What It’s Like to Live and Work in Rural Korea
Since August 2013, I have been living and teaching English in a rural town in South Korea. The area where I live is called Jin-sa-ri, and it’s about 64 Kilometers (40 miles) South of Seoul.
I came to Korea immediately after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last summer in 2013. At the time of graduation, I knew a few friends who were teaching English in Korea, and it seemed like a great opportunity for me to travel and see the world. Fortunately, my University has an affiliate program with an English teaching program called GEPIK, so I applied directly via Wisconsin and I was accepted.
GEPIK stands for “Gyeonggi-do English Program in Korea”. As per my contract, I was randomly placed at a school inside Gyeonggi-do Province, which is the largest province in Korea. It was pretty much luck of the draw for where I was placed, because Gyeonggi-do has population of a whopping 12.2 million people. I live and work in a sub-district called “Jin-sa-ri,” which is located between the small Korean cities of Pyeongtaek and Anseong.
I got very lucky, because my school is amazing. I was placed at a public Middle School that has around 800 students. I am the only foreigner at my school. Each class size is 30-40 students, and I have 18 different classes throughout the week. So, I meet with each student once per week.
Aside from my job, which is quite easy once I got the hang of it, the experience of living in a rural Korean town is actually bizarre.
But first, what exactly do I mean by “rural Korean town? Here are a few things that come to mind:
- I can count on one hand how many foreigners live in my town
- My school, which is a 5 minute walk away from my house, is in the middle of the rice fields
- There are two local grocery store in my area
- Every time I walk outside my house, I run into at least one of my students (usually big groups of them)
- There is one main road in town, with various restaurants, convenient stores, a few bars, and some karaoke rooms.
- I stand out like a sore thumb
I literally get stared at everywhere I go. And I mean everywhere. At the grocery store, at a restaurant, in the gym, at the local 7-11, waiting at the bus stop—regardless of the place, all eyes are on me. Also, it doesn’t help having red hair either, because it makes me stand out even more in the sea of black-haired people. After one year of living here, I am pretty used to all the attention. I learned to embrace it. Whenever I am walking past someone, I just smile at people and they always smile back.
My experience of living here has been valuable for me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever lived in a “small community.” I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, went to college in Madison, WI, and studied abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. All of those places are massive with hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) and there are always so many things happening at once.
Another way that living in rural Korea has been valuable for me is that I am rapidly learning to speak Korean. To be honest, there isn’t a lick of English spoken in my town. Seriously, not a single word. All of the street signs are in Korean. Everything I do and say is in Korean.
I started studying the language by myself about 6 month before I arrived here, in order to prepare myself. Looking back, it was very helpful to already have some basic knowledge, especially knowing how to read and write. Nowadays, I am conversationally fluent. I have many Korean friends that I do language exchanges with, and I have been learning the most from immersing myself in the culture. I can get by in almost any situation. Throw me in a room with a random Korean who doesn’t speak English, and I can pretty much communicate anything that I want to. It’s pretty neat.
Living by myself is another “first” for me along this journey. My personality is very extroverted and outgoing, and in the past, I’ve always surrounded myself with roommates. I am a people-person. When I first arrived in Korea, I was a bit nervous to live by myself… especially in a foreign country. I had to make some major adjustments. But after a short while, I started to love it. It began to feel like home. I truly feel like I have matured over the last year, and I have learned a lot about myself. I have a much better understanding of the things I like, the things I don’t like, and what I enjoy doing in my free time. This is very valuable for me as I will continue to grow and experience new things in the future.
I enjoy the slow-paced lifestyle during the week in my town, because on the weekend, I always go to Seoul to party like crazy. It’s almost like I live two different lives: during-the-week Drew, and weekend Drew. The train or bus ride to get to Seoul takes approximately 1 hour, and it’s super easy to navigate around. And by the way, Seoul is an insanely energetic and fun city, with some of the best nightlife in the world! I am planning to move there next year.
The last point I want to make is this: Asia is cool. Really cool.
Like mentioned before, I spent 5 months living and traveling around Europe when I studied abroad in Prague. While I loved every second of it, nothing can compare to the unique and amazing culture out here in Asia. I have been lucky enough to travel through 12 new Asian countries over the last year, and each country has such a different culture. I’ve found out that traveling is Asia is much more affordable and diverse than Europe. I’ve fallen in love with each and every place that I’ve been so far in Asia. And the food? Nothing is better than fresh Asian cuisine!