Moving to Korea, eh?

Moving to Korea, eh?

by Riann Arkinstall

Once upon a time, the question on the minds of everybody who knew me was, “Moving to Korea, eh? North or South?”

The short take: In 2002, I moved to Korea to spend a couple of years teaching English, as many have done before me. 

I never left.

Here is my story of that journey to another place and another way of life, starting with the journey itself.

I grew up in Kelowna, on a small apple orchard. There were just enough non-Caucasian students at my high school to count on one hand. 

That conservative and rather homogenous surrounding piqued my interest in worldwide travelling, which I had the good fortune to do, both in high school and later. 

It may seem surprising to some, the idea of teaching abroad. Why go so far away from family, and the comforts afforded in Canadian life? It was an easy answer for me - I wanted to try my hand at teaching in a different environment, to experience a completely ‘foreign’ culture, and to exercise my travel bug - all in one fell swoop. 

So, on the advice of a friend, I looked into opportunities in Asia. Korea was the choice for me.

My initial trip to Korea was on December 19, 2002.

Surprisingly, I was able to get on my flight without paying a hefty surcharge for my luggage, which included a large backpack and my bicycle box. The bike box was certainly overweight, as it was stuffed with my bike (of course), along with books and equipment for cycling (including my light set - more on that later). The packing tape alone weighed in at almost a pound.

The trip was emotional and wonderful. I had a perfect view out my window of the snow-covered mountains along the coast of BC and Alaska. Exciting, and yet emotional to be embarking on something so completely unknown, and leaving my family and girlfriend behind. 

The grandmotherly flight attendant was kind, and smart enough to cut me off from getting too much of my fill of in-flight Caesars (I was topping up, knowing it would be unlikely that I’d find Clamato juice in Korea).

Ten hours later, I landed in Korea. 

Arriving was wonderful, but I was surprised to find large groups of Koreans gathered around, glued intently to, the huge HD televisions in the airport common areas. Had the ‘Great Leader’ done something silly during my flight? To my amazement, being used to the relative apathy of the Canadian voter, the broadcast was simply moment-to-moment updates on the results for national elections.  

I still needed to catch a flight for the final domestic leg of my journey, and needed to take a shuttle from this airport to the domestic airport about 30 minutes away.   

After getting my bearings and shuttle ticket, I would only have 45 minutes to check in once I arrived at the domestic airport. This would be cutting it close, as my flight was the last for the day.

Upon arrival, I hopped off the bus to look for a cart, while, unbeknownst to me, the shuttle bus driver dragged out my bike box and left it lying in the road. A departing taxi was just about to drive over it. I jumped in front of the cab just in time, demanding that he stop. 

This minor crisis averted, I loaded the gear onto my cart, and headed into the terminal to get checked in, with only about 35 minutes before take-off. Inside the terminal, signs indicated the third floor was for Departures. 

The elevator was tiny, so I had to unload my cart, throw all my gear into the elevator, then throw the cart on top of the gear. 

On the third floor, I unloaded the elevator and reloaded the cart, only to discover that the third floor was for departure GATES, not check-in. It was my first, but certainly not last, experience with unclear English instructions. 

So back to the tiny elevator: unload, load, unload, reload. I arrived to the second floor, and headed over to the check-in counter.  

By now, I was down to the wire. Check-in seemed to go smoothly, and when finished with the agent, I headed to the departure gate.

Just as I was about to get in the elevator, the check-in agent ran over and asked me to follow her. 

I was led into a room for screening luggage. There was a young man operating the x-ray machine who was, from the looks of it, about 18 years old and still going through the uncomfortable stage of acne-faced puberty. 

There was a young woman as well. Neither could explain the problem to me. They jabbered at me in Korean, very serious. It should be noted that I was fully dressed in business attire, including a long sleeve undershirt, dress shirt, tie, sweater, and dress jacket. By that point, I was pink in the face and dripping with sweat. 

After a few minutes, an older gentleman supervisor came out to ‘assist’. He, too, didn’t speak English.

They pointed at my backpack then at the image on the x-ray screen. It was my computer tower, neatly packed at the bottom of the bag. I only had to point to their computer on the desk. Understood.

The bike box was a different matter. The issue was the light set battery, and seemingly the wires associated with it. The young woman had a knife at the ready to slice the packing tape to get inside. I exclaimed loudly to her, “No! Don’t do that,”

“. . . it will EXPLODE!!”

The last three words hung in the air, with me wondering what life was going to be like in a Korean jail.

Thankfully, this English was also lost on them.

I waited, lips tightly sealed. At long last, they let me pass without opening the box. I made it to my plane.

When I arrived at my final destination, the secretary of my new school and my new roommate greeted me. They were both very kind, and, unbelievably, my new roommate turned out to be a cousin of my best friend in Canada. 

To finish this story, here is the answer to the original question: I live in South Korea, not North.  

To be continued. . . .


This is the first in a four-part series by Riann Arkinstall about his life in Korea.​

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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