It took three and a half days for me to fall in love with Seoul, South Korea. On my way to a summer fellowship in Manila, I decided to make a pit stop to visit my best friend who lives there. I touched down in Incheon, and we made our way on the airport bus to her house which sat right on the southern half of the Han River. The subsequent hours consisted of noraebang and fried chicken, a hike through Bukhansan (I’d never met a place with a national park within not just a city, but a citywith millions of inhabitants), weaving through the countless markets and underground malls, and stunning palaces and museums.
I had spent my entire life working with kids, from tutoring middle schoolers to volunteering in a Montessori to teaching English in rural Brazil. In the spring semester of my senior year, I had no idea how life would turn out after graduation. With the impending doom of my student loans, an urge to have a new space to reflect and create, and a desire to work with kids, it was auspicious to scroll through my university job site at 2 am in the library stacks and see a posting from Aclipse. I applied the afternoon after and got the ball rolling on a new life.
I grabbed my bags and traveled down the same road from Incheon that I did two years earlier. To be honest, the training week made me nervous as I sifted through the methodology and advice my group gave me; but everyone at headquarters was on your side through the whole process. I made my way to my April school in Gwanak-gu. It was the first year for the branch, which came with the blessings of a fun and generative learning curve. I worked with younger kids, which was right up my alley. Although sometimes challenging, I was driven to find my way with the help of my supportive and energetic co-teachers and staff. The year flew by fast, and it was beautiful to grow with everyone.
My favorite parts were the small ones, like seeing my students get better and better chunk quiz scores, and reading their hilarious CTP scripts which involved absurd details like spam castles and underwater basketball stadiums. Seeing kids so young invest so much in their English education made me want to be a more conscious and passionate educator. I learned how to sharpen my craft, to be kind and patient, and to always keep both the students and myself motivated. But it wasn’t just the classes that were special. My kids would come to school in their taekwondo uniforms and show me moves, bring me honey butter chips, and tell me about their favorite idol groups and their plans for Lunar New Year. They dressed up in witch costumes for Halloween and Santa hats for Christmas. Every day was a testament to how dynamic, intelligent, and funny they were. It was a privilege for me to share a part of their busy days with them.
The Chungdahm environment in general was an excellent space to be a part of. One of my favorite parts was helping my student participate in the April Speak Up Contest, where she competed against students from all over Seoul to perform a piece she wrote about an item she loved, which for her, was the blanket her mom gave her as a baby. I saw teachers from other branches acting as cheerleaders for their schools, reminding me how big and tight-knit of a community CDI is. They really give the teacher (many of us teaching for the first time in our lives) the resources to thrive in the classroom and outside. The methodology is smooth and constantly improving, and I always felt I could reach out whenever I had any issues at all.
Outside of work, I was able to nourish myself and create a space to grow. I mean, banchan (side dish) alone is reason enough to move there. I found a local market where I’d walk to after the gym to buy fresh bok choy and bright yellow Korean melon, and I had my local baker who’d give me an extra chapsal donut (fried and filled with red bean) on the way to work. I had a nearby tailor who’d help me with clothes and a stationary shop to get nice pens for journaling. I loved saying hi to everyone on the way from my school to my front door. The subway system is so expansive and easy to navigate, allowing me to pick a station and wander from there. Seoul neighborhoods are teeming with hidden cafes antique shops, and parks with people doing exercises on the public machines. You can walk along the river at midnight and stare at the lights on the water and also go dancing until the trains start up in the morning. There’s a heavy art scene with incredible installations and exhibitions throughout the city, and always some sort of free concert or festival any given weekend. Seoul is especially beautiful in the spring with the cherry blossoms blooming. With the support of my branch and the comfortable living situation and salary CDI offers, I was able to create a life that was just not about my classroom, but about enhancing it.
After my year stint, I was able to save enough to travel for a long time. I made my way from Mongolia to South Africa, meeting wonderful people and places through it all. But a part of me always missed the energy of my life in South Korea. I missed my students greeting me with “Nico Teacher,” I missed seeing groups of older people dressed to the nines to hike the mountains, and I missed the freedom of being able to care for and better myself in such a culturally, historically, geographically diverse place. When it came time for me to figure out my next step, I knew this was the clear choice. Leaving for two years gave me time to reflect and better prepare. I applied to Chungdahm again a day in early July. The next day I flew to the Philippines to spend time with family, and before even knowing if I got the gig, I had already prepared my fingerprints and background check forms, took a passport photo, and had envelopes addressed and ready to mail just in case. That process is stressful if you’re not prepared with ample cushion time even while in the US. Since I’m currently abroad, I wanted to be one thousand percent sure.
I’m keen to embark on this journey more centered and more knowledgeable, because I know I have so much more to gain and experience. It will be an even more enriching and inspiring time, and I am thankful to be given this opportunity.
Nico Salvador grew up in Los Angeles, California and graduated with a degree in English Literature from Brown University in 2015. Only a few months after finishing, she moved to Seoul, South Korea and worked at Chungdahm April Gwanak branch in the south of the city. She immersed herself in all that the country had to offer, from excessive dakgalbi consumption, to sweating it out in the jjimjilbang, to spending hours watching all the street artists and performers. She gained so much from the people she encountered, and grasped that one could spend their whole life in South Korea and still have something new to learn and grow from. After two years of traveling, she is moving back to create an even more abundant life of teaching and creating.