Welcome to Gwangyang.

April 19, 2015

It's been about a month since we moved back to Korea. Would you like an update? I haven't been taking a lot of photos nor have I had a lot of free time in the past month. Today, I'm recovering from a nasty stomach flu that kept me home from work for two days (so much for my "move abroad and stay healthy" plan!). Might as well tell you what's up.

The first time we moved to Korea, we took teaching positions on Geoje Island, Korea's second largest island and a major international shipbuilding hub. Geoje is a beautiful place with stunning views, beaches, and a booming foreigner population. Geoje is also very expensive, given the number of wealthy engineers living and working there. We loved Geoje for its natural beauty and for the people we met there. But at times, we were frustrated with its small-town culture. We lived in Geoje for a year, teaching at a small, family-run hagwon (after-school academy). We met some incredible friends there, and we fell in love with our students. But we were also exhausted all the time from the demands of our hagwon (mainly the grueling hours and minimal vacation time).

Last month, we moved to Gwangyang to work for the POSCO Educational Foundation. We're living and working on Jecheol, an island created by POSCO and which houses Gwangyang Steel Works, Gwangyang Football Stadium, and our schools - which are attended by employees' children and a select number of students from around the country. Ryan teaches elementary school; I'm teaching high school. It's an interesting experience, having lived and worked in another part of the country in a completely different teaching environment. At our hagwon, we generally worked 2-10pm - a schedule that required adjustment and limited our opportunities to socialize but that offered a sense of quiet and solitude in the morning and early afternoon to hike, make art, cook, etc. These days, my workday runs from 8am-5pm, with an hour lunch and plenty of breaks and time for lesson planning. It is so wonderful to have that time to plan lessons, reflect on how they went, and to ultimately improve my teaching. 

I teach 800 students, in collaboration with another native English teacher. This has been a difficult transition for me, given that at our academy, we had no more than 120 students at any given time. We knew each and every student incredibly well and saw them multiple times a week. Working for a public/prep school like this means missing out on that personal interaction with the majority of my students, each of whom I teach only once every other week. I've offered to keep a dialogue journal with a few highly motivated students, one of whom immediately accepted my offer. I've also requested to teach a special class after school for high-level first-year students. Although it was hard to walk away from my last job, I am finding that teaching still feels completely natural to me.

We've already met some fantastic people in Gwangyang and the community of native English teachers is small but well-connected. Gwangyang is a small town; there is no movie theater here. It's a town famous for its bulgogi, prepared over hardwood charcoal and copper grills. Jecheol was bursting with gorgeous cherry blossoms less than two weeks ago. The culture here is different than what we experienced in Geoje, which of course was no surprise. In Gwangyang, I feel more welcome and included in the community, and as a result, held to higher standards. There will be no getting away with not speaking Korean here. I like my coworkers, some of whom are truly dedicated to becoming better teachers. I like our new friends. We have a great apartment (two bedrooms and a sunroom!), and I've started some seedlings for an indoor herb garden. I'm taking the time to study Korean and to hone my photography knowledge and skills. Our island hosted a festival a few weeks ago, and we gorged ourselves on pork roasted on a spit while giving thanks for our freedom and the opportunity to be here.

When we first moved to Korea, everything seemed new and fantastic. This time around, that newness is gone and in its place is a sense of assurance that we've made the right choice, being here again. Here, we have more of the things we needed but lacked at home: more money, more time, more energy. And getting that first paycheck - with no rent to pay - didn't hurt. Given that things are changing for native English teachers in Korea, I feel incredibly grateful to be where I am right now. 

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