Orientation and Disorientation in South Korea
I stepped off my plane and into Incheon International Airport late–we grounded at about 6:45pm and I was supposed to be to the EPIK registration desk by 7:00pm. Mercifully, the airport had free luggage carts which I used to whiz through customs and immigration before realizing I had no idea, even with the map provided to me, which direction to go to find the EPIK check-in area. I was spotted as a lost foreigner (외국인 for those in the know) and directed accordingly. From that moment on, things started happening.
Check-in. Bus boarding number. Loading all of our stuff onto a chartered bus that was driving us to Daejin University and heading there at night. The excitement was a bit dulled by my 36-hour stint without sleep, but I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I was in Korea. Korea was my new home. The adventure had begun.
The evening was full of hilarity–the facility for the female dorms was full, so the last bus of us (predominantly females) was placed in the male dorm, a fact which caused the bus driver great distress while he tried to point out that girls were not allowed. Then, the room to which I was assigned had a dead battery in the door’s keypad… in other words, it couldn’t be opened until an EPIK coordinator had a chance to get someone who was in charge of facilities to come and give us a key. A key which I was warned should, under no circumstances, be lost.
The next day was a piece of cake. Breakfast? Kimchi, rice, eggs, juice, toast, jam, butter, cereal, milk. (The same things would be on repeat day after day; a reminder that this is Korea and rice=a meal.) A good mix of Korean and Western preferences. Then we had a campus tour (which was quite sweaty as the Korean summer is not a force to be reckoned with). An opening ceremony followed lunch; this included a stellar TaeKwonDo performance as well as some speeches before we split into smaller, region-based groups (our classes) to meet our class teachers and see who would be our new network of teachers in our areas. After that, we were urged several dozen times to rest and drink fluids (up until midnight, that is) because the next day was our medical check.
The following morning, thirsty, hungry, and a bit cranky (because the lucky among us got to have our check at 7:30am and the unlucky more like 11:00am) from lack of sustenance, we each took our turn going through various medical tests to check basic stats, get blood drawn, deliver a urine sample, etc. The fun stuff. Korea is serious about health and drugs, by the way. If you’re thinking about testing your luck, don’t. People can and will be sent home. It happened during my round of intake. It seemed that the moment we finished our health screening, the madness began. From then on we attended classes. They were primarily lecture-based 90-minute lectures on a variety of topics from Co-Teaching and Lesson Planning to PowerPoint Use and EPIK Information. We even got to take a TaeKwonDo class!
Does it sound arduous? I hope it does, because it was. And it should be. After all, this is the beginning of a very, very generously-funded and awesome job. I challenge you to find something better. Lest you be worried, now, that this isn’t sounding so great after all, relax! I made friendships during that week that I now carry with me in my real life as an EPIK teacher in Seoul. I shared meals with people from all over the world three times a day. I laughed so much during the week that I can’t even begin to quantify it.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were full of lectures and work. Thursday, though, was an all-expenses-paid adventure into Seoul to visit Korea House, Namsangol Hanok Village, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. We watched an awesome cultural performance, ate freaking delicious bibimbap, and, let me remind you once more, didn’t have to pay for it! EPIK seriously treated us to plenty throughout the orientation. I’m still amazed.
Sunday was The Day. The culminating activity of the orientation: a presentation of a sample lesson for evaluation. Lesson demonstrations dominated the first half of the day and then, after that, we were divided into areas based on our POEs and MOEs (our assigned locations) to meet with area supervisors, sign contracts, and finally, FINALLY find out where we would be placed. A lucky few had already been contacted by their predecessors or their schools, but most of us waited eagerly for Sunday.
After that, it was a flurry of activities–goodbyes to be said, bags to be packed, last-minute research to be done on our new schools. It was a hard week; between arriving in Korea and being handed off to my new coteacher, trusting in the Korean way of doing things and being able to go with the flow was difficult for me. Undoubtedly, it will be for others in the future, too. But the experiences I had, the opportunities provided to me, and the people I met made the entire process worth it. You will leave both prepared for your job in Korea and completely unprepared for that very same job. That’s the nature of the beast. But knowing you have developed a network of peers, made connections with some great people in the country that could be mentors, and been able to survive from application to orientation should guide you through. If you’re reading this wondering if EPIK is the place for you, but now I’m making you nervous, I have one piece of advice…
You don’t want to always wonder what life would have been like if you had only decided to throw it all out on the line and give a year of your life to Korea. From what they tell me, it’s often hard to leave once you’re here. Time to find out what you’re missing.