My Korea: Past & Present

Greetings Dear Readers,

Many of you know that this is my second time in Korea. For those who don’t know, I was here nine years ago and a lot has changed since then. Considering almost a decade has gone by since my last habitation, I find it noteworthy to document three of the biggest changes between then and now.


Currently I’m living in Namyangju city in Gyeonggi province, a province that surrounds the capital city of Seoul. When I was here last, I lived in Seoul city, in the south-western district of Guro-gu. As cool as it may seem to live in the capital, my area wasn’t very metropolitan. My little pocket of town was blue-collar, working class, with very few foreigners. In one year, I met another foreigner in my town only once and had to travel at least 40 minutes further into Seoul for anything foreign.

I was told my area was part of a big factory industry which explained the constant smog. Summer in Seoul can get quite stifling. Pollution in the capital is pretty dense in the summer months and you can feel it in your chest when you breathe. Also, no matter where you are in the capital, there are just so many people! Seoul city was home to over 10 million people as of the 2011 statistics, so you can imagine that it’s hard to walk down a street by yourself at any given time.


(photo: In Insadong, Seoul 2013)

Namyangju’s population was just under 600,000 as of 2011 which is about half of Seoul’s head count. Being outside of the big city and leaning more towards the countryside is refreshing and spacious. My town is not fully in the country, but is pretty darn near. Some towns in Namyangju are pure country, with chickens and cows, the whole shebang. I’m only a few minutes from the subway station and my town is central enough to have a multitude of buses and still be on the Seoul subway line. I’ve got the best of both worlds as I get the fresh mountain air and lower population density while still enjoying city life and being connected to the heart of Seoul.


(photo: At Namhansanseong [South Han Mountain Fortress]

in Gwangju, Gyeonggi provence – so many trees!)


Even though I was technically in the capital city, my neighborhood of Gaebong-dong was very homogenous. Most people in my little town stared and gawked at me for the first four months I was there. Many had never seen a foreigner, let alone talk to one at the grocery store. I became a bit of a celebrity in my neighborhood. Although they were shy and nervous around me, no one was ever rude or unwelcoming. It was just painfully obvious that many were seeing a foreigner for the first time.

Nine years later, I’m in a slightly bigger neighborhood, although still blue-collar with very few foreigners. Even so, I found this time around people barely batted an eye at my presence. It could also be that my Korean is much better than last time, but I found that I mosey about the streets of my neighborhood practically unnoticed and stare-free. In the last decade I think a lot more foreigners have come and gone throughout Korea and now it’s not so shocking to see a waygook (foreigner) show up in your grocery store.

I feel less isolated and not so far from home when I’m treated this way. Sometimes I go get my groceries at the local market and wander home lost in thought, forgetting that I’m not on the streets of Toronto. It feels good to be accepted as part of the community without the usual shock and awe reception I got nine years ago in my old town.


(photo: At Bukchon traditional village 2013)


When I was in Seoul my contract was with a private institute, also known as an academy or in Korean, a hagwon (although I am learning to read and write in Hangul, I will keep my Korean words romanized as most of my Dear Readers are not fluent in Hangul ^_^).

There are many hagwons in Korea and most are run by private business owners. For example; there are piano, math, Korean, taekwondo and hapkido academies all over Korea so English academies are not the only kind of hagwons out there. These academies are not paid for by the government so parents pay a monthly fee for their children to attend after regular school hours.

Hagwons pay more in monthly salaries, have later hours and smaller class sizes. These are the pluses. On the downside of hagwons, there is a risk involved when being employed by a private business owner instead of being employed by the government at a public school. Downsides may include but are not limited to: not being paid on time, your hagwon owner/boss being not-so-nice to foreigners and the possibility of the academy going out of business all of a sudden, leaving you stuck in Korea with a useless E-2 visa. Also there is less vacation time. More on these differences are for another blog entry.

In my experience, my hagwon was decent although I was a little mistreated by my original hagwon owner. Fortunately for me, she left Korea halfway through my contract to move to the USA and the co-owner took over, who was very kind. Overall, what happened there did not spoil my experience as I still had a great year but chose to work for the public school system this time around.

public school

(photo: my classroom in Namyangju 2013)

  With public schools, you are much more protected. You are a lot less likely to loose your job (unless you do something to violate your contract), your paperwork and pay schedule are all organized and up-front and your vacation time is doubled. Although you will be teaching much larger classes, you will also have a co-teacher with you, who is a native Korean speaker, in comparison to teaching on your own at a private academy.

Some teachers may prefer to teach alone and that’s cool, but for me, I find that I can reach the students much more when I have a native speaker with me to translate when they don’t understand a concept or idea. Overall I enjoyed my experience at the private academy but am really happy being in a public school this time.

These are the top three things that have changed, but the list goes on. Neither experience was better or worse, just different. With living comes experience and as long as you’re learning, you’re doing alright :) Happy travels Dear Readers, see you in Colorado!

One thought on “My Korea: Past & Present

  1. Hey karli awesome comparison piece! I live that you add pictures, it makes me feel like I’m there with you. Looking Howard to some articles on food :) yum!! Love you Kar xo

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