BUSAN, South Korea — What keeps Native English teachers in Korea here beyond their first year? For some, it’s the culture. It’s falling in love. The promise of a relatively stress-free way to pay off debts from college. For others, a way to keep that reality-lite lifestyle from college going a little while longer.
For 24-year-old Katherine Herrmann, it was the orphanage.
Now in her third year as an English teacher, the Los Angeles-native began her initial tour of duty in the Masan section of Changwon City, about an hour west of Busan. Like many before her, there were growing pains.
I didn’t know anybody, Herrmann said. I was really nervous about making it a home.
But she had throughout her life been active in volunteer efforts, whether as president of the multi-cultural society in high school or feeding the homeless and holding Christmas events in Mexico with her church.
I always found stuff that pushed me out of my comfort zone but made me a lot more in touch with people outside my social circles, in different situations and different places in the world, she said.
So it made sense for Herrmann to jump at the opportunity to volunteer at the Boys Town orphanage, in the Songdo beach area near Jagalchi fish market, at the behest of another foreign teacher at her school.
It had been several years since she had actively volunteered, having worked throughout college in order to help pay her tuition. I loved it right away, said Herrmann, who had described her family as close knit (she chose a university only 45 minutes away from her home so she could stay reasonably local). I had never been to an orphanage before, but the boys there were so welcoming and friendly and made me feel right at home. I had gotten homesick right away. This was one of the first things I did. It was my connection to Korea.
And that connection continued to grow. Within several months, the original [Boys Town] coordinator that organized the monthly visits to Boys Town returned home to the United States. By then, the choice of successor was obvious.
Before the coordinator left to go home, she asked me if I wanted to replace her since I was the only volunteer who regularly came out every month, Herrmann said. At first I was hesitant, because I was living outside the city.
I felt it was such a huge responsibility, she said about taking over the coordinator position If I was in that position, I wanted to make it an important part of everyone’s lives.
That meant making a move, to Busan. Unlike her first move to South Korea in 2010, Herrmann opted to go through EPIK (English Program in Korea) in April 2012.
Between placements, she spent time with her mother on a mission trip to Thailand and then to the Philippines, where her mother was born. I had planned to arrive back in Korea directly from the Philippines earlier than my EPIK orientation start date, so I wanted to spend my free time doing a stay at an orphanage, she said.
She reached out to a number of organizations throughout the country, but was repeatedly turned down, because I was not fluent in Korean and didn’t have a translator available to accompany me, Herrmann said. The last orphanage I contacted was Soyang Orphanage.
Located on Gadeok Island, about 30 minutes west by bus from Hadan (No. 102 on the orange line), the area is about as far removed from Busan while still being part of the city. You cannot see a single apartment tower complex.
I remembered visiting there with my Korean church the previous year and before we left, the orphanage ‘dad’ told the foreigners that because he was familiar with us and our church, if we ever wanted to stay at his home we were welcome.
She planned to stay one week. That was when, as Herrmann explained, things got weird. When I introduced myself to the middle schoolers my first night I was there, one of the boys said, ‘your name is Katherine? Our new foreign teacher will be Katherine.’ I thought no way it was possible. Most certainly he had accidentally associated my name with another he had heard.
Sure, I wouldn’t know which school I would be teaching at until orientation the following week, but it couldn’t be on this far off rural island that was impossible to get to, Herrmann recalled thinking. But then I found out this island was a part of Busan. And I was horrified.
This had not been part of the plan. Herrmann dreaded the possibility she would be living on Gadeok, the only foreigner, but then as the week went on, I got to know the kids at the orphanage, she said. I grew fond of them and was sad to leave them and thought, ‘Well, I guess it’d be nice to be their teacher.’
She went through orientation and then the day arrived when she was bused to her placement. Initially devastated to move there, Herrmann said she knew there was some greater purpose. In case you can’t already tell, I’m a spiritual person, so I felt it was definitely God up there planning things out the way everything happened, she said. Out of all the schools in Busan, all the orphanages in Korea.
Today, she continues to volunteer with Soyang Orphanage and Boys Town, as well as its all-female counterpart, Girls Town, which Herrmann and fellow volunteer Ethan Wilkins organized last year.
She deserves some sort of recognition, said Wilkins, an NET from Wisconsin who saw a need for the girls section of the orphanage to have its own program, English language studies, but was unable to take the lead as only women would be allowed to participate.
Katherine came in and saved the day, he said. I wouldn’t be able to be there. She took the ball from there. The very first day, she met everyone at Jagalchi station, brought them there, gave them lesson plans.
It’s a benchmark of the southern California native who has never missed a volunteer event, save the couple months between her Masan and Busan contracts. She’s just always there, Wilkins said. It’s quite easy to get burnt out, but she’s just always there.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Claire Myungsun Ha, an instructor at Pusan National University that has served as Busan Volunteer’s unofficial Korean/English translator since the group was founded.
Katherine remembers all the boys’ birthdays and goes there to celebrate with them, she said. When you know that somebody loves you and cares for you, then you become a different person. In that way, Katherine is doing a wonderful job.
Ha specifically cited Yun Ji-su, now a third-year high school student who went to his first Boys Town volunteer event in September 2011. He became close to Katherine, and now he has new hope and purpose, she said. Before he was a bit of a troublemaker at school. Now, he has motivation to study English and go to foreign countries.
I tried to go hide somewhere, it was so scary, Ji-su said through Ha of the volunteer events at the orphanage. Now, they feel like they are special, Ha said.
It’s fun to [hang out] with foreigners, said Kim Yong Seung, now 20. It’s quality time. I’m grateful for that.
Still, the question no one wants to ask when it comes to anything involving a foreigner working on a one-year contract in Korea remains: how much longer?
For now, Herrmann, whose ultimate goal is to become a high school teacher back home in L.A., isn’t thinking about it. I want to stay in Busan, she said. I’m not sure how long. I really love it here, love volunteering here.
Herrmann said she feels a strong connection with the kids at the orphanages, especially the older ones, which she no longer considers just part of the volunteer experience, but true friends. I’m sure many of the volunteers who have attended the events feel the same, she said. As a volunteer, you’re not only helping others by volunteering, you are also helping yourself by connecting yourself with your home. Especially as an expat, I feel like we need to spend our time volunteering in something we are passionate about, something that makes this place truly your home.
Investing that time and energy can be so rewarding, Herrmann said.
For more information on the Busan Volunteer group and its programs, visit the Facebook page.
Photos by Noh Hyung-sik, John Dunphy and Park Eun-seo