Saturday, August 31, 2013

Puzzle-Putting-Together Champ!

Have you ever put together a one-billion piece puzzle?
That's what I'm trying to do here in Korea.

I'm trying desperately to piece this thing together. 
How do I say "I'm lost"? 
What clothing is appropriate for me to wear? 
Where can I buy ginger? 
How do I ask if something is gluten-free?
How do I get downtown?
Do Koreans wear wedding bands? 
Why did everyone just suddenly stand up? 
How do I fit in in a place that is so very different?

It's as if every day, I am handed ONE more piece of the puzzle. One more clue. But only one. At this point, I hold about 14 pieces in my hands. If we stayed for five years, we'd still only understand a minuscule part of all this. 

I'm not unique. This is what travel looks like. This is what "new" looks like. Whether "new" is Chicago or a new neighborhood or Korea. Putting this all together takes time. But my competitive-self says, "I'll bet I can put this thing together faster than anyone has before?!"

Every day after lunch, several of the teachers sit together in the break room and drink coffee. This has essentially turned into "Question and Answer Time with Heather." Either they ask me questions about America or (more likely) I ask tons of questions about Korea. They've been incredibly helpful. Gracious. So kind. On Thursday, one teacher said, "Slow down, Heather. You've only been here four days! These things will come with time."

Time? Time! Who has time?

And it was at this point that I realized I was asking for handfuls of puzzle pieces that I am probably not ready for yet. If they dropped all of their combined knowledge on me, I guarantee I would collapse under the weight of it all. But at this point, I feel like I am collapsing under the weight of all that I don't know.

It's hard to feel helpless. Unable to communicate. Unable to order food. Ask for directions. Say "I'm sorry." Feel at home. Which is funny because I'm pretty sure that upon applying for this experience, I understood that "home" was precisely the thing I was choosing to leave behind.

This process is supposed to be hard. It has to be.

So we're putting on our big girl and big boy pants.
We're giving ourselves grace.
We're leaning on each other.
We're taking it all in knowing that we don't need to understand it all.
We're courageously showing up and letting ourselves be seen.
We're celebrating small things.

We're taking it one puzzle piece at a time and doing our best to be satisfied with a picture that is never supposed to be complete.

Friday, August 30, 2013


I need to be grateful.
It is a practice.
It does not just land in your lap like sunshine.

It breaks your back a few times before you understand the importance of it.
And then it breaks you all over again.

Like today, I am healthy and safe and alive, but I can write a list of all the things I wish were different.
So instead, I will write a list of all the things are real and true and good.

I slept in until 7am.
I woke up next to my amazingly supportive husband.
I had time to stretch.
I ate granola.
I drank orange juice.
I took time to meditate.
I wore a new pair of fun, polka-dotted pants.
I have an office that gives me room to breathe.
I have a very nice office mate.
My co-teachers are supportive and kind.
The kids at school smile and greet me.
At lunch, my co-workers helped me navigate what did not have gluten in it.
I ate chocolate a teacher brought back from New Zealand.
A few teachers at school speak English.
It hasn't been too hot.
I have fans to blow on me.
I received textbooks to teach from on Monday.
I have plenty of water to drink.
I get to e-mail with Jeremy through out the day.
Tonight, I have a school dinner.
It's nice to be invited.
It's Friday.
The weekend is almost here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What I Know About Korea

A year from now, I will likely look back at these thoughts and think, "Holy cow, you didn't know the half of it." But for now, here's what I'm learning about Korea........................................................................................................................................................................................(for some reason unknown to me, Blogger in Korea does NOT want to let me edit or create spaces between paragraphs. Surprise! So please, bear with me.).................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. Korean culture is very hierarchical. There are different depths of bows based on how old a person is and what their job is. There is both an informal and honorific language that you use depending on who you are speaking to. The Korean people are quite formal and very polite. Everything must be given and taken with two hands, as a sign of respect. There was a lot of hubbub a few months ago when U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, shook hands with Korea's President Park using only one hand. This stuff matters.................................................................................................................................... Korea is quite safe. As one of my co-teachers asked yesterday, "Are your parents worried for you being in Korea?" I said they were, just because Korea is unfamiliar to them. She mentioned many things she'd heard on the news recently about gun violence in America and said quite truthfully: "Guns are illegal in Korea. I think you are probably safer here than you were in America." Probably true........................................................................................................................... It's interesting living in a country whose history dates back thousands of years. Thousands. Their culture and art and music and architecture have roots and purpose from a very long past. It's pretty incredible. In the same vein, Korea has a very tumultuous modern history that, admittedly, I knew very little about. Korea was occupied by Japan and forced to speak Japanese, forced to change their names, temples and traditions were torn down and 200,000 girls and women were forced to be "comfort women" (sex slaves) to the Japanese millitary. To say that Koreans don't like Japan would be an understatement. I've been told it would be best simply not to talk about it.............................................................................................................. After this, the two parts of the country split (North and South, respectively) across the 38th parallel. The North wanted communism. The South wanted democracy. I had no idea how many families this tore apart, how many people want reunification, but at the same time, what a constant threat/reminder the North's presence is. They have monthly civil defense drills to prepare for an attack. The kids crouch under their desks, just like Americans did during World War II, but the difference is South Korea has been doing this for 50 years! ...................................................................................................................... Korea is small, but huge. The population is 50 million and the entire country of South Korea could fit into the state of Indiana. However, Korea is 70% mountainous, meaning that only 30% of it is livable space. So imagine 50 million people squeezing into 30% of Indiana. Crazy!.......................................................................................................... In 1957, Korea was the poorest country in the world--as their GDP was lower than Ghana--and now they have the 15th highest economy in the world. They produce all products of LG, Samsung, Kia, and Hyundai. As far as education goes, Korea ranks third best in science, second in math and literature, and first in problem-solving. It is incredibly common for a third grade student to attend eight hours of school, followed by English tutoring sessions that go late into the evening. These people work hard................................................................................................... In the West, we are raised to be individualistic. Koreans are taught to be collective. They do everything together. They take care of each other. When stocks crashed in 1997 and the banks owed money, Korean people lined up outside of the banks and donated money and jewelry and gold to help get the banks out of debt. The government didn't order them to. They just did it. They think, "What's best for Korea?" They are an incredible work force of people who work together to get things done...................................................................................................... Another recent example of this collectivist mindset: some nuclear power plants went down a few weeks ago. So the government asked if major businesses and schools could please stop using the air conditioner or at least use less of it to save energy. So they are doing it and no one is complaining. It's just what needs to be done. No one is protesting and complaining about how their rights are slowly being taken over by a socialist governement, they are just chipping in because that's what they need to do. When I got to school, they told me not to use the elevator. I asked if it was broken, they said, "No, we are just trying not to use any more electricity than we need." ....................................................................................................................................................

Performers in Korea

We've seen some pretty cool things since we landed in Korea. People. Food. Landmarks. Artistry. Moving robotic mannquins dressed as construction workers. You name it. Here are a few. This taekwondo performance was part of our orientation last week. We got to watch them before various stunts and choreographies. So cool. We even got to do some taekwondo of our own. I didn't know that taekwondo originated in Korea. Nor did I know how liberating it would be break those piece of wood in half.
 Our orientation field trip took us to Seoul where we were able to see the Royal Palace. Apparently, the original palace was demolished during the Japanese occupation, but they rebuilt this in commemoration. This was some sort of guard ceremony at the front gate. It kind of reminds me of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz: "Oh wee oh, ohhh." Last, and certainly my favorite of all, was the Five Drum performance. So cool to see these ladies doin' their magic with these drums. What a work-out. I'm also unsure how they did all that while smiling the. entire. time.

Friday, August 23, 2013


"You can either be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future." -Deepak Chopra

This morning, after hearing this, the Universe whispered to me, "Let it go. Let it go."

It's been impossible the last few days not to view Korea through the only other--and most closely familiar--lens I have in my stockpile: Cambodia.


This heat.
The buildings.
The food.
The artistry.
The people.
The language.
My reaction.
Feeling lost.
Feeling restless.
Missing home.

Now, lets be clear Korea and Cambodia are very different places. I'm not confusing the countries. But I see this experience through the only other similar experience I've had. It doesn't usually help me. Mostly it holds me back.

From seeing with new eyes.
From giving this a chance.
From feeling confident.
From feeling joy.
From being at peace.

So today, I'm letting it go. I'm remembering that the year is 2013 and I am experiencing Korea for the first time with my best friend. And through that lens I saw...

The misty mountains that surround the university
The seaweed soup that I kinda liked
The joy of being here with Jeremy
The blessing of this opportunity to have a job
Steve, this funny and kind Canadian we met here
Cathy, a sweet local gal who teaches our Korean lessons
A place to sleep at night
Food for my tummy
Support for home
The ability to take this one darn step at a time
(Which is the only option we've ever had, yet I tend to forget)

Today, I am letting go.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What I Saw

Today, I am breathing.
Today, I am married to a wonderful man.
Today, I have traveled.
Today, I have seen.
Today, I have experienced.

Today, I saw some pretty darn cool things in Korea.

Our orientation group (a collection of at least 100 teachers from seven countries) went on a field trip today to Seoul. It was quite a full day of experiences. 

Bi Bim Bop 
The Korean House
Guards at the Royal Palace 
Royal Palace 
A local temple we found 
Ancient temple with modern Seoul in the background

I feel like there is no better to start than by telling you: I LOVE bi bim bop. Yes, love. Yes, I mean it. After the last four days of so-so-I'm-not-sure-I-can-survive-in-Korea-eating-this meals, today, I found "the" dish I'll be ordering everywhere until I find something else I like. Bi bim bop literally means rice mixed with vegetables. Simple. Spicy. Delicious. Today, I was reminded what a joy food can bring to our lives. 

We saw a few cultural performances, that were...well, let's face it: SO COOL! I took some videos and I'll post them as soon as I can figure out how to do so. (Sidenote techy question: is the easiest way to post them onto YouTube and then embed the video here?)

Then, we went to the Korean Modern History museum. And let me tell you, they need separate museums for both "modern" and "ancient" history. Geez! It's so crazy to live in a place where their history books span thousands of years!

Lastly, we went to the Royal Palace which is the renovated version of their original temple that was demolished during the Japanese invasion. The "old" temple backs right up next to The Blue House which is where President Park (said, "Pok") lives. 

Throughout the day, I found myself wondering what the American equivalent of all this was. Where's our traditional song and dance? Where's our costumes? What's our food? We are such a baby country, I realized again, we don't really have any of that. We've got a National Anthem, maybe you could tout Puritan clothing or Native American head dresses as our garb. Food? Hamburgers?

It was fun to journey to Seoul and see and experience a culture that is rich in it's long and well-traveled history. While it was a nice place to visit, I'm glad we aren't going to be living there. It's a crazy-busy congested place. 

The BIG NEWS is: We will be teaching in Chungbuk province in the city of Cheongju teaching elementary school! 

Orientation ends on Sunday and then on Monday we'll head to our next spot: Cheongju!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Corn Flakes

I forgot how very exhausting it is to adjust to a new place. May it be a dorm room, a church, a town, or--in our case--a country.

From what little I know three days in, Korea is:
A busy place
A devoted place
A productive place
A community-oriented place
A pretty place
A friendly place
An advanced place
A highly modern place
A highly traditional place

The good news is that in spite of all of these new things, I've slept a lot better since our first night in Korea. That first night left me feeling hopeless and scared, but since then I've rested much more peaceably. Hallelujah!

This morning Jeremy and I got our butts out of bed to go for a run. We trolled along the campus roads, the soccer field, near the temple, across from the fountains and statues and giggled to ourselves --as we seem to do a lot of here--"blah ha ha! We're running in Korea reciting Korean vowel sounds!" Constantly adding to the list of things we never thought we would do.

To top it all off, I got to eat corn flakes and fruit salad for breakfast! Score!

Counting our blessings.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What They Don't Tell You About Adventure

Saying "goodbye" at 5am
That's 49.5 pounds suckahs
Our Panda Express fortune

Look at these goobers
Daejin University
We made it to Korea, folks. 
It's way over here by China.
It's a freaking long flight too. 

I write from our dorm room at Daejin University where we'll be living for the next week during orientation for all of the GETs (guest English teachers) who have come here with EPIK, a government program that places native-English teachers in Korean public schools. 

We arrived late Sunday night in Seoul in a zombie-like state, trying to sort out how to find our bags and our shuttle, feeling queasy and thirsty and lost. But we made it. Whew!

Last night was not a good one for rest. We squished ourselves into a twin-size bed and gave ourselves a little pep-talk before going to bed: "We're in Korea. It's gonna be all right. One step at a time." I fell asleep with everything on my mind and I woke up an hour later feeling like someone or something was sitting on my chest. Hard to breathe. Hard to stay calm. Hard to feel well. I threw up from traveling nausea and jet lag. I paced. I scavenged for food. Eventually I woke Jeremy and had a small panic attack in his arms. 

That something sitting on my chest was fear. 
Fear that I can't do this.
Fear that we've made a huge mistake.
Fear that I haven't changed.
Fear that I just can't handle world travel.
Fear that something awful will happen to those we love at home.
Fear that history will repeat itself. 

I didn't sleep more than an hour the rest of the night. To keep my mind from flitting from fear to fear I focused on a balloon filling and deflating, filling and deflating with every inhale and exhale. I can't express to you how hard it was to even stay on that one thought without drifting back to fear. So it's fair to say that our first twelve hours here have been a bit rough. A bit scary. A bit lonely. 

People told me this was such a great adventure. That they were jealous. That they'd be reading a long and wishing they were me. 

Ya know what no one tells you about adventure? Rarely does it feel "adventurous."

Mostly it just feels scary. And out-of-place. And unsure. And terrifying. 
With about 5% of exhilaration thrown in. 
And that's what we take pictures of. 
The exhilarating parts that only make up a small portion of the story. 

So, I guess what I'm getting at is this:
-I am grateful for this opportunity to travel in Korea.
-But please don't assume that we are constantly having the time of our lives.
-We need prayer now more than ever.

This morning, the sun rose on this small valley. We looked out our window at the hillside and the trees and took-in the parts of campus we missed in the previous evenings half-alive state. We talked. We prayed. We agreed that this is hard. 

We shuffled our way to breakfast and ate rice, kimchi (more on that as soon as I can figure out how to post the video!), and cornflakes surrounded by one hundred other EPIK teachers. We chatted. We met people from San Diego, the "middle of Oregon", Liverpool, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and Australia. We felt a little better just to have people to talk to. 

We're finding our way.
One moment at a time. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Onward to Korea

Tomorrow--at 4 am--we leave for Korea. 
Well, first Denver, then L.A., then Korea. We've got a long journey ahead of us.

The material parts of our lives are in boxes and Rubbermaid tubs, suitcases and storage units. Everything has a place and a label. The dishes and kitchen appliances are wrapped snuggly in newspaper. Our clothes are sealed off from pests and rodents. Hopefully. Important documents and papers are safely stowed in a filing cabinet.

Two suitcases and two trunks are filled to the brim with clothing, books, electronics, and other non-negotiables for a year spent in Korea. If you ask me, we're leaving behind far too much. If you ask Jeremy, we could probably get by on even less

We're planning. 
We're stowing. 
We're packing.

And surprisingly, we've got it all done. It's odd to have your whole "life" packed up in a few suitcases. And it's interesting to consider all the other stuff we're leaving behind. And it makes me wonder, if we could do without it for a year, does that mean we could simply do without?

Traveling is a good time to simplify, to toss, to reflect, and to move forward. 
And that is just what we are doing. 

Jeremy and I will both be blogging here in the coming year for all of our adventures in Korea. 
Please read along. 
Send up some prayers. 
Some positive thoughts. 
And some mail. 

If you would like to receive an e-mail when we publish a new blog you can subscribe to this blog on the right-hand side of this very page. 

Much love,
Heather and Jeremy

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What We Didn't Know Before

Jeremy and I were married on May 13, 2012. Fifteen months ago. And in that time we have lived in three different states, held six different jobs, visited seven different states, made a few dozen new friends, and learned some good "adult" lessons along the way.

In four days, we'll add another country to our line-up of "places lived": South Korea.

What I didn't expect about marriage fifteen months ago is...

that we still wouldn't feel like grown-ups

that we'd still feel like adult frauds who are really just immature kids

that we would be moving to Korea

that we would've fought as much as we have

that we would've fought as much as we have about really silly things

that we would've laughed as much as we have

that we would've laughed as much as we have about really silly things

that as we approach this big move, we would regularly look at each other and giggle: "We're moving to Korea. Hee hee hee. Korea...Bah ha ha! Who does that?!"

Somehow I manage to keep forgetting that Jeremy is going with me to Korea. This probably sounds ridiculous. However, I've done world travel before. It's not easy. It's a challenge. It's a shock. But as we head into this next great adventure, he keeps reminding me that he'll be right there holding my hand.

And that feels good.
We'll do this together.

Monday, August 12, 2013


There's often a dead time--an exaggerated pause, an uncomfortable lag--between life's transitions. Between jobs or places or relationships or travels. It's this place where you are just waiting for the next thing to begin.

That is this time.

Somewhere in between our first year of marriage and our second.
Somewhere in between Nebraska and Colorado.
Somewhere in between The United States and Korea.
Somewhere in between one phase of our life and the next.

Call it fate, God, or a miracle, but eight days ago I began a twenty-one day, on-line meditation challenge. It's a partnership between Oprah and Deepak Chopra in which they release 15 minute thoughts and meditations once a day for twenty-one days. Being that my life has lately felt completely opposite of calm, thoughtful, or meditative, I decided this might be a good path for me. And it has been.

For 15 minutes every day, I have to be intentional about setting aside the time. About slowing down. About breathing. About thinking. About not thinking. About being kind. About taking care of myself.

From my point of view, meditation is the listening part of prayer. We spend a lot of time in traditional prayer talking at God/Spirit/The Universe. But rarely do we stop and listen. To set aside time to sit quietly and hear what God may be trying to tell us. In eight days, here's what God's been telling me:

"You're pretty cool.
It's going to be all right.
I'll be here the whole time.
Baby, don't worry 'bout a thing."
(and apparently other lyrics by Bob Marley)

A small part of every meditation involves learning a Sanskirt mantra. Sanskrit is a language. And a mantra is a phrase or meaningful saying.

Today's was: Om Vardhanam Namah 

Which means, "I nourish the universe and the universe nourishes me."

Now for some of you this language sounds odd or floofy. And that's fine.
But think of it this way:
"What I put in, I get back."
"What goes around comes around."
"What I invest in experiences and people, I will receive." 

This makes sense to me. This teaches me.

Lately, what I've been sending out into the world is stress, impatience, haste, judgment, irritation, and fear. So understandably, what I've been getting back is stress, impatience, haste, judgment, irritation, and fear. That's just how it works. BUT, the more I can muster calm, patience, ease, acceptance, love, and peace, the more of that I will get back.

Because our emotions and attitudes are like plastic. You can't ever throw them away. There is no away. There is only somewhere else. So we can put our plastic in the trash can and put it out of our minds, but inevitably it will just sit in a landfill for about three thousand years. It's still there, it's just off my back.

The same is true of our stresses and fears. They are stuck in the same ecosystem we are. They don't go away. They bounce off the boundaries of our atmosphere and bounce into someone else. The less garbage I create, the better the world will be. The less I use fear as a coping mechanism, the more I will use trust as my guide.

Monday, August 5, 2013

We Will Teach and Receive Paychecks


They are dangerous.
And from my observations, they are the source of most (if not all) of the frustration in my life.

I learned about expectations most directly during my first 24 hours in Cambodia. For some people, the "honeymoon stage" portion of culture shock last weeks, even months. For me, it lasted five hours. I landed, I looked around, and I thought, "Uh oh, this is not what I expected."

There is so much about the world that we simply cannot predict.
And our trying only leads to disappointment.

Expectations get in my way when I assume that my husband should act/think/speak/be different than he is. I'm let down. Not because he's done anything inherently wrong, but because I had different expectations than he did.

Expectations get in my way when I assume that it will not rain. And then it does. And it sucks.

Expectations get in my way when someone on Facebook says something ridiculous, I don't get the phone call I was waiting for, or my iPod runs out of battery. Mid-run. Ugh.

My expectations don't always match reality.
And I'd be a whole lot happier if I learned to have low expectations.

I know this because of a study that was done to find the happiest country in the world. The winner: Denmark. Why? Because they have low expectations. They don't expect life to always go their way, a sunny day or a promotion is just a perk!

Heading into this next adventure teaching overseas, I've been thinking a lot about the most reasonable expectations I could have about Korea.

Safe expectations:
-Jeremy and I will move to Korea
-Not everyone will speak English nor produce signage that I can read
-Most things will be foreign to me
-Some things will be familiar
-We will both teach English and receive paychecks

Unsafe expectations:
-Everyone will be nice to me
-I will always feel safe and at home
-Patient people will always be readily available to teach me about Korea
-I will never get swindled out of money
-I will learn Korean in a snap
-My students will love me and be so happy I've come to teach them
-Everything will be awesome. Always.

I understand that that was a strangely abnormal a plethora of definitive terms, and I don't think many of us actually operate that way, however, I know that sometimes I paint this picture of how things should be, and then when they aren't, I struggle to move on.

So, I'm doing some research, learning what I can about Korea, but for the most part, I'm expecting it to be really awful for a few months. I'm expecting culture shock to be rough. For Jeremy and I to argue. To feel lonely. To struggle at school. And to think--at least thrice--"Maybe we should go home."

But in those moments, when everything feels hopeless, I will watch music videos by the boy band and Korean sensation Super Junior and all will be made right.

And you should too.


Friday, August 2, 2013

All That Is Over

Summer camp is over.
Our first year of marriage is over.
College is over.
High school is over.
My childhood is over.

I can tell you with certainty all that is over.
It's the future that makes me unsure.

On August 17th, Jeremy and I will board a plane for South Korea where we will spend the next 12 months teaching English in the province of Chungbuk. Beyond that, I can't tell you very much.

I can't tell you, where we'll teach.
If we'll work at the same school.
What ages we'll teach.
Who we'll work with.
What city we'll live in.
What our apartment will look like.
If they'll have gluten-free food.
What we'll eat.
Who we'll know.
If there's a church nearby.
How we'll get around.
How the Skype connection will be.
If we'll make friends.

It's this unknown about "what's to come" that keeps me up at night.
That sends bizarre dreams to my restless sleep.
That makes me worry.
That leaves me anxious.
That maybe what "they" have said is right.

In the past year, I've mentioned to several people about the potential that we may move overseas, someone usually says something to the effect of, "You're putting yourself through that again? Didn't you get enough the first time?"

The "first time" they refer to is the year I spent in Cambodia teaching English in 2008.

To summarize: I went as a student missionary when I was nineteen.  I battled an eating disorder and depression, I was sexually assaulted, and I was hit by a car. I survived. I wrote a book about it. And I can tell you that it was the hardest year of my life, but it was also the most important year of my life.

Should I be more concerned than I am?
Should I add more worries to my list?
Am I missing something?

This question from people always rubs me the wrong way. It's as if they are saying "You just don't travel well. Maybe you should stay home." But what I've come to understand about foreign travel is that it's supposed to be hard. Otherwise it wouldn't be a risk. Otherwise it wouldn't teach us anything. And my year in 2008 was particularly difficult because of:
A. the mental illness I brought with me
B. very few friends or community in Cambodia
C. some unfortunate circumstances that were beyond my control

So my answer to that question is "No, I'm not putting myself through that again: mental illness, isolation, and sexual assault. I am traveling overseas again because, no, I didn't get enough of that the first time. And ever since I've been craving more."

I am a different person now.

I am not the perfect traveler.
I will get homesick.
There will be struggles.

But this girl...

is a different person...

Rich Young

than this girl.

I've gone to counseling.
I've recovered from anorexia and bulimia.
I've moved on.
I've grown up.
I've been challenged.
And I've been changed.
I've graduated from college.
I've met and married my best friend.

I'm ready for another adventure and I'm taking it on this time with my whole heart. 
With grace.
With gratitude.
With wisdom.
And with all the confidence I can muster.

Please pray.