My big Korea move: How it all started

It’s sometimes interesting to look back on your life at a big juncture and wonder ‘How did I get here?’ This is part of the story of how I ended up deciding I wanted to teach English in South Korea.

Four years ago, two university students from South Korea were studying at the University of Tampere in Finland. They didn’t know each other, and their paths didn’t cross while they were there. They finally met during the Summer at the end of their studies, at a Voluntary Service International Summer project. It involved helping out in a German care home and then accompanying the elderly people on their summer holiday to the island of Fehmarn in Northern Germany.

I was there too, and that’s where I met Nawhee and GaYoung, along with eight or nine other volunteers from all over the world. During the day we would spend time with the elderly people, among them a deaf man who communicated with us through a series of brilliant pictures.


Some of the communications by a deaf resident in the care home

We all hit it off instantly and it felt as if we’d been friends forever. One day we went for a long bicycle ride, 40km around the whole island. Young wasn’t very confident on two wheels so she rented a bike that essentially looked like an adult sized tricycle. I couldn’t help laughing, and lost all self control at the sight of her dismounting and heaving her huge tricycle over a sandy patch of land. Luckily she was also in peals of laughter, with the other volunteers looking at us as if we were a bit strange. Which we were of course.


The group of volunteers in Fehmarn, on a picnic stop during our bike ride

Young came to visit me in Ireland shortly after the summer project ended, and she made a wonderful dish called Bulgogi to say thank you for putting her up. We bought ingredients for the meal in Tesco, and I was surprised when she told me there was Tesco in Korea too, only there it was called Home Plus. ‘Maybe I’ll visit you in Korea one day’, I laughed. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘Why not?’ So I saved up all year, and travelled to Korea the following Summer.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived in late July was the heat. Suddenly the sun wasn’t a lovely yellow thing that appears for a rare treat and gives you an excuse to get a Cornetto. It was a big huge flaming ball of misery. For the first time in my life I took cold showers and enjoyed them.

Young and I travelled the country, mainly sleeping on the floors of strangers who Young had found on the Couch Surfing website. All of our hosts were ESL teachers, and I found myself asking them lots of questions: What do you like about living in Korea? Is teaching hard? Do you miss home?

In Seoul we met up with Nawhee and explored Yonsei University and the flea markets close-by. I visited the demilitarised zone, an active war zone that separates North and South Korea (I had to go alone because Korean citizens aren’t allowed to go there). It was a surreal experience, were strict rules had to be adhered to – for example, you were not allowed to wear backless sandals in case you suddenly had to run away. Later in in our trip, Young and I volunteered at the beautiful Buddhist Haeinsa temple in the mountains, washing dishes and sorting chopsticks in exchange for a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. We also visited the UNESCO protected Hahoe Folk Village at the foot of the Hwasan mountain, where the architecture and way of life of the Joseon period are preserved.


The demilitarised zone


At Hahoe Folk Village


Haeundae beach in Busan

Although I loved Korea straight away, it wasn’t until we arrived in Busan that I thought I could really see myself living there and teaching English. Busan felt less overwhelming than the sprawling metropolis of Seoul. It had beautiful beaches where you could swim during the day and watch outdoor movies at night. The people were relaxed and friendly. I decided that one day, when I have the qualifications, I would go back there.

And in seven weeks from now, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I can hardly wait.


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My acceptance letter for the government run English Programme in Korea (EPIK)


About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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