Matthew and Julie Finitzer seem like the typical newlywed couple, spending their first year together setting up home, getting situated and enjoying one another's company. However there is one major difference between the 2004 Sequim grads and other newlyweds: their year was spent in South Korea.
The Finitzers moved to South Korea in September 2009 to teach English as a Second Language to Korean students. They lived in Yeosu, a city of 300,000 situated in the middle of the southern coast of South Korea about four hours from the capital city of Seoul.
Julie and Matthew have known one another since the sixth grade and began dating during their senior year at Sequim High. Julie went to Concordia University in Portland, Ore., and later transferred to Seattle Pacific University. Matthew attended the University of Washington. They became engaged in November 2007 and were married in Sequim in June 2009.
From U.W., Matthew earned a degree in history and thought this eventually would lead to teaching. Julie majored in individual and family development and didn't intend to teach, though she always has loved working with young children.
Matthew voluntarily tutored an international student at U.W. and from her learned that there are opportunities to teach in South Korea. She set Matthew up with a recruiter to learn more about the program.
"Most programs in Korea provide a competitive salary, free housing, airfare to and from Korea and bonuses for finishing your contract," Julie said.
Julie explained that ESL jobs in Korea generally fall into one of two categories: public schools and private schools. The Finitzers taught in the private school area in after-school academies called hagwons.
"Most students in South Korea go to one or more hagwons after school each day in order to supplement what they learn in public school or study something not taught there," Julie said.
There are not foreign teachers like the Finitzers at every hagwon. The presence of foreign teachers brings a hagwon more prestige because students are taught more accurate English pronunciation.
Matthew and Julie were hired to teach English at the same hagwon. They taught six or seven sessions a day for 40-50 minutes. The ages ranged from preschool to post high school, however 90 percent were in the elementary school age group.
The couple's work schedule was different from what they expected. They worked from 12:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. The first part of the day, up until 3 p.m., consisted of working with kindergarten students, though some were as young as 3 years old.
Before the English teachers like Matthew and Julie arrived in the afternoon, the kindergarten students already had been working with native teachers in the mornings in subjects such as math and Korean.
"We found these students to be extremely advanced for their age," Matthew said, "some with English reading and grammar skills far ahead of the pace of a U.S. kindergarten student."
Older students started arriving after 3 p.m. when they had finished their public school day. Julie said the Korean education system is different from the American school system in several ways.
"Public school seems to function in a much more structured manner than in the U.S.," she said. "There is not a lot of time given for student participation or involvement."
Julie added that in the public schools, students arrive, sit in classes with 30-40 others and mostly listen and complete assignments. She said it reminded them of a college course in that the class mostly is used for lecture and students are expected to complete large amounts of homework outside of class.
Because of this structure students attend hagwons after school in order to practice their skills and possibly ask the questions they were unable to ask in class. Some of the students who are more ambitious or perhaps have harder pushing parents might go to five or six hours of hagwons after school.
"It is not uncommon for a student to be in hagwons until 10 or 11 p.m.," Matthew said, "with few breaks between school and hagwon."
After a full day many students return home to finish any remaining homework.
"It is very common for even the elementary students to be getting to bed at midnight or later despite starting their school day at a time similar to that in the U.S.," Julie said.
She and Matthew were expected to teach only in English even though some of their students were beginner English students.
"Immersion in the name of the game in our class," Julie said.
If the students had any further questions, they could ask the Korean teachers in their native language.
Outside the classroom
Julie and Matthew enjoy-ed their own immersion into a new language and country outside of the classroom. The differences from the U.S. were evident there, too.
One of the first things they noticed was that nearly everyone in Korea lives in apartment buildings and they themselves lived in a 15-story building. They noted that many shops don't open until 10 a.m., even cafés that serve breakfast.
They admired the efficiency of many aspects of Korean life, including transportation.
"Transportation options are much more effective and certainly cheaper," Julie said. "There are public buses, express buses and trains to and from all the midsize and large cities."
Many students don't choose to drive until they are much older, unlike the rush of 16-year old Americans. Similarly many students live at home with their parents until they are married.
"All of our unmarried co-workers fit this mold," Matthew said.
The Finitzers grew to love traditional Korean food including the standard items of kimchi and Korean barbecue and lesser-known items such as spicy tofu soup and kimbap.
Even restaurants are more efficient, they found. The check is delivered at the same time as the meal and buzzers are placed at the tables so customers can get assistance if needed.
"If you want extra food, they simplify modify the bill and bring it back," Julie said.
She explained that restaurants have fewer employees and there is no tipping expectation.
"This doesn't mean their service is bad," she said, "but there's not an expectation to be constantly checked up on and pampered until you request something with the buzzer."
Julie said the experience cemented in her mind that she would like to continue to work in some capacity with younger children. Matthew feels that the past year helped him make up his mind to become certified to teach in the U.S., though probably history rather than English.
The Finitzers said their year in South Korea did wonders to improve their perspective on how different cultures function. They returned to Sequim last week to visit family and friends before starting their next chapter.
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