Reflections: Two Years in Korea

Today is the first day of 2018! Time flies, as they say. This past month, as I’ve finished my last full month of teaching for the school year, I’ve been reflecting on all of my time here.  Two years ago I arrived in this small town in rural South Korea, knowing next to nothing. I was nervous out of my mind and filled with self-doubt. I couldn’t stop thinking…how is it possible that they hired ME to teach a bunch of middle school and elementary school kids who speak a different language than me?

goodbye 2017

From the moment I stepped into my first classroom, nothing was what I was told it was going to be. Nothing could have been farther from what I had imagined it was going to be. Before I moved here I thought I would be teaching cute little elementary students every day and working at the same school at least most days of the week. None of these things were true. I taught at five different schools, one different school each day. Middle school was especially a challenge for me as I hadn’t expected to be teaching that age group at all and I just do much better with younger students in general.

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For my first three months, I barely slept at all. My coffee addiction jumped off the charts. From finding the right buses to get me into the countryside at the right time to planning twenty unique lessons a week to trying to understand the social norms of a new culture and society and the stress that comes with starting a new job in general…I was a mess, to say the least.

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Despite all of the madness, I ended up staying a second year.  This was partially due to all the work I had put into my first year–planning lessons and figuring out life here, and partially due to the fact that I actually started to (gasp) LIKE it here.

My friends here like to joke “If we can make it in this job, we can literally do ANYTHING.” And I really do feel like I can do anything now. Everyone’s job in Korea is different due to different school settings and different coworkers, but generally we all share the “WHAT IS HAPPENING” feeling at the end of the day. To my friends here…we made it through the year. Congratulations, you’re amazing.

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Last year, I made some New Year’s resolutions on this blog, so I thought I’d revisit them to check in with myself, and see if it’s even worth making new ones this year (haha).


  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.

Well! It wasn’t so painful after all. I hiked, I studied Korean although I took an online class rather than continuing my self-study (I plan to continue that once I get back to the US and have a lot of time on my hands). Yoga! Always saving my life, one breath, one asana at a time. I visited Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan this year as well as (kind of) North Korea on the DMZ tour. Does that count? I DID pass the border underground. As far as my student loan goes, it’s not quite finished but will be in February(!)

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I can’t say I chose to be happy and light EVERY day, because, you know…I’m human. But I felt a definite weight lifted this year…a weight of caring too much what people think and worrying about small things. I feel a lot more in tune with what I need for myself and open to the continued search for all things true and light in the universe. In that sense, life has been lighter.

2018 should be an exciting year. I will visit northern Vietnam in January, finish up my contract in Korea in February, and travel around China and Japan in March and April before heading back to the USA.

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In the US, first I’ll visit my mom in Colorado, head to Minnesota to see the majority of my family members and then head to the west coast to visit friends and my little sister, who is having a BABY! That’s right. I’m an auntie now. I have no words for how exciting this is. After that, who knows! I predict more exploration of myself and the world around me and even more freedom as I finally move about the world debt free! (Wooo!)

If you have read this far, thank you for following along on my journey. Thanks for being a part of my life, or if we don’t know each other, thanks for existing and fulfilling your beautiful part of the fabric of the world. Here’s to the new year, lovely people!

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vacations of an efl teacher

My first year contract is complete! Well, it will be in one week…during that time I won’t have much real work to do, though.  So, essentially, it’s done!  I can’t believe it.  I also can’t believe I signed the contract to stay here another year, but I did.  School schedules are a little strange in Korea, there is a winter vacation for the month of January and during that time most teachers will teach at least one winter English camp.  The first week of February is this weird week of classes and graduation before the real end of the semester.  The new school year begins the first week of March.

Working in Korea as an EPIK teacher, I get two chunks of vacation time, 8 days in the summer and 10 in the winter (you also get 5 extra days if you renew your contract).  This is one of the really nice perks of working here.  Although I’m not a fan of deskwarming when the students don’t have school, I am thankful for my chances to travel.  And deskwarming isn’t so bad anyway.  It gives me a (forced) opportunity to make cooler lesson plans, study Korean, catch up on the news (oh, wait, that’s super depressing these days) or even better, to sit down with a cup of Korean instant coffee and write.

Summer vacation in August was rather busy.  After teaching 3 summer camps (so much work!), I flew off to meet my lifelong friend Mary in Thailand.  I was excited to finally travel with her after all of our years traveling separately and to see another new country. Thailand is great, but 9 days is definitely not enough.  It’s not long enough to really get a good feel for any country that large.  Even so, it was nice to get away for awhile and not think so much about waking up early and getting to school and lesson planning.

Our itinerary looked like this:
Day 1: Bangkok.  Coffee, Thai massage, Food
**Thai massage. So good. Holy wow.**
Day 2: Bangkok. Temples, Palaces, Coffee, Food
**Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are stunning to see, but go early in the morning to avoid massive crowd sizes**
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Day 3: Day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (8:30am-7:30pm. A seriously long train ride)
**I recommend flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to save time and energy.  Some of the views on the train were nice but to me I would’ve rather been out of a train doing something.**
Day 4: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Food, Thai cooking class
**Take a cooking class in Thailand! You’ll be amazed at what you can do**
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Mary and I at Siam Rice Cooking School (Highly recommended!)
Day 5: Chiang Mai.  Coffee, Temples, Worked on lesson plans at coffee shops (yay), Food, Amanda’s illness begins…
Day 6: Chiang Mai. Sick. Chiang Mai Ram Hospital Visit.  Felt like death.
**Chiang Mai Ram Hospital is a nice for foreigners because their level of English is good enough for communication among all of the staff.  There are probably other good ones in Chiang Mai but I can’t speak for them**
**Also, dear Mary, thank you for accompanying me to the hospital when I felt like death.  Having sick friends on a trip is the worst, because you feel fine but you also want to help but you don’t want to help because you’re on vacation and you want to do stuff! In any case, your sacrifice will ever be remembered.  If your friend takes care of you on their vacation, you’d better be damn grateful!**
Day 7: Chiang Mai.  Sick. Feeling less like death after medication. To a spa for facials.
Day 8: Flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Taxi to BKK Airport, Waited forever for flight, One last Thai massage in the airport.

If I got the chance, I would like to go back to Thailand.  I was so worn out from the year that I don’t think I was much fun to begin with (sorry Mary), and then I got seriously sick in Chiang Mai and missed out on a lot of natural wonders that would’ve, I’m sure, made the trip much more full.  3 full days while traveling is a lot of time out, sadly, so I missed out on hiking in some beautiful natural places and hanging out with elephants and eating a lot of delicious food.  (Sidenote, I’m convinced food poisoning is the closest a human can get to feeling death while still managing to stay alive).  All in all, I’m happy I went, and I was glad to travel with Mary (finally) but I don’t feel like I had enough time in the least bit.

In January I was able to take all my vacation at once.  EPIK teachers are allowed 10 days in the winter for vacation, and then if you are renewing your contract they give you a bonus 5 days.  I combined my vacation days with the Lunar New year (설날) and had a nice chunk of time away from teaching.

For 10 days, I was back in the US visiting family and friends.  It was good to be back to see the people I love, but honestly it also felt strange.  I had this weird feeling that I was foreign in my own country, even though I certainly also feel foreign in Korea.  Maybe the concept of “home” is just lost on me.  I went through my old things and went past my old apartment and drank coffee at my old regular places.  But it was different.  Or maybe it’s me who is different now.  One thing is for sure, though…it felt amazing to breathe such clean air again.  A “cold” that had been lingering for months suddenly went away after spending a few days in the Minnesota air.

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Snow and Sunshine in Minnesota

 

I was also able to participate in a sister march for the Women’s March on Washington.  I saw women (and men) of all backgrounds and beliefs come together to support and fight for women’s equality in a way that is accessible to all.  I won’t get into the politics of it all here, but I will say that I do believe now is a very important time for women to stand together peacefully and make our voices heard.

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Before going home (to my Korean one, that is) I went with Riza to Hong Kong and Macau.  Hong Kong is small, and the 5 days and 4 nights we spent there was pretty perfect.  It would’ve been nice to have about 2 more days to move a little more slowly and visit a few more cafes, but all in all I was not disappointed even with less than a week.  I was pretty rested after my vacation at home and I was ready to go all out and do things all day, so we were able to pack it all in.

This trip’s itinerary:
Day 1: Arrived around 10am, ate probably the most delicious wonton soup of my life, lost Riza’s passport, found Riza’s passport, took the train into the city center (Tsim Sha Tsui) to drop off our bags and freshen up.  Visited: Kowloon Park (lovely!), Garden of the Stars, Coffee Academics (cafe)

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Bruce & Riza

Day 2: Took the MTR to Tung Chung Stn and the bus to Ngong Ping Stn to get to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island.  This was probably my favorite place of the trip..it felt so peaceful there and the Buddha is beautiful and massive.

Went to Victoria Peak on the tram, visited the ladies market in the Mong Kok neighborhood (scored my only souvenier of the trip…a denim bag with a cat on it…)

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View from Victoria Peak

Day 3: Day Trip to Macau! Took the Ferry from the Kowloon ferry terminus to Macau.  It seems very easy to just buy tickets when you get there.  We used TurboJet.  It was so warm in Macau! Saw the ruins of St. Paul, Senado Square and headed to the Venetian Macau.  I think  my favorite thing about Macau were the pretty blue street signs with both Chinese and Portugese.  And the egg tarts…oh, the egg tarts.  Ferried back and slept for about 12 hours from exhaustion.

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Day 4: Hiked Dragon’s back (so windy, but so lovely!) Then we rested before watching the Chinese New Year parade.  It was huge…people were waiting hours before it started to get a good view.  The parade consisted of several floats and performances by groups from all over the world.  A little crowded, but cool to see.

Day 5: Eggs Benedict at Urban Coffee Roasters Tsim Sha Tsui (highly recommend for food and espresso…best flat white I’ve had in Asia thus far), packed our things, chilled out a bit and headed to the airport.

Pro-tips for Hong Kong (not sure I can call myself a pro, but…): Get an Octopus Card for the MTR (rail transport) at one of the customer service centers in an MTR station, go to the Lantau Island Buddha early in the morning (preferably on a weekday) for lovely views and less crowds…same goes for Victoria Peak (another tip, don’t get your hopes up too much for Victoria Peak as it mostly felt like a tourist trap to me despite the nice view).

I love love love vacaion time.  I’m already trying to hold myself back from planning my next one.  I’m thinking Taiwan or Japan next, or maybe Indonesia or the Phillipines.  Or… okay, enough for now.  Teaching abroad is not only great for the experience of living in another country, but you’re also given time off to explore nearby countries.  Now excuse my while I re-open my other tab…the flight search engine…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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😉

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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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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