Vagabonding Field Report: Cheap chicken and language barriers in Changwon, South Korea


Cost/day: $20


What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Evidence of Google Translate is everywhere. I constantly find signs and packages in nonsensical English. Take, for example, this paper bag from a local cookie shop:

Walnut cookie shop bag in Changwon

“The infinity love which is not condition of the father who thinks the family.”

Describe a typical day:
I have coffee and fruit for breakfast before making the three-minute walk to the private English academy where I teach. My nine kindergarteners are making amazing progress with their English. They can read and write, and have learned all the words to “Octopus’ Garden.” Last week I taught them to play toilet tag. That’s all they want to play now.

The group of kindergarteners I teach

In the afternoon, I teach reading and writing to elementary-age kids. Some of the students are exhausted, as their days start at 7 a.m. and don’t end until 10 p.m. I’m expected to help them fill out pages in their English textbooks, but I choose more creative activities when possible. I taught a poetry lesson last week that, to my surprise, fully engaged every student in the room.

Though I work an honest eight hours a day with very few breaks or vacation time, I never pass up an invitation for Korean barbecue after work. My coworkers and I stuff ourselves with pork, kimchi, sesame leaves and beer, but the meal never seems to total more than $10 per person.

This country is remarkably safe, so I feel comfortable walking home alone after dark. I might shoot a message to friends and family in the US before going to sleep; Korea has the fastest internet in the world.

Kimchi and soju: two Korean favorites

Kimchi and soju: two Korean favorites


Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
My neighborhood has an outdoor farmer’s market where I can buy anything from lotus root to Asian pears.

Kimchi bowls at the traditional market

Kimchi bowls at the traditional market

Because I usually stop at the chicken stand, the butcher and her husband now recognize me and pull a small, whole chicken from the ice before I even reach the counter.

My Korean vocabulary totals a pathetic thirty words, but almost every word I know applies at the market. The exchange in Korean at the chicken stand usually goes something like this:

Me: Hello!
Butcher: (motioning at chicken) This one?
Me: Yes. Cold! (I rub my arms to show I’m cold)
Butcher: Yes, cold. Do you want the chicken chopped? (makes a chopping motion with hand)
Me: Yes.
Butcher: You don’t have friends?
Me: Yes, I have friends. How much does this cost?
Butcher: 3,000 won. Something else in Korean.
Me: (blank stare)
Butcher: Something else in Korean.
Me: Uh…I don’t speak Korean. I’m sorry.
Butcher: It’s okay.
Me: Thank you. Goodbye!

At least she seems to have a sense of humor.


What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I came to Korea, like many other expats, for the attractive paycheck and benefits of being an English teacher. That, paired with the perks of travel, made Korea seem like the best option when I was burdened with student loans and a grim job market in the US.

So far I’ve had mixed feelings about Korea. On one hand, I don’t like living in a country of overpopulated cities, and it’s been hard to meet and keep close Korean friends. In the words of my South African friend, “There is beauty to be found in Korea, but I get tired of looking for it all the time.”

On the other hand, I like that it’s safe and cheap here. When my yearlong contract is over in August, I’ll have saved close to $10,000, traveled to the Philippines, Bali and Cambodia, and lived comfortably while making regular student loan payments.


Describe a challenge you faced:
I needed to mail a package to the US, but because I don’t speak Korean and the post office employees don’t speak English, previous post office trips always resulted in a failed game of charades. The previous two times I tried to mail something, I ended up paying $60 for small, light boxes via the air mail option. Air mail promised delivery in five days, but cost three times as much as the two-week ordinary option.

This time, to avoid frustration (and coughing up another $60), I explained to my Korean co-teacher what I wanted, and she wrote a note in Korean for me to take to the post office. The transaction took five minutes and cost $17.


What new lesson did you learn?
I’ve gotten a lot braver since arriving here. I made my first solo vacation to the Philippines for a week in December, so I’m no longer afraid of traveling alone.

Here in Korea, where the English is limited, I don’t get upset or embarrassed anymore if I can’t communicate. I’ve learned to plan ahead, ask whatever questions I can, and laugh at myself if I make a mistake.

No matter where I am or how dire the situation seems, I’m going to figure out a solution, simple as that.

Elizabeth Changwon

Hiking the mountains around Changwon


Where next?
May will find me on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Changwon is on the southern coast of South Korea, so I’m interested to see how the North-South tensions are different (or not) closer to Seoul. Despite Kim Jong Un’s recent declarations regarding war, life hasn’t changed a bit on this end of the peninsula.


Posted by | Comments (4)  | April 16, 2013
Category: Vagabonding Field Reports

4 Responses to “Vagabonding Field Report: Cheap chicken and language barriers in Changwon, South Korea”

  1. Ted Beatie Says:

    That’s interesting to know, given our US perspective of the North flexing its muscles, that on the ground in Korea things are still somewhat stable.

    What, pray tell, is ‘toilet tag’?

  2. Elizabeth Fritzler Says:

    Yes, I think because the South has endured countless threats over the years with no follow through, they now treat the North with indifference. Until I hear of other English teachers going home early, I’m staying put.

    Toilet tag is a version of freeze tag. If tagged, the kid becomes a “toilet” with a hand outstretched, and another kid must “flush” his hand before he can run again. If you’re a 7-year-old you think this is hilarious.

  3. Gabi Says:

    south korea looks amazing! and the butcher story is unreal. i love it. thank you for sharing it elizabeth.

  4. Elli Jestis Says:

    Hi Randy!I was wondering if you could suggest some cruise lines that offer kids free we have a 16yr old and a 1 yr old. We are watching our pennies but we don’t wanna take the kids vacations away from them, Thanks in advance.