Year One in Korea: Reflections

Another year has passed on the solar calendar.  On this lovely Saturday morning, I am lounging lazily on my heated floor mat, sipping my coffee and reflecting on the year gone by.  In February, I packed a few suitcases and flew across the world to teach a bunch of Korean kids who might have actually thought I knew what I was doing.  I did try to come sans expectations; still, I could’ve never imagined what this year would be.

new-year

Starting a new job is intense as it is; starting a new life in a foreign country is next-level. I can say with confidence that I’ve never been this challenged in my entire life.  Looking back at my journal entries from around the time I arrived, I was asking myself questions like, “uh, what did I do?” “why am I here?” and “the most ridiculous thing happened to me today…”

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I did NOT think I’d be remotely interested in sticking around for a second year, yet two days ago I signed another year of my life off to this country.  Why did I decide to stay?  Basically, I put in a lot of hard work this year.  When I first started, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  I was working all day at school, then going home and trying to make my lessons better all night.  This is partially because I struggle with an unobtainable desire for perfection and a bit of performance anxiety (I wanted my lessons to be super great all the time and for all my students to love them–ha), and partially because I just had no clue how to be a teacher.  For a few months, all I did was drink coffee and lesson plan (and sadly, most of my lessons still sucked).  I’ve heard rumors of some elementary school native teachers in Korea having very little work, but this couldn’t have been farther from my reality.

coffee

At this point, I know what works for my students and I have a whole stockpile of back-up games and lessons in case things fall apart.  Basically, most days now I actually feel like I (kind of) know what I’m doing, and I’ve almost totally given up on trying to please everyone with my lessons.  I rarely bring work home now.

Anyway, I worked hard to get to this point, and all my lesson-planning work for next year is essentially finished.  Apart from minor tweaking, I just have to show up and teach!

My other reason for staying another year in Korea is my life here.  I genuinely like Korea.  I’m happy with my lifestyle and I also don’t want to go back to paying rent and car insurance (ha).  Though friends come and go in the foreign community, I’ve made some really close friends and there’s always someone to enjoy my time with.  Also, Korea is a naturally beautiful country, and I have many more mountains to climb before I leave.  Also, makgeolli.

makgeolli

 

In the spirit of New Year’s Eve, here are my 2017 goals.

  1. Hike 3 Korean mountains.
  2. Intensify my Korean language studying. Finish through TTMIK Level 3.
  3. Yoga Revolution! And a continued exploration of yoga throughout the year.
  4. Visit 3 new countries. (I’ll start with Hong Kong in January!)
  5. Blog once a month, rather than sporadically as I have been.
  6. Stick to my new budget and pay off my last student loan.
  7. Choose to be happy and light in the everyday madness.

What are your goals?  I’m curious.  If you don’t have any physical goals in mind, I would encourage you to try yoga with me in January (click the link above).  It’s free and in your home and it will make you feel like a new, refreshed human being. It doesn’t matter how old or young, or in or out of shape you are. If you can breathe, yoga will improve your life if you let it.  (Basically, I’m a walking infomercial for Yoga with Adriene, just ask my friends. I’ll stop now, though).

Lots and lots and lots of love~~~

Amanda

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my korea life: the halfway point

I’ve passed the six month point in my yearlong contract! How has living in Korea been this far?  How can I even begin to describe the changes I’ve undergone, the strange (to me) things I’m slowly adapting to or the interesting situations I’ve found myself in?  Let’s just say it’s been many things…amazing, terrible, beautiful, ugly…it’s been everything life normally is with the addition of the heightened senses you experience when you are wandering around a foreign land.

 

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friends!

Teaching has certainly been an adventure.  Teaching at five schools means I’ve gotten a varying array of experiences.  It means I always know what day of the week it is based on my location (I haven’t messed up and taken the wrong bus yet!)  Mondays through Wednesdays have me teaching middle school students–13-15 year olds.  I’ve had some really good days with these kids–many of them are so sweet and I love when the kids come to practice English with me before or after class.  I’ve also had many days where, looking out at my totally uncontrolled classroom, I’ve felt that I was a zookeeper rather than a teacher.  Just this week I had my first day of “giving up…” basically I lost control of the class to the point where the girls were having a screaming contest, some boys were playing “baseball” with my foam dice and the rest of the boys were doing things that will not be mentioned here.

Anyway, sometimes middle school kids go a little crazy in English class but overall, the longer I stay, the more respected I feel (by the kids). And they have so much studying in their lives that I kind of get the “go crazy in English class with the foreign teacher” thing.  Elementary school kids are just plain cute and it makes Thursdays and Fridays feel like a breeze carrying me into the weekend.  If I could choose, I would just teach cute little 3rd graders all the time.  Singing and playing and learning the ABCs and basic words with enthusiasm…. sigh.  I love them.

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some of my students being cute

Life in general has been good most days!  Living in Korea is so fun.  There’s always something going on and somewhere to go, and my city has everything I need for a chill weekend at home as well.  The job here can be stressful, but the weekends and holidays make it all worthwhile.  My friends here are really great; I know I’ve made some lifelong friends here.  It’s cheap to eat and drink here, public transport is so convenient and easy, and I’ve been traveling all over the country and all the while saving a bunch of the money I’m making.  It’s a great set-up overall.  Soon, though, I need to decide whether to stay a second year or head out and move on.  I don’t quite feel ready to commit to another year (seems like such a long time…) but I also feel a little terrified of the reverse culture shock and lack of life plan I’d have if I went back to the US.  I miss family, but I don’t have any specific thing I want to do with myself in the US.  I don’t know if I’m ready to live that life again.

I’m not going to say too much on this subject, but dating in Korea as a foreigner is….weird.  Things I’ve learned so far: guys (and probably also ladies) can be idiots all over the world, but the cultural difference adds in an extra dimension of confusion to the chaos that is the dating world.  Anyway, at this point I’m happily single, hanging out with my wonderful friends and meeting new ones, keeping an open mind but (the more people I meet) becoming ever more comfortable with the idea of being a crazy aunt to my little sister’s future babies and having a cat-child or two of my own.

catsoul
😉

Visitors! I’ve had visitors.  Mary came to visit in the beginning of September and now my sister is here.  We’re sitting at a cafe in Busan overlooking the ocean as I write this, actually!  It’s been fun showing them around my adopted country and seeing Korea through fresh eyes again.  It showed me how far I’ve come in terms of understanding what the hell is happening here, as well as how much Korean language I’ve picked up from studying and just living here.  My speaking basically sucks, but I can read and often understand the gist of what people are saying.  It feels like a huge accomplishment even if I am incredibly far from fluency.

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Mary and I at Gyeongbukgung in Seoul

I’ve been a bad blogger, but I have lots of posts up my sleeve!  Stay tuned for my personal anthology of Korea’s themed cafes, a resource page for people interested in coming to work in Korea through the EPIK program and of course, more updates on my various experiences here.  Love you all!

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on the united states of america, from afar.

Taking a small rest from cleaning my place, I grabbed my phone.  ‘I’ll kill a few minutes with Facebook…why not,’ I thought rather unconsciously. So I sat on my bed and clicked that little blue and white icon and there it all was.  My feed is full of tragic images of the victims of the recent Orlando nightclub shooting. Stories by survivors are emerging.  Deeply terrified people crammed into bathroom stalls and corners, desperate to hold onto life.

Donald Trump emerges with his wildly inappropriate comments about all Muslims (particularly immigrants, despite the fact that the shooter was an American…), the occasional radical Christian pops up in a comments section saying disgusting things about how “the gays were being judged,” and the gun control debate rages on.  Another rape case sheds light on white privilege, particularly the “good ol’ boys club” variety.  News outlets are overwhelmed.  Competition for readers results in more and more “shocking” (read: click-baiting)  headlines.

Now, the fact alone that DT is even a presidential candidate astounds me to no end.  Koreans and other various foreign nationals can’t seem to wrap their minds around it either and are continuously asking, “…but why?”

Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say this before.  I am not a nationalistic person.  [Before you have time to say it, I’ll answer your questions.  No, I do not hate America.  Yes, I respect those who have served on America’s behalf.  No, I do not think the way America does things is working].  Nationalism, while sometimes unifying for a particular demographic, is overall divisive.  Even without physical walls blocking our view of the neighbors, mental walls are as high as can be.  They. Them. Those people.   My personal loosely held conspiracy theory is that professional sports were an invention of governments (and/or those who benefit financially from war) to get average citizens comfortable with the idea of hating the “other.”  But this is not a post about nationalism, so take me out for coffee one Saturday if you want to get into that.  All of that to say…despite my non-nationalism, I still consider the United States “home.”  No matter where I go or what I do with my wandering self, I think I’ll always feel that way.

And right now, I am deeply saddened by my home country.  Since my move to Korea, I’ve watched ‘America’ from afar.  I have felt embarrassment, disappointment, and bewilderment.  But today I felt defeated, and I cried for the lost lives, and the lives that are lost every day due to hatred and violence.  I don’t want to argue with you about guns.  But is it not obvious to you, fellow Americans, that other developed countries don’t have this problem?  I don’t really care if you like to go hunting in autumn, if you own a shotgun or a rifle or a pistol or live in the woods.  I grew up where you did.  Please don’t be defensive.  Something needs to change.  I wish it were not so, and maybe in the future there will be greater peace, but for now violence resides in the hearts of humans.  And it’s too easy to go gun shopping.  Easier than it was for me to get a driver’s license.  The combination has been deadly.  In these “discussions,” I’ve seen too many people shouting at each other, and I haven’t witnessed enough people listening.

And that, I think is the problem.  We don’t shut up long enough to listen to each other.  We come to radical conclusions based on misinformation.  We choose hate because hate is easy.  We don’t choose listening, we don’t choose love because love is painful and difficult.  It means we have to examine ourselves and maybe even admit we were wrong.  Sometimes, it means we need to give something up that we’ve held onto for most or all of our life.  I use the pronoun we because the problem is in all of us.

I don’t have answers. I’m not writing today to promote a specific viewpoint, not at this time.  I’m writing because I’m heartbroken.  I’m sick of the hatred, and I’m tired of the violence.  I am writing because it’s all I really know how to do right now about it all, sitting over here on my bed in Korea.  I am writing for my LGBT friends and my Muslim friends.  I am writing as therapy for myself.  With everything in me, I am sending love and peace into the atmosphere.  With everything in me, I hope that we can stand by each other, love each other, and march bravely into the future.

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on the bus

here
i have no car
can’t get to any place
without my own legs carrying me
or reliance on another

here
where you can open the window
close the window
spit out the window
and no one cares

where i am
i can see
ladies with backs bent
from years of service
to the earth
carrying the vegetables
to the people

where i am
i see a man who needs help
talking to himself
alone in his head
and everyone looks
the other way

“do you know my son?”
“do you know my granddaughter?”
“do you speak this language?”
“from where do you come?”
tilted heads
dark eyes looking into mine
hand reaching out to touch
my messy hair
i’ve been waiting
here
for awhile

here
i let my legs carry me
through sidestreets
through alleyways
through a little town
in the countryside

by the river
a cat is chasing a chicken
the running water
and the fear of the hen
are the only sounds

here
is where i met
the little girl
and her little dog
and we laughed
for lack of common language

she told me i was pretty
and i told her she was pretty
and she giggled
and covered her face
and ran away

invited to sit
scolded
pushed and shoved
and patted on the back
waved to
laughed at
spoken to
ignored

it’s another day
on the bus
here

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korea: the beginning

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cherry blossoms in jeongeup

I have been laying around in my little apartment all day feeling quite sick and even more annoyed that I’m physically unable to hike and travel a bit like I had hoped to this weekend (the 5-10 minute walk to the nearby convenience store was almost too much to handle, so…).  I figured it was a good time for my long overdue blog update.

I can hardly believe how fast time seems to be moving.  it has been just about two months since i landed at incheon airport feeling all dazed and confused after my ridiculous lineup of cancelled and/or rerouted flights around the US and my one very long flight from chicago to south korea.  I found the counter where I could pick up my korean sim card, and then made my way to the EPIK counter with my arms full of luggage where I was told a bus would pick me up shortly.

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welcoming ceremony at EPIK orientation

orientation is a blur in my mind now.  a combination of jet lag and recovery from being sick before leaving (am I always sick?) made me feel rather out of it for the first few days, and the schedule was pretty busy and tiring on top of that.  we had teaching classes, lectures, meals, korean language classes and a demo lesson to prepare for.  meanwhile, most of us were left wondering where in korea we’d be living for the next year, what grade levels we’d be teaching and how many schools we’d teach at.  all in all it was good to have an introductory period to korea and to meet others who were doing the same thing, but it felt like a lot of waiting for answers.

at the end of orientation, we found out our fates for the year–mine was that I’d be living in jeongeup-si in jeollabuk province and that I’d be teaching middle school.  what I didn’t know yet was that I would be teaching at 5 rural schools–3 middle schools and 2 elementary schools.  at the time I felt pretty overwhelmed by the idea of teaching middle school kids when all I had mentally prepared for was teaching elementary school kids.  now that i’m into the swing of things, teaching middle school and elementary school both have their pros and cons and it’s not as terrifying as I thought it might be. 😉

my apartment…..it’s not bad.  well, it’s not bad anymore.  when I first moved in, I found a pretty good sized population of weevils (flour bugs) feasting on some dirty dishes and pots and pans that the previous tenant graciously left behind.  I’ll be honest, I was grossed out at the state of the place, particularly the cupboards (where most of the bugs lived) and the bathroom.  BUT, I purchased some cleaning supplies and gloves and went to town.  i’ve done a pretty thorough cleaning every weekend since I’ve been here and I’ve kept all my food refrigerated, and i’m happy to say that I have been bug free for a week! (meaning, I haven’t SEEN a  living weevil for a week. are they still living in the cracks, waiting for me to drop a crumb?  i try not to think about it). anyway, now that it’s been cleaned I’m pretty content with it. the size is nice for me and didn’t require me to buy much of anything to fill it up, and the bed is comfortable.  it’s free for me to live here and it’s my own personal space, so I’m happy.  a little shift in perspective and a positive attitude make all the difference.

my city….I genuinely like it.  for a korean city, it’s small.  but it’s not actually that small.  it has everything I could possibly need or want apart from maybe an H&M, but it’s better for my bank account that the nearest one is 30-ish miles away by bus anyway.  koreans love coffee shops.  If you know me at all, you know that pleases me greatly.  within 5-10 minutes walk from my place, I can get to at least 15 coffee shops.  (mhmm, I’m counting).  my relationship with espresso will continue to be strong this year. I’m even becoming a semi-pro at ordering coffee in korean (when I don’t get all shy and lose confidence, that is)!  important phrases include: I’ll have one latte (or americano), please; one extra shot please, and I’ll have it for here/take out.  anyway, enough about coffee…. the other foreigners in town have been really friendly and welcoming (thanks guys!) to myself and the other new teachers.  there are, i think, less than 20 of us in total living in town.  the nightlife here isn’t too exciting, but there are still a lot of restaurants, bars/clubs, and noraebangs (singing rooms).  If i decide I need more excitement, it’s super easy to get anywhere else in korea by train or bus.

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beverages of jeongeup

teaching….it’s definitely been challenging.  the first few weeks were a little rough as I had no idea what anyone expected of me.  it has gotten much better, and I feel like though it’s still a lot of work if I want to create quality lesson plans for my students, it’s become a lot more enjoyable.  I’ve chilled out a bit on thinking I have to control every detail of what goes on in class and because of that the whole experience has been a lot more relaxed.  It’s okay to use the mediocre textbook activities sometimes if it means I get enough sleep the night before. it’s going to be okay if I planned what I thought would be a really enjoyable lesson and the kids ended up with that “teacher I’m bored” look on their face.  teaching, I’ve found so far, is full of all kinds of life lessons that need reinforcing.  mainly, for me, letting go of the need for perfection and just going with the flow.

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my wednesday middle school in the mountains

speaking of going with the flow… yoga.  what would I do without my practice?  my favorite thing to do after school is get on my mat and get rid of any negativity that I let seep into my brain & body throughout the day.  I HIGHLY recommend  Yoga with Adriene (youtube) and an app called “Yoga Studio” which I believe is only available for iOS?  these two (free and/or very inexpensive) resources made me fall in love with yoga over two years ago, and my life has never been the same. (insert dramatic music here).

lastly—

many friends and acquaintances have asked me various questions about how I found out about this teaching program, what tefl class to take and “why korea?”  I worked with Greenheart Travel  to apply for the EPIK program (English Program in Korea).  I recommend everyone who asks, if you don’t want to apply directly through EPIK and you want someone to kind of hold your hand through the process (it’s an intense process, people!) then work with greenheart! I had a fantastic experience and it was nice having someone in my own timezone (USA Central) to work with and email if I had any questions. they recommend the International TEFL Academy tefl course, which I took.  it was a little expensive compared to some others, but I found it to be pretty well organized and I learned a lot about practical ways to teach english.  if you think this is something you want to try, then I say go for it. why not?

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elephants, tea and temples: amanda in sri lanka

Happy 2016 everyone!  It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?  It feels good to be back.  As I’ve been busy applying and interviewing to teach in Korea, I’ve let time slip away without an update about my recent travels to Sri Lanka.  (If you don’t already know, I am preparing to move to Korea to teach with the EPIK program in February).  Now that I’m sitting around waiting to hear about my placement city and sign off on my official teaching contract, I have a little more time on my hands to think, process and write.

 

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Chicken Biriyani in Colombo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sri  Lanka was incredibly beautiful.  Breathtaking beaches, brilliant green fields of tea growing throughout the mountains, the curiosity and hospitality of the locals and the FOOD.  Seriously though, the food.  My taste buds will never be the same.  The group of people I traveled with went impressively well together-I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to hang out with for two weeks.

When someone asks me excitedly, “How was your trip!?” I genuinely don’t know what to say.  I usually reply with a generic positive exclamation.  I did, of course, have a seriously wonderful time in Sri Lanka, but how can I even begin to explain the impact that setting foot into another new world has on my soul?  I can tell you I saw elephants and got sick with food poisoning for three days and got all dressed up in a saree and drank the local coconut liquor, but when I enter a foreign land something deeper always happens internally than I can describe to you with my words.  Travel is a powerful experience–the most powerful, in my opinion.  So, instead of a play by play I’ll just share a few of the thoughts which, strung together, make up a rough outline of “how my trip was.”

When you are an average American from the lower middle class who just flew across the world juxtaposed directly next to a Sri Lankan tea worker who makes 600 rupees ($4 USD) per day but is fighting for 1000 ($7 USD), you question things.  You just do.  You can’t help but think about the $4 latte you grab a few times a week on the way to work, or the little $7 airport salad you ate during your long and incredibly boring layover in Dallas, Texas.  You can’t help but wonder about the concept of currency, and the man made idea that the American piece of paper in my right hand is worth more than the Sri Lankan piece of paper in my left.  You also can’t escape the reality that though it is a man made idea, you must abide by the principles of these ideas if you want to participate in society like the other humans.

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tea field

I learned that my acting skills are greater than I thought they were. Or maybe, it’s my eating skills.  While the spicy food burned my mouth with the fire of a thousand suns, I was still capable of smiling politely and sitting casually at a table.  I even came to enjoy the spiciness of the food, and I find myself adding cayenne pepper or some other spicy spice to everything in the midwestern United States where I live.  It’s hard to find any meaning in midwestern food when you’ve just returned from Sri Lanka.  I’m excited to try all the spicy food Korea has to offer.

I cannot express how hopeful it made me to see a country with a recent history of a horrific civil war full of such religious tolerance. Of course I was only around for two weeks but in that short time I watched Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians exist peacefully and respectfully together.  The US could take some notes.

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Hindu Temple, Colombo
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Buddhist Cave Temple, Newara Eliya

 

Stay tuned for my first post from Korea…I can’t wait to hop on another plane next month and be off on my next adventure.  Keep in touch, please! And have a beautiful new year.

 

 

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the sublime is at your doorstep

Caspar David Friedrich: Frau in der Morgensonne
Caspar David Friedrich: Frau in der Morgensonne

reasons to be dissatisfied seem to be spewing out of every corner, brewing up down every street and springing up inside each of us.  reasons to feel that you do not have enough, that you do not do enough, that you do not give enough or take enough…that you are not enough.

what is the source of dissatisfaction in your life?  i know that i tend towards this when i am stationary, when i am not embarking on a grandiose adventure or partaking in my next seemingly meaningful endeavor.

i have come to believe, once again, that the greatest adventure of all has to do with the simple moments–an awareness that brings with it the appreciation for the moon lighting up the darkness, the joy that comes from delighting my senses of smell and touch with a cup of warm and strong coffee, the connection that comes from acknowledging the coffee farmer and having gratitude for his work, or the smallness i feel when i stand in the valley of mountains.  the simple moments of a kind interaction with a stranger, or a child laughing, or a hug from my sister.  daydreams are beautiful, but simple daily realities have now truly stricken me with their vast profundity.

if looking at wildflowers growing by the lake doesn’t make you cry tears of happiness–what does?  if that’s my thing–what is it for you?  what is beautiful to you?  i thought i had to run circles around the world to find out, but the sublime is at my doorstep.  the sublime is at your doorstep.  it is in you as much as it is floating around in the sky on the opposite hemisphere of this earth.

what do you love?  what brings you joy?  i challenge you to make a little list of the little things in your daily life that make you happy.  here’s mine:

one. time with close friends and family

two. meditation (while staring at trees, preferably)

three. yoga classes

four. new friends

five. cat cuddles

six. (responsible amounts of) wine

seven. being around trees even while not meditating

eight. minimalism

nine. deep, unstoppable laughter

ten. making lists with even numbers of bullet points