A CHANCE visit to Sunderland Job Centre, John Street, opened a gateway to the Far East for Michael Wheeler.
The 25-year-old, who was working as a barman and waiter at Ashbrooke Sports Ground, had only gone along to support a friend who was looking for work and found himself looking through a window of opportunity.
For it was there he found an advert for English teaching posts in Asia.
He explained: “I had graduated with a degree in Artificial Intelligence, but had little prospects of getting a job in that field in Sunderland.
“We came across an advert for English teachers abroad, it looked interesting and not difficult to get into. All you needed was a degree and no previous experience.
“There was several locations such as China and Taiwan, but South Korea had the best pay and benefits.”
Despite having never been to South Korea, or even Asia, the former Sunderland University student flew to the country to carve a new life for himself.
There he met with weird and wonderful aspects of South Korean culture – zany TV shows, pork spine soup and dog restaurants – but he also found some common ground.
“I knew nothing about South Korea beforehand,” he explained. “Chinese and Japanese cultures are quite well documented and people tend to know a lot about their cultures, but not many people know as much about South Korea.
“But, as it turned out, I got much less of a culture shock than I expected.
“There are lots of bright neon lights, even in the smaller cities, which was fantastic, but a bit of a shock. But it was very English in its transport infrastructure and a lot of the bars are Irish or Westernised.”
For the past year, Michael has worked at the Princeton English School in Wonju, a city an hour-and-a-half from capital city Seoul, with a similar population to Sunderland of 300,000.
He said: “It is an after-school academy, which are very popular over there. The education system is quite brutal and kids of high-school age study from about 8am to midnight.
“I heard that South Korea has the highest teenage suicide in the world because of the pressure.
“I think the extreme importance they put on education stems from their competitiveness, their desire to be as good as, if not better than Japan, which has always been their benchmark.
“Japan is seen as a role model for budding East Asian economies.”
As Michael marvelled at his new surroundings, the kids too were excited by their exotic new teacher.
He recalls: “They were all really excited at first and kept calling me Michael Jackson because of my first name. My role was to teach them speaking English.
“The Korean teachers are very good at the grammatical side because they can study it like a science, but their spoken English is not as good.
“I taught them a little about my accent and words like “why aye” to show them the difference between that and standard English.”
Though the Korean children may have found Mackem colloquialisms odd, Michael, in turn, found some things a little strange about South Korea.
“I ate some weird and wonderful foods out there,” he explained. “I ate live octopus. The tentacles are chopped up, but they are still wriggling on the plate and wrap around your chopsticks.
“You have to bite into them fast and hard to kill the nerve endings, otherwise the suckers stick to the roof of your mouth.
“I didn’t eat dog, but there were a couple of dog restaurants within 15 minutes of my apartment where I think they eat a kind of dog that is bred to be eaten.
“It’s not as common as it once was as it’s seen as a working-class food that goes back to when the people couldn’t afford to buy pork or beef.”
Unlike many graduates who work in South Korea for a gap year, Michael has fallen in love with the far-flung country and is moving back there in September after a summer break in Sunderland.
Speaking about his new-found passion for teaching, he said: “I know it’s a cliche and you hear it on TV adverts for teaching, but every day really is different and exciting because the children bring something new to school every day.
“Seeing their development, seeing them absorb an idea and then put it into practice is fantastic.”