Category: korean classes


Coming back from Busan on the train with Elizabeth last week, we started waxing nostalgic.  I asked her what she was going to miss most about Korea, and most looking forward to in America, and then she asked the same of me.  It was strange….both of us are really excited about returning to America, and yet with both of us, our lists of what we like in Korea are far longer than what we miss from America.  But I digress….

The point of that intro was simply to bring up a short story that made me laugh.  I was talking about my students, and how I would miss them.  “I’m really going to miss their outgoing-ness,” I said.  “Wait, outgoing-ness?  Is that right?  What’s the word I’m looking for?  Outgoitivity?”

Yeah.  Outgoitiviy.  That was definitely the word that I was looking for, lol :).  This is what a year of teaching English has done to my English.  I’ve also caught myself on numerous occasions dropping verbs and articles, just like my students do.  For example, I say “exciting” or “funny” all the time now, instead of “It’s exciting” or “It’s funny.”

Also, does “take a rest” sound strange to you people who have been in America this past year?  I remember thinking that it sounded strange when I first came here, but now I can’t for the life of me think of what a native English speaker would say in that situation.  Maybe “take a nap,” or just “go rest”?  **sigh** I have no idea.  I’m told, however, that this loss of one’s native tongue is a common side effect for teachers of other languages, so I take some comfort – albeit small – in that fact.

I’m sure my language lessons with Si-yeon don’t help.  Si-yeon and I have really kicked up the Spanish / Korean studying this past semester.  We meet every week twice a week for 2 hours, and do other homework and studying on our own during the week.  It’s been really helpful, and my Korean has improved by leaps and bounds.  But please, let me just explain to you really quickly what our study sessions consist of, so you understand why I’m so linguistically confused these days.

First, we correct each other’s writing – we both write at least one story in whichever language we are studying during the week, before class.  Then, we start on the flashcards.  I make flashcards written in Korean and English, and she writes hers in Spanish and English.  So I take her flashcards, and choose a Spanish word and make a sentence in Korean with it.  Si-yeon then has to say the same sentence in Spanish.  She then does the same thing in reverse with my flashcards, making a sentence in Spanish with my Korean flashcards, which I then have to translate into Korean.  (are you still with me? ;])  After that, we do guided dialogue.  We both have textbooks with practice dialogues in them.  So she takes my textbook, reads the Korean sentences, translates them in to Spanish, and then I say them back to her in Korean.  Then I do the reverse with her textbook.  After that we have a period of open dialog on a topic that one or both of us is studying at that time, first all in Spanish, and then all in Korean.

Whew!  It’s no wonder my brain is fuzzy these days!  A Peruvian guy, Alejandro, came to church last week, and I got to talk to him in Spanish for almost an hour.  On the one hand it was really fun – I still have a lot more of my Spanish than I thought I did after a year of no practice, and I had almost forgotten how I adore that language until talking with Alejandro reminded me.  On the other hand, though, I realized just how badly all of these languages have been mixed up in my head these days.  Almost every other sentence while talking to him, I would throw in a Korean or English word, and half of the time I didn’t even realize it.  I’m going to have to get better at mentally categorizing all of these languages, lol…

Well, I wish wish I had some pictures to show you, but things have been pretty quiet around here the last few days.  I’ll have some the next time though, I promise! 🙂

Making up for lost time

Sometime last week, I woke up and realized that I only have 4 months left in this country.  For over a year now, since long before I boarded the actual plane to come here, I have been telling myself that I had plenty of time left in Korea.  That has been both my solace and my distress.  Solace, because I convinced myself that I had a nearly inexhaustible amount of days to do everything here that I wanted to do….and distress, because I had so much time left to go before I was back in America.

Now, however, I have 4 months left.  Not even half a year.  Less than 1 semester.  Four months.  And I no longer have any disillusions about the length of my stay.  Ever since that morning last week, when reality hit me, I have been going non-stop.  I was worried last year that Korea was making me lazy – because I had convinced myself that I had plenty of time, I often put things off when I could have done them right then and there.

But if Korea made me lazy last year, last year’s procrastination has made me incredibly productive this year.  I have a list a mile long of everything that I want to / have to do before I leave Korea on July 14th.  And, to get it all done, I’ve been doing them non-stop since that rude awakening I had last week.

If they turn out the way that I’m hoping they will, my weeks from now until July will look something like this….Monday is a light day at school – only 3 classes.  So I’ll spend a lot of my time writing letters to the students – in an effort to get them to open up to me earlier than they did last semester, I’m writing a hand-written letter to every one of my new 250-ish students.  Needless to say, it’s a rather time-consuming endeavor that’s taken up every second of my spare time at school so far.  After work on Monday, I have a Korean lesson with my language-exchange partner, Si-yeon, followed by ballet practice in the evenings.  I’ve always hated ballet, but it’s one of the few ways I can improve my swing dancing without actually dancing, and my love for swing has been sufficiently spurred on by my weekend with Jordan and Tatiana, that it’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make :).

Tuesday is a long day.  I have 5 regular classes, with the dance class in the evening, making for a 12-hour day at school – I get there around 7:30 am, and don’t get to leave until the clock has nearly completely flipped.  On the plus side, I’m not actually teaching that whole time, so I’ll have plenty of time to study Korean or work on my TEFL certification, another thing on my list.

Wednesday is equally long – I have 4 regular classes, with another evening class.  I asked for this one, though.  I was really missing my old students (I’m teaching all new students this semester), and many of them had come up asking for me to teach one of their classes, so I volunteered to teach an extra club class for any of them who are interested.  It should be a fun class – I’m calling it “English around the world,” and each week we’re going to take a different country and talk about it – its customs, traditions, symbols, etc.  But nevertheless, it’ll still make for a very long day at school :(.  And after that, I lead a Bible study in the evening.  I have a feeling that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are going to wear me out….

Thursday is a little lighter.  Only 3 classes, so I get to leave early – 4:30 pm, thirty whole minutes, woohoo! 🙂  I have also determined to start going salsa dancing again on Thursdays – I found someone who wants to go with me, and I think we’re going to make a tradition out of it.  She went with me last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I hadn’t gone in a while because I hadn’t liked feeling like the outsider….but then, when I went back, everyone remembered me and welcomed me – plus I could actually talk to them a bit!  So I definitely felt much more comfortable, and I really want to try to go more often.  I just wish it didn’t start so late, ugh :(.

Also, I feel more ok with staying out late dancing this semester, because I don’t teach any classes on Friday, other than a lunch class.  So I’ll lesson plan, work on TEFL, and study the ever-present Korean language.  I also have another regular meeting set up with Si-yeon to study Korean in the afternoon.  I really want to improve over  the next 4 months!

Saturday mornings will be spent at the public library, reading English books to little kiddos.  I started today and it was a lot of fun – they’re so adorably cute!! <3  And then Sunday mornings, since my friend Anthony (who used to lead the worship service at church) is gone now, I will be leading the service.  The afternoons will most likely be filled with ultimate frisbee or softball.  And that's it!  That's my life for the next 4 months!  Any free time that I have will be spent doing TEFL, Korean, writing notes to students, freelance writing, catching up on the endless emails that I have constantly pouring in, planning Rachel's bachelorette party, finding housing for grad school in Atlanta, or spending time with my foreign and Korean friends.  I've also worked out a strict budget for myself - unless some large unforeseen expense comes up, I should be able to pay off all of my students loans, AND afford a dancing trip to Seoul once a month, by the time I leave Korea.  I'm pretty stoked about that :). I know what you’re thinking: that I’ll kill myself with all of these activities!  But never fear, even with this schedule, I only stay out late on Thursdays, so I’ll get plenty of rest.  I’m also drinking more water and exercising more, and feel great.  Honestly, although I recognize that it’s a lot to do, I’m really stoked about it.  I feel motivated and driven again, like I’m actually going somewhere.  It’s pretty exciting.  And anyway, it’s only for a few months, and then….grad school in Atlanta!  Don’t worry, I’ll survive! 🙂

Seoul food

One of these days I’m going to learn how to give myself a break.  Or at least slow down.  It seems that for me, the only speeds are dead stopped or going way too fast – it starts to wear on you after a while, ya know?

I arrived in Seoul from Japan around 11:00 pm on Sunday, February 5th, and didn’t get to my guesthouse until well after midnight.  The very next day, my intensive Korean classes started at 9:00 am.  I think that my whirlwind travels had finally started to take their toll on me – I was so tired that my performance on the placement test put me in level 1.1 – the lowest class level offered.  I quickly realized once class started, however, that I was wayyyy beyond that class, and asked my teacher if I could move up.  Apparently that was a really big deal – most people who requested to move were flat-out denied, and even I was put on a “probation period” of 1 class period, after which my teachers would confer and decide if I could handle the newer class.  But thankfully, I was allowed to stay in the higher level.  It was hard, but not overwhelming.  I felt like I was right where I needed to be.

On a side note, I would just like to comment on what a difference a changed perspective can be to how you see the world!  I returned back to Korea after 2 weeks of travel twice within the span of a month.  The first time, it was after going to America for Christmas, and I was so upset.  I missed my family, I miss my home, I miss the warm weather in Georgia, and I wanted to be anywhere in the world other than Korea.  But the second time I flew into Korea, it was after traveling around southeast Asia.  And I’ve never been happier to see Korean soil!  I could read all of the signs, I understood the currency exchange rate, I knew how the metro system worked…and I even had my own metro card!  It was a wonderful thing, and as I made my way to my guesthouse, I found myself periodically breaking out into idiotic grins.  It was great :D.

Anyway, back to Korean classes.  Before coming to Seoul, I had all of these grandiose plans about all of the things that I would do in Seoul with all of my spare time.  I was going to complete all my Federal financial aid forms for grad school, work on my TEFL certification, write lots of blogs and journal entries, see the city, meet with friends, blah blah blah.  The only thing I would be doing was classes in the morning…I’d have tons of time, right??  Ha.  Wrong.  So, soooo wrong.  What my days actually looked like was something like this: I would wake up, have breakfast with Leora (we lived together while in Seoul, and it was wonderful!), walk to class together, then sit through 4 hours of Korean lessons, until 1:00.  Then I’d grab lunch, sometimes alone, sometimes with new friends, sometimes with old friends, and head back to my guest house to study.  For hours.  I usually studied after class about as long as I studied in class.  By the time I finished, it was already 5 or 6 at night.  That gave me just enough time to clean up and eat dinner before I headed off dancing!  I danced almost every night of the week – it was heaven.  And the nights I didn’t go dancing, I went to bed crazy early to make up for the sleep deprivation from the night before.  It was a fun schedule, but probably not the healthiest – it’s probably a good thing that I was only in Seoul for 3 weeks, lol.

My class building – yes, that is a building.  It’s entirely underground – the ground and stairs and walkway were built up around it.  Super creative architecturally…. super annoying if you’re trying to find your classroom.

Leora and I in our little abode!

Left to right: Mónica (from Spain), Ti-anna (from Canada), and Heidi (from Norway)

I did have time to do a few other things.  Our language program took us on 2 cultural excursions – one to see a comedic / taekwondo performance called Jump, and the other was to a Korean cooking class.  That was a lot of fun!  We made bulgogi (Korean-style meat and veggie stir fry) and bibimbap (a veggie and rice mix).  The best part was that at the end, we got to eat it!  Yummy!!!  I made some really good friends from class – particularly Heidi, a Norwegian girl, Ti-anna, a girl from Canada, and Mónica, who was from Spain.  Unfortunately Mónica was from my original lower level class, so I didn’t see much of her after I switched classes, but we still hung out some, and I’m hoping to connect with all of them again in Seoul before I leave the country.

Korean cooking class.  Check out her face.  Priceless 🙂

Look what we made!  Yummie!! 🙂

I also hung out with my dancing friends.  I spent a lot of time in particular with Jae, a Korean-American friend of mine.  I had met him when I went swing dancing in Seoul way back in November, and he promised that if I ever came back to Seoul and wanted to go dancing he would show me where all of the dance spots were.  He did not back out on his promise.  Jae was my personal tour guide of Seoul for the few weeks that I was there.  Not only did he show me where the dances where; he also introduced me to cute little restaurants, and to weird Korean food (anyone up for some cow intestine or fried silkworm pupa??), and to the international church service that he attends, and to a lot of his Korean friends.  He showed me little corners of Seoul that I would have never found on my own, like the underground museums dedicated to King Sejong, the inventor of the Korean alphabet, and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose brilliant military tactics saved Korea from the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.

Jae (on the right) and a mutual friend, John.

Jae and I in the underground museum.  He really liked the war machines, lol

Any of you at all curious about the principles behind the creation of the Korea alphabet?  Check out these signs 🙂

And then, just like that, my life in Seoul was over, almost before it had even started.  Finals were on Wednesday, the graduation ceremony was Thursday morning, and by Thursday afternoon I was on a bus headed back to Gyeongju.  I do miss the dancing, and even the intensive Korean studying.  But you know, I finished well in Seoul, and so I’m happy to be back in Gyeongju; I really have no regrets either way.  I was even given the honor (and the stress!) of being asked to give a little speech at the closing ceremony.  I found it ironic that I went from being bored in a level that was too easy for me, to giving a speech representing my entire class level!  I tried to upload a video, but for some reason it wouldn’t work…I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it! 🙂  I learned a lot in my classes and, even more importantly, my desire to learn Korean has been greatly spurred on, as well.  I will miss my newly-made friends from Seoul, but they have promised to come visit me, and I them, so I think that we shall see each other again before I leave.  And it’s soooo nice to be back in Gyeongju.  My host parents met me at the bus station, and then took me home and made my favorite meal for me.  I’ve spent today catching up on housekeeping stuff – laundry, blogging, journaling, unpacking, etc.  But even mundane things are enjoyable when you like where you are and who you’re with :).

Closing ceremony – class friends

Me and my teachers <3

Everyone all together!  We all passed, woohoo!!!

I’ve mentioned several times “when I leave Korea,” as if it were a certain thing.  The last time that most of you had probably heard, I was still on the fence about whether I would renew my contract for another year in Korea or not in July.  But my last day in Seoul, I got an email that solidified my decision.  I was accepted into Georgia Tech’s master’s of science program….not only that, but I was also offered a graduate assistantship, which significantly reduces tuition, and also pays me a large stipend every semester.  So, it looks like I’ll be headed back to Atlanta in the fall!  I want to study international relations, with a regional focus on Latin America.  I hope to write my thesis on the educational systems of Latin America.  It’s cool seeing how all of my random experiences are coming together! 🙂  Living in Seoul, even if for just a few weeks, has reminded me of how much I need a good church community and dancing.  They touch a part of me that nothing else can touch, and I’ve missed that enormously in Gyeongju.  I will miss Korea, too…but it will be good to go home.  God is so good, and I’m simply overwhelmed by His favor right now.  It has indeed been a very, very good past few weeks.  Hard to believe that I have less than 5 months left in my grant year!

Catching up

It’s been almost 2 weeks since I’ve written anything…I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to think, let alone breathe.  I should have more time next week, but rather than make you wait another week I’ve uploaded some pictures with captions under them, to give you an idea of what I’ve been up to.  Enjoy!!

I went to a Beethoven concert with Anthony and Yu-gyeong

Dinner and girl time with Nia

The cake that my lunch class surprised me with on our last day of class

My lunch class <3 
Going to Busan with Anthony to see a musical review

Killing time in the world’s biggest department store….

Musical review – “Love…hurts”

Lucy and Schroeder, from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  Love it! 🙂

Host family threw me a “one-month” party, to celebrate me living with them for a full month 🙂

Host papa making kimchi….in his business suit.  Gotta love Korea!

A Christmas concert with Anthony.  There was something completely beautiful about hearing the old classics sung in a different language….
Decorating my church for Christmas.  We had so much loot!!

The whole decorating gang 🙂

My Christmas presents for my host family – their names are at the bottom.  Took me almost 4 weeks to make!!

The Korean educational system

This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but simply haven’t had the time.  But now that travelling  has slowed down a bit, be on the lookout for more reflective posts!My first one is about the Korean educational system.  As an English teacher in Korea, this is obviously something that I have a lot of first-hand experience with.  And goodness, it really does break my heart.  As much as I love my students and teaching, sometimes I am just so burdened for them and what they go through.  I warn you, this is not a happy post.  I can think of no other world to describe it than tragic.  But please read it anyway.  Watch the videos.  It’s something that you need to hear.Korea is generally regarded as the most competitive educational system in the entire world.  But because of that, Korean students are under enormous, incredible pressure.  You think college stresses you out?  Worried about doing well on the SAT or GRE?  This is pressure like you’ve never experienced, and couldn’t imagine even if you tried.

Students start off in elementary school already with long days – usually from about 8:00 am-3:00 pm.  Middle school students get out a few hours later, around 5:00 pm.  Even in middle school, though, the pressure has started to mount.  My friend Elizabeth, another Fulbright scholar, says that her middle school host sister gets up at 2:30 or 3:00 am – every morning.  When asked why she does that, she said matter-of-factly, as if it were completely normal, that she could get in 1 or 2 entire online lessons before school started by getting up that early.

But it’s my students, the high school students, that really bear the brunt of the enormous pressure.  By the time you are a high school student, you spend an average of 15-17 hours a day at school.  Many students arrive at school by 8:00 am, and often don’t leave until 11:00 or 11:30 pm.  That includes weekends.  The better schools have dormitories for the top students, so that they can “have more time to study.”  I’m serious.  That’s a direct quote from my co-teacher.

In a sense, it’s gotten even worse for me since I moved homestays.  My old host sisters, to be quite honest, were not stellar students.  But my new host sister is.  And so, as wonderful as she is, living with her means that I also have to observe first-hand on a daily basis the amount of pressure that Korean students are under.  It manifests itself with her physically, in frequent nosebleeds, numerous sores all over her mouth, and constant exhaustion.  I’m not talking about the “oh-I’m-kind-of-sleepy-I-should-take-a-nap” type of weariness.  I’m talking about bone-deep, unequivocal, complete exhaustion, the kind that makes everything, even just getting up and going to the bathroom, a monumental effort.

High school students in Korea have no life outside of school.  They see far more of their teachers than they do of their parents.  Many of them even live at school in dormitories.  Almost all students eat at least 2 meals a day at school, and sometimes even the commuters end up eating all three there because of the long hours they put in.  They bring blankets and pillows to school so that they can catch up on sleep in class sometimes.  Boyfriends and girlfriends are virtually nonexistent.  Most of the schools are gender segregated, and even if they weren’t, who has time to hang out??  They’re always studying.  They have no friends outside of school, no outside interests, no hobbies…their life is studying.  Period.  I wish I could say that I was exaggerating, but alas, I cannot.  I probably shouldn’t do this, but I always give a little cheer (both inwardly and aloud) when I see my students out and about in town at a time when I know that they’re supposed to be in school.  I don’t care if they have to skip school to do it, these children need a life!!!

The pressure that they are under to perform is obvious.  I gave English oral exams last week to my students.  It was a simple exam, really – they were given 6 questions in advance, and then during the test I picked 2 of those 6 and asked them to answer me in English.  Students only had to answer with 3 or 4 sentences to get full credit for completion, and the questions were simple things, like “What will you do during winter vacation?” or “What is your favorite movie?”.  My students were in complete anguish.  Some were so nervous they were unable to say even a single word.  A few of them burst out crying.  All of them were pale and jittery and nervous beyond belief.  And that was just a simple test.  It was nothing like the suneng, the big test that seniors take at the end of high school (more on that later).

And the thing is, the test wasn’t even a real assessment of their skill levels.  They had the entire test beforehand.  I was instructed to not give the lowest score, even if students did not say a single word.  I was also told to grade on “effort,” not actual English proficiency, because “we want to encourage the students.”  It was one of the worst cases of teaching to the test that I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of tests…the “Big One” just happened here in Korea a few weeks ago.  All of those years of studying, all of the after-school classes and self-study hours and sleep deprivation that they’ve endured for their entire childhood, come to a head for the seniors on November 10th every year.  This is the day of the suneng, the senior exit test.  But this is no ordinary test.  This is the test that will decide their entire future.  The grade that they get on this test will determine their university, their job, their salary, where they live, even on occasion who they marry – many people will not marry someone who did not go to a university with a certain ranking.  On November 10th, the entire country stops to cheer on the seniors.  Planes stop flying.  Buses and trains stop running.  Many stores close for the day.  This test is, quite literally, their life.  It is what they’ve been working for for the last 12 years of their lives, and it is what will determine the rest of it.

The intense pressure to succeed has obvious affects on other areas of life.  The suicide rate in Korea is the highest in the entire developed world – it has more than doubled in the last ten years.  Nearly 10% of the entire young population considered committing suicide last year.  The rapid increase has caused crisis hotlines to pop up. But the operators receive no formal training on how to handle potential suicide cases, and the numbers remain heartrendingly high.  Elizabeth, who teaches in a middle school, says that several of her students have already confessed to attempting to commit suicide on multiple occasions.  Imagine that….a 13 year old child trying to kill herself because of a bad test grade.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Korea is a remarkable country.  For decades they have astonished the world with their nearly unheard-of economic growth rates.  In 50 years they have gone from a third-world country to one of the richest countries in the world, a global superpower.  Korean students consistently lead the global pack in test scores and academic performance.  But such success comes at a price.  And I can’t help but wondering if it’s too  high a price.

I want to conclude this post not with my own words, but with the words of a Korean.  This is a quote taken from the video below.  It’s about 20 minutes long, but so worth watching.  Please take the time to do so.

“I don’t know, there are lots of options or choices for them (Korean students who commit suicide).  But actually they chose to die.  Maybe they committed suicide because of their own expectations, or maybe they couldn’t see their parents because they believed that they had failed their parents…..but something is wrong.  Truthfully, taking tests and going to college – the reason for studying -…committing suicide just because you didn’t do that well, doesn’t make much sense to me.  But that in itself is a kind of representation of how there’s obviously a huge problem in our educational system.”

Gyeongju weekend #3

Well, I found the Korean classes.  And the salsa club.  And the frisbee game.  But let’s start at the beginning….

Thursday night I set out armed with a picture of a hand-drawn map to guide me to the Korean lessons.  It was almost good enough.  I made it to the intersection that the building was on, but the building itself was tucked away and rather hidden, so in the end.  I had to call the girl who had given me the directions to help me.  But I got there, that’s what matters, right?? 🙂  The classes are taught by a Korean, as kind of a language exchange thing – she teaches us Korean every week, we take turns teaching her English every week.  The classes are super basic – way beyond my ability, and that’s saying something, lol – but I think I’m going to keep going, anyway.  It’s always helpful to have someone I can ask questions of, and plus I want to make a Korean friend.  Plus it’s something to do to get out of the house…..

So right after class, I headed over to the dance.  I did not even have a hand-drawn map to help me find this one, and I never would have stumbled on it if one of the other girls in class, Martene, hadn’t gone before and offered to show me where it was.  Through a shady alley, up two flights of windy stairs, around a few corners, and behind a tiny doorway….we found it.  But boy, once I got there, I SOOO did not want to go in.  I didn’t realize how intimidating it would be until I was standing in the doorway.  But by then, it was too late.  They had spotted me and were waving me in.  For all of the crazy or adventurous things I’ve done in my life….I’d have to say that stepping into that roomful of Koreans had to be one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.  

But it was so worth it.  They were in the middle of a lesson when I got there, so I jumped right in.  Even though I couldn’t understand the instructions, I just followed what all of the other follows were doing and got along pretty well.  It was also a pretty basic lesson, so the fact that I was familiar with the basics helped alot.  After the lesson, the free dancing started.  Even though most of them couldn’t speak any English at all, everyone was really nice.  I don’t think a single song went by without someone asking me to dance.  It helped that there were more men than women – a welcome change from my college, which is dominated by 75% females, so you can imagine how lopsided the ratios are at the dances.  A few times as I was dancing, I was struck by the fact that I was an American dancing to latin music with a bunch of Asians in South Korea.  I don’t know why, but I found that quite amusing :).  But ya, I had alot of fun, and I’m definitely going to become a regular.  It’s not West Coast Swing but hey, I’ll take what I can get! 🙂

Friday night I was supposed to have dinner with Mr. Cho, from my church – he was going to pick me up at 5:30.  Well, at 3:30, one of my co-teachers informed me that all of the English teachers were going out to eat dinner tonight, and that I would be eating with them.  It was not an option.  So, I had to cancel on Mr. Cho.  I was very disappointed :(.  I suppose it’s something I’ll have to get used to, though…in Korea, plans are made as last-minute as possible, and they tend to change even later than that.  So I called Mr. Cho, and regretfully backed out, and went to dinner with my teachers.  But it turned out alright in the end – Mr. Cho rescheduled, and I had a great time with my teachers.  They’ve decided that I’m going to perform a dance for the upcoming school talent show, and also that I’m going to teach all of them how to dance.  I’m more than a little worried, lol.  For such notoriously polite people, Koreans sure are good at getting their way when they want it… 🙂

But anyway, the reason we all went out for dinner on Friday night was because that was the first night we could.  Apparently they had wanted to take me out the first week I got here, but they were all so busy getting the new English building ready that they didn’t have time.  Friday afternoon was the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and so Friday evening everyone could finally relax.  I actually got to hold one end of the ribbon – it was fun.  I was glad when it was over, though – even though I didn’t really understand most of what was going on, everyone else was very tightly would, which made me nervous, too.  Hopefully next week will gain some semblance of normalcy to it…

The English hall all decked out right before the ribbon-cutting ceremony

Me and all my wonderful English teachers <3

Saturday had some crazy weather going on in Gyeongju.  There was a big storm or something on the coast, and so we had gusting winds and pelting rain all day.  In the middle of it, I decided to go on a bike ride.  Riding against the wind and rain – and then playing 3 hours of Frisbee – left me exhausted by the end of the day.  By the time I made it home, it was dinnertime, and there was apparently a mini family-reunion of sorts planned at my house.  So I got to meet all of my Korean cousins and aunts and uncles, and then after they left my host sister insisted on a Spanish tutorial lesson…by the time I finally slipped into bed, I was falling asleep on my feet.  But it was a good tired, a day well-spent. 

Sunday I went to church again.  Brought a few new friends with me.  After I got home, my host family took me to the International Expo.  It’s a huge cultural fair / expo thingy that tours around Korea – it only makes it to Gyeongju once every three years.  There were lots of music performances, dances, plays, a food court, traditional artwork, kiddy crafts, the whole shebang…it was a blast :). 
Well, tomorrow’s another school day.  I’ve gotta go work on my lesson plans for this week.  The Lord is good.  I love you all!!!
The International Expo
Reenactment of a traditional Korean wedding

The “Gyeongju tower”
A hip-hop / breakdancing performance

My cousin making her mask….
…and the finished product 🙂

An Argentine Tango performance.  I was happy 🙂

So this is what they call culture shock

Well, another week is almost over.  I can’t wait until school settles down and I have some semblance of a schedule.  With the renovation of the new English building, I never know what’s going to happen or what’s going on.  Yesterday the computer in 2 of my classes just decided to stop working (I had checked it the day before and verified that it was working properly!), so I had to improve – again.  Can anyone say tongue twisters?? 🙂  Five of my regular classes were canceled, but I gained 3 different classes that I’m having to sub for.  I was told that I can do “anything” with them….which is almost worse.  What do you teach to a class when you have no idea of their levels, and you will never teach them again??  So ya, I’m looking forward to settling down a little bit, both at school and outside of it.

I think I’m finally experiencing this thing that everyone warned me about called “culture shock.”  I didn’t have any problems adjusting in Spain and, although I did in Costa Rica, that only lasted a few weeks.  It was nothing like this.  The constant, never ending struggle to adapt and understand is merciless.  All of the little things you have to remember – wear slippers to school, brush your teeth after classes, put your chopsticks over your bowl when you’re finished, bow to teachers, don’t bow to students, take your shoes off when you’re inside, 90 degree bows to principles, 45 degree bows to fellow teachers, turn off the hot water when you’re done showering, give and accept things with 2 hands….the list goes on and on and on.  And always working so hard to understand what people are saying leaves my brain a mushy, sticky, unhappy mess by the end of the day.  I’m told that the 3-month mark is usually the worst, and then it gets better.  I surely do hope so, because the thought of it getting worse than this – or being this bad the entire time I’m here – makes me want to curl up in a corner and never come out.  Alright, I’m done, sorry for the pity party. 

But ya, this week has been more or less adventure-less.  Except on Tuesday.  A new friend of mine, Harry, asked if I wanted to go hiking with him, so I left after school and we took a taxi to the base of the mountain.  Except we misjudged how far away the mountain was, and I had to make it home for dinner, so by the time we got there it was already so late that we had to turn around and start walking back :(.  But it was ok….instead of an intense hike, we had more of a leisurely stroll, and also got to visit some great historic sites that we walked past on our way back into town.

Our little Buddhist temple getaway.  We danced.  It was great 🙂

A bird’s eye view of Gyeongju

I’ve done a lot of scouting this week, and I think I’ve found Korean classes and a salsa place on Thursdays, and Ultimate frisbee games on Saturdays.  I’m going to try to check them out this week.  There’s a teacher’s soccer club at my school, but I’m not allowed to play since I’m a girl….lame :(.  Also, a deacon at my little church invited me to have dinner with him on Friday, so that should be fun.  Apparently he does this for every new foreigner in town – has them over for dinner, gives them rides, takes them hiking, etc.  Seems like a wonderful man.  Still no swing dancing, but I found someone who apparently used to dance in the Atlanta circuit (small world!!), and she said there’s some swing in nearby towns, so I’m hoping I can convince her to come with me sometime.  That’s next week’s project, though….it’s too overwhelming to do this week.

I know some of you are dying to see my school and the people I work with, so I’ve included a few pictures in this blog.  All of my classes were canceled today, so I had time to walk around and take some pictures :).  Also, in case any of you are ever feeling bored or just in the mood to send something to a homesick American living on the other side of the world, my mailing address is below.  Love you all!!

Lauren Fenner
경북 경주시 성건동

현수막나라 620-157
South Korea

If that’s too hard to copy, here’s the Romanization of that:
Lauren Fenner

Gyeongbuk Gyeongju si Seonggeondong
Hyeonsumaknara 620-157
South Korea

My daily transportation.  The seat’s too big…it bruises my butt :(.  But I’ll have legs of steel by the end of the year!! 🙂


Seondeok girl’s high school in all its glory

That’s the new English building there on the left
These are the normal classroom halls….

…and this is the English one.  I’m so blessed 🙂

One of my classrooms
The garden at the front of school.  It’s a lovely getaway 🙂


There’s also a pond at the end of the path.  It’s my favorite place on campus :).
Andddd….this is my least favorite place on campus.  Outside squat toilets, for the win 🙁

Some of the teachers I work with: Borim, Sang-a, Mrs. Jang, and Ye-ji (seated)
Some of my best students…this is why I love teaching <3

Let’s have an adventure or two!!….or six…or seven…

Whew!  What a wild, crazy week it’s been!  The speed of life seems to have increased infinitesimally since I last wrote.  Where to begin??  Well let’s see, first of all, school this week was absolutely INSANE.  My school is in the middle of a really big change right now.  Over the summer they started construction on a new English building, in which all of the English teachers’ offices and classes will be held.  Well, it’s supposed to be finished by now – the Grand Opening ceremony is slated for September 2.  But it’s not finished yet.  So this week everyone was running around like a chicken with their head cut off, trying to get everything set up and ready for the big day.   
 And consequently, the entire English department has been in an uproar ever since I got there.  My office has moved twice.  There’s construction and welding going on in the middle of classtime.  Technicians are coming into classrooms while I’m teaching to set up the internet and such.  People are always running, always chattering away, and I never know what’s going on.  On Friday I didn’t know until 3:37 where my 3:40 class was going to be held.  Needless to say, I was seriously looking forward to the weekend by the time it finally came around.
I met up on Thursday night with another group of other English teachers.  We went out for dinner and drinks.  It was fun, I enjoyed it, but most of them are self-proclaimed heavy drinkers.  As I am not, I’m not sure how often we will end up actually hanging out in the next year.  But it was fun.  It was good to get out and meet new people and see the city.  
Friday afternoon I stayed late at school.  My last class didn’t end until 4:30, and by the time I got everything cleaned up and ready for the next week it was almost 6:00.  I was too tired to walk back (it’s almost a 40 minute walk to my house!), so I was going to take a taxi back – taxis in South Korea are super cheap; usually less than 5,000 won (around $5).  But on my way out of the school, the school owner noticed me leaving and asked where I was going.  So I told him, but to him, the idea of me taking a taxi was unthinkable, so he told me to hop in his car and he personally drove me home.  Just another way I’ve been feeling the love… 🙂
The weekend was amazing.  A perfect ending to a crazy week; it was just what I needed to unwind.  I would not change a single thing.  So there’s actually another Fulbright English teacher, Elizabeth, at the middle school that is attached to my high school, but I’ve seen almost nothing of her since we got here.  Well, on Saturday, we decided to go exploring.  The goal was to find the location of the English-speaking church service that I had heard about.  So we met at the school (the only place we both knew how to get to, lol), and just started walking.  We started off with a map to the church, but we quickly realized that that wasn’t going to be much help.  So we just kept walking.  
We walked through the historic district, and saw ancient tombs and huge temples and vast fields of flowers and street vendors and artisans.  We walked through off-the-beaten paths residential districts, the residents of which, judging from the stares we got while on our journey, very rarely – if ever – saw foreigners.  We walked through the bustling college district, grabbing kimbap (sort of a Korean sushi) and ice cream while we were there.  We crossed the river and explored the neighborhoods on the other side.  We walked through downtown Gyeongju, stumbling upon a huge outdoor market.  THAT was an experience, for sure.  The vendors and people crammed the streets so tightly that you could barely move.  Everywhere, people hawked their wares – fruits, vegetables, fish (both dead AND alive and squirming in the bowl)…you name it, it was there.  I saw one vendor selling peaches in big bowls, so I decided that I wanted to buy one for myself and Elizabeth.  So I asked for 2.  Well…it turns out that peaches are sold by the bowl, not individually.  Guess who’s teachers are getting lots of peaches this Monday!  Cultural lost in translation moment of the day….check! Korea, one, Lauren, zero :).
We ended our jaunt at Elizabeth’s house.  She lives 40 minutes away from me, and by then I was wayyy too tired to walk anymore – we had walked for about 4.5 hours.  So I took a taxi back, and told him where to go…in Korean….all by myself!!  And I didn’t just use one word, I used a whole sentence!!  It was exhilarating.  Actually, the more I hang out with foreigners here, the more encouraged I am with my Korean skills.  Most of the people I’ve met have been here at least a year, some two or more – and most of them can speak veryyy little Korean.  Some of them can’t even read the alphabet.  Granted, they all live in private apartments, and their jobs are English teachers, so they obviously don’t get much of an opportunity to practice much, but it’s still encouraging nonetheless to see how much I actually learned in just 6 short weeks of orientation.
Sunday was equally as epic.  Taking a meandering walk may not seem epic to you, but when everything is a struggle to find and ask for and understand, even the little accomplishments seem big :).  On our walk, I was also struck by how much of the city I really HAVE explored.  I’ve been feeling very isolated and lonely and lost the past week.  But as I was talking with Elizabeth and telling her what I knew of the regions of the city as we passed them, I realized that I’m really not as lost as I thought I was.  I told her about Metro, where there is a weekly poker game on Wednesday nights; dalk galbi is where many foreign English teachers congregate every Friday night for dinner; there’s the library that has a weekly English story reading program to Korean children on Saturdays, which I’m hoping to get involved in; the dance studio and Thursday night salsa club, which I still have to check out; softball or frisbee games on the University soccer fields on the weekends; free Korean language classes on Tuesday nights; the huge park that has free outdoor concerts during the summer; and of course, the English speaking church, which was the whole purpose of our walk to begin with.  Talking with Elizabeth about all of these things that I’ve found in the week that I’ve been here reminded me that I really can do this!!!  It was good to be reminded….I had almost forgotten.
But anyway, I was talking about how epic Sunday was!!  Even though we never did find the church on our walk, it turned out to not matter.  I also found a number to call to speak to someone in English for more information about the church.  I called it, and it turns out it was the cell phone of like a deacon of the church, who actually offered to pick me up and drive me to church.  So I gladly accepted, and by 10:30 Sunday morning I found myself weaving through the intimidating hallways of a huge Korean church to find the tiny English service.  The English service is super small – not even 50 people – and most of the people who attend are actually Koreans who want to practice their English.  But there were also some foreigners – mostly from South Africa, which is cool 🙂 – and everyone, Korean and foreign alike, were really nice.  It was sooo nice to be in a church again.  It was very low-key – just a guitar, keyboard, and acoustic hymns.  But it blessed me, nonetheless.  After the service, I was talking with some of the other people, trying to get to know them.  I may be an outgoing person, but since I’ve been in Gyeongju I’ve been putting myself out there FAR more than I normally would.  It’s been uncomfortable, but I feel like I need to do it now before I get stuck in a rut of isolation, so I’ve been really working overtime to meet people and get involved in the things that are important to me.  
So anyway, we were talking, and one of the girls I met, Andrea, mentioned that she was planning on going to Pohang (about a 30-minute bus ride) with her boyfriend right after church.  I had been really wanting to explore the bus system, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do it with a guide and company, instead of having to do it by myself like I’d done so many other things.  So I timidly asked if I could tag along.  She said yes, and off to Pohang we went!  We had to take a bus to get to the main bus terminal, and then another one to Pohang.  We had lunch there, and then went to a few department stores – they had to get some things for their apartments.  After a few hours, we made our way back to Gyeongju and parted ways.  It may not have been a huge deal; but to me it was.  Getting out of the city, seeing another part of Korea, connecting with people who share my values, making a friend…it was really needed.  I didn’t really realize how needed until it happened. 
So I’ve explored, and figured out the bus system, and bought lots of peaches (!!), and most importantly, made Christian friends and found a church.  I would say this weekend has been a success.  Now off to lesson planning for tomorrow! 🙂

Lots of class and lots of love

I can’t believe how blessed I am.  I am so unbelievably humbled that God has allowed me to see the things I’ve seen, and experience the things I’ve experiences, and meet the people I’ve met.  My life has been a wild ride, truly incredible – and I’m only 21.

Since Sunday morning, I’ve been so completely overwhelmed.  In some ways, I’ve been overwhelmed in a bad way – lots of Korean, and teaching, and strange foods and new experiences and unknown places.  But more than anything, I’ve been overwhelmed by God’s provision.  Last night I met up with Nia, an English teacher from California who’s been here for a year.  I had been talking with her on the Gyeongju Foreigners facebook group (ahh, the wonders of modern technology!), and we agreed to meet up last night so she could show me around.  She took me to this great Russian restaurant, and introduced me to a few other foreigners living in the area.  She showed me where the downtown area was, and the direction of the English-speaking church (to which I have since been given very exact directions, woohoo!!  I’m so excited about Sunday!), and showed me where a dance studio is, and told me how to find more Korean classes at the University in Gyeongju, and told me about the festivals that go on in Gyeongju, and where all the great hotspots are (both foreign and Korean), and basically made me feel so taken care of that I could cry.

And she’s not the only one.  There’s a softball game going on this weekend that another American invited me to, and she even offered to meet me by my house and take a taxi with me to the location.  Someone else – another dancer, woohoo!! – sent me a message and said that if I found a place to dance to let him know, and he would gladly accompany me and be my partner.  I found out that yesterday my host mother called the school and asked if someone could take me home after school, because it was raining and I hadn’t brought my umbrella.  The ETA who was previously at my school called me today just to check up on me and make sure that I’m doing alright.  My Korean co-teacher picked me up from my house and took me to school today because he didn’t want me to have to walk.  My host sister showed me where a stationary store was after school today so I could get supplies for my classes.  One of the other English teachers made a point to come to my desk today and tell me what a good impression I’ve made on everyone at the school.  They loved that I tried to speak in Korean, and all of my students today enjoyed their class, and basically everyone was just super excited to have me there.

They are certainly not alone in their excitement.  I love my school.  ETAs are generally allowed to leave earlier than the other teachers, so I had 3 different teachers come up to me this afternoon and ask me why I hadn’t left yet.  It was because I didn’t want to.  I was having fun, and I really enjoy the atmosphere of the school.  I also taught my first “official” class today!  Actually, I taught 4 classes – back to back to back to back.  Four straight hours of class – it was exhausting.  And all of them by myself.  Technically, ETAs are supposed to have a Korean co-teacher in the room with them for every class they teach, but my school could only spare a teacher for about 4 classes, so I requested that they give me more classes and don’t worry about a co-teacher.  And they did.  And it was hard, and it was alot of work, but it was also so much fun.

It was also a good introduction to the Korean educational system.  Korean schools are infamous for having last minute schedule changes, class switches, and failed technology.  Well, I had prepared a beautiful first-day powerpoint, with pictures, and animations, and everything.  I got to my classroom, only to find that the computer has not been connected yet.  So, I had to improvise on the fly.  Of course, if I could have my druthers, I would rather have had everything work smoothly, but I made do with what I had, the kids had fun, and I grew as a teacher.  So everything worked out alright.

Tonight I’m working on memorizing difficult Korean names and faces that all look and sound alike to me.  I had my students made name cards today.  They had their name on it, along with something about themselves, a hobby, what they did yesterday, and what they will do in the future (to assess their mastery of English grammar).  Then I took a picture of them holding their signs, which they hated me for – they’re all super shy.  But now their job is over, and I am left to learn ~150 Korean names and faces as fast as possible!  Ambitious, I know, but that’s my goal.  I’d better get back to it!! 🙂

Seoul and DMZ weekend

The capital city of Seoul is a bustling metropolis of super-sized proportions.  The city, which over 10 million people call home, seems to extend forever.  It is exciting and overwhelming, diverse and homogenous, fancy and cheap, all at the same time.  My time in Seoul this past weekend did not disappoint in any of those categories.  But I suppose I am getting ahead of myself…

We left Goesan for Seoul bright and early Friday morning, around 5:00 am in the morning.  On our way to Seoul, however, we made a detour – to the DMZ.  I’ve always thought that the DMZ  – which stands for Demilitarized Zone – is an ironic name for possibly the most militarized place in the entire modern world.  As a part of our orientation, we were allowed to go as far into the DMZ as the actual border between North and South Korea.  And let me tell you what, it was sooo tense.  There were so many rules about how we should behave, gesture, or dress, or even where we should look.  We were checked by South Korean soldiers for identification on more than one occasion.  We had a security escort for the entire duration of the tour.

The thought that these two countries at war, these two mortal enemies, the thought that they were brothers and families at one point, and in many cases still are… broke my heart.  War is always bad, but when it’s between families, it’s even worse.  I realize that visiting the DMZ is a privilege that very few people have been afforded, but I have to admit that I was glad to leave it at the end of the tour.

After the DMZ, we went to eat dinner with the American ambassador to South Korea, in her personal home.  At first it was supposed to be an outside pool party, but it got rained out, so it was moved inside.  Because it was moved into her home, that also meant that it was shortened, which meant that by the time we got there we only had about an hour to mingle and eat dinner.  It was a bit rushed, but I still got to eat a yummy legitimate American barbecue and talk with some really interesting embassy officials, including the ambassador.  Plus apparently her home is really famous, and it’s a very big honor to be allowed inside it, so that was cool.

After dinner, despite our super early morning, some of my friends wanted to go out that evening.  You’ve got to make the most of your time, right? 🙂  So we went out for ice cream, and then went to a 노레방 (norebang; basically a Korean karaoke) – it was my first time!!  It was so much fun.  At one point I looked around and thought to myself, “look how much fun you can have if you’re not drinking!”  It made me happy to think that we were having a ball, and not a drop of alcohol was involved.

Saturday, bright and early, I went out with a group of friends for breakfast in the morning.  After that, they went shopping at Costco (ahh, the pull of American stores in foreign countries, lol), and I made my way to the War Museum.  Technically it’s a museum on all of the wars in Korea’s history; but in reality, it’s about the Korean War.  Two floors of the three-floor museum are devoted to that war alone.  It was pretty incredible.  Considering the subject of the museum, I cannot really in good conscious say that I actually liked my visit; it was, however, very moving.  To see the sacrifice, the heroism that those men displayed – both Korean and foreign – made me realize just how detached I was from the Korean War, and how little of it I really about.  It was very eye-opening and sobering.  I think my favorite part of the museum, however,, was when I was standing in the room with busts of famous and gallant Korean soldiers.  I had stopped at a particular statue, and was reading in awe about an officer who had post-humulously been awarded the highest honor in Korea after he had thrown his body over a live grenade in order to protect his men.  An elderly Korean man came up behind me and tapped my shoulder.  In broken English, he managed to tell me that the very man whom I had just been so admiring – that man had been his captain before his death.  It was very  moving, to say the least.  And then he let me take his picture with the statue, which just made it even cooler.  
Entrance to the War Museum
Flowers decorating the bases of the plaques containing the names of the Koreans who died in the Korean War – hundreds and thousands of names.  It was very moving.

Korean soldier and his fallen captain
I had to rush out of the museum early because I had made plans to meet with some friends to go to the big shopping district in Seoul later that might.  None of us, however, are very big shoppers, so we didn’t stay very long.  We got some food, got lost a few times, I bought a pair of dress shoes because my friend informed me that the ones I was going to wear were simply not acceptable, and then we made our way back to the hotel on the subway.  I spent a lot of time on the subway this weekend 🙂

Sunday, our last day of freedom, dawned humid and rainy.  But we decided to go on an adventure anyway, and we made our way to Seoul tower, a huge tourist attraction that overlooks the entire city.  I had heard that you could get to the tower by cable car, so I looked up directions online on how to get to the cable car pick-up point.  However, because I didn’t have access to a printer, I had to simply take a picture of my computer screen with the instructions on it.  I’m sure we must have looked a sight – 5 foreigners, huddled around a little camera, trying to find their way through the backstreets of Seoul :).  But find it we did, and the ride to the top of the mountain was exciting, albeit gray and foggy.  Once we got to the top of the mountain, we decided not to pay for the ticket to the top of the tower because of the weather.  The view wouldn’t have been good, anyway.

At the base of Seoul tower
Sarah and Leora got their portraits done 🙂

But we certainly didn’t do nothing!  Instead of going to the top of the tower, we decided to go to the…..Teddy Bear Museum!!  It’s a museum about the history of South Korea, but all of the people are illustrated with teddy bears!  It was really cute, I enjoyed it alot :).

One of my favorite pictures at the Teddy bear museum.  It reminds me of what Hope was doing on our walls while we were remodeling our kitchen 🙂

After the Teddy Bear Museum, I went out with a few others to eat at, and I quote, “the best noodle restaurant…ever.”  I must say, I think that was a pretty accurate quote.  I was in absolute heaven.  I have no idea what I ate, but whatever it was, it was incredible.

One plate of heavenly goodness, coming right up!!

After noodles, I went to the English service at Onnuri church.  One of our orientation coordinators goes to that church, and so he took us with him.  It was amazing.  I have immensely enjoyed the Bible studies I have been a part of during orientation, but being in a large worship service is something that I had still been sorely missing.  The message was challenging and very timely applicable to the new life that I am about to start.  I was so glad I went.  Worshiping the Lord with a body of other believers refreshes my soul like nothing else can.

The inside of Onnuri church

I was pretty tired after all of that, but in the evening some of my friends wanted to go to Insadong, the arts district, to get some rice cakes and other desserts.  After much hesitation, I decided to go with them.  I was super tired, but hey, you only live once, right? 🙂  It was alot of fun, I’m really glad I went.  It was really nice to be able to spend one last night out with the people who have become so dear to me before we all leave for our placements.

Green tea patbingsu….yummmm 🙂

I love my friends 🙂

Monday had quite a different flavor to it.  Monday was my official graduation from Korea University – that was the school with which my orientation Korean class were affiliated.  It was a huge event.  All of our teachers were there, as well as all of the Fulbright office staff and, of course, all of the ETAs.  There were speeches, awards, and honors given.  Each class performed some kind of final presentation – some did skits, some did movies, some did K-pop dances, some did speeches, all were very good.  And after that….that was it!  We said goodbye to our teachers and left.  It was a very sad parting – certainly more than just a few tears were shed.

My whole class with our teachers after graduation

Well, that’s all of my adventures in Seoul this past weekend!  Adventures in Gyeongju will be following shortly!!