I returned from England determined to repair the damage I had done in my disastrous third semester. I managed to make the dean’s list in both semesters during my senior year, but it still appeared that I would have to stay an extra semester to graduate. I had resigned myself to this fact when, in the first semester of my senior year, I was forced to reconsider. A friend of mine was recruiting English teachers for her friend’s mother’s English language institute in Korea, and she asked me if I wanted to teach English there. Had I not spent that semester in London, I would have considered the idea absurd, but my time abroad showed me that there was much more to the world than the United States, no matter what some of its inhabitants might think.
Actually, I was already considering what to do after graduation, and heading off to foreign lands was an attractive option. I was taking Japanese, and I was looking into language teaching programs over there, but here was an opportunity right at my feet. Korea was only a stone’s throw away from Japan anyway, and I figured it would be a good way to get my foot in the door, so to speak. I told her that I would need some time to think about the offer, but the truth of the matter was that I had already made up my mind. The decision that would change my life was made in a moment, but it was actually just part of a process that had been set in motion on the night of the blind date dance.
I was immediately faced with a fairly large obstacle. The job started the following autumn, but I didn’t have enough credits to graduate by then. I still needed 33 credits--the equivalent of two semesters of classes (plus one physical education credit). I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I would be staying an extra semester, but now I was on a mission, and I wasn’t going to let a few lousy credits get in my way. I could take up to eight academic credits over the summer, so I decided to overload with 24 credits the next semester so I could finish up by the end of the summer.
An overload of 20 credits (one extra class) would have been no problem, but I didn’t have the required GPA for a maximum load of 24 credits. This meant that I had to fill out some forms and appear before a board of some sort that would decided whether or not I would be allowed to take all those classes. I honestly remember very little about that meeting. In fact, the only thing I remember was the final question they asked: why do you need to graduate by the end of the summer?
Without hesitation, I looked straight at the questioner and replied, “Because God wants me to go to Korea.” Everyone suddenly grew very quiet, and I thought I could hear the sweat trickling down my forehead. Somebody scribbled something on a clipboard, and the questioner said, “Thank you very much. We’ll let you know what we decide.”
Whether they were impressed with my faith or just thought I was dangerously insane, I’ll never know. They did, however, let me take the 24 credits, and I was moving forward again. One of the classes I took the following semester was an introductory course in TEFL/TESL. It wouldn’t be as good as a degree in the field, of course, but I figured it would be better than nothing. That semester was probably the hardest I worked in my four years at Binghamton, but even with a maximum overload I still managed to make the Dean’s List.
I did run into a slight snag, though. I had wanted to take at least one semester of Korean to familiarize myself with the language, but the professor couldn’t do the class for some reason and it ended up being cancelled. Once again, though, I decided to find another way. After asking around, I was introduced to a Korean professor’s wife who agreed to tutor me in Korean that summer. In the handful of tutoring sessions we had I learned hangeul [the Korean alphabet], some formalized expressions and basic sentence structure. Not enough to hold a conversation of any depth, of course, but enough to get me started.
I also tried to find out something about Korean culture. Being a Lit major, I naturally decided to start with Korean literature. Unfortunately, the only books I could find were two poorly translated collections of short stories. This was odd, considering the wide selection of Chinese and Japanese literature in translation that our library contained. Being rather naïve, I simply concluded that Korean literature was not as developed as Chinese or Japanese literature, and that was why it wasn’t as thoroughly represented. I still chuckle whenever I think of that.
I finished my studies at Binghamton that summer, and I left for Korea at the end of August, two weeks after classes ended. I had very little money at the time—so little, in fact, that I had to sell my computer just to buy a one-way ticket. It was an overnight flight out of JFK with a stopover in Alaska (I’ve been in Alaska a number of times now, and I still have no idea what it looks like), about 16 hours all told. I never have been good at sleeping on planes, and I was haggard by the time we began our approach into Seoul early the next morning. As we descended, the plane was enveloped in a dirty gray mist of clouds, and when we dropped through the bottom I saw it was raining outside. I’m not sure whether it was the lack of sleep or the vague fear of the unknown that lay ahead—or maybe a combination of the two—but I distinctly remember becoming very depressed at that moment.