Category: Korea

Living in South Korea

Living in South Korea

One of the greatest things about my teaching experience in South Korea was living in Seoul. Over 10 million people strong, Seoul is an expansive city with much to offer. This was my first time living in a huge metropolis – where endless skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture are brought together with street markets, Buddhist temples and palaces of the past. Seoul brings a unique energy and vibe that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Following are some of the highlights and curiosities I observed during my time in this electric city.

The Food

I could write a whole separate post on Korean food, and indeed many have! Korean food by far is one of the highlights of living in Seoul. My favorites were:

Kimchi – A simple yet savory cabbage dish that pairs well with just about anything. If you go to Korea and don’t have some Kimchi, I’m not sure you can say you’ve actually been!

Traditional Korean BBQ – usually with various cuts of pork, you are in charge of cooking this meal. This, and most meals, come with a plethora of all you can eat side dishes, including kimchi! Korean BBQ is always best with Soju, a traditional Korean liquor staple.

Fried chicken – there is something special about how Koreans prepare fried chicken, and it is by far better than fried chicken I’ve had anywhere else. Regularly paired with beer, the combo is known as Chimaek (Chicken + Maekju)

Bibimbap – probably the most recognized dish after Korean barbeque, bibimbap is a rice bowl mixed with sautéed roots, marinated beef, chili paste and a fried egg in a hot stone pot. (Also rumored to be Michael Jackson’s favorite dish!) This is easily made without meat, and still very tasty, being a good option for vegetarians.

Unique Flavors – ranging from coleslaw popcorn to shrimp chips, you can find unique flavors of just about anything. A good place to check out the selections are at the GS25 or CU convenience stores, which actually give the word its meaning – there is one on nearly every corner.

And while not a common food for most, the live octopus is a must try while in Korea. Dipped in sesame oil and salt, it’s an intense culinary experience you won’t get anywhere else! (You can watch my attempt at trying this here)

The Transportation

Public transportation in South Korea is amazing. Using a T-Money card allows you to easily pay for your fare and transfer between subway, bus, and taxi without ever using cash or dealing with change. With minimal walking, the sophisticated metro and bus systems can get you nearly anywhere you need to be.

The subway map for Seoul – don’t get lost! 🙂

Paired with apps like CityMapper, Kakao Bus and Subway Korea, which help time and map your routes, I had no problem getting around the initially intimidating city expanse. People are generally orderly and considerate on the transportation, less the occasional instance of groups pushing on to the subway as you are trying to get off. Kept clean, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it seems the public transportation system in Seoul should be a model for cities around the world.

Places to See

With seemingly endless places to go and things to see, some of the best are:

Bukhansan National Park – The best (and only) national park within Seoul’s city limits, Bukhansan’s three towering peaks are punctuated by crystal clear streams, creating a perfect harmony between the mountains and water. The park is very popular with hikers, offering trails suited to every level of experience, from gentle slopes to steep rugged tracks. The ever-changing scenery each season makes it a great place to checkout anytime you visit Korea.

One peak of Buhansan
Bukhansan in fall…one of my favorite places in Korea

Seoul Tower/Namsan Park – This is one of my favorite landmarks in Seoul, offering some of the best views from all directions atop of Namsan Mountain. I would love starting my days with a hike up to the tower through Namsan Park in the mornings, and enjoy the electric and changing neon glow of the tower at night. The tower also reminds me of connection. Initially built as a general radio wave tower in 1969, connecting TV and radio broadcasting to the greater Seoul area, it now also provides a place for people to symbolize their connections through locks linked together all around its base.

Seoul Tower at night, with some connecting locks of love

DMZ/JSA – N. Korea Border – by far one of the most interesting places I went during my time in Korea. Most tours offer a good amount of history and insight into the current situation between the divided country, and you can actually feel the tension at the Joint Security Area (JSA) or Panmunjom village, where I was able to stand in North Korea from the north side of the UN peace keeping building. This was a much easier feat than the North Korean soldier faced, who recently escaped over the border to the South.

The famous blue buildings that cross the borders between N. & S.
Me in the blue building – on the N. Korea side! A different world just right outside that door…

Temples – Korea has a 1,700-year Buddhist history and more than 900 traditional Buddhist temples, with centuries-old architecture tucked among the country’s numerous mountains. Gagwonsa, Bongeunsa and Haedong Yonggung are notable ones. Most also offer temple stays, where visitors can spend two days experiencing daily monastic life. Programs include tea ceremonies, Buddhist services, zen meditations…and temple uniforms.

The temple stay uniforms ARE required, not suggested 😉
In front of some prayer notes with bestie Jenni – Happy we got to experience a bit of Korea together!

Palaces – Gyeongbok Palace is probably Korea’s most famous royal palace. It was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. It’s tough to miss given its location at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, a stone’s throw from the Blue House (the President’s residence) and the U.S embassy.

Shopping – Although I didn’t do much, I got the sense that shopping is on point in South Korea. Claimed to be one of the best and most famous shopping destinations in Asia, South Korea presents a plethora of shopping unique shopping districts. Most recommended are Myeongdong, Dongdaemum Market, Hongdae and Insadong.

Myeongdong – like a mini Vegas/5th avenue in Korea

Jeju Isand – the Hawaii of Korea! I had the opportunity to check out this beautiful island with my brother during his October visit – it does not disappoint! Jeju is known for its beach resorts and volcanic landscape of craters and cavelike lava tubes. Hallasan Mountain, a dormant volcano, also features hiking trails, a crater lake at the 1,950m summit and nearby Gwaneumsa Temple. It’s a short flight from Seoul and highly recommended!

View from the top of a volcano on Jeju
A beach on Jeju Island with the Broski

The Nightlife

Korean culture seems to be very much work-hard, play-hard – and coupled with low taxi fares and even lower crime rates, means that Korean nightlife can easily extend into the early morning. In popular areas such as Gangnam, Hongdae, Dongdaemun and Itaewon, bars, cafes, restaurants, spas, shopping centers and fast food chains can be found open any hour of any night. Hongdae attracts university students and a generally younger crowd, while Itaewon caters specifically to Seoul’s expat population.

Two nighttime must do’s while in Korea are a visit to a noraebang and jjimjilbang. Noraebangs are a place for Korea’s version of karaoke. Taken a bit more seriously than a western-style bar karaoke, noraebangs are private rooms, just for you and your friends or coworkers, to play videos with music and lyric captions. You can adjust tempos and tones to find your perfect K-Pop voice – but be warned, singers are given a score at the end of each song!

A typical Noraebang – let your inner pop star out!

Jjimjilbangs are traditional Korean spas, quite literally bathhouses, where gender-segregated areas allow you to let it all hang out in various pools, tubs, and saunas. You can also have a full body scrub, where someone removes any and ALL dead skin from your body through vigorous scrubbing (seemed a little too intense for me) before cleaning and grooming yourself back to perfection. Outside of the gender-segregated areas there are coed common areas, where things are more clothed, and you can meet with friends or significant others. Here there are usually various other saunas or healing rooms to experience together. It’s an extremely relaxing Korean experience. Open 24 hours, and for less than $15, a great way to unwind after a long day.

The “Ice Sauna” room at a Jjimilbang with Oliver. He assured me the towel hats were traditional and necessary…

The People and Culture

Confucianism had a major influence in early Korean culture, bringing its defined conservative roles and interactions between men and women, bosses and workers, and the young and old. While the younger generations seem to be more lax around these traditions, they are still evident and expected in much of present Korean society.

Korea is also, well, very Korean. There is not a lot of racial diversity, and you can often find yourself being the only non-Korean looking person around – especially in areas outside of Itaewon/Seoul. And while I think it’s safe to say most Koreans understand far more English than visa-versa, many will not speak it. Luckily the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is said to be among the easiest in the world to learn. I learned the basics in a few hours and was able to sound out most words. Of course, I generally didn’t know what the words meant, but occasionally something spelled in Hangul will sound out the English word – this is especially helpful on menus!

Hangul. Easy as bucket, door, gun!

Koreans have a largely independent culture, with surprisingly minimal western pop culture influences. In my opinion they have done a great job at offering a Korean version of anything American. From their own pop stars and movie stars (K-Pop and K-Drama) to their own version of Google and Whatsapp (Naver and Kakao), you can go days without hearing or seeing anything familiarly American. (Except Starbucks, Starbucks are everywhere) Indeed, it looks like it’s actually K-Pop that may be starting to influence America!

K-Pop group BTS made waves at the recent AMA’s, and then ended up on Ellen!

This is just a small sampling of what South Korea has to offer. No matter how much I write, or how much of Korean culture becomes global, you’ll still want to make a trip to fully enjoy the inimitability of everything Korean – it’s a truly remarkable place.

Teaching in South Korea

Teaching in South Korea

This post is primarily for anyone who may be thinking about teaching English in Korea, shedding some light on the work part of my experience, and perhaps even more so, to help me process it all. As with most recent things in my life, there is the good, the bad, and the WTF am I doing here parts.

I worked for Chungdahm, which is a hagwon (private language academy), and is a different experience than working with a Korean public education program (like EPIK). There are many different hagwons, and even the branches within Chungdahm vary greatly. Although I believe some observations I’ve made are consistent throughout the private academy system, my experience is also just that and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Good

The application process was straight forward and relatively painless. I applied through Aclipse, which is a US based recruiter for Chungdahm.

I believe the benefits of teaching English in Korea are among the highest of international English teaching options out there, especially considering prior teaching experience is not required.

Standard benefits include the flight over, housing, health insurance and enough of a salary for you to live comfortably and still put away some decent savings.

Chungdahm also provides some training, which is helpful, and you teach from pre-determined curriculums and lesson plans. It is nice not having to come up with lesson plans. (Although some prep is still necessary to effectively teach the lessons.)

The kids. I spent many an afternoon laughing with them and wondering if I was ever as crazy as they are. I’m guessing I most certainly was, and it was fun interacting with kids to hear their ideas and stories of life at that age…it’s been a long time since I was that young and carefree.

The “aha” moments – watching your students who try actually improve. This is what I came for, and although it didn’t happen as much as I hoped, the times it does are significant.

The coworkers. The quality of your students and coworkers are going to be crucial. I’ve heard stories from other teachers about coworkers who were terrible or kids who are entitled nightmares. This is the part I think may be the hardest to plan for, and also one of the most important to an overall positive experience. I was extremely lucky with the branch I worked at. Having amazing coworkers, both other foreign teachers and local Korean staff, made all the difference in my experience teaching.

The gang. The best foreign teachers/friends I could have worked with!
Celebrating our Boss’s Bday with the Korean staff – all fun and hard working ladies…I miss them!

The Bad

Hagwons are more businesses than schools. Profit is the bottom line, and in a lot of cases this goes against the students’ (and teacher’s) best interest. Some examples:

  • Students can get moved up to the next “level” even though their English doesn’t justify this. They get moved at their parents’ request, who would likely move their kids to another hagwon if they weren’t moved up. Or they are moved up because they would repeat material from a prior term if they stayed at the same level. Either reason produces the same problem, where students are now completely lost in the material at the higher level and unable to complete tasks on par with the other students at the correct level.
  • As most areas have many hagwons for parents to choose from, there is a lot of emphasis on keeping the kids happy during class. Of course most students don’t want to be there, and if kids tell their parents they don’t like it, parents call threatening to move their kid to another hagwon; this leads to less emphasis on learning, and more emphasis on making sure the kids don’t complain to their parents.

At Chungdahm, classes were 3 hours. Even the best students have a hard time focusing for 3 hours. And teaching uninterested ones for 3 hours? Let’s just say there’s a reason many English teachers in Korea go drinking after work.

The Chungdahm curriculum is also outdated, in some cases referencing “current” events and statistics from five or ten years ago. This is not lost on the students.

Most of the curriculum teaches to test taking “strategies,” stressing tricks that students can use to find correct answers on language tests over actual English comprehension and conversation. Rote vocabulary memorization is also stressed, which is usually forgotten after being crammed in the minutes before the quiz or test.

During lessons where test taking strategies are not being taught, odd Western topics such as “The history of public education in America” are used to teach English comprehension. When the understanding of English is not at the appropriate level for comprehension, topics like this make it even harder.

Try to know some Korean, it helps. Classroom management is much easier if you know what is being said around you. Are kids actually talking about the work and trying to complete their assignment, like they tell you they are, or are they talking about the latest K-Pop group?

Don’t get sick. Well, you can be sick, but calling in sick is a taboo. The kids go to school sick, you’re expected to work sick. But hey, at least you can wear a mask!

WTF am I doing here?

I think the most important thing to determine when teaching in Korea is what you are going for. Are you going because you hope to get job satisfaction from teaching eager students how to communicate better in English? Or are you coming to experience a new culture, meet some fun new people and save some money, with the caveat you will also need to provide some “edutainment” to Korean kids. If it’s the former, I’d recommend thinking twice about your decision to teach in Korea. (This is not to say job satisfaction can’t be found, it just was not my experience or that of other teachers I knew.) If it’s the latter, this is probably a great opportunity for you to do just that!

When I came, I think I had an understanding it would be more of the latter; however, I also had an exit plan with a job that would give me the impact and job satisfaction I am looking for. After getting notified that my next job was officially annulled, I could not reconcile any higher-level value that I could offer or receive by continuing to teach in this environment. For me, the teaching system provided very little opportunity for impact or job satisfaction, and I knew I wanted to get myself moving towards something different ASAP.

The average age of foreign teachers seems to be early to mid-twenties, and I think that would have been the opportune time for me to have an experience like this. As I am getting older, impact and job satisfaction are becoming more important to me than lifestyle or convenience, both of which were the highlights of my time teaching here. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to teach and live in South Korea, and recognize it was a unique one. I also believe it’s important I pay attention to my WTF voice, and make moves when needed to get me headed back in the direction I want to go.

In sum, there are plenty of pros to teaching in Korea; but for me intrinsic and professional needs were not being met, and as my situation changed, I was left to wonder: WTF am I doing here? This question eventually led to my decision to leave South KoreaOf course, questioning why I am somewhere, doesn’t necessarily mean I know where else I should be… 😉

Agency to Enjoy

Agency to Enjoy

Well, despite some sensationalized news coverage, everything is quite OK here –  safe and sound, 30 miles away from the North Korean border. It’s been an experience to be living so close to a country famous for headlines tied to imminent nuclear fall out. The interesting part being the non-impact it has on the day-to-day lives of South Koreans. In my mind, I imagine the South Koreans have adjusted to this threat the same way Americans must have during the Cold War. Diplomatically managing the situation the best they can, being military-ready, and living life as normal as possible otherwise. What other option do they have? The power is in the choice not to live in fear.

The other day sirens went off at the U.S. military base I live next to. These were the sirens that go off when an attack is imminent. I didn’t realize at the time, but the sirens were part of a drill. I guess I bring this up because when the sirens were going off, my first thought wasn’t “OH MY GOD, IT’S OVER!”…no, my first thought was “Well, if it is over, at least I won’t have to go teach today.”

So, how’s teaching going you ask? 🙂

The kids summer break from school started the end of July, but in Korea most kids don’t really get a summer break. Summer break from school just means more time to go to Academy. So for us, the students summer break meant summer intensive classes. It is a challenge teaching a 3-hour long class to adolescents. It’s a whole other thing teaching three, 3-hour long classes, in one day. Every day hasn’t been like that, but it was enough to take its toll. For as difficult as it is for teachers, I also feel for the students. It has to be frustrating going to so much school, but then again, I don’t think they know anything different.

This has been a great opportunity for me to practice patience, test my stamina, and interact with an age group I’ve had limited experience with prior. I work with students at an age where their candidness can be sweet, or shocking. They help each other and hurt each other. Laugh and cry. Challenge themselves and cheat. Listen and defy. They are complex, mini-adults; but for the most part they are refreshing. With a light that all too often dims as the years go on.

Another perspective this opportunity has provided is a greater – MUCH greater – appreciation for teachers.

Teaching is not easy, and requires a consistent presence throughout the entire day that most other jobs do not. It is a demanding role, and one that don’t believe gets the credit it deserves. I imagine the disparity between a teacher’s work and how they are valued in society could easily be resolved should every adult have to teach an elementary or middle school class for a term. Some countries have mandatory military service after graduation; a mandatory teaching term doesn’t seem too crazy. In any event, teaching has made me think about my schooling, and I can only hope and pray I was as good of a student to my teachers as I am remembering myself to be.

I don’t want to be THAT teacher, but teachers didn’t have THIS problem when I was growing up!

…but the kicker was the beef is not cooked, just mixed with raw egg – and enjoy!

Although this last month has been busy with work, I did have the opportunity to get out and enjoy a few things. A buddy from training came up to Seoul for the weekend. One night we went to the market for dinner and ordered some Korean beef, on recommendation of the local. Sounds good right? We thought so too…but the surprise was the beef is not cooked when you eat it, just mixed with raw egg – and enjoy! All I can say is that we lived, and I definitely prefer cooked beef. In July, I also checked out Korea’s pride festival with some new and old (Peace Corps) friends, and did some palling around the city with some cool people that were traveling through. Living in the area I do is fun, because English speaking people are always traveling through,and you can make friends from all over the world. But the flip side of that is you end up saying goodbye more often than not.

Some friends that aren’t going away anytime soon are my work mates! In August, we went to Ganghwado island to check out the temple there. It is a beautiful temple with some interesting statues, located on the side of a mountain with great views to the sea. There is a true sense of peace watching a monk’s practice. They offer “Temple Stays” in Korea, where you can spend the night at a Buddhist temple and go through the meditations with the monks. I think I will be doing this with my friend Jenni  when she comes to visit in October (Yay!) and will be sure to share some updates from her visit then.

Korean Beef…serve raw, with egg, and enjoy!
Foods at the Traditional Market
Seoul Pride – Peace Corps friends & Co., with a side of glitter
Vancouver buddy, Kris, who was in Seoul for a few weeks ending a 6-month backpacking adventure, and some very rare South Korean pandas
Ganghwado Island Temple with the work gang

Sometimes, no matter how much else there is to do and see, a homemade quesadilla with Netflix, a good book and wine is all I want. 

So far living in Korea has offered me the chance to do and see things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. My mom teases me about my penchant for seeking all these different “experiences.” It’s a fair jest, but experiencing a lot also does something for the familiar too. It gives me a contrast to the previous places I’ve been, things I’ve done, friends I’ve made and jobs I’ve had; I end up with a deeper sense of appreciation for all of them. I value familiar things: longtime friends, favorite movies, loved books and comfort foods – something consistent wherever I am in the world. Sometimes no matter where I am at, or how much else there is to do and see, a homemade quesadilla, with Netflix, a good book and a glass of wine is all I want. That’s the beauty of life I guess. Our agency to enjoy, share and experience it how we choose. Whether it’s through experiencing the same things in a new place, or new things in the same place, happiness is just a choice away.

We all have our good days and bad, but I find the good far outweigh the bad when I give myself the agency to enjoy. So wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you can take a minute or two to sit back, be grateful for both the new and familiar in life, and find the joy in our shared experience.

Just remember…you could always be teaching! 😉

Until next time,

Peace, Love and Happiness.

A good Friday night in my 30’s…anywhere.

 

Next Steps

Next Steps

I wish I could say the excitement and good vibes I was feeling at the end of my last post kept going throughout my first month in Korea, but the reality was a bit different. It all changed rather abruptly when I moved from the apartment I was in during training to the apartment I would be living in for the next year. The apartment during training was bright, furnished, and open. When I arrived at the apartment my school had given me, I was greeted by empty darkness. The apartment was a half-basement, with windows that looked at concrete walls. Only after my eyes adjusted did I realize I was not alone. I was sharing this space with many, many spiders. The person who lived in the apartment left months ago, without cleaning, and the spiders had moved in. The place was a mess. I stood in the middle of the room not quite sure what to do. I decided I needed to do something about the spiders before I could really think about next steps. I made my way to the store, bought the biggest can of Raid I could find, went back and sprayed – doused – the corners and walls. Then went outside and contemplated my life.

How much would it cost for a ticket back to Ecuador? Maybe Salt Lake City would be less? I guess a hotel room would be less than both of those…but surely that’s not sustainable long term. But how could I live here now?

I had done Peace Corps; I know how to survive in places with bugs and housing that’s less than ideal, and by the end of my service I was even able to call my Peace Corps housing comfortable. But I could not see this apartment ever being comfortable. It was just too dark. Too depressing. I figured I at least needed to ask to move. The philosophy I go by is the worst someone can say is “No,” and then you are no worse off than before you asked. It wasn’t an immediate yes, but eventually I was given the green light to look for a new apartment; I just had to tough it out for one month in the spider dungeon. I looked at many places, some even worse than the apartment I was already in. I was beginning to wonder if this was meant to be, but then I found it –  the one. The place I knew I was supposed to be. It felt right from the moment I walked in the door, and there was even a sign – a literal sign – that this was where I should be. I couldn’t believe it! I moved in on June 24th and the experience has changed 100%. I don’t dread coming to my apartment now. I have a place to call home, to settle in, and even have a room for visitors! Accepting reservations now 🙂

2nd/Guest Bed 🙂

“The Sign” This sticker was on the AC in the bedroom…the girl living here before worked for the Ecuadorian Embassy. What are the chances?!? It just felt right! 

Aside from the living situation challenges, I was not anticipating the loneliness I felt during the first month. This experience has helped me further realize how lucky I was to have the Peace Corps group I did, and to be in South America. Because the training was so short here, there was not time to build the relationships and support network that were built during training in Peace Corps. We also worked in small groups, so I only really got to know a few people during the week, who are all great, but now working in schools far from Seoul. Additionally, the three other teachers at the school where I am teaching were at the end of their contract. So without time to make friends in training, and teachers at my school leaving, all I had to look forward to after work was going back to my apartment – and well, you can imagine how that was.

My training group – great bunch of people, wish they were closer.

Adding to this is the language barrier. Interestingly enough, not knowing Korean makes it difficult to make Korean friends. 😛 Korean culture also seems to be more conservative in regards to foreigners than South America. My experience in South America was filled with friendly conversations from neighbors, with daily “good mornings” and “good nights” from strangers walking down the road. This doesn’t happen here. I am not sure if it’s because of the language barrier, or just how living in a city of ten million people is? Either way, I miss the warm hospitality of South America.

Thankfully the interactions and time I have had teaching the kids has been fun, and some days it is the only interactions with other people I would have in the day. Other times, friends from Peace Corps that are living here have come to visit me. It’s a long train ride for them to do so, but their visits helped me more than they know. I also have met an English speaking friend or two in the area I live, and the few times we have grabbed a beer or had dinner together also got me through some of the hardest times. Little by little, things are falling into place.

Noami & Eben from PC Guy26! Lifesavers.

So that’s it. As I am writing this, I am happy in my new place; with a table I can actually type on, a couch to sit on and light coming in through the window. I think – I hope – I made it through the hardest part. As the three teachers at my school left last week, three new ones have arrived. It’s new beginnings for all of us. A fresh start to my start. Next steps. I had to remind myself of two things several times during the last month, which I believe to be true:

I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and that no experience will last forever.

This helped me not only get through the tough times, but also remember to cherish each part of my journey. I will not be in Korea forever; the experience so far has been good, and it has been bad, but it’s been just that – an experience. Sometimes I still can’t believe I am here. My name on the door with “Teacher” is something I never expected, but these days the unexpected seems to happen more regularly. No matter what may happen next, I want to cherish the opportunity to be here now.

Teacher Chase…has a nice ring to it, eh? 😉

Until next time,

Peace. Love. Happiness…and a great Independence Day back home!

Also, on the home page I’ve updated my mailing address and can by reached by post now. Old fashioned letters/pictures and your updates are always loved and appreciated. Snail-mail me!

Traditional Korean Market
Myeongdong – like a mini Vegas/5th avenue in Korea
Lockets of Love at N. Seoul Tower – originally meant for couples to signify their unbreakable bond to each other, tourists and locals alike lock inscribed and special padlocks to the walls and posts. I haven’t locked one with anyone yet, but that’s an update for another day. 😉
Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching

If you are wondering how I ended up in Korea, you’re in good company! I didn’t fully believe I was coming here until a day before I left. Life can be fun(?) like that sometimes I guess. So, how did I get here?

After the federal hiring freeze put the job with USAID on hold in January, I decided I better look at some options to fill the time. One of those options was teaching in Korea. I didn’t really think I would end up in Korea, but applied, interviewed, and started sending in whatever paperwork they asked for. The hope was still to have USAID call prior to me needing to make any decisions about Korea, or what to do next. But weeks turned to months and still they didn’t call…and I decided I needed to do something. So I got a ticket booked back to the USA and thought I would head to DC to find work and start figuring out life there; still hoping USAID would call, I figured the Korea thing may be an option somewhere down the road. I got an update on USAID in May; nothing is moving there until next year’s budget is approved. Not great news. I also heard from Korea in May. They wanted me to start training May 22nd.

Decisions had to be made, and fast. For various reasons I decided to go for the Korea option; but then ran into issues with obtaining the necessary visa. It was looking like I would not make the May 22nd training, which was fine, as I still had the ticket booked for DC and would figure stuff out there. But as you now know, I never made that DC flight. This is because the Korean embassy decided they would issue my visa…on May 18th, the day before I would need to fly. So it happened. I packed my bags, put one foot in front of the other, got on the plane and decided why the hell not – let’s go teach in Korea.

Teaching…about that. I hope I am good at it? I have about the same feelings teaching English as I do for giving talks on breast feeding. I’ve done it once or twice before, wondered how I got myself into the situation as I was doing it, and prayed it would all be over soon. So yeah…these poor kids! 😉 But in all seriousness, I think this is the biggest concern I have at the moment. Apparently the company that hired me thinks I can do it, so I guess I’ll rely on their confidence until I get my own. Training starts this week, and hopefully I will feel better about this whole idea once it’s done. Although I don’t have a lot of teaching experience, what I am looking forward to is interacting with the kids. This was one of my favorite parts during my Peace Corps service. I believe supporting and encouraging kids has long lasting impacts far beyond the short time they spend with you. So the students in my classes may not have a teacher that knows all the ins and outs of teaching English, but I’ll do everything I can to ensure they leave knowing someone believes in them. Then, if needed, they’ll at least have the confidence to learn what they need to from another, you know, actual teacher! 🙂

As I pictured arriving in Korea, the only reference to something like this I had was my initial arrival in Guyana through Peace Corps. There were the good parts of that experience and there were the difficult parts; the ones that made my stomach tense up thinking about going through it all again. As it turns out, however, the arrival in Korea has been nothing like the arrival in Guyana. I didn’t have a group of other teachers on the same flight as me to navigate the airports and travel with. There wasn’t staff at the gate in Korea, welcoming me with banners and hugs. There is no one here to hold my hand through the process. My arrival to Korea was something I needed to get through on my own, and that was ok. I actually haven’t really been on my own since I left Peace Corps. The independence, the responsibility, the uncertainty, it all felt good. As I exited the plane on the other side of the world, I had no idea what I was about to walk into.

Yet, this kind of seems to be the theme for me lately. I’m an experience junkie. To be honest, trying to figure out where all these varied experiences are taking me is a tough one. I had, and maybe still have, concerns about adding yet another branch to my already unique tree of experience. Society tells us we generally should pick a career path and stick with it, get good at one thing, plan for retirement, etc. But I can’t identify what path I’m on, or where the work I am doing, and have done, is leading me. As I am getting older, this is a little stressful; how are all these random dots going to connect? I recently read Steve Jobs had said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” That rings true for me. I definitely can’t see how some of my dots are connecting now, so I try to remind myself the picture isn’t completed yet. Sometimes the dots aren’t ready to be connected, but perhaps they will all make sense looking back when the work is done. That’s my hope anyway.

If things going right are a sign you are making the right dots, then I can’t help but feel I am in the right place now. Everything really did fall into place for me to be here (albeit quite last minute). From eleventh hour approvals, to free exit row upgrades on long flights, to a great apartment during training in an amazing area of town, to perfect weather and the innate sense of peace I have – for the first time since I had the idea of coming here, I can say Korea feels right. Seoul has given me an incredible first impression. I am excited to make this dot as impactful and memorable as possible; to do some “Seoul” searching, and in due time, marvel at everything that has connected to it from here.  

Training starts tomorrow.  Wish me luck!

My first morning in Seoul – walking in Namsan park to the iconic N. Seoul Tower
Namsan Park: near my apartment! Filled with running paths and nature trails
Seoul at night with iconic N. Seoul tower lit up