We're settling into our home and work in Korea nicely. We have a fine 3-bedroom apartment in Samcheok, and a great elementary school in Dogye with fantastic children. Our struggle is what's between the two -- 40 kilometers of mountain road. We're commuting about 2.5 hours a day right now, at a personal expense of ~US$7 a day. We walk about 25 minutes to the bus station, take a 45 minute bus ride, then walk about ten minutes to school. That's not what we had in mind when we applied to the EPIK program, which places native English speakers in public schools in Korea. We applied specifically to work in Gangwon-do, the rural-most province in Korea, because we thought it would be quiet and quaint and we'd settle into some mountain village and learn the language and get to know the locals. Our recruiter, ESL Job Network, assured us our commute would be 20 minutes or less. And yet here we are, each paying ~US$150 a month to commute 2.5 hours a day. That adds up fast -- 12.5 hours a week, over 60 in a month. That's a full work week and a half every month we're giving up commuting.
So yesterday we went to the administration at our school, via our translator, who speaks very broken English, to let them know how we're feeling and see if there was a possibility of finding an apartment near the school. Today we had a meeting with the Principal, Vice Principal and #4 (it's so hierarchical!), in which they basically said suck it up. Actually, it would've felt better if they had just said we couldn't find anything. Instead we were told that the Principal used to take the bus (he started at the school in 1971, basically before Korea had personal cars), that many of the teachers at the school make a similar or longer commute (as a part of the culture, they have more motivation to live in a city and hence make the commute, and they also each made that choice freely, whereas we were simply thrown into an apartment in a town 40km away), that Dogye has hard winters and there aren't locks on the doors, and can we please do the Principal a favor and endure our struggle. Oh, and that it would become familiar, that we'd become experienced at the commute. Each of those sentences came through in stuttered, butchered English, and after a 3-5 minute discussion between the three administrators. Then our translator asked us, "so how will you get to school?" We stared at her for what felt like an awful long time before saying, "well, we don't have any options." Then it was volleyball time. I guess the entire staff plays volleyball each week. Last week it was fun; today we hadn't been told to bring our "sports clothes" and weren't much in the mood, so we sat on the side of the gym and moped.
This evening, we talked with our recruiter - Jen at ESL Job Network - and she assured us that we were right to feel wronged; that we really had been assured we wouldn't have a commute like this before we signed our contracts; that we were going through the proper channels in the proper order (we have a meeting with the assistant coordinator for Samcheok County in 10 minutes); and made us feel like the situation could and would be remedied.
I must say, I feel empowered to be blogging about this. There's not a whole lot of English about teaching in Gangwon-do on the internet, and I imagine by the time the next hiring season rolls around, this blog should rank fairly high for a search for, for example, "Gangwon EPIK" or the name of our recruiter - ESL Job Network. Gangwon-do has traditionally had trouble filling its need for foreign teachers, so they've started upping vacation time and providing other incentives and positioning the province and the administration as foreigner friendly. They certainly have an interest in keeping me and my loud mouth happy.