You could call him the “loneliest man in Korea,” but he might also consider himself one of the most fortunate. After all, how many English teachers have an entire island to themselves?
EPIK (English Program in Korea) teacher John Hellman, 22, from Boise, Idaho, is the designated native-speaker English teacher on Chuja-do, a small group of islands two hours off the coast of Jeju-do. While he spent a year of college teaching English in South America, this is his first Asian experience. He was assigned to Chuja-do last September.
“I chose Korea because I had an awesome experience teaching Korean students at Western Washington University,” he said. “Chuja was kind of an afterthought. It sounded like a cool way to experience some pretty unique stuff. But I may have gotten more than I bargained for.”
Miles from the mainland and two hours away by ferry from Jeju, Hellman has found himself fully immersed in Korean culture as the only Western foreigner out of the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants.
“I thought it was like Udo, just super close, maybe five or 10 minutes by boat from Jeju, but it turned out to be two hours!” Hellman said regarding his isolated living situation.
The Chuja archipelago consists of 42 islets, only four of which are populated. The primary islands being Sang (upper)-Chuja, and Ha (lower)-Chuja, which are connected by a small bridge. Its primary fame is fishing. Notably its Cham Kulbi, a type of fish caught, packaged and distributed nationwide.
“(Chuja is) super famous for its fishing, among fishermen anyway,” said Hellman. “Almost everyone in town fishes for fun or as a job.”
During his 11-month tenure, learning basic Korean was as essential for survival as his open-minded nature. Hellman found himself doing as the Romans did, and then some.
“My most outstanding memory was probably when my co-teachers and I closed down the school and went to catch a goat on this small outlying island. We caught three out of the 12 or so goats with some cunning and a bit of rope. Then we took them back to a beach on (Sang) Chuja-do, slaughtered and barbecued the suckers and had a huge feast with the students’ parents,” said Hellman, adding gleefully: “Awesome!”
A lesser soul may not have survived the culture shock Hellman was eager to absorb. But a unique experience such as this does come with its drawbacks.
“I learned a bit of Korean and got to experience some rather raw and hilarious Korean culture, but in the end the hardships were quite vivid,” said Hellman. “I grew a lot during the year, but I think that if I were to do it all over again, I would probably pick a less isolated place.”
John’s future plans include migrating to Seoul where he plans to continue studying his well-practiced Korean and possibly entering the broadcasting industry. His memories on Chuja and Jeju while irreplaceable and once-in-a-lifetime may be inherently transient even for the most adventurous traveler.
“I had one of the most unique years of any teacher in Korea this year. It was amazing and eye opening, and I was really exceptionally well cared for by the incredible teachers and parents at the public school,” Hellman said. “The atmosphere is so unique and the island is so beautiful. There really were many plusses.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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