About two years ago Conor wrote a real nice piece about me as I had just left Korea. It’d been a pretty long journey for me as I’d been there for five years. As Conor wrote I was pretty excited to do some things I’d been saving and planning for a while, but beneath all that was some anxiety as my long term plans were still unclear.
It’s a long story but the short version is my first job out of college was teaching in the Midwestern United States. It was a tough place with a lot of challenges, and after two years I decided to leave. I had the idea in my head that I accomplished something, and thought I now deserved some fabulous life or something like that. Basically as soon as I left my life went downhill. Lots of different things went wrong, had some ugly experiences etc. One thing led to another and I ended up taking a job in Korea.
I was hesitant to go, but I was really upset and angry about how my life turned out. Looking back on the previous few years I felt I had nothing to show for myself. Suwon South Korea ended up being my new home, where I taught English at a public middle school.
Almost as soon as I arrived things turned around. The saying probably is true that there’s nothing like your first year in Korea. The kids were so excited to see me. Do you know what it is to walk into a room and have 40 kids cheering for you? One of them would write “Handsome James” on his tablet and hold it up like a sign. I couldn’t walk the hallways for a while because the kids would see me and get so excited.
Jim’s middle school in Suwon.
That first year I didn’t go out much, but I was happy because I pretty much had a good time at work every day. I made a few new friends, and eventually started getting out more, doing the whole Itaewon and Hon Dae thing, seeing bands etc. During breaks I also got to travel to a lot of places I always wanted to go. I went to Japan a few times, Australia, the Philippines, India, China, Thailand, and a bunch more.
Along the way I changed a lot, and one day when I was out playing basketball with my kids something really hit me. I should have kept that job in the Midwest. It took me almost ten years to figure it out.
I never thought I’d do five years in Korea. Especially those first three, I generally believed every year that “next year” I’d be going home. Cut to the end of 2010, it was almost 2011, I had some money saved up and had been in prayer about leaving at the right time. I was working on my birthday which is right before Christmas when I found the note on my desk. Due to budget cuts, once my current contract would run out on September 30th of 2011 I would not be renewed.
Several other foreigners would have the same fate. I’d heard rumors this was coming, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but still it really hit me. This is it, it really is over now. If this had happened a few years prior I’d have been more upset about it, but I just accepted that it was time to go.
So I soaked in every moment of those last nine months. It helped that the new batch of kids that came in were fantastic. That last year was probably my second best year in Korea as far as the job went.
Then that day came Conor wrote about that I hopped on that bus, and I was excited. In just a few weeks I’d go to the New York Comic Book Convention and meet the legendary Stan Lee. I’d do a cross country road trip; self-publish a few books and sell them at shows, and do all these things I’d been planning and saving towards, but then what?
Jim with his poetry book at the Poet’s House in New York City
Culture shock was something I’d never experienced, but coming back to my hometown that’s been getting worse and worse, seeing old friends go through hard times, not seeing people you expected to see, and just generally being back in western culture was a lot to deal with. Reverse culture shock hit me hard. When a westerner comes back from Korea their friends and family tell them they’re glad they’re back where it’s “safe.” They say this because they love us and they mean well, but they don’t understand that we were quite safe in Korea, maybe even more safe than at home. I’m eating pasta at a Pizza hut in Suwon when some high school boys I don’t know come in. They’re excited to talk to me and offer some of their pizza. I’m walking down the street and some Korean teenage boys walk the other way and it’s “Hi what’s your name where are you from? You are very handsome! Nice to meet you!” Now I’m not saying they’re perfect angels who never do anything wrong. I’ve heard “Fuck you James” a few times as well. But in my own hometown that summer I was back a 15 year old boy followed me and a friend down the street yelling and cursing at us acting like he wanted to fight us. That never happened to me in Asia.
Doing my cross country road trip was great. I’d seen a few old friends I hadn’t seen in 10+ years, went to a few places I’d never been to before, but some of it was really heavy for me too. I went back to my old school in the midwest and ran into a few old students. One of them even said to me “We told you not to leave and you fucking did anyway!” I was coming face to face with what I did wrong.
However there was another personal situation which I won’t get into which was clouding my judgment, and I kind of blew a chance to go back to my old school. Now I was in a situation where I needed to start working soon and didn’t’ know what to do. Times like this you go with what you know, and, Korea being Korea, I was quickly offered a job.
All foreigners go home, and a lot of foreigners end up coming back. Almost exactly a year after I’d left I was back in Korea. Even though the reverse culture shock was hard to deal with, I wasn’t happy to be back. It was for a lot of reasons, but in short I was only coming back for a job and didn’t like that being the only reason I was coming back. I was real pissed off for a bit, but luckily it wouldn’t last.
This time I was out in the country side, kind of like being out in the midwest. The kids were great. I got to see a few friends that were still in Korea, got to meet Conor’s +1, and made some new friends along the way.
Still I knew what needed to be done. Last summer at maybe 2 in the morning I made a phone call and got the news that I got my old job back. I did feel bad for having to break contract with the Korean school, but I figured I’d do the summer camp so I wouldn’t totally screw them over.
Jim’s new/old school in the US
I was ready to leave Korea this time, and that’s the thing. I wasn’t really ready to leave the first time. Coming back helped me realize that I shouldn’t stay in Korea forever, as much as it’s a good life and an easy life, I’m not meant to be a lifer.
So what’s the point of all this? I don’t know. Conor asked for guest posts and this came to mind. I guess I’d want fellow teachers to know that there is life after Korea. Reverse culture shock can be really hard to deal with, but maybe reading this will help someone out there.
Both times when I went to Korea I did so hesitantly, but both times that country gave me a lot of healing and got me straightened out inside. In some ways Korea really saved my life. I’ll be forever thankful for that.
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James Murray currently teaches high school social studies in the mid-western United States after traveling the world a bit. He enjoys movies, old cartoons, and a tall glass of milk. When he has spare time he attempts to write. In 2012 he started Hard Coal Studios for his self published comic books, poems, and prose. His website can be found at www.hardcoalstudios.com and he blogs at jemurr.wordpress.com/