Just seeing what happens before you make any judgements about the situation.
Excellent. Amanda, thank you for talking with me, and we’ll hear from you soon!
Starting “soon”, Amanda will be joining the Expat Lounge as an independent contributor and guest blogger, so we can all look forward to more of her wit and wisdom then. In the meantime, don’t forget she blogs over at FlyLikeASegal.