I have lived a quarter of a century and probably over a quarter of my life. How do I feel about that? Here’s the answer…
As a little kid I was one of those big dreamers. I was pretty sure I was going to be a director if I wasn’t an actor. I loved setting up camera angles, talking about costumes and casting, and loved watching massive projects come together. And I would be an interpreter for the UN; I loved languages and was constantly learning vocabulary words for new languages (which I would unfortunately always forget as I rushed on to a new language and new words just a short time later). And my heart was dead set on being a writer. I was constantly filling up note books and flash drives with novels and spent hours with friends creating worlds and adventures. But I was going to be a runner too, I wasn’t fast and pretty convinced that I would never be anything better than painfully mediocre but that didn’t stop me from visualizing great races and breaking through the finish line. Forget being a runner, I was going to be a superhero! And here is one of my nerdier but also one of my oldest dreams: I was going to go to a really awesome college. I think it was the fact that some of my earliest memories are of the times when my parents were in college, there was something a bit glamorized about it for me–a life of friendship and constant fun with the prestige of academia was something I was looking forward to since age three (no, I am really not kidding). And of course, I wanted to travel the world and have adventures in the great wide somewhere.
Fast forward from childhood (wherever you chose to define that) to adulthood (I’m calling myself an adult at 23 because I feel like that’s when three year old me would call me an adult). I guess it takes a while to realize that you are actually all grown up.
I was at one of my best friend’s houses. We had known each other since we were little so when we get together it feels like we are children still. We eat copious amounts of sugar, laugh hard, and make up grand stories about grand adventures. I remember it so clearly, washing my hands in the bathroom of her house and then looking up at the mirror and getting startled. Little Me looked up and realized that I had some how grown up.
So I took a moment to look Little Me back in the eyes.
Dear Little Me,
I just wanted to tell you that you have seen the world. You come from a poor, loving family but the fairy tales were right. If you work hard and keep smiling you can save up and see the world. You had fallen in love with Rome long before you went there but it was even more beautiful in real life with it’s cobblestone streets and beautiful marble fountains, with chaotically colorful churches and rich wine. And you finished college. That was one of the oldest dreams, wasn’t it? You made beautiful friends who you will love and cherish forever and the university you went to even had that air of prestige and academia you always wanted.
And little me… the best part is that you are still a dreamer. You are studying languages every day because you still want to interpret and you still work on all your novels. You are more fit than you have ever been. And now you know you are beautiful, not in the superficial outer way but you have worked at what matters to you till you know you are beautiful inside. You are beautiful to yourself and you know that you are beautiful to God no matter what you do.
There are have been moments in the past when I looked at the 13 year old olympians, 16 year old actors, or even singers who are my age and wonder what the heck I did with the last two decades, but in that moment facing the mirror I knew. Little Me had dreamed big dreams and had chased the ones that mattered. I knew I had made countless mistakes in the past but I am grateful to all who loved me and brought me to this point. To the point where I look at myself in the mirror and realize:
I am who I had wanted to become.
So what do I do now? Turning twenty-five, that’s pretty exciting. What are you going to do with the next twenty-five years?
I will keep dreaming big dreams and chase the ones that matter. As I look at the mirror today, I know that someday I will look at it again and have to face who I have become. Perhaps 50 year old me or 75 year old me or 100 year old me will look and that mirror and think of that starry eyed 25 year old me and have to tell 25 year old me what I did with the time I have had since. And I praise God for every moment in between because I intend to use every moment to make something beautiful.
Moving to a completely new country that I had never been to came with lots of unknown variables and inevitably some fears. Here were my 5 biggest fears before coming to Korea:
- The cold. Everyone goes on and on about how frigidly cold Korea can get in the winter which scared me because I don’t do well with cold. At this point people usually stop me and point out that I am from Minnesota so I should be used to the cold. But I’m not… and I was still nervous about coming. So, how cold does it get here? It does get pretty cold (depending on where you are), however, there are lots of ways to get around this. The Korean’s undol heating system, their constant use of hot packs, heat tech gear and obsessive hot tea drinking all help a soul brave the winter.
- General safety concerns as a girl. I was going to the other side of the world by myself I wanted to know whether Korea was a good place to embark on solo adventures. It doesn’t take much research to realize that Korea is probably one of the safest places that you can go as a solo traveler. The crime rate is low and the people respectful. I am, however, living by the shipbuilding docks and there are all kinds of characters there (Korean and foreigner) and my Korean friends have reminded me multiple times to just stay alert, especially when it’s dark out. Staying alert, avoiding areas you know aren’t as nice (or don’t know as well), and being careful about where you go after dark is just good common sense no matter how safe the general country is.
- Natural disasters. Earthquakes and typhoons are completely new things to me. The first time I felt an earthquake here I was really confused… I thought a big bus was driving by but then it just kept going. Same with a typhoon. I remember walking to school in the rain soaked because my umbrella had snapped in the wind only to realize that we were in the middle of a typhoon. My co-teachers were shocked I had still come to school. Thankfully, neither the typhoons nor the earthquakes were dangerous where I was and I don’t think Korean natural disasters are any worse than they are in other places.
- The bugs. I’m just keeping it real here. You can ask any of my friends. When they asked me what I was most afraid of before coming to Korea, I would respond the insect life. What kind of insects does Korea have? Will I be able to cope? The bugs are bigger than the ones I am used to but there is nothing any more bizarre then what I have seen back home. (spider picture) I have not seen anything which gave me nightmares yet.
- This is not something that scared me but something that scared a lot of people I talked to: North Korea. Actually whenever I would tell anyone I was going to Korea the first or second question they would ask was North or South? And then they would talk about the fact that the Koreas are still technically at war. Which they are but they’ve been at this cease fire for a while and are ready for anything else.
So there you have it: Korea is incredibly safe and I’m glad I came. The general concerns are nothing to stress over and certainly nothing to keep anyone from coming.
What does my day look like?
I was always really curious before I came to Korea what my day would look like. Of course, everyone has really different lifestyles but here is one EPIK teacher’s typical day:
7am: When I am supposed to get up but usually I sleep in and then make a mad rush for the door and barely catch the bus. It works and I still have then next 20 minutes-30 minutes to fully wake up before I get to school and start teaching. Many people walk to school which sounds nice to me (public transportation used to really scare/overwhelm me), but I have to catch a bus since all of my schools (I teach at three) are pretty far away. Living on island though definitely has its perks—the ride is absolutely gorgeous and has become something I really look forward to.
8am: I usually get to school around this time and wish all my co-workers a good morning, collect my materials for the day, drink tea, and check emails. My schedules are different at each school so class start time is different each day. I teach Elementary level and absolutely love all my adorable students.
12pm: Around this time I get to stop teaching and eat lunch which is always incredible. The schools provide large healthy meals which is another one of my favorite parts of the day. Lunch is a time to connect with the students or other teachers, practice Korean, try new foods, and learn what they are all called.
1:30: After break it’s back to teaching. I usually only have one afternoon class and many of the teachers I have spoken to don’t have any so after lunch it is just time to lesson plan. I peruse Waygook.com and the rest of the interwebs for game ideas and type up my schedule for the next day and usually try to get ahead or the next week as well to keep it less stressful for myself.
3pm: At this point I usually am done with lesson planning and start blogging or check emails or study Korean or talk with my co-teachers which is a nice relaxing way to end the afternoon.
4pm: I leave different schools at different times but around 4 is when it’s time to start packing up. Time to trek to the bus stop… which is always lovely! I still have not gotten over how beautiful Korea is. Somedays I go with my co-teacher to play a game of volley ball or go out to dinner which is always a great way to mix up the daily routine and get to know my fellow teacher better.
5pm: After school it’s time for Korean class, coffee with one of my Korean friends while we practice each other’s language, volley ball club, a work out at the gym by my house, an adventurous dinner with another expat teacher, a movie night, or a mini hike before the sun goes down. There is never a dull moment! The city I live in is pretty small compared to a lot of places my friends ended up at so there isn’t as much to do really (no big official language exchanges or events) but I still feel like I have an overwhelming amount of options and try to do just enjoy every moment. I’m always trying new foods and really trying to learn the language.
??Pm: I get back home and pack my bags for the next day (which helps me when I make the mad dash the door the next morning. If I don’t pack the night before I will probably forget something). Due to the time difference my friends at home are usually just getting up at this point so sometimes I end up skyping them till late hours of the night. Then it’s time for a quick shower and bed to rest up for the next busy day.
So there you have it: a day in the life of an EPIK Teacher. I am so grateful for where I ended up at. It’s the perfect blend of city and natural beauty but, then again, much of Korea is like that. I am so grateful for all the new experiences I get on a daily basis. It really is incredible!
Before I came to Korea, I was curious about exactly what it would look like trying to make friends on the other side of the world. Here are some ways I have met some incredible people.
- EPIK—Choosing the EPIK program was a fantastic choice for multiple reasons, and one of those reasons was that it introduced me to some incredible people my first day here. I hadn’t been in Korea more than two hours and I was already sitting with a group of teachers talking about life, laughing, and trying new foods together (I still remember expecting barley tea to be sweet and then destroying a triangle kimbab since I didn’t know how to unwrap it yet…ah, first day seems so long ago). Other English teachers here have warned me that it can be a bit difficult at first to meet people, but every EPIK teacher I know has more friends than they can visit in the space of the year. Obviously the EPIK Orientation when you first arrive is the perfect way to meet people-you spend nine days with other people who are new in the country and ready for adventure just like you. But I was surprised to find that being a part of EPIK has continued to introduce me to all kinds of people. I made some solid friendships during orientation but each time I visit any of those friends, I meet so many more people (from EPIK or otherwise). I am grateful!
- Travel Groups—As much as I enjoy traveling independently, having someone plan everything for you is sometimes just too convenient to pass up. For one of our three day weekends a group of friends and I decided to go through a travel group to visit the Jinju Lantern Festival and Namhae (see my vlog about it here). I loved every moment I spent with them but also made so many new friends. I remember sitting at the back of the bus introducing myself to a whole squad of people the last day only to discover they were also on my island! It was so unexpected and delightful and has resulted in some epic (excuse the pun) island hangouts!
- My co-teachers—When reading about co-teaching I read a plethora of horror stories about co-teachers and when I arrived to Korea that was one of my biggest concerns. I knew getting good co-teachers was important. I have one main co-teacher (who is one of the kindest people you will ever meet) but a multitude of other teachers I work with and every single one of them is fantastic! I was delighted when I found out some of them are my age (age is so important in Korea). The overlapping age and my feeble attempts to speak Korean resulted in dinners, coffee dates, and lots of volleyball. (And playing volley ball has resulted in getting to know more of the people my age in the area.)
- Language Exchange— Many of my friends in big cities have some pretty incredible language exchanges, and it’s been great meeting the people that they have met through that! I live on an island so large formal language exchanges aren’t as easy to come by, however, I did use HelloTalk which a language exchange app. I started using it when I was began learning Korean a couple months before I came and just kept using it when I got here. Speaking with native Korean speakers not only helped me learn the language but also ask questions like, “How do I turn on my heat?” and, “How bad is the Typhoon this weekend going to be?” Through this app I actually discovered a lot of people in my area and have gone to coffee, hiking, and the beach.
- Random Meetings—I think seasoned travelers expect the unexpected but, as a newbie, I am always surprised by how many people you can meet without really trying. Some moments include, the day I went solo hiking and ended up spending a while day with someone from England. Or that time I ate tteokbokki at my favorite place by my house and a Korean lady introduced me to her son… ok, so she may have been hoping we would become more than friends but I’m just saying… you it’s not hard to meet people.
One of my co-teachers asked me the other day how I had so many friends that made me stop and think about it. I wish I could go back to slightly nervous me right before I left America. I wish I could tell myself that it is all going to be alright. There are some fantastic people on this side of the planet and I am so blessed to have met them. Koreans, other teachers, and random travelers, I have met so many people with so many stories from so many countries… I am so very grateful for all of them.
The sun was slanting bright against mountainous countryside as the bus drove on. I had adventured far from my home island Geoje to visit a friend in Daejeon and was drinking in this new side of Korea. In some ways, it was just like any road trip back home in the USA. Get snacks, stick in headphones, probably sleep for a little… look at the trees go by. But it was totally different in other ways and it left me pondering why I love Korea. What about Korea in particular pulls on my heart so much?
I sat staring sleepily out the window at the ubiquitous sand colored buildings that rose up in city clusters (chaotic and condensed cities) and then melted back into rustic fall colored mountains. I contemplated peoples’ accusations of Korea being the same everywhere you went. People said if you visited one city in Korea, you have visited them all. There are the same Paris Baghettes, Angel-in-us-Coffee, 7 Elevens, and Starbucks. This doesn’t bother me. Perhaps I haven’t been to enough Korean cities but I feel like many cities have their own unique thing to offer on top of all the many coffee shop chains and convenience stores. But that aside, there is something about the cafes and convenience stores themselves that fascinate me…
The novelty of these places is exciting. Since it is my first time in Asia it is obviously going to take more than a couple months to get over all the new things I am seeing. I am still excited to buy things from the little convenience stores–it makes me feel like I’m in a Korean drama. I still have yet to try all the new coffee drinks, learn how to order them, and have a completely Korean conversation while doing so. It is still a new exciting adventure to eat out, yes, even at Starbucks. Some of the drinks are the same but some are new and always exciting to try to pronounce. There is a feeling of novelty but also something more…
Speeding through the country side in a bus (or train or car for that matter) is a bit like looking through looking through a photo album. You catch a picture for a few seconds and then you turn the page. You are not able to see what’s on the other side of that building, what’s over that ridge of trees, or what’s just beyond that river bend (yes, there will almost always be Disney references in my posts). In the bus you have to be content just to look, enjoy the beauty, and be curious from a distance. A tiny old house at the edge of a river with smoke rising caught my attention. I wish I could have dinner there. I wish I could ask the woman who lives there to teach me how to make Kimchi and ask the man what he thinks of his job, what he likes about this part of the countryside. I would appreciate a dinner/conversation like that. I would appreciate them, perhaps, partly for the same reason I appreciate the Starbucks and Seven Eleven. It would be something new and interesting but again…it’s more than that.
A fisherman has a life that is distinctly different than mine. The Starbucks here is distinctly Korean with its collection of Korean style drinks (Koreans don’t mind stuff floating in their drinks that surprises many new-comers (me included at first) and you might find rice or fruit bits in any given drink here). The convenience stores have their own unique cultures with quick foods and tiny outdoor tables. These places are distinct. This sometimes makes me feel very foreign and sometimes makes me feel very triumphant when I fit in. They are not just new to me but also very themselves. There is a strong and definite culture here not my own that I am able to share in. Culture. That’s what it is, a distinct culture. That is a reason I love Korea so much.
So there I was speeding South as the shadows starting to color in the mountains, thinking about why I love all the boring un-unique restaurants and little fishing villages. I watched the sky grow a darker blue and thought about how much I like new places and people. Yes… we travel to get a new perspective, see a new type of beauty, become a new type of person. It’s something I knew I wanted before I came, but I didn’t know it would look like this. I didn’t know that it would sometimes look like a Grape Smoothie from Starbucks, like the fall foliage-d mountains, or the broken conversation with the lady at the convenience store. Of course, Korea is giving me more life lessons than how to make small talk and order drinks, but little things like this saturate my life and make it rich and colorful. It is gently challenging and completely exciting. And it’s the back drop for all the deeper conversations and new perspectives that I find here.
It was black by the time we crossed the bridge over into Tongyeong and the mountains were just shadows, the sea was a patch of darker black in the night, the villages were a cluster of star-like light gathered around the edge of the water. I found myself getting incredibly excited. I was almost back in Geoje! The roads were busy. Many people travel on the weekends and Sunday night always means heavy traffic, but I kept staring out my window and got a thrill of happiness when we were back on my island. I love Geoje best out of anywhere in Korea. I think all of Korea is beautiful, and I know everyone finds those little details they love about their home here. Actually, many Koreans are shocked I like Geoje. It’s a ghost town of what it used to be, apparently, and is a rather small unexciting island really. Why didn’t you go to Seoul? Or why not Busan? And Busan was my first choice. Many people tell me that their hometown is prettier the this island and that mainland Koreans can be nicer. Why Geoje? I get the question all the time. (And to clarify, every person I have met from Geoje is very kind!)
I stepped off the bus, and I couldn’t wait to throw down my heavy backpack and get honey lemon tea from the Seolbing (Korean dessert) café right by my apartment. I needed to upload some pictures to my computer and study Korean (aka watch more of Descendents of the Sun).
So why Geoje? I kept playing with the question as I walked home. Well, I didn’t actually know what Geoje was before I came to Korea so I have to thank the EPIK program for placing me where they did. And I love Geoje for the same reason I love all of Korea–here my life is sometimes challenging and always exiting. It is rich and colorful. It is surreally beautiful, and it is very itself. My neighborhood is dotted with convenience stores and at night filled with those classic neon signs which I think of whenever I think of downtowns in Asia. The novelty, the distinct island laid-back-ness, the distinct Geoje accent, the distinct ship-worker bustle, the distinct Korean culture…. Geoje is its own place too.
Perhaps… it is a rather tiny island with not as much to do as other places, but it doesn’t have to be busy. It doesn’t even have to be more distinct than other places. It is very much itself. And I love Geoje because it is here that I am becoming very much myself. As I am challenged and delighted daily with new perspectives and beauty, I learn much and grow quickly, I hope for the better. And what better backdrop for a girl trying to become a better person than mountains reaching for the sky and the deep sky-blue seas reaching for the horizons?
I was so curious before I came what Korea was going to be like and how I would adapt to it so I thought I would share a few little Korean habits I have picked up while here.
- I say “maybe” a lot now. Koreans will often add “maybe” to statements that are actually quite declarative. “Maybe, it is very dangerous to go there.” It seems to be something that makes their sentence politer and I’ve found myself saying “maybe” and “I think” more as well.
- I eat rice all the time. It feels weird if I don’t have rice for a while, and the rice here is really good! It’s always perfectly sticky for chopsticks but not too sticky and they have so many different kinds. I love them all.
- I bring the little tissues in my purse everywhere. Toilet paper may or may not be in any given public bathroom and even if it is, it may not be in the stall. It’s always safest to have a cute little packet of tissues for any occasion. Koreans also have the wet wipes that are often used instead of napkins and I have a pack of those as well. (It even has an adorable little kakao friend on the packet, how cute /Korean is that?)
- I use two hands to give things. Money, drinks, papers, it’s more polite here if you use both hands. Not everything needs to be done this way. If one of your hands is full or it’s a less formal situation it’s fine but it is a pretty polite thing to do. Even shaking hands should be done with two hands. It’s fun seeing peoples’ faces light up when I say “Bangabsumnida!” And shake their hand politely.
- I bow all the time. You probably saw this one coming! And I’ll be completely honest with you, I don’t really know exactly when to bow all the time but I figure trying can’t hurt and I try to watch when other do it around me.
There are so many other little things like taking of shoes at school/restaurants, paying more attention to people’s age, drinking with my head turned away from people who are older than me, hiking more, going to café’s more… I freaking love Korea and can’t wait to see what else I learn while I am here!
I’m going to say right now that this is entirely from personal experience. I studied Korean two months before coming here just practicing simple words… their word for hello took me a long time to master and they had a different alphabet. Then applying got too busy and I stopped studying and just showed up in this country with the ability to read barely read their alphabet and the words “hello/thank you” in my vocabulary.
It has been two months and two days and I have now had multiple mini conversations that were entirely in Korean, I am able to sometimes understand the small talk of my students as they all walk by chatting away. I have told my Korean friends that they need to give me a month and a half and I will speak with them entirely in Korean for a whole conversation. I was told that it was possible to learn a language in three months so that has been my goal. Three months… four months if I push it. That means the goal is December…
While it is not necessary for an English teacher to speak any Korean here (especially in bigger cities), I think it is the key to making friends here, having good relationship with co-workers, making life easier, and conquering one of the biggest personal goals I have had.
What’s my plan of attack? How have I been doing it so far?
- HelloTalk. Pros: You can meet and speak with Koreans wherever you are in the world and begin practicing immediately. I have not only practiced my Korean daily with some people there but have also asked many cultural questions especially when I first got here. One of my friends spent a while trying to help me get my hot water set up. So kind and very appreciated!! Another pro: There is a voice record option so you can get some great feedback! This has really made a huge difference with pronunciation! Koreans comment on it all the time which is super encouraging! Another pro: You make some amazing friends. I have met up with a couple people from the app now and I am so grateful to know them. They are not only great teachers but great people and we have traveled Korea together! Obviously, use common sense.. which brings us to the cons.. Cons: There can be creepers. Sometimes you just have to block or report them. Some of my friends refuse to call it a language app and use it just like Tinder… I like to call it a multipurpose app. Meet locals. Personally, I’m not looking to get a boyfriend from it, I just really want fluency in the next month… but one of my friends got it for the same reason and she is now dating a great Korean guy… so there’s that. Con: It can be overwhelming. I eventually deleted it because I already had so many friends (many of whom actually like really close to me here in Geoje!) and I just can’t keep starting new conversations. It can take up a lot of space on your phone. But if you are just getting started, don’t let that stop you. It’s the perfect way to get started!
- Learn Kpop. Pros: I learn so much better if I am singing, it just sticks so much better. And Kpop is known for being pretty catchy so it’s the perfect mix. I learn quickly and painlessly and enjoy singing so it’s a win win win! Pro: You learn grammar structures on accident. I learned a couple songs and you can’t help but start to notice patterns and then all of a sudden it clicks and then you hear your co-teachers use the same pattern and your brain explodes! Without anyone teaching you any painful grammar rules you learned a new part of the language! Pros: You would be surprised at how applicable the vocabulary is to real life. At first I was a little sheepish… I am learning phrases like “I miss you,” “All my love,” “Our love is like a firework”… I’m not sure how often I will be using any of those with my co-teachers… but then suddenly my co-teacher says something about “all classes” and I realize I know the word all… and people talk about the firework festival and I know what they are talking about! One more pro: It helps you connect with your students like you wouldn’t believe! Cons… Not any real cons to this route unless you dislike Kpop or hate singing.
- Talk to me in Korea (TTMIK): Pros: FREE. Well, everything I have been talking about is free but this is like free courses, very official and clear. I love the teachers and how they break each lecture into roughly 20 minutes portions and repeat often. Clear easy lessons that you will learn from. While you can get everything online I did end up buying a couple of their books because they were they best Korean language learning books I could find and I am so glad I decided to. I’ve definitely used them a lot and it’s made a difference. Cons: Some people say that it is boring… which I don’t really understand because I think the teachers are pretty entertaining but I know its all personal taste. Speaking of personal taste… have you seen that drama? Which brings me to my next point:
- Watch Kdramas: Pros: You can listen for an extended period of time and its fun. Turn of the subtitles to make it harder. While I haven’t watched very many, this has introduced me to some expressions that don’t really have equivalents in English are have been really helpful to know. It can also be helpful to teaching intonation… careful though! That’s also a Con: You don’t want to be speaking like a melodramatic high school girl who has gotten her heart broken because her secret wealthy boyfriend is struggling to breakup with his finance… Once you come to Korea, dramas aren’t really quite as necessary. Just listen to everyone around you.
- Always be Trying: Pros: You will get better. If you are always trying to talk on your language app, or at the grocery store, or to your co-workers, you are guaranteed to get better. If you google translate what all your groceries and appliance buttons say, you will eventually start to catch on. If you try to read as much Korean as you can, you will eventually start to get faster. If you want to be fluent, this is guaranteed to work. Cons: This is one of the most exhausting things you can do. It can be exhausting on its own but doing it will adapting to a new way of life and a new job can be one of the most strenuous activities you can do. I slept more when I first got to Korea from sheer fatigue every night and I didn’t even do it all day, just practiced a little at a time. One more con: You are almost guaranteed to offend somebody or make some socially awkward mistake just because you don’t know any better. Either you say the word itself wrong or you don’t realize that you can’t ask that sort of question to that sort of person because of the culture. So far, I’ve only been mildly rude by accident so I’m hoping it doesn’t get much worse than that! But despite these cons, this is the way that is guaranteed to work!
So there it is! My method up till now and how I am hoping to be fluent in three months… Will it happen? I will keep you posted!