Thursday, May 22, 2014

A School Day in Korea

I am an English teacher in Korea. 
This is different than being an English teacher in Cambodia.
And definitely different than being an English teacher in the States.

Oh, let me count the ways...

I work at an elementary school which means the kids are in grades 3-6 and about 9-13 years-old (Korean age), which makes them about 8-12 in yearly age ("traditional" age? I don't even know how to talk about this...). Don't ask me to explain more about Korean age, because I can't. But I will tell you that I usually just subtract a year from the Korean age and I'm about right. 

My school day begins at 8:40am. Often times, the students are in their seats before the teacher, who is running in from the parking lot while juggling bags and coffee, arrives. But before walking into the building we all change our shoes (reason #13 that bringing more than three pairs of shoes to Korea was a waste of space, but more on that later). So teachers show up in high-heels, nylons, skirts, and suits and then change into "slippers" (a.k.a. sandals). It still surprises me to see the principal shuffling around the school in black sandals, white socks, and a full suit and tie. 

I have a good twenty minutes to settle in before classes officially start at 9am. The bell rings at least 12 times a day around here. And it sounds like this: 

It's a sound that fills my dreams at night and drives all of us a little bit crazy.

There are five, forty-minute periods in the morning before lunch. And usually, I teach five classes in a row with a Korean co-teacher. I usually work with 2-3 different teachers each week, so I get around to about 360 students every week. 

(Note: The hallway looks a bit rough because they are remodeling the bathrooms.)

The Korean government hires people like myself (and Jeremy) who are native-English speakers in order to expose the kiddos to "authentic" English language pronunciation. So a typical class period means that I just talk with them, share a video/song, play a game, or we work from the English text book. We do a lot of repetition. A lot of "repeat after me", but it's about all they can handle, because the skill levels are so vast.

Some kids noticeably shake when I look at them and ask a question. Other kids spend their afternoons and weekends at private cram schools where they receive extra instruction in English. So for some, we could sing the alphabet and call it a day and for others, they may want to crack jokes and have a discussion about their favorite American movies (The Amazing Spiderman is a recent favorite).

Here's little diddy I wrote to teach my 4th grade students, "This is my brother." It kind of ended up sounding like a Coldplay tune, but I went with it anyway:

Lunch involves the kids filing through line in the cafeteria. And the staff butting-in at the front. Because that's what we've earned as adults, folks: the authority to cut in the lunch line. This is my moment! And by the way these kids look at me, I'm sure they can't wait for their moment. We always eat rice and...something. A lot of kimchi. A lot of meat. A lot of red chili paste.

After lunch, we usually have coffee time (which Jeremy and I jokingly refer to as "cachi time" because "cachi" means "together" in Korean and "cachi" is totally the Korean way). Someone--usually the youngest person in the room--politely offers to make coffee or tea for anyone who is interested. The coffee in Korea is most commonly this instant stuff you mix with water. Blech! But it's "cachi" time and so we "cachi."

After this, everyone (and I mean, everybody) brushes their teeth. It's not uncommon to see cups stacked in the bathrooms with toothbrushes and paste.

My afternoons are wide open. Wide open in a way that sometimes makes me feel guilty because I teach in the morning, and then, I can pretty much do whatever I want. And admittedly, it's my favorite part of the day.

Sometimes I lesson plan, but that doesn't take long.
So I read blogs.
Get stuck on Facebook.
Do yoga.
Paint pictures.
Crochet scarves.
Get stuck on YouTube.
Or, as is the case today, write a blog.

Some of my co-workers take naps. Or watch movies. Or order-in food and call it a snack break. The kids go home most days by 2:20pm, but for some reason unbeknownst to me (what a strange word "unbeknownst"), we have to stay at work until 4:40pm.

Admittedly, I don't blog a lot about teaching in Korea because really, there's not much to tell. I enjoy what I do well enough, but it's certainly not something I'd want to do forever. I am limited mostly by language and a bit by culture. I cannot talk to most of the people at school. I feel bad trying to talk with my co-workers because they often look so terrified of making mistakes in English. I feel the same with my students. We interact as much as possible in the classroom learning basic vocabulary and phrases, but we can't have a conversation, much less a relationship.

And still we don't have much to complain about, I suppose, because there are just so many blessings:
-Jeremy and I were both able to get hired to teach English in Korea.
-Teachers are treated well here.
-The jobs are our ticket into Korea and enable us to explore this new place.

Blessings all around.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Nothing and Everything

I like anniversaries. Big and small.

They help me to stop.
To reflect.
To take it all in.
To look back.
To absorb the bigness of the situation.

And today, we celebrate NINE MONTHS in Korea!

And this may be a small thing, as it certainly doesn't feel like a BIG thing on this Monday afternoon, but, it's still a thing. Worth mentioning. Worth noticing. Worth commemorating. I mean, what isn't worth all of those things? And why the hell not?

Here we are, on our way to Korea!

I expected Korea to be harder. More of an adjustment. More of an uphill battle. More foreign. I expected that more people would speak English (or at least more people who are capable of speaking English would speak English with me). I expected foreign food adventures.

I experienced that Korea is a relatively easy place to live. It can be lonely being such a minority. It can feel isolating at times, but that's part of the experience, I suppose. We feel like a minority, because we are and that comes with all kinds of unique lessons I'm quite grateful for. But our new friends here have been good to us. Helping us find our way. Getting set-up with bank accounts and cell phones and internet service and on-line banking/bill pay and all the nitty-gritty parts of life that we simply couldn't have done on our own. And yes, we've experienced our fair share of food adventures.

I didn't know nearly anything of use about Korea. Not much to base my expectations on, but a few things have surprised me. I didn't know, for example, how big baseball is over here. Or how very versatile their meat-eating variety can be. And that while eating dogs is rare, it does happen. I didn't know that for all of Korea's modern conveniences and advances in medicine and technology that they still rank fairly low in terms of gender equality and essentially ignore any existence of homosexual people. I didn't know that Koreans drink more than any other country on earth. I didn't know that LG and Samsung and taekwondo are all from Korea (and I've never heard a Korean person call it "tay-kwondo" only "tekwondo"). And a whole slew of other interesting things that surprise me every day.

And I didn't know that after nine months, we would want to sign up for a second year. But we did.


oh, Korea
In these last nine months, I've learned that nationalism gets you no where. Saying that you are from this country or that country doesn't better qualify you to have an opinion. It doesn't make you smarter or better or cooler.

It means almost nothing and practically everything. 
At the same time.

A great portion of who we are is because of our upbringing and where we come from. We can hardly shake it. It determines our race, ethnicity, language, social norms, government, currency, how we dress, whether we are metric-users or those crazy others, and it defines what we call "good" and what we call "bad." Where we come from is what makes us unique and different and interesting.

But at the same time, there are very specific stereotypes and truths about what it means to be from a certain place. And only a crazy person would say that their country and their culture is perfect. Without fault. One-hundred percent awesome!

Travel makes us better. It makes me see that people from all over the world have found a way to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives, even if their methods and ideas are in direct contradiction to my own.

It's humbling and it's beautiful. Both.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Two Year Anniversary: Buh-Bums

Eight years ago, I met my husband. It wasn't sweet or obvious or particularly meaningful. We just worked in the same department in college. In my mind, he wasn't anything special. If anything, he was kind of arrogant. Oh, those IRR majors (International Rescue and Relief).

Seven years ago, I went to Cambodia to be an English teacher. I took a year away from college and got my butt handed to me. It was a rough year. The perfect time for "that guy" Jeremy to send me an e-mail asking, "How's it going?" And I was desperate, so I told him because I really needed someone to ask. 

Six years ago, we were both back at Union college. On this side of things, we knew more about each other. He knew my junk and I knew his. And we both decided that each other's junk was okay. Courageous, even. So we started dating.

And I'll never forget the moment I knew we were a thing.

I had gone over to his apartment one evening and he told me he was going to move to Tennessee for his master's degree. Who starts a dating relationship by moving to another State? Jeremy does. But still, I was in. For both of us it was hard and heartbreaking, but right. 

We were sitting on his couch. I put my head to his chest and felt his heart beat: buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum. And we stayed there a long time.

Just sitting and thinking and listening: buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum.

And it felt sacred to be so close to someone's heart. To be pressed up against the very thing that is keeping them alive. Their source. Their core. Their heart.

And I didn't know then what I know now. 
That we'd date for eighteen months long-distance. 
And that I'd stand in tears in several airport security check-points after we said, "Goodbye." Again.
That I'd spend three summers working with him at camp. 
That we'd get engaged in December 2011.
And that we'd be married May 13, 2012.

Or that six years later we'd be married and living/thriving in Korea.


The things we just can't know today.

When we were first married, I couldn't get used to having someone else in my bed. I couldn't fall asleep if we were touching. If he was moving. If I remembered he was there. But now, I've gotten used to feeling him in the bed. And I often fall asleep to the buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum in his chest. And it's still my favorite place to be.

And everything feels so big.
So incomprehensible.
So holy.
Like how is this buh-bum, the same buh-bum?

How are we so fragile?
How am I so lucky?
How are we so blessed?

If I think about it too long, it makes me dizzy. So instead, I am just grateful. I take intentional time to remember just how lucky we are, for the moments, the blessings, and all the buh-bums.

Recently, we sat down with our friends here in Korea, Bob and Trish Evans. They asked to interview us for their podcast on iTunes called "Mutual Weirdness".

If you want to hear it, check it out here:

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and the first thought in my head is: Whoa, we're all alone over here. Like I suddenly remember how far I am from home.
Like it instantly hits me that I am really twenty-six.
I am really married.
And we are really living in Korea.


And I like living in Korea and we are quite happy over here. And yet, sometimes my own lack of confidence gets the best of me and I start wondering why the police haven't put us on a plane yet. As if we're just juvenile runaways. We aren't adult-enough to be doing this. As if someone will realize we are just as childish as we feel.

The latest Oprah magazine asked people, "When did you know you had truly grown-up?"

" age 27, I had to fight for custody of my autistic teenage brother."

"...when I gave my retirement notice."

"When I could accept my parents as imperfect people and love them anyway."

What is a grown-up anyway?

Lately, I've been reading a book series called, Wildwood. It's this wonderful tale about a young girl, named Prue who finds herself wrapped up in a hidden world that desperately needs her help. And at one point in the story, an orphaned daughter says this about her parents:

"She'd been so accustomed, in her former life, before her parent's abandonment, to sitting back and letting the adults handle the big decisions. But things had changed. She was now a parent to herself, her own mother and father, the adult world now appeared to her less fortified than it had seemed prior to her life as an Unadoptable. She now saw adults as incredibly fallible people, just like children.Their adulthood did not necessarily save them from constantly making bad decisions--in fact, she speculated, they were more likely to make bad decisions."

I feel that.
I get that.
Being a grown-up does not make us fortified against life's struggles.

But onward, anyway.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

We Went to Daegu!

As an expat--nine months into--living in Korea, it's easy to get this false sense of security. As if we have it all figured out. As if we have anything figured out. Even one single thing. Travel humbles us again.

This was true when we traveled to Daegu last weekend with our friends, Bob and Trish. We left on Friday after work. Hopped on a bus and headed south about three hours. After a few misadventures finding our motel we landed at our "love" motel. 

Here's what little I understand of love motels: They are cheap. They are secretive. And they are rent-able by the hour. Basically, it's a place you can bring your extra-lover when you want to be sneaky. They make it easy to avoid being seen. Covered parking. Non-descript room key drop. In other words: perfect.

The places often come with more amenities than I would expect at Holiday Inn in the States: a fridge, filtered water and drinks (that you don't pay extra for), a computer, a TV, and a bath tub!

They also come fully-equipped with random English words and half-naked women on the walls. Ya know, for motivation. Or something. But only for hetero-males. "No go" for the rest of us.

On our first morning in Daegu, we found a little lake. A lake! Open space! Fresh air! And this friendly Turkish guy selling--what else?--Turkish ice cream (which we know now is stickier than regular ice cream). 

There were even these super-cool duck paddle-boat things!

And then we stumbled upon this airplane that was turned into a coffee shop. Cool.

After this, by way of Google Maps, reading bus signs, and asking friendly locals, we found our destination. Well, we found our destination after getting on a bus and trying to count the number of bus stops to our destination. Two stops early, the bus driver yelled at us sitting in the back, "WHERE ARE YOU?" and pointed out the window. We gathered that he meant, "Where do you want to go? Is this the place?" We just kind of stumbled out, assuming--as usual--that someone else knew better than we did. And he was right.

He had dropped us off right in front of Herb Hillz, a small little amusement park with an eco-friendly feel. A place we never would've successfully found on our own.

I knew immediately we were going to like this place. It's the most green I've seen months.

We ate some chicken. We saw some sheep.

And we checked out the main event: the eco-park with the high-ropes course. We paid money, got shooed in one direction, put on helmets and harnesses and followed the herd.

We "listened" as this guy gave--what we assume was--a 10-minute safety/instructional speech. We hung back in case he wanted to talk to us or try to mime the instructions. Instead, he looked at us, cocked his head to the side weighing his interest in trying to speak to us, pointed to the first ladder, and said: "Go!"

So we went.

It was a grand ol' time. 

After Herb Hillz, we were pretty hungry and, if I know anything about why foreigners travel in Korea, it's to find familiar food. We wanted Mexican. After checking and re-checking internet directions and wandering around downtown, we settled on a restaurant that looked hopeful. We saw burritos. We were sold. What we didn't know is that you basically pay by the individual item. Yes. Each. Potato. Wedge.

We were a bit let down.

And we didn't have super high expectations for the burritos, so we weren't too surprised when they came with slices of American cheese, mayonnaise, corn, and peas. 

But all is well, folks, because we found a Cold Stone. That's right. Legit ice cream. 
Trish was kind of, sort of in heaven.

The next day, we were so excited to find the G'Day Cafe, a unique bistro started by two Korean sisters who at one point lived in Australia and missed the food when they returned. 
We are grateful to them. Yum!

Later, we explored this medicinal/herbal museum place that had public foot baths. 
Which we think are super cool.

Then, in the afternoon, we caught a baseball game: 
the Samsung Lions (Daegu's team) verse the NC Dinos (from Changwon).

I'm only now learning how big baseball is in Korea! 
I imagine we'll be taking in a few more games this season.

The game is the same, but as expected, the culture is quite different. And in a good way. 
No half-naked cheer leaders. 
No loud announcer. 
No blaring music between innings. 
No giveaways. 
No vendors selling food up and down the aisles. 
Just people watching baseball. 

And it was good.
Everything was good.

CORRECTION 5/12: Come to find out the baseball was uncharacteristically quiet (i.e. cheerleaders and such) because the country is in a state of mourning. Apparently, they are normally more raucous, but because of the sewol ferry tragedy, they are keeping things quiet out of respect.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

God is For People

A friend in Nebraska recently sent me this sermon. Yeah, a sermon.

A sermon that's 47 minutes long. And I kinda figured I wouldn't watch it because, well, that's 47 minutes of my life I could spend watching like 19 other YouTube videos. But I watched it anyway because I had pink eye and nothing better to do, plus, I trust this guy. And as it turns out he's worth trusting because this sermon perfectly articulated so many things I've been thinking about recently. Things related to God and faith and religion and politics and loving people well.

In wake of the whole World Vision fiasco a few weeks ago, here's what Aaron Loy of Mosaic Church had to say about how evangelicals were exposed and how the world deserves better:

One Of - 4/6/14 from Mosaic Lincoln on Vimeo.

I don't know if you'll choose to watch it. But even if you are not a church-going person, I encourage you to hit play. If only to hear a Christian talk about the same frustrations you likely have with church-going folk.

Here's my favorite part:

"God is for people.
God is for all people...
God is for Muslims.
God is for Hindus.
God is for Catholics.
God is even for Southern Baptists.
God is for Catholics.
God is for protestants.
Red state? God is for Barack Obama.
And God was and is for George W. Bush.
And God is for Richard Dawkins.
God is even for Pat Robertson. Bless his heart.
God is for Darren Aronofsky.
God is even for Kirk Cameron.
God is for the LGBT community.
And God is for Westboro Baptists.
God is for surgeons and self-mutilators.
God is for students and drop-outs.
God is for small-business owners, workaholics, large-business executives.
God is for stay-at-home Moms and God is for stay-at-home Dads.
God is for people.
And as God's people, as followers of Jesus, if God is in us, we have to be for people."

"I would suggest to you, the moment you surrendered your life into Jesus' hands, you forfeited your right to choose who is deserving of God's love and who is not."