A few years ago, if someone had told Nicholas Wineman he would be celebrating Christmas in South Korea in December of 2021 teaching children there, he might have laughed and said, nope, not me.
That, however, is exactly where this man is and so far, he is loving his time there.
Nicholas, the son of Mike Wineman and the late Kimberley Butterworth, both of Cut Bank, decided after coming out of the pandemic quarantine that hit everyone in 2020, he needed something different to do.
He had been living in Albuquerque, N.M., hoping to pursue more of a film career and did pick up some background jobs and speaking roles. "I never quite found the success I was looking for," he admitted.
A short time later, he landed a job at the New Mexico Escape Room and spent three years there running rooms, designing rooms and being the narrator voice of some of the rooms.
"If you make the trip to Albuquerque, go play 'Super Secret'. I designed a lot of the rooms and voiced the narrator too," he said.
When the pandemic hit, "escape rooms were definitely doomed to close," he said sadly. "They closed in mid-March of 2020 and we went into quarantine."
Within a few short months, Nicholas said he became "incredibly restless and needed to find some sort of work." He spent months applying for a number of jobs but could not find anyone interested in the talents he had to offer.
During those few frustrating months, he learned some of his friends were planning on making their way to Korea to teach English there. He gave it some thought and then he asked his friends "if they wouldn't mind me piggybacking off their momentum. There were some frustrating delays, but by the end of March this year, I was on a flight across the world and now live on another continent. Time does crazy things and here we are."
Nicholas Teacher, as he is called in Korea, is teaching seven-year-olds in Cheonan, a town whose population of over 600,000. It is located in "the left-center of Korea. Next year I will be moving to Goyang, which is just north of Seoul," he said. Goyang has a population of over a million people.
The seven-year-old students he is teaching are kindergarten kids, "in America, they would be closer to six-year-olds. Koreans count age differently. When the baby is born, they are already considered one-year-old. They celebrate birthdays, but everyone's number changes on the new year. I am 32, but in Korea, I am considered 34."
Nicholas Teacher teaches at Francis Parker and has 12 students in his classroom that are learning science, math and English. "All of this is done in English, as the teachers are actively discouraged from using Korean."
Nicholas did not have a lot of teaching time in the United States, it was all very "short term," as he said. "I taught at theaters and with the Missoula Children's Theatre tour, but those were never longer than a week or two. I genuinely didn't know how I would handle long term teaching and I am astounded how much I do like it."
He has been teaching for eight months now and realized his students have come so far and "have accomplished so much in that time. It is incredible to see that progress."
Teaching was not Nicholas' first choice for a profession. "I had zero intention of teaching and considered it even temporarily during the acting days. I initially took those jobs because I couldn't find anything in America that offered what I needed. I chose teaching more because I am great with children, not so much because it was a passion. Now, making it my career, I am astounded how fulfilling the experience has been."
Not only is Nicholas enjoying a career in teaching, something he had not planned, but he is also doing it on, as he said, on a whole different continent. That was never in his plans either. And yet, here he is spending his first Christmas in South Korea.
Christmas is celebrated in South Korea, but as Nicholas understood, it was not that big of a holiday for them. And yet, "leading up to the big day, red and green, gingerbread and Christmas music is everywhere,” said Nicholas.
“At the English schools, we celebrate some holidays more with the western lens. Halloween is the biggest day of the year, and the day is pretty much one big celebration. Christmas will likely be too. The school is getting very decorated, and my kids have been performing A Christmas Carol and learning the 12 Days of Christmas, which again, at the age of six, is so amazing. We just sent letters to Santa, too, and I hear he is writing back," he said with a wink.
Nicholas admitted he has "a long, long way to go towards learning the language. The alphabet, Hangul, is incredibly easy and I can get anyone speaking Korean in less than 20 minutes, but learning the language itself is brutal. That said, being a giant waygook, or foreigner, means most understand that my Korean is incredibly weak. At the moment, I can say the basics of please, thank you, excuse me, sorry, etc."
Even with the language barrier in existence at least to some degree, Nicholas admits he is having a "blast" in South Korea.
"It is a cultural shock beyond what I could have comprehended, but worth it. I was mostly inspired to finally pull the trigger when my friends were going. Before that, I will admit, I wasn't actively considering such a big move. I think the logic of it was if I was going to go teach and uproot my life, I might as well go someplace completely different from the reality I know today and that is exactly what happened."
The population of South Korea, which is the size of Indiana, is over 51 million people. That is a tremendous amount of people packed into a pretty small space. But Nicholas said that is not all that is packed into that country.
"The amount of culture, sights and overall 'stuff' they've packed into the country is astounding. I no longer own a car, but with the incredible public transportation system here and with the help of friends, I have explored so much of the country."
It is not home, but for now, it sure is starting to feel that way for Nicholas. He has made friends there, stayed close with the friends he moved there with and has a teaching career he is loving more and more every day.
As he said, "time does crazy things and here we are." And for now, there he plans to stay.
Seongtanjeol jal bonaeyo, or Merry Christmas, from South Korea.
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