A Week-In-The-Life of Turner: Once a Traveler

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Turner Wright has lived in Japan, Thailand, New Zealand, and most recently South Korea. He currently blogs at Once A Traveler about life in the ROK and training for a barefoot marathon. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life about Turner’s teaching life in small-town South Korea.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Day One: Monday

6 AM: Wake up in my studio apartment. I live far from anything of cultural significance in South Korea. This has the advantage of giving me a mere two-minute commute to work. Before that, though, I take Tim Ferriss’ advice and indulge in a protein-rich breakfast of Paris Baguette sausage and imported oatmeal. Work begins at 6:30, when I stumble into my school to teach nuclear power plant workers (locally known as the ‘Energy Farm’) the ins and outs of English.

8:30 AM: Watch Al Jazeera English streaming online and unwind with Facebook and Twitter. After enough time to recuperate from teaching, I’ll head to the gym attached to the Energy Farm and begin my daily ritual of trying to become a creature that wouldn’t necessarily be eaten if left in the wild. I’m still training to do a barefoot marathon too, so I usually run in my Vibram Fivefingers on as much grass as I can find.

12:00 PM: Lunch consists of an apple, a sandwich made from the popular bakery Tous Les Jours whole wheat bread and EZShop Korea turkey, yogurt, and pickles from Home Plus. I’m actually not opposed to Korean food for lunch at all, but it’s rather difficult to eat out alone in my town; many places will only serve two or more customers at a time. Part of the reason I so welcome Couchsurfers to stay with me; we can enjoy the six or so restaurants in Bugu.

2:00 – 8:10 PM: The bulk of my day is spent at ECY Language School, a family-run private language academy, known as a hagwon. My boss is obsessed with ping pong, and my kids are delightful, if a bit inattentive. I teach ten 35-minute classes. On Mondays, little preparation is required as I teach straight from the textbooks.

9:00 PM: Quickly prepare dinner and do a little writing before passing out. I don’t teach too many hours, but getting out of work after 8 PM and starting so early makes things a little difficult.

Day Two: Tuesday

6:30 AM: Early classes. One of my students asks me to help him pronounce “beach” and the name of a female dog.

9:00 AM: Interval workout on the track near the apartments reserved for nuclear engineers. Take the bus for fifteen minutes to Deokgu Hot Springs for a nice long soak before class. I chose my small town for two reasons: it’s close to an excellent hot springs and there’s less stress when fewer people are around.

2:00 – 8:10 PM: Get paid an unnecessary amount to listen to ninety students shout “HELLO TURNER TEACHER!”

9:00 PM: Unwind with more news and The Daily Show, freshly streamed from the US. I try to explore other teaching blogs on Korea for classroom ideas, crazy stories, and what’s going on in the expat community. Eat Your Kimchi and Chris in South Korea (now Worthy Go) are some of my favorites.

Day Three: Wednesday

6:30 AM: My adult classes are actually divided into two groups: basic and intermediate English. Basic is straight from a textbook, but I skip over boring written parts and focus entirely on speaking and conversation. Wednesdays I create my own business English curriculum for the intermediate students; despite the variety, fewer students seem to show up.

9:00 AM: More time at the gym. I’ve been devoting a lot of my time under this new schedule to getting in better shape, but my reading has been lacking, not to mention my writing assignments. If the day ends with a 1 or a 6, Bugu will have its five-day market, filled with ajumma (grandmothers) hocking their wares.

2:00 – 8:10 PM: “Teacher, my pencil!” Wednesdays are casual dress days. I’m typically in jeans, a T-shirt, and fleece performing reading and speaking tests, and trying to ignore a girl student’s bag:

Girl's bag in South Korea: "boys are stupid...run them over"; photo by Once a Traveler

9:00 PM: An Australian couple used to host the expat crowd for movie night on Wednesdays, but they’ve since moved to Dubai. Week nights I’m typically trapped in Bugu due to lack of options and transportation; buses stop around 8 PM. Although it does get lonely at times, I try to maintain the friends I do have with online chats. In addition, there’s a nice Korean girl who works at Deokgu who I might take out for bulgogi on occasion. Besides myself, there are three other foreigners in Bugu: two working at the elementary school, and another at a hagwon. Despite the fact there’s really only one place to buy groceries, I’ve never seen them on the street. I can run into people I’ve met in Busan on the streets of Seoul, but I can’t seem to locate the only other three white faces in a town of hundreds.

Day Four: Thursday

6:00 AM: After hump day, I’m ready for the weekend.

8:30 AM: Another exciting morning at the gym. In Japan, I would have no problem socializing with regulars, but here, they seem to be Korean housewives and grandmothers watching daytime dramas as they run on treadmills. Anyway, I’m glad there aren’t any coffee girls.

2:00 – 8:10 PM: Games for my lowest-level students, regular classes for the rest.

8:10 – 9:00 PM: The track is lit up until nine Tuesdays and Thursdays, giving me just enough time to do some 75-second 400s before fainting from hunger.

Day Five: Friday

6 AM: Inhale breakfast and hurry off to ECY to explain to nuclear scientists why I don’t consider William and Kate’s wedding big news.

8:30 AM: I typically start the day off with a short barefoot run before heading to Deokgu for a nice long soak. My kids probably wouldn’t notice if I hadn’t bathed, but I appreciate being boiled alive twice a week.

sign in South Korea: you will be boiled

I rush over to NongHyup (NH) Bank to pay my outrageously high gas bill. Fortunately, winter is over, and my expenses will essentially disappear. In Korea, heating apartments is accomplished with hot water pipes running under the floor. Amazingly effective, but quite expensive.

2:00 – 8:10 PM: Regular classes for my lowest-level students. One girl prefers if I call her “rabbit”; she used to respond to “hello kitty!” with a friendly meow, but not anymore. Teaching reminds me of just how fickle kids are across cultures, and how similar people behave before a certain age, despite differences in upbringing.

With the exception of a handful of speaking tests, Friday is smooth sailing at ECY. Nothing but games of Scrabble and Taboo for four hours, assuming all the students even show up. Bugu Elementary School has such random class trips and schedule changes, we’ve had to adjust test dates and start times on more than one occasion.

9:00 PM: Dinner and my stories. Even though I can stay up late and sleep in the next day, chances are I’ve got some trip planned to Seoul or just decide to crash early so as to not get too far off track.

My weekends vary quite a bit. When I was living in Japan, it would be a rare occasion for you to find me inside on a Saturday, even during the rainy season. But in Korea I haven’t been traveling outside my province too often. This is mainly because we’ve got such a great group of expats in Uljin, and everyone comes up with something to do: movie night, small trips, BBQ dinners. I host Texas Hold ‘Em games at my apartment once a month.

If I am going to get outside for the weekend, it’ll probably go like this:

Day Six: Saturday

6:45 AM: Ignore the desire for sleeping in and catch the first bus out of Bugu heading west. Although my town is small, it has the advantage of a four-hour direct bus to Seoul. Too bad the last one on Friday leaves before I finish work, or I might get in the habit of going there every weekend. En route, I ponder my life in Korea and the big questions: Will I stay here another year? What’s there left for me to go “home” to? Why is kimchi so delicious?

10:45 AM: Arrive at Dongseoul Bus Terminal and dash across the street to the subway station. Seoul has many amenities my town lacks, but also far too many temptations of imported food and clothing. Sometimes I just need to see an English-speaking dentist or doctor. Other times the Seven Luck Casino takes me for a few hundred thousand Won. Most recently, I visited the National Assembly building to enjoy the cherry blossom viewing parties.

Cherry Blossom Parties

After that, who knows? The big city has a great deal to offer in 24 hours. I might hit up a cat café in Hongdae and enjoy the company of some felines while drinking tea. There are often Couchsurfing gatherings for cultural events. I also subscribe to notifications for organized discount tours with Discover Korea. They’ll be taking me to Ulleungdo and the highly controversial Dokdo island in June. If you ever want to alienate Korean friends and ensure your teaching contract is not renewed, be sure to mention Dokdo.

Day Seven: Sunday

8:00 AM: Awake in one of the 19000-Won hostels in Hongdae, hopefully fully hydrated and well rested. I don’t know what it is about living abroad, particularly teaching English in Asia, that compels one to get sucked into the social vortex of drinking hard on the weekends, but I’ve seen it happen on many occasions. Because it’s no longer new for me, I feel perfectly comfortable opting out of tequila party night at Club Naked and catching some Zs.

12:00 PM: Overpriced Thai lunch in Itaewon. Look around at other restaurants and realize just how much I miss Mexican food, and how I’m surely going to overeat like crazy when I return to the US. I love Korean food, but I miss the variety that comes from living in such a food-diverse place like America. I wouldn’t miss it so much if it weren’t so available to me; Itaewon is great if you’re willing to spend top Won for imported goods and services, but I can’t help wishing none of it were in Korea, so that I would be forced to subsist on nothing but kimchi, seaweed soup, and rice.

4:35 PM: Late afternoon bus back to Bugu. Catch up on reading the latest expat magazines I picked up in Seoul and books I downloaded to my Kindle. Try to ignore my stomach doing somersaults as the bus driver makes good time.

9:00 PM: Arrive at my studio. Study some Korean and research news stories for morning classes. Just another day in the life of an American English teacher/runner/travel writer/wanderer in South Korea.

Turner is currently visiting the devastated areas of Japan to help with All Hands Volunteers and needs help raising funds. After that, he will be returning to his somewhat stable life in South Korea. Check out his latest adventures at Once A Traveler.

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