Photo: Jangkyungsun/Shutterstock

A Day in the Life of an Expat in Gunpo City, South Korea

South Korea
by Seth M. Baker Dec 10, 2009
Expat life in one of the world’s most popular teaching destinations.


Most mornings, my alarm clock rouses me from sleep, but at least a couple days a week, I’m awakened early by the fruit propagandist. Today is one of those days.

From dawn until noon, the fruit propagandist yells out the day’s deals on pears and persimmons, his rhythmic, authoritarian voice booming through the PA speakers strapped to the top of his fruit-laden truck. I imagine his pitch: East Asia has the best persimmons, better than Oceania. East Asia has always had the best persimmons.

Listening to him, I boil water for instant coffee. As the water boils, I look out the window to check the air pollution. Today it’s so bad the nearby mountains look silver. On the rare days the air is clear, I like to go running. I still want to get outside, so I decide to hike to the temple before work.

Breakfast is a smoothie, fried eggs, and coffee.

I write from nine until early afternoon. As I work, I look out my fourth-floor window at the beige and off-white apartment buildings lined up like dominoes and wonder about the lives lived inside.

My wife likes to sleep late. I try not to rouse her.

Early Afternoon

When I finish my writing for the day, I leave the apartment for my hike. Every day, my guitar-playing neighbor leaves his door open. Today is no different. His riffs fill the gray concrete hallway like smoke as I wait for the elevator.

On the ground floor, I pass the lady in the flower shop. Because of her, my window sill is filled with wilting plants and my Korean vocabulary includes the words for orchid, cactus and violet. Now, though, I don’t need any more plants. I wave to her and continue towards the mountain.

At the base of the mountain, I stop to fill an empty water bottle from the fountain. The fountain is a giant concrete turtle with a spigot coming out its mouth. The water comes from a spring inside the mountain. The icy water washes the taste of instant coffee from my mouth.

I follow the steep trail a kilometer up the hill to the temple. The temple is really a small red and green pagoda with an altar in the middle. A sign tells me villagers from the valley below used to leave sacrifices of food and livestock to appease the mountain spirit and ensure a good harvest.

Even here in the forest I can still hear the drone of the traffic from the highway that rolls over the hills like a spool of wire.

Back down the hill and on to work.

Late Afternoon

My school is a private English academy in a building with four other English schools, a music school, a dentist, and a raw fish restaurant. The front of the building is lined with bubbling tanks filled with shrimp, squid, and croaker.

I work from three to nine. The kids are young but not babies, between eight and fifteen. Many of them attend public school and two or three after-school academies, but even after a twelve-hour day, they are still bouncing with energy as I teach them Yankee English. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Sometimes ten-year-old girls in pigtails and purple glasses tell me to die.

I drink a lot of instant coffee between classes.


After a full day of classes, my brain turns to red bean paste. Since the weather has turned colder, I like to stay home and read a novel for a couple hours. Sometimes I’ll dust off my guitar and sing a couple songs for my wife. Evening is the time we spend together, the concerns of the day behind us.

If we want to get out of the apartment, we’ll go ‘downtown,’ an eight-square-block area around the train station. Seoul is an hour away, so we only go there on weekends.

Attached to every eight-story building are vertical signs advertising pubs, restaurants, retail stores, and PC rooms. Their flashing neon lights illuminate the pedestrian streets below.

My wife and I frequent two restaurants. One is a galbi place. We sit on the floor while pieces of marinated beef cook over a bucket of glowing coals set in the middle of our table. The other is a Chinese pub, complete with red fabric lanterns, bamboo lattice work, and a replica of a soldier from the terracotta army. My favorite dish is described in the menu as ‘happy spicy chicken parts, fried.’

Not so much since I quit smoking, but some nights we’ll meet other teachers for drinks at one of the two popular expat bars in town. At one place, you get your beer in a frozen ice mug. After you finish, you throw the ice at a target in the hopes of winning a free beer. The other place features bartenders who juggle and breathe fire.

Some nights we’ll go with our English-speaking acquaintances to the singing room. There, we don multi-colored wigs and sing Bohemian Rhapsody until our vocal chords ache.

On our way home, we ignore the crosswalk signs and lean on each other for support against the waning night. We know we’ve stayed out too late when we see the fruit propagandist setting up for another day’s work.

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