Ky. Voices: At home in South Korea, despite war threats

I will remember 2010 for two main reasons. It is the year I had to continuously convince friends and family back in America that North Korea's saber rattling and provocations were not as serious as the U.S. media portrayed them and, ironically, the same year I realized it would not be to my benefit to move back to America, even if I wanted to.

Korea is both immensely frustrating and deeply satisfying as a place to work and live.

I had spent a year in Denmark and a year in Australia as an exchange student, but I did not stick out like a sore thumb. Moving to Chinju, South Korea, in 1996, I felt welcomed and feared at the same time. People would often tell me I was the first foreigner they ever met. I was often pointed out by children as I was walking down the street. I got used to it, and when I went home to visit after my first year, I remember walking through the Los Angeles airport wondering why nobody was looking at me. Some people like the pseudo-celebrity that comes with being a foreigner in Korea; others can't deal with it. It is the utter lack of anonymity that sends many ex-pats packing.

Another reason many people leave Korea after a year or two is the cultural differences. From the spit-covered sidewalks to the truck that drives down the street spraying mosquito-killing fog, Korea is easy to complain about. Go to any bar where foreigners hang out, and you will hear at least one conversation about how strange/weird/crazy/horrible Korea is. The list of potential complaints is unending. Old people cut in lines, and the women have been known to throw an elbow from time to time. Drivers ignore traffic laws, and police ignore the law-breaking drivers. Trucks with speakers on them create noise pollution; old people push junk carts down the side of the road creating traffic backups and safety issues; some Koreans eat dog meat.

Some things I have gotten used to or simply accepted. I still have a problem with bad drivers who think they are good drivers. But every time I go home for a visit, I am reminded that bad drivers are everywhere. When I'm in America, I wonder how people can wear their shoes in the house. It is disgusting how much filth people track into their homes on a daily basis. I was always grumpy about having to visit the immigration office to renew my visa or not being able to find something available in English. But in America, it is hard to survive without learning English, and immigration is always a hot-button issue.

Some things are much better in Korea than in America.

Health care is inexpensive and readily accessible. Public transportation is also very affordable and convenient. Sales tax is already added in to the price of products, and tipping is virtually non-existent. Income taxes are comparatively low. TV commercials are shown at the end of shows or in one big break in the middle instead of every five minutes. Many sporting events that would be pay-per-view in America are shown here for free.

I left Korea in 1998 and moved back in 2002 because I missed the lifestyle. I have been living in Daejeon, the fifth-largest city, since then. As 2010 wound down, I had time to reflect on the year that was. In March, the South Korean warship Cheonan sank off the west coast of the country and fingers were pointed at North Korea.

In November, North Korea announced the existence of a uranium enrichment facility that could be upgraded to produce nuclear weapons. About the same time, the North launched artillery shells at Yongpyung Island, killing four people. The South Korean military is holding large-scale maneuvers that could prompt further retaliation. But with all that going on, I cannot leave.

I cannot leave this xenophobic, patriotic country I now consider home because I have spent 10 years building a successful career as an English educator; moving back to America would be like starting over. I love teaching, and I enjoy teaching at the university level with only a master's degree. It would be difficult to find a job like this in America without a Ph.D.

I am teaching at one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, ranked among the top schools for science and technology in Asia. Because I am not asked to publish, I can focus on teaching my undergraduate students and still have time to work on other projects. I am often asked to give presentations to public school teachers on student motivation, classroom management and creative lesson plans.

I am involved with several testing services as a rater and test developer. This is where my career has led me, and it's an excellent place to be. I am considered a leader in my field.

In America, the majority of English-as-a-second-language positions are part-time or adjunct. Most teachers at the university level do not receive benefits like health insurance or paid vacation, or they are doctoral students. There is no way I could achieve this level of professional development or job satisfaction in my chosen field.

Educators in Korea are generally regarded with higher esteem than in America. Public school teachers are government employees, and that makes it both harder to get a job and more impressive to the general public. University professors are also held in high regard, and working at the top schools affords you a great deal of respect.

I had to do a lot of damage control on Facebook and via e-mail last year. I received numerous messages from friends and family worrying about my safety. I made a presentation to a group of public school teachers the day after the Yongpyung Island attack. None of them had been in the country more than six months. I told them about my first year in Korea. I had been here less than three months when a North Korean submarine was found off Gangneung on the east coast. A group of North Korean soldiers exited the submarine and hid in the surrounding hills. Sixteen soldiers and civilians were killed during the two-month search.

The morning after the infiltration, a two-inch headline in the Korea Herald proclaimed: "President Foresees Possibility of War." I rushed to my first class waving the newspaper and lamenting that I would have to leave only a few months after arriving. My students looked at me with bored expressions and said, "It happens all the time." From that day on, I have taken the temperature of the locals before letting the sensationalist media get me too excited.

As I waited at the bus terminal to travel to my presentation the day after the Yongpyung Island attack, I listened to people chat about hair appointments and other trivial matters. I now know these things do indeed happen all the time. But professional success and satisfaction do not happen all the time. And that is why, regardless of the political climate, I will not be leaving Korea.