A day in the life of...
The mighty Han River surges through lush, low-lying mountains, its waters peppered with islands populated by deer and herons. This is my view as I cycle to work with my wife every morning. We both have jobs at an English hagwon in the city of Hanam, just outside Seoul. This private school is designed to immerse children in English language and culture.
This is my third hagwon since I first came to South Korea in 2012. Most of my students are aged 4-7. Although my job title is "English teacher", I predominately teach art and maths and I've taught everything from science to drama and history.
The school is near the river, in a converted restaurant with traditional Korean buildings and a beautiful garden. It's one of the prettiest campuses I've worked at. Every morning I spend an hour prepping, before teaching seven kindergarten classes and a couple of elementary classes in the afternoon. An annual speech contest, sports day and other events mean we also work three or four Saturdays throughout the year.
People often assume I teach model students. It's true that South Koreans value education immensely, and you hear stories of teenagers getting three hours' sleep a night as they compete to get into the top universities. My students certainly demonstrate broader and more developed academic skills than in the UK - I once had to teach atomic structure and isotopes to eight-year-olds.
But behaviour is a mixed bag. A typical hagwon operates as a business first and foremost, so management will tolerate almost anything as long as parents are happy. And Korean children don't always show respect and obedience towards foreign teachers, who are regarded as "fun" and "laid-back".
However, I can't overstate how attached I've become to my pupils. The hagwons I've worked for encourage a warm atmosphere between teacher and student. Even children with limited English skills have a lot to say, expressing themselves through gestures and gift-giving (a tradition that seems to be ingrained from a young age).
On a typical evening, if I'm not writing or relaxing in my apartment, I'll take a Korean class with my wife, work out at our local gym, or head to the local bar for beer and darts.
South Korea truly comes alive at night, with neon noraebang (karaoke) signs shining as bright as lanterns and K-pop blasting from shop windows. Exploring Seoul by night feels like navigating the innards of a giant pinball machine.
The country has stunning scenery, festivals, beaches and endless historic sites, which keep us busy on weekends. My adventures thus far include attending a live StarCraft gaming tournament, making furry friends in one of Seoul's pet cafes and briefly entering North Korea at the demilitarised zone.
South Korea is an endlessly fascinating country to work in. It's not easy to define; it has subtleties and complexities that keep it from being easily summarised. I would never have learned about these properly from books or other media. And I feel tremendously fortunate to have experienced them first-hand by living and teaching here, among South Korea's people, landscapes and cities.
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