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?

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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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updates and reflections from the great plains

fargo, the city I know so well.  the city of dreams… dreams of summertime in the midst of long winters, that is.  dreams of mountains and oceans, dreams of air that doesn’t hurt to breathe.  the weather’s getting a little warmer around here and people are stripping off their winter parkas, feeling slightly uncomfortable in their relative nakedness.

my new little apartment is just my size.  it feels a bit naked as well, with its lack of furniture and other people.  i like to think of the emptiness in terms of extra room for yoga and late night (or early morning) solo dance sessions.  my cat makes it feel like home though, and i am eternally grateful for her incredible listening skills.

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my new job also has cats, and one of them sits on my lap sometimes.  i can look out big windows at trees and my coworkers are beautiful and there is a limitless supply of coffee so i’m quite happy there.

i’ve now finished a class to become tefl certified (teaching english as a foreign language) so as soon as i turn my final papers in, i will be qualified to teach english overseas, which i hope to do next year.

today I was daydreaming a bit…remembering my first day in belgium on my most recent trip.  being so tired and out of it, it didn’t register how ridiculous it all was.  want to hear a story?

I was up late in dublin with my couchsurfing hosts and several of their friends.  we went out to a bar and had a few hot ciders and mulled wines and laughed and I listened to their beautiful french speech and talked to a new spanish friend about writing and cats.  as we walked home that night, my two lovely couchsurfing host ladies and I found a stray cat wandering the streets of dublin.  we spent about an hour earning its trust and eventually coaxed the poor lost kitty back to the apartment with us.

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three hours later, i was in a cab on my way to the dublin airport.  the sun shone through the windows brightly during my descent to brussels, and needless to say I was exhausted and totally unprepared to enter a new country.  but, i entered a new country….right into a total public transportation strike.  now, if you know me, you know I travel on a budget.  I did not have a taxi budget, and although there was room in my funds for emergencies, a taxi into brussels city center would have costed me about €50…that’s something like $75.  when your budget is 50 USD per day, you fret about that kind of cab fare.

staring out at the emptiness in the underground area of the airport where the trains usually run, i looked up at the dingy ceiling and whispered a little “help” to God.  “help,” I said, and a young belgian gentleman suddenly appeared at my side.  “you know the trains aren’t running, right?”  he said to me.  i nodded sheepishly, “I thought I would come down and check, just in case.”  “yeah, me too.  i’m from here.  i’ve never done anything but take the train.”

“are you headed to the city center?”  he asked.  i nodded again.  “want to share a cab?”  he asked.

now, before i left home, i made no promises to anyone except one:  the promise to my father to not share a cab with anyone.  too many sequels of “taken” had come out for him to not give me this sound advice.  so, dad, this is a disclaimer for you: please forgive me.  but know that my intuition is strong and my general rule in life is TRUST NO ONE.

so, i followed this man to the taxi line, where we were going to pay our €25ish each to get to the city center.  he suggested we try to catch an uber taxi instead.  i seemed to be doing a lot of shrugging and nodding that day, and this i did again as we climbed over the fence together and headed upstairs.  we wandered around trying to find the one that showed up on his phone, finally found it, and met the man who would be our taxi driver.  the taxi driver only spoke french, and in this moment i had to turn on my body language reading skills to understand their conversation and see if this was still a wise decision or not.  i could tell the driver’s french was broken, and the two men did not know each other.  being unfamiliar with uber prior to this, i wasn’t expecting an unmarked minivan…but i noticed the driver’s uber keychain as well as his kind and gentle demeanor.  i sensed that he was new to belgium and that he had young children.  i could sense his fatherliness and compassion for humanity in general.

so i handed him my torn and crinkled piece of paper with the address to my hostel and hopped in the minivan.  we first dropped off my cab-mate who wished me good luck in my travels and explained to me in english that we were not far from my hostel.  after he shut the door, the driver, who had shown no sign of speaking any english, asked with some embarrassment, “can i try english with you? sometimes i am afraid of english.”

i laughed and told him his english sounded good, and he let go of a little fear.  he told me how he had always wanted to visit the united states, because he had family in california.  he told me about his children and about how he drove the uber taxi as a second job because he wanted his wife and children to have nice things.  he thanked me for letting him practice his english and proceeded to drop me off at my hostel, where he told me my first uber ride was free and gave me coupons for more free uber rides. thanks for the help, God.

collapsing onto my hostel bed, i thought i was going to avoid any socialization and instead sleep for a whole day and a half.  that was before i met my sole hostel-mate.  she entered the room smelling like vodka and carried an air of the belief that she used to be lovely when she was young.  she ignored me at first.  an hour or two later, we began a conversation that would last deep into the night.

she was a french speaking woman, homeless, and full of regret.  she carried photos of her young daughter who was doing well in school and was being raised by another family.  a few hours later we were both sitting on the floor telling each other our stories; she was drunk on vodka, i was drunk on lack of sleep.  we exchanged bits and pieces of our lives with each other in english and spanish.  “i used to be young and beautiful, like you,” she reminisced.  “i never thought this is what i would become.  please do not become like me.”

“there is still hope for you,” i said.
“that’s what i believed when i was your age,” she replied.

a pain in her back had persisted for years.  she said she had seen many doctors who rejected her because she was a crazy homeless woman who had no money to pay.  the only reason she was able to stay in the hostel with me, she said, was because the homeless shelter had paid for it after she had broken a glass over a man’s head when she had had enough of his sexual advances towards her.  “what i want more than anything is for my daughter to love me again and for this pain in my back to be gone.”

now, my spiritual journey at this time was one of pure confusion and aimless wandering.  what compelled me to ask her if i could pray for her, i am not sure.  i hadn’t prayed in my own head for a long time, and to hear myself talk to God out loud felt foreign on my lips but it also felt like the right time for a prayer.  i put my hand on her back and prayed.  we cried together that night–she cried because no one had touched her in love for years; i cried because my dry soul felt the water of communication with the divine once again.  “i used to know God,” she said between swigs of vodka.  “i used to know that he loved me.”

we cried together that night–two women whose souls hurt for very different reasons, two women brought together and connected by humanity.  two women who would then go to sleep, and wake up to say a short goodbye and never see each other again.

and that….

was my first day in belgium.

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