To say Bonghwa is a little off-the-beaten path doesn’t quite sum it up.
Life in rural Korea is a far cry from the ideal many envision before coming to teach English in Korea.
The typical ambition of most people seems to revolve around post-college camaraderie in metropolitan cities of Seoul or Busan. They dabble with Korean food and the infamous soju while they dip their toes in Korean cities awash with Western pop culture. They enjoy Noraebang and kimchi but are no more than a stone’s throw from all things familiar. It’s Korea, but in areas so exposed to Western society that their face and mother tongue are not alien to the natives.
Bonghwa had one foreigner in town when I arrived. Just one. The arrival of another teacher on the same bus as myself tripled the waygook population.
Although I (and Will) moved to Yeongju, I’m one of the three unmistakable foreign faces around Bonghwa town that the native population nod and smile at with wonder and bemusement.
People who I’ve never met in my life know my name. Parents will pull over their cars and offer me lifts in the rain or cold, already knowing what school I’m going to. Students at other schools will wave enthusiastically and stop me in the street to speak to me about my fellow alien friends, Will and Michael.
There are several people in Bonghwa and the neighboring villages who have become minor characters in my life, springing up and greeting me when I least expect it.
There’s the eccentric delivery guy from the awesome chicken restaurant. No wait at a bus stop is complete until he appears and almost crashes his motorbike in a frantic attempt to stop next to me for a finger-crushing handshake.
Then there’s the severely disabled man who chases me on Monday mornings, accompanying me to the door of Mulya Elementary school while we engage in a hopeless game of mime. He literally waits for my bus to arrive in the morning and frantically pursues me through Mulya village, repeatedly saying “hangul? hangul?” (asking can I speak Korean).
I try but he never understands and so we just walk along, staring at each other wondering what on earth is going on in the other’s head. Once he drew his name in the mud with a stick. Sadly, I couldn’t make it out so I just call him Mulya Murphy.
I had the misfortune of clogging my toilet once in my early days.
A little tip for you all – when in Asia, toilet paper shouldn’t be flushed; wet wipes DEFINITELY shouldn’t be flushed.
A trip to the local shop for a plunger was in order but ultimately proved to be an exercise in futility.
I had to swallow my pride and inform my school about the mishap. A plumber was deployed and lucky for me, the service was provided free of charge.
Over the next few days, I learnt that the incident was not only widespread in the school but also in the village. While some teachers had a laugh at the lunch table, that was nothing to the incidents in the main street and supermarket.
I had two separate encounters with amused villagers who had presumably heard it on the grapevine that a foreigner had been in to buy a plunger. They couldn’t speak English but their enthusiastic charades were worthy of an Oscar. The onlooking drivers at the taxi rank certainly found the show exciting.
Being sent to the boonies definitely gave me some impetus to study the language.
Without a shadow of doubt, it has allowed me to progress beyond basic practical words to a conversational level that exceeds the average city-dwelling ESL teacher.
I still remember the troubles of entering a restaurant in those early weeks with no idea of what was going to be served up. Ordering spicy chicken feet is a common mistake during rural life in Korea. Thankfully, I’ve only made that mistake twice. Fool me three times, shame on Google Translate.
Bonghwa and neighboring Yeongju are in the heart of the country. This is great for travelling up and down but, without the link to a high-speed rail, the journeys can be rather tedious. I traveled a lot in my first year, which is an unfortunate by-product of rural life in Korea. If there isn’t much to do at home, the temptation is always there to go further afield. This can do some serious damage to those hopes of saving money.
On the flip-side, when you do harness some discipline, the weekly living costs are lower in the countryside. There’s less chance of falling into a party lifestyle like many of the young teachers in Seoul or Daegu may do. If there are fifty or sixty foreigners in a one city, there will always be a birthday, leaving do or other event. As a result, many people find themselves eating out four or five nights a week. Late nights become a running feature of their time in Korea.
At thirty years old and faced with the choice of renewing my contract, I desperately wanted to try a year in a bigger city to compare it to life in rural Korea.
But ultimately, I believed my long-term goals would be better served by staying put. Six months later, I feel the decision was correct. I certainly don’t regret it.
City kids have a reputation of being spoiled, entitled little brats. While their level is no doubt higher than average, many can be a handful.
Of course, all schools have their class clowns and bullies, but overall it is widely-accepted that the students in rural areas of Korea are better behaved than big city students.
This makes for a more pleasurable teaching experience and what they lack in English speaking ability, they make up for with their kindness and friendly nature.
Another benefit of life in rural Korea is that the schools have a very laid-back attitude. Hagwon teachers will have a boss breathing down their neck and big city schools can be expectant of certain standards. When you teach English in Korea, you have a lot of freedom and can simply make your class as fun as possible through games or movies. So long as you don’t take too many liberties, you’ll find you have a very relaxed job – most of the time anyway!
Anybody coming to Korea with a view to staying for several years shouldn’t overlook the rural areas. Getting away from the western influences and truly immersing yourself in the cultures and traditions of the small villages is an unforgettable experience.
Rather than being just another foreign face in the masses of a metropolis, you will be a celebrity in the village. See the true kindness and curiosity of the native people as they help you find your way or solve whatever problem lies before you.
Sure, it is not without its frustrations but you will grow all the more because of it, not only as a person but as a resident of the country in your knowledge of their cultures, customs and language. Plus if you need a break, a wild weekend in the big city is only a bus ride away.