Traveler Series: Jimmy

Jimmy, a friend to everyone, took his charisma to the other side of the world. It takes courage to leave the life you know behind and embark on an adventure so far from home, but he did it. He shares his adventures in South Korea through his pictures. And his travels through, Japan, The Philipines and many more to come in the future. So read on and learn his story…

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Tell me a little bit about yourself, hobbies, favorite movie, song, food, etc.

My name is José González and I’m from Chicago. I have many hobbies. I love films and one of my favorites is Inception. Great soundtrack and thoughtful story telling. I like playing Super Smash Brothers and Settlers of Catan with my friends. My favorite book series is Game of Thrones, rich in detail and characterization, except for Sansa haha. I listen to tech podcasts usually relating to Apple. A few others are comedy, political, and historical. They make my commutes and trips fly by. My favorite food is Mexican, especially tacos de carne asada con salsa.

What made you decide to teach ESL in Korea?

I was working for a school in Chicago as a teachers aide. My co-worker told me about his time teaching English in Korea. He had great year there and recommended I do it. I was immediately interested, since I like traveling and I hadn’t been to an Asian country before. I also didn’t know anything about Korean culture, so it would be a great experience. So I looked up the program my coworker went through, EPIK. The program lasts 1 year long and pay was reasonable. How could I refuse?

Do you consider yourself an ex-pat? Why or why not?

expatriate (Merriam-Webster)

* to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere

Yes, I am an expatriate, since i don’t live in Chicago. I live in Yeongju, South Korea.

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What is the community of people you interact with like?

I interact with 4 groups, my co-workers, my students, my friends, and the locals. At my school, all my co workers are Korean, I’m the only foreigner. I work in 3 schools btw, with the same situation. My co workers are good people, always kind, respectful and willing to help me whenever they can. I teach elementary students, 3rd grade to 6th grade. They are wonderful students, polite, nice, goofy, and adorable. For the most part they are quite cheerful. Most students will say hello to me in the hallways. My students have become less shy around me. Initially they were silent, but now they try to tell me jokes. Sometimes the students will even discipline one another and send each other to the back of the room! They are an honest bunch. The friends I made in Korea are amazing. I met my friends during the orientation of the EPIK program and in my travels to Seoul and Busan. One of the best places to hang out with friends is coffee shops, in my opinion. Some of my friends are gamers and luckily for us Korea has many inexpensive PC rooms. We can drink for cheap in Korea too. Soju, rice alcohol, is about $1 per bottle. The last group I interact with the are locals. It is very hard for us to communicate, since I don’t know Korean and they don’t know English. Sometimes the senior citizens will look at me like I am a novelty, probably because it is the few times they see a foreigner. They give me good long look too! But everybody is polite. Just like if I was in Chicago, I don’t interact with strangers unless they or me are asking for directions haha.

How rewarding is the work that you do?

I enjoy my job. It has its difficulties, partly because of the language barrier that I have with my students. But we work through it. I also feel welcomed in my schools, by teachers, administration, and students. I like going into work, happy to see the students, and they are happy to see me too.

What other places have you traveled to in Asia?

I have been to Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo in Japan. Each one is a great city. Kyoto is the historical capital while Tokyo is a massive metropolis. Osaka is similar to Tokyo, but a smaller city. I’ve also been to Boracay, an island that is part of the Philippines. The sea is a clear turquoise that is amazing to wake up to. A nice island paradise.

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Tell us about culture shock and the difference in cultures…

One funny thing I noticed in the smaller Korean towns is the placement of toilet paper in public bathrooms. First, toilets are common, but sometimes you’ll find a squatter instead, which is a porcelain hole in the ground. When there are toilets, the toilet paper will be outside the stall, instead of being inside their stall where it makes sense. So I have to, on occasion, prepare the paper for myself before I go to the stall.

Koreans use scissors as part of their food preparation tools, especially in BBQ places. The scissors help cut the pieces of meat into smaller chunks. It is such a great idea! They use scissors to cut noodles and vegetables as well.

Coffee shops are everywhere. Even more so than Starbucks. Unlike Starbucks, there is a variety of coffee chains.

Western restaurants are not easily available, especially in smaller towns. Where I live there are basically zero, not even a McDonald’s. Seoul, Busan, and Daegu have some western restaurants, but usually they are pricy.

The transportation system is amazing. The trains go everywhere. If you can’t get there by train, a bus can. It is cheap. Taxis are also very cheap, around $3 starting fare and $7 for a 15 minute ride. The taxis are everywhere, not just centralized in one location, like in downtown Chicago. Uber will never be able to expand here with this kind of infrastructure.

Korea has its very own celebrity and music culture. Western celebrities are not really known here, unless they are the super famous people like Michael Jordan or Barack Obama. Korean celebrities are all over advertisements and commercials. It is not considered selling out here, just part of the job.

Fads are started by these famous people as well. For example, there is a famous soap opera where the main character loves fried chicken and beer. Suddenly, many restaurants of these kind opened up. Honey butter potato chips also became popular this way last year, but I don’t hear about honey butter chips anymore. The fried chicken has remained popular. Its not that fads don’t happen in the States, but because Korea is a homogenous culture, it is more pronounced. When things become fashionable, many people will wear the same thing. The sameness sticks out.

Almost everything in Korea is cute. Companies have cute mascots. Banks have cute mascots. I saw an add for liposuction that had a fatty blob with a cute facet as their mascot. Even the police have cute mascots. Whenever I show my students a picture of something cute on a powerpoint, they always mention how cute it is.

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What are your favorite hangout places?

Coffee shops

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How has this experience changed the way you view the world?

Not much. I did learn a lot about Korea. I started at zero though lol

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Did you ever dream of doing this? What did you think you’d be doing instead?

Coming to Korea was not something I had planned to do, I kind of did it on whim. The opportunity came out of the blue. If I wasn’t teaching here, i would probably be teaching in Chicago.

What’s your favorite place you’ve travelled to?

My favorite place at the moment is Japan. The people are kind, helpful, and diligent. The cities are clean and queues are orderly. Transportation is readily available. The roads are safer and are easier for biking. Everybody bikes in Japan. The food is amazing! I especially like ramen. I like anime from Japan. There are whole areas dedicated to anime fans that include stores and entertainment. I like Japan because of the mix of cultures. They have their traditional culture with the add on of western culture, but not dominated by it. The country is also very modern, and all the conveniences that come with that. I noticed that people have iPhones and Apple Stores are available. Since I’m an iPhone user, that is very convenient for me.

What are some things that make you homesick?

I miss Mexican food, especially tacos, and deep dish pizza.

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How fluent is your Korean? How do you handle language barriers? Does the barrier alienate you or have you found a community with people in the same situation as you?

I’m not fluent in Korean. I know a few words and phrases. I can read Korean, but very slowly and I don’t understand what I’m reading. To counter my lack of Korean, I use my phone. I will use google translate to get my idea across (never use it to translate whole sentences, because it never does it right). Sometimes I will show pictures. Other times I will use body language. Having a Korean friend is the best solution haha. The language barrier is alienating because some people do want to be friends and communicate, but we are not able to. Trying to talk to someone using the above methods, except having a Korean friend, is very difficult. You can’t really carry a conversation. It is mentally tiring trying to come up with ways to be understood.

What are your plans for the future?

I will return to Chicago and look for a teaching position.

How did this experience affect your look on travel?

All my traveling around taught me how to be a better traveler. I learned about guest houses, hotels, motels, and airbnb and other travel websites. I am more familiar now with were to look for lodging and getting a decent deal. Korea has many guest houses available all over the country, especially the big cities. My favorite website to look for places to stay is Booking.com.

Having a smartphone is so helpful. Booking flights and lodging is easy. There are apps that are specialized for travel. The Expedia app held my plane tickets. Modern Atlas an app that provides information about countries and cities, so you can plan where to go and what to do. Google Trips, a recently released app, will gather your flight data and suggest things to do on your trip, along with directions and maps that work offline. Most countries have wifi available in the airport, hotel, and even cafes. When you need information, a smartphone makes it available. A laptop could do a similar thing, but it is not portable like a smartphone.

Messaging and other social apps makes it a little easier to meet people. When I was in Osaka, I did not know anyone. So I used Tinder to see if someone would like to meet up. Someone did want to meet up. She showed me around Osaka, like a guide, and we also went to a coffee shop haha. Through Tinder, I made a new friend.

Through my travels, I learned about money versus convenience. At first, I thought that getting the best deal is the only option, because I’ll save money. But then I realized that sometimes saving money is not worth the trouble. For example, maybe I should have bought the pricier plane ticket to go to Boracay instead of taking the round about, cheaper option. By taking the cheaper option, I increased my travel time by 3 hours. So my total travel time was about 7 hours, including the 4 hour flight. For the sake of the better deal, I spent less time on the beach. Spending a little more money for the sake of convenience and saving time is worth it.

Anything else you want to say to the readers?

If you have the finances and opportunity to travel, I recommend you do it.

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