▲ Jessica Sicard at the 2011 Jeju Olle Walking Festival, course 9, with Mt. Sanbang in the background. Photo courtesy The author
When reminiscing on my childhood, I recall how slowly time moved, if it moved at all. The mile run in P.E. class took hours, car rides stretched for eternities, and I swear the minute hand reversed whenever I anticipated the 3 p.m. end of school day bell. It seems my childhood was all about learning how to be patient, but long gone are the days when time drags on like when watching grass grow.
My experience on Jeju Island has whizzed by in a matter of seconds. Adventure packed with Olle trails, Mt. Halla hikes, restaurant sampling, and festival attending, the diverse opportunities on Jeju Island combined with fantastic friends made my first year in Korea a busy but a beautiful and educational experience. Upon my arrival in September 2011, I knew very little about Korea, Koreans, and kimchi, but after a year of living on this picturesque island in Seogwipo, I’ve found Jeju to be a chill residence that is culturally rich with local folklore, traditional cuisine, and some of the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve met in my life. I am lucky I ended up here.
It was my intention to understand the Korean way of life so I could feel more comfortable here, and I hoped that would bury the Asian stereotypes I was fed from movies like “Sixteen Candles.” That was mostly what happened. I still feel like the difficulty and sometimes silliness of the names hold true, but clearly I am coming from the perspective of a native English speaker that has trouble remembering names to begin with.
My first year was filled with wonder and frustrations: wonder because this was my first experience in Asia and everything was so foreign and interesting, but frustrating because I am not a fluent speaker of Korean and this gets me into challenging situations sometimes. Whenever I need help with my house, for example, I have to consult my boss to get things fixed because I can’t simply open the yellow pages and speak to a handyman. I have to rely on a translator for simple tasks. Korean management style is also very different than what I’m used to in North America, and many Koreans seem unable to detect sarcasm.
After a year of coming to understand some of Korea’s major cultural and lingual differences, I’m able to attempt to understand Korea on a much deeper level and think about answers to questions like how has the group mentality in Korea contributed to their rapid development since the Korean War? How has Western culture changed Korea for the better and/or for the worse? How are Korean culture and ideals reflected in the Korean language? Will the world know about more than just the conflict between North Korea and South Korea now that “Gangnam Style” is a worldwide sensation?
But returning to the topic of the beautiful island I’ve had the honor of calling home for the past year and two months, it’s easy to see why foreigners choose to come here. Jeju Island is promoted as a Hawaii-like paradise featuring South Korea’s tallest mountain, the freshest seafood, a chill atmosphere, obscure statues galore, and the iconic female divers, the haenyeo. The abundance of jobs makes it easy to move here, and many expats do just that. In fact, expats living and working on Jeju arrive and depart in abundance as if they were walking through a revolving door. I’m astounded that in my short time here I already have seniority over what seems like a large part of Jeju’s non-Korean population, and it happened so quickly. I feel it is unfortunate that most people do not stay longer because I’m finding that I can appreciate and understand Korea a lot more now that I’ve passed that one-year mark, and I’m completely over culture shock.
I made the effort to make friends everywhere I could when I first came here despite the fact that they would probably leave soon. I joined several clubs, attended any and all events in Seogwipo, and I made a sweeping effort to learn about other non-Koreans in my town. What I didn’t realize though is it would be hard to say goodbye to all of these people in February and August (when most teaching contracts end), and in just a few short weeks, my two best friends on the island will leave as well. I feel like I’m always saying goodbye to people, and it has made me think about the shelf life of friendships on Jeju.
As I get older, I find myself seeking more and more meaningful friendships, people I can connect with on an intellectual level, and bonus points for those who fancy rising early on the weekends for a good hike. With such a transitory expat community though, these deep, meaningful friendships are hard to find and maintain, and it has been the most challenging aspect of Jeju life for me. This seems to be, however, the nature of teaching English in South Korea, and I tip my hat to you lifers out there.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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