I arrived on Jeju with the understanding that I would be working and not vacationing. Being at a hagwon was a new experience, itself not exactly therapeutic. A robust teaching schedule and the daily inconveniences which language barriers imposed on me seemed to gobble up my first few months. Additionally, cultural differences convinced me that this indeed would be a very long year. In retrospect, it is clear that I was stupid to be so ignorant.
For some, Jeju Island might have meant a land of sprawling beaches and exotic flora and fauna. For others, only after a series of irksome trips to the notary and then the embassy might a picture of some warmish destination arise. The latter was my initial impression of Korea’s Hawaii. Only after all the paperwork had been cleared was I able to focus on the journey ahead to Jeju. I knew Jeju was known for its lush foliage and tropical beaches, but none of that initially sold me. For me, experiencing nature meant seeing a couple of trees on a busy downtown sidewalk.
Just outside my apartment is a cozy neighbourhood of snug houses, galbi restaurants, and ubiquitous GS25s and Family Marts. To an unappreciative onlooker such as I was, the neighbourhood lacked the familiar busy-ness that comes with a big city. As the year progressed even this initially mundane street evolved its own unique character.
Exploring Jeju’s quaint modern-village setting made me realize how much I was missing. Authentic Korean cuisine tickled my tastebuds. Mt. Halla, local hills, Sunrise Peak, Jungmun and a host of other beaches offered an escape from every day life. Teaching-related stress dwindled on these mini escapades. I learned that life outside of work was in fact, a beach.
I could catalogue my year here with various instances of mild homesickness, a neighbour’s suicide, and encounters with Koreans made less than polite by my ignorance of local customs, but my experience in Jeju is not so limited. I came to the conclusion that Jeju Island is an absolutely serene place. At first it might be difficult for a foreigner to acclimatize to the lack of English resources, but the charm of this little paradise is inescapable.
I found myself falling in love with the relaxed pace of the island and the hospitality of store and restaurant owners alike. Everyone is generally polite; younger Koreans show their elders a lot of respect. There are so many appreciable day-to-day things which annoyed me initially. I even realized that I had misread the intentions of this culture, based on communalism and not individualism. What I initially took to be invasive was in fact kindness, and what I saw as rudeness was care. Actually sinking into the culture helped to enhance my Jeju experience.
As my year draws to an end, I realize that I had wasted time in trying to find familiarity here. Only now do I realize that “do as the Romans” is in fact the best way to keep sane in times of frustration over cultural differences. Riding the cultural tide is best in order to fully enjoy a life here; as well as to keep negative thoughts at bay. The natural beauty of Jeju is enough to attract most people, but the real gem of the island lies in its cultural nuances.
Perhaps my teaching and living experience here is typical of most foreigners who come and go. Nonetheless, I now understand why so many choose to forgo lives in their homeland to start anew here. The island’s allure stems from so many things: the mountains, ocean, trees, and weather; but physical beauty alone cannot be the winning factor.
Did all this entice me to prolong my stay? No; but my time in Jeju is not in any way devalued because teaching is not for me. Jeju has certainly taught me not to begin a journey complacently. A year here begins and ends far too quickly if one does not let go of his own reservations to embrace a culture far richer than any pamphlet can advertise.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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