– “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.” (Søren Kierkegaard, paraphrased)
– “It’s hard to be someone you’re not, or not to be the someone you are.” (David G. Myers, Intuition)
I arrived in South Korea with a clear plan. I had already cycled 37,000 km across Europe, Asia and Australia. Now I was on my way to North America to begin continent four of six. South Korea was a convenient staging post on the way to Japan, from where I intended to fly to Alaska. In Seoul I browsed flights for three months hence and started reading up about routes and weather in North America. My finger was poised to click the booking link, but something stayed my hand. My Warmshowers host, Su Eog, an electrical engineering professor, couldn’t understand my hesitation. His ability to make quick choices and stick to them was an alien concept to me. I was not ready to narrow down to one outcome without allowing time for my imagination to explore the possibilities.
I hung around in Seoul for over two weeks, waiting for a replacement credit card, making photography missions around the city with Mindol, socialising with my new friends and catching up with writing. Running out of excuses to stay longer, I deferred the decision about the flights. I set off cycling from Seoul with every intention of getting to Busan on the south coast in around ten days, from where I would take a boat to Japan. That turned out to be a slight miscalculation. I didn’t end up riding onto that ferry for another fourteen months. The intervening period turned out to be one of the most challenging but instructive of my life.
Things began normally enough. From Seoul I rode north-east and charted a course through the hill country along the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The agricultural communities in rural Gangwon province were conspicuously unfazed by any threat from the north. I traversed the picturesque Seoraksan national park and cut down to the east coast to stay with Warmshowers hosts in Samcheok, Joel and Allie, guest English teachers at a local school. After five strenuous days riding in the hills it was easy to accept their offer of ‘one more night’. Talking with Joel and Allie and their expat teacher friends made me wonder if I could emulate their situation by getting a job in South Korea.
At first, the thought of staying was just idle speculation. I was still in a travel mindset. Admittedly, I was not proceeding at full steam ahead those days, availing myself of every opportunity to take time off. This is not a new aspect of my trip; ‘getting stuck’ in places has been a regular feature of my life on the road since I set off. During my first few weeks in South Korea, I was dragging my heels a little more than usual, but mentally my focus was still on getting to Japan and then Alaska. And yet… and yet… I had said from the outset of my travels that I would like to work in another country at some point. I hoped to find a place conducive to both employment and learning about the culture in a deeper way than I could as an itinerant traveller. But although I had thrown it out there as a trip goal, I had not given serious thought to where in the world I might work.
I am often asked whether there have been places I would have liked to stay longer. Up to that point, I had yet to find any place I could realistically envisage a prolonged stay. Certainly there were places that I felt at ease, content even, but part of that contentment derived from being there temporarily. Other times I passed through places that might have been suited to a longer sojourn, but the timing was wrong. Either it was too early in my journey, or I had a seasonal deadline to beat. Or of course the perennial visa constraints. But on the whole, hitherto I felt impelled to keep moving. My wanderlust, stored up for decades, took a couple of years to slake. The result of that forward momentum was that here I was in South Korea with easy access to lucrative work and still I hesitated. The impulse to press on had been conditioned into me, even as another part of me was slowing down, looking for a port to drop anchor and connect with people in a more meaningful way. Could South Korea be the place to stay, to learn and earn?
Early interactions with locals had been encouraging. Ironically, I added South Korea to my itinerary as an afterthought, encouraged by meeting several genial Korean cyclists during my trip through Central Asia and China. In Seoul, Mindol, Warmshowers hosts Jo and Youngil, Su Eog and family and HyeJoo were all wonderful ambassadors for South Korea and gave a positive first impression of how easy it would be to interact with locals. I was impressed with the general tone of interactions – all my new Korean friends were thoughtful and gentle in speech.
Joel and Allie also presented a good example of how comfortably one could adapt to expat life. Their city, Samcheok, is small by Korean standards, but still they had a decent cadre of friends to hang out with at weekends. It was that fact that impressed me most. My tendency to slow down by this point was almost certainly borne of a desire for community – as well as for a break from constant novelty and adaptation, and time out to process my recent travel experiences.
And underneath it all, the financial question: how much longer would my savings last? After twenty-seven months on the road, my bank balance was dwindling faster than anticipated – a combination of unplanned spending and the pound Sterling taking a colossal nosedive after the Brexit vote. I estimated I had at most another two years’ funds left. That was stacked against perhaps three more years cycling to get back to the UK via North and South America and Africa. At some point before the end of the six continents ride I would exhaust my budget and need an injection of cash to complete the trip. But – and here is the clincher – once I left East Asia, opportunities to save money would be much harder to come by. Although not an immediate priority, my bank balance would bottom out right when I was away from lucrative job markets. Then I would have to pause my trip and fly to another country to work – probably back to South Korea! (or China, or Japan). In South Korea, the only necessary qualifications are a bachelor’s degree and citizenship of the charmed group of countries for which schools and academies can support visa applications. In return, I could expect to save around $15,000 if I was diligent in a year there. By contrast, in South America and Africa I could expect to spend whatever I earned (North American countries have tight controls on working visas, ruling them out altogether). Seen in that light, it made sense to grab the opportunity that was in front of me right then.
But on the other hand … me, a teacher? Are you kidding?! As with so many other challenges, I reasoned that if others could do it, then so could I. But, seriously? I hated school. I am naturally anti-authoritarian, non-conformist by disposition. My limited experience with young children made me pretty sure I didn’t want to be in a confined space with them all day long – especially now I had become accustomed to living outdoors, answerable to no one. So what on earth made me think I could hack it in the classroom jungle? I should be careful not to claim too much foreknowledge here, either of my own temperament or ability to perform as an ESL teacher in Korea. I was dimly aware of certain traits, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, but it was still early days in my quest to ‘know myself’. As it turned out, South Korea would be the crucible in which I would gain a much better understanding of what made me tick. In retrospect, even if I wasn’t entirely alert to it in prospect, for me a teaching job in South Korea really was ‘Mission: Implausible’ – as unlikely a pairing of personality and occupation as you care to imagine.
On the phone to Tara I mentioned that I was exploring the possibility of a job in South Korea, still speculative at this stage. Our plans to meet in Japan had been postponed to Alaska. Still just bouncing the idea around, I found myself defending it. The strange consequence of elaborating my reasons was that they started to become more compelling. I was in effect talking myself into it. The clock was ticking: if this business turned out to be a non-starter, I still wanted to make a two month tour of Japan before Alaska. Tara’s distress further obliged me to settle the matter swiftly. I reflected that my trip was (and is) supposed to be about embracing uncertainty, taking chances and opportunities, challenging myself and learning from the experience, relinquishing my former obsession with planning for every eventuality and stop trying to maximise on every variable. Staying in South Korea aligned with those values. Selfish as it sounds, that thought carried the day. With regret for the pain it would cause Tara, but assurance that I was doing the right thing, I decided to give it a shot.
Next morning I dusted off my CV, borrowed a jacket and tie from Joel for the obligatory photo, and put myself on the market. After 48 hours of emails and phone calls I had a phone interview. 24 hours later I had a job offer to start ASAP in Masan, a city on the south coast. It would be misleading to imply that I accepted the first position I was offered as a snap decision. I took trouble to nail down the details of the contract. I did due diligence on the academy in question, including talking to a former employee. I researched the area to ensure I would have access to mountains and escape from the city. I signed the offer and the die was cast. It would take approximately two weeks for my paperwork to be processed back in the UK, giving me enough time for an unhurried tour back over the mountains and down through the centre of the country to my new city.
My five-day ride down to Masan coincided with a week-long holiday for most of the country. The Four Rivers cycleway was busy with tourists and a holiday vibe prevailed. I enjoyed one last wild camp in a superb tranquil location, hidden by tall grass beside the Nakdong River. Even before I arrived in Masan, I had made inroads into establishing contacts there, and looked forward to the community of like-minded adventurous people I would no doubt be surrounded by. I was optimistic about learning to speak Korean. My early efforts in Seoul had paid off – my modest repertoire of phrases put me in the good graces of the Koreans I met along my way. I would also be able to engage my creative side more fully than when on the move. I could catch up on writing. I could finally learn to play that harmonica I’d carried for almost 40,000km! Hopefully I could be a Warmshowers host myself too, as Allie and Joel were, bringing the adventure to me. In short, I was content that this was a good plan.
The weekend before I was due to start my job, I moved into my new pad. All guest English teachers in South Korea are provided with a furnished apartment as part of their remuneration package. Typically these are ‘one room’ apartments, what in the UK would be called a bedsit. Nothing fancy, and mine certainly wasn’t, but free accommodation adds considerably to the earnings potential. I set about gathering the necessary items for my new life as an expat. Still in frugal cycle touring mentality, I strove to keep my outlay to a minimum. Although my abode was spartan, I was determined not to spend money on frivolous comforts that I couldn’t take with me when I continued on my travels. Ownership creates inertia. South Korea is an expensive country in many regards, so bending my credit card on work clothes, shoes and a few necessary appliances added up to more than I would have liked. Still, in the grand scheme of things it would be worth it.
This video was shot at the end of my stay in Masan, but it makes more sense to include here. I made it for my mum so no apologies for how lame it is, but it does show what my pad was like pretty well.
My job was in a privately-owned English academy, known in Korea as a hagwon. Mine was part of an international franchise, which you might think was some reassurance of good practice, but is actually no guarantee at all. Hagwons are a seriously mixed bag of respectable and badly run institutions. The teaching day tends to be longer and more intense than in public schools; vacation allowance tends to be less. But with public schools you can’t choose where you will be placed, and applications begin months before they hire in March (this was not an option in my case, searching in April). The Internet forums are awash with tales of shady and abusive practices in hagwons. Many a first-time ESL teacher has been burned by disreputable bosses. First and foremost, academies are businesses, money-making enterprises that compete for students. Profit, not education, is the bottom line. They are an expensive complement to the public school system, with different academies specialising in all the main school subjects (science, maths, music, art, English, Korean). As far as I could tell from my inquiries, my place was probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I uncovered a few dated stories from disgruntled ex-employees relating to a former owner, but more recent teachers assured me that the new management was essentially honourable, if not always entirely respectful.
Most of my concerns about the legitimacy of my academy were allayed on my first day. The place looked well set up on three floors of brightly lit classrooms. The director, headteacher and Korean teachers were all smiles. Only the other ESL teacher, an American, was muted in his welcome. The first day was, as first days always are, an overload of information: procedures, names, routines, locations, responsibilities. I shadowed the headteacher and the other ESL guy in the morning, expecting a few days’ training to get an idea of how classes should be conducted and learn the ropes. No such luck! The management had just sacked my predecessor and timed it for me to start where they had left off. I was thrown in at the deep end on my first afternoon, with four classes of high energy elementary age kids to conduct. I had to wing it. And from then on, for the rest of the year, I just continued to wing it.
In the mornings the academy was a kindergarten (in the UK infants, age 4 to 6) from 9.50am to 12.50pm. In the afternoons we took elementary kids (UK primary school, age 7 to 12) from 3pm to 6pm, then early middle school students (UK high school, age 12 to 16) from 6pm to 8pm. On Mondays and Wednesdays I finished at 6pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked until 8pm, Fridays I worked till 7pm. I taught a prescribed curriculum from preselected textbooks. Most of the time I had no real input into the material, but was basically free to deliver it in any fashion I chose. Speaking Korean was forbidden in class for both students and teachers, with the exception of the Korean teachers, who screamed at the kids in Korean all the time. The youngest kindergarten children spoke no English and very little Korean when they first came to us. They were all cuter than buttons and most of them very good-natured. Conducting classes for the morning children meant acting as a kind of entertainer–babysitter, chanting songs, playing games and generally trying to make the experience as fun for them as possible. Nevertheless, the emphasis was still on book work.
The early afternoon elementary kids were a supercharged, rambunctious rabble. Depending on whether they had attended an academy at kindergarten level, they sometimes had less English than the morning kids, but most were well on their way to fluency. Elementary classes were feeding time at the zoo. Maintaining order was as much of a priority as tuition. Evening classes comprised kids who had already been through a full day of main school, then probably one other subject academy before coming to us, and often would go on to another subject academy after leaving us at 8pm. Those classes required an injection of energy to keep the kids engaged and awake, although often they couldn’t keep their heads from hitting the desk. Despite the government banning schools and academies from running classes later than 10pm, many of my middle school kids reported doing homework until 1am or 2am. I felt deeply for them and started to feel ashamed of my complicity in a system I came to see as damaging to these kids’ health.
South Korea has a fiercely competitive work culture. Jobs with the top companies (Samsung, LG, Hyundai et al) are the dream, which require a degree from a top-rated university. University places require high English test scores, hence immense pressure on students to learn a language they will never use in daily life. Outside of the education system, young people are typically too shy to speak English to a foreigner for fear of showing inadequacy. Such is the academic pressure on students that few derived any satisfaction from the acquisition of new knowledge. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world for children ages 10-19, with suicide the main cause of teen deaths there. Aside from the cognitive benefits of learning another language for its own sake, it struck me as a bizarre and depressing state of affairs. This article has more information. (The older generations have no such reservations and will chew your ear off to practise their English given half a chance.)
At the end of each day at work I felt like I’d cycled 140 kilometres into a howling headwind – totally depleted by spending so many hours indoors in close proximity to loud and unpredictable people. I include the staff in this group – in fact it predominantly refers to the Korean teachers, who used their voices to discipline and energise the kids in equal measure. Always ‘palli, palli’ – quick, quick! One colleague in particular had a voice that could pickle fish, wailing like a banshee until I had to stop up my ears with toilet paper. (This actually happened). The three late finishes each week nearly killed me. On those days I had to step back into the fray to deliver an input of energy and enthusiasm for the older kids, just when the assault on my senses during the morning and afternoon had left me low. Forcing the extraverted, passionate side of my personality when the preceding classes had taken so much out of me extracted a high price. The irony was not lost on me. The high octane younger kids took so much mental energy to manage that I had to go into energy overdraft to supply that same level of pizzazz back to the older kids, who arrived rinsed of energy themselves.
But I blundered my way through the first few weeks, and got a positive review from the kids. The teacher’s handbook stressed how important it was that the kids liked the foreign teachers. Happy kids equals happy parents. And parents, who pay the fees, call all the shots. South Korea is a deeply hierarchical society. As a bicycle traveller I had been immune and oblivious to this. Once in post I quickly started to understand my place in the pecking order, let’s say somewhere below the furnishings and floor coverings, probably above the mosquitoes! Foreign teachers are a resource, an expensive one at that, so the academy expected its pound of flesh and more. Regular special events called for dressing up, field trips, after hours events, even house calls at Christmas. And always the publicity photos.
While I soon found my feet with the kids, relations with the management got off to a shakier start. On my second day I had to stand my ground against being lumped with an extra evening shift every week. I had taken care to nail down all particulars about hours during contract negotiation, so I refused and got my way, but it was clearly resented. Then there was further ‘confusion’ when they forgot they’d specified a later start time for the two days I finished at 8pm, calling me at home to ask why I wasn’t at work. These were awkward moments that I could have done without during that first week, when I was still in shock from the intensity of the workload and a growing suspicion that there was a strange dynamic in the staff room as well as the classroom. My American colleague was socially awkward, giving single word answers and cutting dead every attempt at starting a conversation. The Korean teachers were outwardly pleasant, but could be relied on to feed back everything to the management in short order. This was understandable. The Korean teachers were there for keeps, whereas I was temporary, destined to be replaced with another guest teacher on a one year contract. But having once made the mistake of confiding in a Korean colleague, I wasn’t about to make it again.
At the end of the first week I hit the local expat bar and sank my first post-work Friday beer. As luck would have it, a former employee of my academy was nearby. What I heard was not good. Clearly there was no love lost between this person and the management. I took it all with a pinch of salt, but it added to my general concern that I would have to be always fighting my corner and watching my back. Over the coming weeks at work, a series of individually minor incidents revealed a troubling lack of respect for students and other members of staff, further eroding trust. Never one to bite my lip, I started to get a reputation for being difficult. A tense atmosphere prevailed and soon I was at loggerheads with the management. We were heading for a bust-up: I wanted out, and the management clearly wanted to shitcan me for being so disagreeable.
Pressure mounted in the run up to the open class demo in late June (two months into my time there). I’m going to be brutally honest here. Relations at this point were so strained that I was on the verge of doing the ‘midnight run’ – literally, putting my bags on my bike and cutting my losses. It’s hard to convey the stress imposed by teaching back to back classes all day, in an atmosphere of zero collegiality, against a background of general isolation and loneliness as a foreigner in a provincial city in Asia. I contacted my recruiter for the advice he’d previously offered should I ever need it. He declined to discuss matters, having already taken his fee for my placement. I was fortunate to have made a couple of good friends in town, more experienced and level-headed than me. On a more or less weekly basis, they talked me down from the ledge. But it was touch and go whether I stayed or left during those first few months.
If all this sounds a tad melodramatic, then I grant that I made things harder than they needed to be. Many of the problems I encountered during that period were of my own making – easy to see that in retrospect. At the bottom of it was (as usual) my slowness to adapt and accept cultural differences. So-called respect culture often amounts to fragile egos lording it over subordinates with brusqueness. I couldn’t hide my disgust at being pushed around and talked down to at work, never being asked politely to do anything. A more experienced friend explained, “you can’t expect them to say please, it’s never going to happen”. Accepting this took some doing. I don’t care to have my arm pinched and told ‘stand there’. For me it is fundamental to treat all people with courtesy and respect – senior, subordinate, older, younger.
The day of the open class arrived, coinciding with my birthday. By this point I had stopped caring what happened. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I half hoped the event would be a disaster. Interactions with management were conducted through clenched teeth, but for the sake of the open class we all played our parts. The kindergarten children rose to the occasion; their performance was a delight. It was obvious to all present that they had started to gel with me and responded to my every cue with correct answers and good behaviour. The surprise outcome of this display of ability and affection, witnessed by the uber-parents, was that my position was strengthened considerably. The kids saved the day! Not forgetting of course, that the academy had recently sacked my predecessor barely two months into their contract. Another change would’ve been bad for business.
The open class event proved to be a turning point. Management relations were still on the frosty side, but my position was more or less assured now the kids had demonstrated a bond with me. Still, you might well ask why didn’t I leave? I recall stating my clear intention to do so to friends back home during the period I just described. What kept me there? Well for one thing, moving to another job in South Korea was not an option – my visa was conditional on employment in that particular academy. I would need a letter of release to apply for another job, and I was certain I wouldn’t get it (let alone that my contract included a ridiculous three month notice period for me to terminate early without financial penalty). Leaving this position meant leaving South Korea immediately. I was determined not to flee without being sure that I had tried everything to make it work. This was only supposed to be mission implausible after all.
I focussed on the kids, in particular on the quality of their experience in the classroom. I still felt sick to my stomach to be part of a toxic, pressure-inducing indoctrination system, but I accepted that the only way I could change any part of it was by supporting the kids and making our time together as enjoyable as possible. And, where appropriate, I encouraged the older kids to question their assumptions and expectations about their destinies and offered glimpses into alternative paradigms. I also focussed on the lessons that this experience afforded me. What skills and qualities could make me a better teacher? In the case of kindergarten, the answer was obvious. Patience! Always my weakness. I read about it. Meditated on it. Practised observing my impatient thoughts and instincts whenever they occurred in daily life.
In return, the kids repaid me with more or less daily moments of joy. I can’t think of many other jobs where your clients group hug you and tell you they love you. Or one of my afternoon kids, wide-eyed with wonder: ‘Teacher, your nose! It’s … fantastic!” (I love you, Frank!). On a regular basis I would be reduced to tears of laughter when one or another of the little headbangers came out with a gem (Me: ‘what will you do at the weekend?’, kindergarten student: ‘I am six, I have no plans!’). Or surreal, hilarious moments like trying to get a roomful of Korean kids to chant ‘red lorry yellow lorry’ at pace (that really is mission impossible – the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds are interchangeable in Korean); or the infinite regress of explaining to a seven year old non-native English speaker what ‘quality’ means (go on, you try, I dare you. ‘Ahh, teacher, koala tea?’). Whenever I was able to get on with the job without being micro-managed, the morning classes were actually tremendous fun. Over time, I started to earn the respect of the elementary rabble in the afternoons too.
Outside work, I joined a language exchange group. Koreans are friendly people and easy to approach, but I was a fish out of water in this urban, consumer culture. We struggled to find a common frame of reference and interests (I’m not into evenings centred on fried chicken and fizzy beer, while my Korean acquaintances tried to warn me of the dangers of running alone in the woods). The group was mostly attended by Koreans wishing to practise English, in most cases of a high standard already. Many Koreans must periodically pass exams to keep their English qualification current, especially at time of seeking a new job. I don’t mean this to sound calculating or insincere, although in some cases I am certain I was befriended only as an opportunity to speak English. In any case, I was at the group for the same reason, namely learning and practising another language. But beginning at Korean for an English speaker is a steep, steep learning curve, requiring hundreds of hours of private study (and vice versa, naturally, but I was late to the party). The upshot was that we defaulted to English, although I did note down a handful of new Korean phrases each meeting (‘sit down!’, ‘please stop shouting’, ‘it’s so hot I could die’).
Rather than the solid network of friends I had imagined when I decided to stay in South Korea, my social life was still lagging. Each weekend for the first month I showed up at the expat bar in the neighbouring city. I made several appreciated contacts, but struggled to meet people on my wavelength. Determined to make my own niche if I couldn’t find it, I created a local hiking and trail running group on Facebook. This brought a few people out of the woodwork. It also allowed me to meet the wonderful Margaret, my cool-headed friend mentioned earlier, without whose patient mentoring I would certainly have taken flight from South Korea during the rocky early days at work. But day to day, week to week, I led an essentially solitary existence outside work. By mid-August, self-pity was getting the better of me. I felt lonely in a way that I have not experienced since the start of this trip. Certainly my heavy work schedule, still locked in a cold war with the management, did not help my mental state. I felt like I had taken a wrong turn by staying in South Korea; and now Tara and I were no longer even in contact. I was sailing dangerously close to depression. I soothed my frustrations by drinking hard and running hard. I am eternally grateful that I am at least as addicted to endorphins as to any other substance, or I would be in big trouble.
Truly my salvation was running. The most reliable way to decompress from a day of close confinement was to run on the trails that criss-crossed the forested flanks of my local mountain, Muhaksan. Immersing myself in the woodland, surrounded by space and silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional scampering of a deer or wild pig, I found my mental reset. As the warm spring gave way to the heat and humidity of summer, I continued to hit up my hill day after day, even when most other local hikers had given up for the season. I ran through the breezy autumn and into the arid, freezing winter when the air temperature bottomed out at -19 Centigrade. I explored and mapped and got lost and found new routes. In a whole year I met only two other trail runners on my local mountain. Mountain forests cover 80% of the Korean peninsula, so it is always easy to escape the constant noise of the city. But Muhaksan was special to me. It came to represent everything good about Korea. I always had a feeling of optimism when I was on it. That mountain literally saved me from going crazy.
I didn’t often take a camera out running, but at the end of my time in South Korea I bought an action cam. I made this film to celebrate my love affair with Muhaksan, which captures the spirit of the place far better than photographs. Unfortunately YouTube blocked it for North American readers / viewers, but you can still watch the film in 480p at the bottom of this blog post (link).
In August, three months or so into my contract, I decided to quit the booze and get a better handle on the situation. I set goals to work towards: learning more Korean, writing up my backlog of travel stories and learning to play the harmonica. I planed my weekends and ramped up my training towards a day run of the 45km ridge-line of Jirisan, South Korea’s second highest mountain, nearby. The tactic worked as I hoped. I found a couple of other runners up for joining me on the Jirisan expedition, and through them was introduced to a group of hill-going folk in the neighbouring city of Busan. That was the shot in the arm my weekends needed. I also canvassed interest for a local writing group, which I started in my neighbourhood. It was nothing more than three or four of us meeting on a Tuesday night to talk about writing ideas, blocks, tricks and do an hour of timed writing. Tuesday was a late finish for me at work, so I often felt like cancelling after being in classes until 8pm, but I’m so glad I stuck with it – that writing group got me through a tough time as winter drew in.
With more company at the weekends and a regular mid-week writing date, I started to gain some traction socially. At work too, things were gradually improving. The other ESL teacher, the withdrawn one, finished his contract. His replacement, Kaleb from New York, was easy to get along with. Kaleb did a much better job of integrating than I did, charming the Korean staff with chocolates and banter, which catalysed a new camaraderie in the staff room. I was beginning to understand how attitude was everything, how a change in perspective could yield a change in outcome (thanks to both Margaret and Kaleb for helping me see this). I thought about how much energy I wanted to invest in being right. I learned to pick which battles to fight, and which to let slide. I softened my demeanour with the management and in turn they relaxed theirs. The trick was in adopting an outwardly compliant demeanour, but continuing to do pretty much as I was anyway. Time and again this paid off. So often the management couldn’t keep track of whatever new thing it was that we were supposed to be doing, be it disciplining or incentivising the kids. They would chop and change and contradict themselves. Tensions rose if ever you pointed it out, as I had done in the early days. So I stopped seeking consistency. I just nodded, noted the new thing with the date and carried on doing whatever seemed expedient to avoid making more hassle or more work.
Around this time I met someone who changed my life for the better. A correspondence with another English teacher in the city of Daegu turned into a romance and before long a serious relationship. For four months we spent every weekend together and planned for a future when we could travel together. We loved deeply and with an intensity that may sound naïve in retrospect, but was entirely genuine. We dreamed up a plan where I would stay on in South Korea, ideally in a university English teaching position, while she saved money to hit the road with me. After counting down the weeks left on my current contract – what I had thought of for so long as my ‘release date’ – I now found myself with another twenty months in South Korea on my calendar. The reality of what that meant started to dawn. Daegu was the hardest of all Korean cities for me to be in. It is the landlocked, industrial heart of South Korea, stiflingly hot in summer, intensely cold in winter. Even as we tried to implement a long-term workable system for visits every other weekend, I realised with that I was not being true to my values to continue in South Korea. Try as I might, a distance relationship was not enough reason to stay in an environment that was damaging my mental state.
But was it really the environment? It is easy to fall into the trap of bemoaning the unfamiliar and perceived inadequacies of an alien culture. To accentuate the positive, I kept a daily gratitude journal and made an effort to identify aspects of life in South Korea that pleased me. (Here’s my list, in case you’re interested).
By the spring, hiking season was back in full flow and my social life was starting to improve. Spending most of my weekends in the port city of Busan, I started to wonder if I hadn’t been unfair to South Korea to dismiss the idea of staying another year. Wherever you go, there you are, as the axiom says. One has to be somewhere, right, why not here? If I found a better job with a less punishing daily schedule, longer vacations, a better apartment, at a university in Busan say … then potentially I could realise some of the objectives I had originally set for myself in my year off cycling (the inner work, the language acquisition, the Warmshowers hosting…).
It was a briefly seductive idea, during a window of balmy spring weather. But on the very day I was poised to send my CV out, the scales fell from my eyes in a most unexpected way. After a particularly tedious day at work I made the oft-postponed trek to the supermarket in the evening rain. A petty annoyance with South Korean supermarkets is that many essential items are only available to buy in bulk. I needed toilet paper, but for some reason was reluctant to commit to the huge twenty-four roll packs that were the only option in my local Lotte Mart, not least because I would have to carry it on the two-mile journey back to my apartment. But more significantly, that purchase signalled my slipping further into the trap of ‘one more year’. I spent an inordinate amount of time just standing there in the bog roll aisle, staring into space and pondering my future. Strange the things that precipitate life decisions. But there was no getting around it. I had to buy the stuff.
On that gloomy, rainy night the streets of Masan seemed more unlovely than ever. Buses and taxis lurched about psychotically, fast-food delivery motorcycles buzzed around with indifference to traffic lights and pedestrian safety. Honking horns. Screeching brakes. Tacky, brightly lit shop fronts. I cycled most of the way back on the side-walk, then placed my Nubija bike in a docking station and started up the narrow side streets to my apartment on foot. Almost outside my apartment, a motorcycle buzzed up the street behind me, passing me at speed with scarcely an inch to spare. Something in me snapped. Pathetically, I swung my oversized bale of toilet rolls at the driver. I swung late and wide and missed him, of course. But he realised what I had done and stopped at the top of the hill, staring down at me. I stared back, breathing hard. The driver must have decided that I was more of a lunatic than he, and broke the absurd stand-off by revving his engine and disappearing into the night. I was left with a jolt of stale adrenaline and the realisation that I was never going to adjust to life in this city or any other Korean city. Or possibly in any city where basic courtesy is an alien concept. I would always bridle when elbowed out of ticket queues, yelled at to get off buses quickly or honked at by cars that speeded up towards me every time I crossed the road.
My flirtation with the idea of a future in South Korea ended right there. Oh the pathos! I admit that part of the attraction of staying was that resuming my world bike ride was as intimidating as it was compelling. From even the limited comfort of my settled position in Masan, it was daunting to look out over the rainy cityscape and imagine myself once again a stranger in a strange land, while everywhere people went about their business in the company of families and friends. This is more than just simple inertia and habituation to the comforts of a fixed abode. The feeling of disconnection, or rootlessness, that accrues from long-term solo travel can be bitter medicine. But medicine it is. To be at ease with a relative lack of control over my environment and external circumstances, to be okay with uncertainty, is the main reason for my whole trip. Being in one place for a year had eroded some of my tolerance for uncertainty. All the more reason to embrace it fully and continue my adventures.
By a bizarre twist of fate, my exit from work was not as imminent as I had supposed. During the period when I was considering another year in South Korea, I had casually enquired whether my academy had a replacement lined up yet. I suggested I might be available to bridge between contracts for another month or so, if they were interested. Two weeks passed and nothing came of it – everything in South Korea is settled last minute anyway. Just when I had forgotten about it, the management asked if I was still up for staying on. This was more or less the day after my ‘toilet-roll-motorcycle’ epiphany and the ensuing resolution to resume my travels. So I declined, explaining that circumstances had progressed in the intervening period. A few days passed and they asked again. I stuck to my guns – if I was to start at the Arctic Ocean in Alaska I had to be there in early July at the latest, allowing barely two months to tour Japan beforehand. But this time the entreaty came with a sweetener: what if they paid my ticket to Anchorage to compensate for the loss of four weeks in Japan? I pointed out that Anchorage was not my destination, the air ticket I would buy would be from Tokyo to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) Alaska, via Hawaii and Anchorage. Everyone mulled it over. A couple of days later they came back, ‘just book it, we’ll pay!’. In return for another eighteen workdays (plus regular compensation and completion benefits), this was a great deal for me, so I accepted. To the casual observer maybe I came off like a master negotiator, engineering this deal and playing a cool hand. But in truth it was just an accident of timing. Nevertheless it was a remarkable turnaround in relations, given the shaky start we got off to a year before.
After all is said and done, what did I learn from my time in South Korea?
… Well for one thing, that I am not ready to live in a city. Many expats told me they found the Changwon–Masan city area too small, too provincial to meet their needs; they longed to be in Seoul. By contrast, a city of a million people was the biggest I have ever lived in. I found the cityscape overwhelming, oppressive, alienating. But as it turns out I can operate in a far from optimal urban environment so long as I can recharge in nature regularly.
… That even the most dismal circumstances can be turned around with a change in mindset.
… That everything doesn’t happen overnight when you move to a new location, it takes time to build a real social network. A tough first year in a new country, especially teaching ESL in a hagwon, is pretty much a rite of passage. Many of my frustrations with settling in were simply a result of impatience.
… That one good friend who understands you and accepts you is more valuable than a hundred nodding acquaintances.
… That when one approach to solving a problem doesn’t work, try another. And then another. But don’t keep going over old ground, expecting different results.
… That focussing on the negatives colours your experience of everything. Cultivating gratitude and focussing on the positives works in the same way.
… That perhaps my lifelong tendency to defer decisions until I’ve decided how I feel about all the possibilities is a strength rather than a weakness.
… That you need quick reactions if you want to wallop a motorcycle delivery driver with a bale of toilet rolls.
… That I ended up looking back on my time in South Korea with real fondness, even if I would never have believed it at the time!
On my last day I took my loaded bike into work as a treat for the kids – a kind of teacher’s show and tell. Many of them never really believed I was cycling around the world until that point I think. It was a surprisingly touching occasion. I got several heartfelt goodbyes from the kids. I realised that throughout all the trials, the dire mindset I had battled and my instinct to bail out, they had treated me as if I really knew what I was doing. They looked up to me and valued my presence (most of them!). What I ever did to earn that affection and acceptance, I don’t know, but I am honoured and consider it the most precious gift of my time in South Korea.
And so… back to the bike, back to the world. I wrapped up my affairs in Masan, then – fourteen months later than planned – cycled to the port city of Busan. I wheeled my poorly neglected bike onto the boat to Japan with a sense of satisfaction from having stuck it out and banked substantially more savings than I had dared hope; with gratitude for the lessons I learned and the kind people I met. But ultimately, with a sense of readiness for the next leg of my adventure. Japan. Hawaii. ALASKA!! Now that’s my kind of mission!
In the words of that great adventurer, Antoine de St-Exupery: “I have no regrets. All in all it has been a good life. If I got free of this I should start right in again. A man cannot live a decent life in cities, and I need to feel myself live.”
Packing up and cycling to Busan, where I stayed with my friend Matt for a couple of nights before taking the boat to Japan. The adventure continues…