living alone vs. living isolated

The weather is lovely today, not too hot or too cold. It’s sunny. Birds are singing outside my office window (which I’ve left open in spite of the fact that my allergies are clearly kicking in, in all their sneeze-inducing, nose-stuffing, chest-tightening glory).

ALL my kids are on a camping trip today and tomorrow, and most of the Korean teachers went with the kids as chaperones, which means I have the school all to myself (basically) in glorious silence.

It’s perfect timing; later this week, I’ll be reviewing everything we’ve covered till now for the midterm exam, and I’ve been wanting to make some really fun/cool Pokemon-themed PowerPoint games for that. This year I’ve mostly avoided PPT “bomb” games in normal class and tried out other kinds of games with them, but of course the kids love the bomb games the most. Since they’re studying their little brains out for midterms, now seems like a good time for a treat. A lot of them seem to like Pokemon, or at least Pikachu because he’s cute. And themed games (with music, GIFs, and maybe even videos embedded along the way) get them much more excited than a regular “bomb game” template.

Anyway, the point is that staying alone in the office made me think about living alone in general.

For someone like me, living alone is pretty much THE BEST. Peace and quiet, no interruptions, setting your own schedule and your own free time and meal times. I have hermitish tendencies that can make me forget entirely about the need for socialization sometimes.

And it is a need. I would go crazy if I never went out of the house. It’s just that A) my need for social time builds up much more slowly than in, say, an extrovert, and B) even when the need to socialize or at least GET OUT OF THE DARN HOUSE is making me stir-crazy, sometimes it still takes an extra self-administered kick in the pants to actually go out.

Not because I feel depressed or anxious about it. I know logically that going out, even if it’s only walking to the grocery store and looking around and not buying anything (except ice cream because you know, I can’t just walk past the ice cream), will give me a little dopamine brain boost for changing up the scenery and the routine. But being alone at home in yoga pants is so much more comfortable.

Until it’s not, because if I allow myself to stay in that comfort zone too long, it becomes isolation rather than solitude, and loneliness instead of peace.

Maybe you’d think that living in a foreign country is enough to push you out of your comfort zone – and for a while, it is – but honestly, we will all build and rebuild our comfort zones no matter where we are. I can stay in my little bubble of introversion every day if I want to, but is that really what I should be doing while I’m living as an expat?

Today was one of those days that I had push myself not to take the isolated path. When the VP sent a message to the handful of teachers deskwarming at school (including me), “식사하러 오세요~” (Come and eat lunch) – instead of hiding out in my office with the excuse of “I couldn’t understand the Korean” (which I could’ve gotten away with even though it’s not true), I put on my brave grown-ass woman pants and went down to the 2nd floor office, where a group of teachers welcomed me kindly.

While we ate, I taught them that “jjim” means braised, and braised is the word for the kind of cooking used. (Because of course we had 해물찜, fish jjim, for lunch today. See “The Bad” in this post for more of my thoughts on fish jjim.) And that “shikhye” can be called “sweet rice drink” in English. Not that we have anything close to this sweet-tasting, watery concoction with paper-like grains of rice floating in the bottom. I’m actually kind of a fan of shikhye, but some foreigners hate it because of the weird rice texture – probably like how some people dislike bubble tea because of the tapioca ball texture.


Shikhye ( Usually the rice all sinks to the bottom, though.

When I tried to help clean up afterwards, they shooed me out good-naturedly (“OK OK, yes, bye bye!”), and so now here I am back in my office, playing with Pokemon GIFs, with a very confused fly buzzing drunkenly around the florescent lights to keep me company (and/or drive me crazy with his incessant buzzing).

I guess this rambling post was an attempt both to give insight into the mind of an introvert and to remind myself that one massive leap out of one particular bubble of comfort (i.e. moving to Korea 1 year ago) does not adequately cover the rest of my life. It’s much easier to learn and grow when you’re pushing yourself than when you’re sitting in your pajamas in your comfort zone.



Over the last few years I’ve come to realize how important this is for anyone’s mental and emotional well-being. A sense of belonging to something – a group of people, a family, a workplace, a community.

Two years ago, my sense of belonging was deeply rooted in my family and my large “taekwondo family” of students and coworkers.

Last year, my sense of belonging was simply established in “Korea” as a whole. I was in the country, everything was new, everyone was kind, and I felt I belonged in this experience more than in a community.

This year, I think my struggle to stay positive has been a result of losing that sense of belonging. I felt unattached from everything as I had to drop my former main school (and hence leave hundreds of lovely students), some very dear coworkers left, and my sister left Korea at the beginning of the year.

But I’ve honestly thrown myself into working at my current school wholeheartedly, and slowly,  painstakingly, it’s started to pay off in little ways. As my relationship with my students becomes stronger and more “real,” a new sense of belonging begins to build up.

When my kids still yell “HELLO MADDY TEACHER!” (or “Hello Miss [Surname]!”, ever since I taught them that that’s what American students would call me), I feel a sense of belonging.

When a couple of the low level 2nd grade boys reach out their hands to shake my hand every single day as I pass them in the hallway at lunch time, I feel a sense of belonging.

When I see two 3rd grade boys at the big intersection that we have to cross to get to school each morning and they give me a sheepish grin and wave, I feel a sense of belonging.

When a small bunch of 1st grade girls stop by my office at the end of the day just to say “Hello” and maybe share some candy with me, I feel a sense of belonging.

When more and more and more students feel comfortable asking me their questions and pushing through the language barrier to communicate instead of relying on using Korean with one of my co-teachers, I feel a sense of belonging.

When I go to my co-teacher’s open class and start walking around with the other teachers to see what the students are working on, and each table that I approach is full of kids who light up and whisper, “Oh, hello Teacher!” and we exchange a secret grin and wave in spite of all the observers and the video camera – I feel a sense of belonging.

P.S. The aforementioned open class was one of those major area-wide classes, so there were quite a few teachers visiting from other schools to observe the class. Two of my former co-teachers showed up, which was nice.

P.P.S. The open class involved students reading and discussing the English newspapers that they had created in a previous class. I went to check one group’s paper (which had been written by another group) and they urgently whispered, “Teacher, look!”

One of the articles, nicely typed and formatted and complete with a photo, was titled “School Computers Sh**” and included the sentence “What the f*** these computers?” (censoring entirely mine) The group that was discussing that newspaper read the latter sentence to me in shocked voices and I hastily quieted them down and discouraged the reading of that particular article out loud.

Figured I’d do my co-teacher a favor by not allowing her students to yell English profanities during her open class.

To be fair, though, the school computers are pretty bad.

Fresh perspective

I have to remind myself that even though last year I was starstruck and in love with my new life in Korea, there were tough times too. I’ve heard that the 2nd year can be more difficult as life becomes a routine, mundane thing and each day is just there, waiting for you to plow through it… in pursuit of the end of the day, in pursuit of the weekend, in pursuit of the next weekend and the next weekend after that, in pursuit of summer vacation…

Then I sort of internally shake myself because that’s not a good way to look at life. Always living for the next perceived break or the next perceived good thing/reward – which will probably never be as good as you think if you have that mindset anyway. It’s actually quite a depressing way to live because you just trudge along and never appreciate what’s right in front of you.

Last year I was all about appreciating each moment and all the little things.

This school year, I was off to a rough start, mentally and emotionally. Maybe it showed in my blogging as of late. A blackness had sort of settled over my heart in the last month or so as the bleak winter weather dragged on and on, and I’ve been allowing that blackness to stay there and rob me of finding the bright spots in my daily life.

Today, for whatever reason (maybe because it finally feels like spring outside?), I woke up and reminded myself of this. I poked and jabbed my inner joy which has been lazy and dormant for a while now. I yelled at it, “Hey, external situations are not the source of happiness, remember?”

Make a choice today. To find joy and happiness in whatever happens, or whatever doesn’t happen. Find the richness in life, even in the mundane, the stressful, the dull. Don’t wait for “good” things to come to you, but make the everyday things into the good things.

And even just making that choice, I can feel a little joy bubbling up in my chest. Because even if I’m not where I want to be now, I know I can get there. With God’s help.

Now, enough sentimental navel-gazing and on to updates…

Tomorrow, April 16, marks two years since the horrible Sewol Ferry disaster in Korea (in case you don’t know about it: click). Tons of political, cultural, and moral commentary has already been made about this tragedy, so I won’t say much other than that it was a horrific and 100% preventable tragedy – which is why it’s so infuriating and depressing. Because of the Confucian hierarchy [don’t get me started on Confucius…], horrible decisions, and lack of common sense, among other things, nearly 300 people died that day – the vast majority of whom were children. Children who were just obeying their elders as they’ve been taught to do. It’s unspeakably sad.

Note/Disclaimer: While the Confucian element is certainly specific to Korea / Asian culture, and it did play a role in the events on April 16, of course I’m aware that Western countries have also experienced awful and preventable tragedies due to poor foresight and decision-making. I’m not condemning all of Korea because of the Sewol disaster. I’m expressing outrage and sadness over a terrible chain of events.

Anyway, I was teaching class at 2nd period, when at 10:00 an announcement came over the PA for a moment of silence in remembrance. I was expecting it because I Google Translated the school-wide message about it this morning. As music played over the speakers, my co-teacher made all the kids stand up, and they stood there, eyes closed, heads bowed. At 15 years old, all of them are old enough to remember the day the ferry sank.

Two minutes later, it was over. As they sat down, I felt strange about continuing with the lesson – I’d been about to show them an OK Go music video, and that seemed such a stark contrast. Is it really okay to go back to having fun seconds after remembering how hundreds of children died?

Just so I don’t end on a sad note, something I’ve noticed for a while but particularly today: in my Friday 1st grade class full of 13-year-olds, some of them are noisy. Some of them have not-so-great attitudes. Some don’t want to practice English. Some struggle to write simple words, some use vocabulary beyond a middle school textbook.

There is one boy in this class who is particularly smart. Quiet and shy, but always knows the answers and can read, write, and understand better than most of the others. I’ve noticed him since our first class.

There is also a boy who has a learning disability. He is very friendly, always smiling, always waving extra big when he sees me in the halls with a huge grin. In class, he can’t do much but he doesn’t cause any disruptions. (Sadly, this is often the case with special ed kids in a NET class – the co-teachers often let them be rather than give them extra help. But that’s another issue for another day.)

The smart boy always sits next to this other boy. When we do our textbook work, he checks his partner’s work for him. When we do speaking practice, he writes Korean in his partner’s book under the English sentences and guides him through pronouncing the English words.

Today, I happened to catch Boy 1 raising his head triumphantly after getting Boy 2 to speak the entire dialogue with him. His expression was full of pride, not in himself, but in the fact that his partner had done so well. It was so sweet. He can honestly do more to help Boy 2 than I can, since I can’t speak Korean.

Secondly, I’ve been helping my favorite co-teacher with her English Reading Club. It’s a group of 11 3rd grade girls, 15 yr olds, and they read books and do projects. My role is merely to sit in their bright, airy classroom upstairs (in my experience, the top floor is always nicer than the lower floors), and if they have questions while reading or writing, they come to me. My ct brings me tea. I chat with her and with the girls. It’s absolutely the loveliest and most stress-free thing I’ve ever done in a school in Korea.

And these kind of things are what I want to focus on. A fresh perspective and a fresh season.

uncomposed thoughts

You’re so much more at the mercy of the weather when you don’t own a car. In America, if it was unexpectedly raining and I was caught without an umbrella,  it’s just a three-second dash to the car. I might get a little wet, but no big deal. Walking 10 or 20 minutes in a downpour sans umbrella is quite a different story. The same goes for cold and heat. All your outfits better be carefully planned because as far as I know, there’s no mobile A/C and heat for pedestrians.

This week’s culture lesson has been school in the U.S. and how it compares to Korean school. Since I was homeschooled up until college, I had to do my research on this one and ask a couple friends for their experiences. It’s a lecture-intensive class, so I’ve loaded my PPT with pictures and simplified my explanations.

To keep them from getting bored, I throw in multiple-choice quiz questions throughout, where they’re guessing things like “How long is the [typical] American school lunch time?” and “When does the American school year start?” I tell them that whoever gets the most answers right, I’ll give that student a choco pie. That keeps them motivated enough to pay attention.

They also, of course, love the lunch section where I show pictures of American cafeteria food – but they also understand when I explain that the food is usually not healthy and doesn’t even taste good anyway. Korean school lunch is 100x better (at least at this school, which has a reputation for pretty good lunches).

All my classes at all grade levels have been pretty interested in this topic. At the end, I have them write 2 compare/contrast sentences about Korean and American school, read some of them aloud, and then I do a quick overview of homeschooling and what my school experience was like. Homeschooling, with a parent as the teacher, is pretty unheard of in Korea, although I think online school / private tutoring might be a thing.

Last week I started one of my 1st grade classes as usual. Usually my various co-teachers will show up 1-3 minutes after the bell rings, and that’s no problem. I’m running the show anyway, and the first part of class is usually a simple warm-up that doesn’t need any Korean explanation.

But my ct never showed, and never gave any warning or explanation as to why not. I won’t go any further into that because nothing is anonymous on the internet, and anyway it’s the first time it’s ever happened, so whatever.

The point of this blurb is really just that I’m happy with the way I was able to teach them the American school culture lesson without relying on any translation. I threw in the Korean I do know when necessary, and made a lot of comparisons between their school life and U.S. school life to help them understand what we were talking about. (Like, if I ask them “What time does American school start and end?”, they might not get it, but if I first elicit when their school starts and ends – 8:15 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. – now they have context and I get a chorus of light-bulb-over-the-head “Aaaahs”.)

One of the 1st grade kids pranced up to me the other day before class and cheekily proclaimed, “I am as handsome as Song Joong-ki!”

While his classmates scoffed and laughed, I said in amazement, “Wow, that was a perfect sentence!”

I mean, do you know how rare it is to hear a Korean student (let alone a 1st year) use proper grammar using that “as…as” structure? Floored.


Incidentally, here is the man of the hour, Song Joong-ki. Recently made crazy popular by the TV drama that’s sweeping the nation, Descendants of the Sun. All the girls want to marry him (middle-aged women included). All the guys want to be him. Let the hipster in me make it known that I liked him before he was cool. Way, way before. Ever since I saw Innocent Man.

Last week, before class started, I was talking with some of the 1st graders who came into my classroom early. Somehow they got me to demonstrate my Korean writing skills on the board. They coached me through writing the Korean alphabet (I know all the letters, but I don’t know the order of the alphabet) and applauded as I wrote each letter correctly while they dictated.

Afterwards, one of the boys turned to me and said solemnly, “Teacher, you… Korean… hard. Us… English-ee… hard.”

Ain’t that the truth, kid.

not dead but lethargic

In fact, nearly comatose. Intellectually speaking.

I have opened this gosh darn blog post window so many times in the last, what, 2 weeks, and I haven’t been able to produce a single word worth reading.

I’ve just been pushing through, head down, trying to numb myself to the ebb and flow of stress as lesson plans come and go and Korean surprises rear their heads, feeling like a dried-out pitiful little husk at the end of some of the particularly draining days, just pushing, pushing, pushing forward to a vacation that is nowhere in sight. (No mid-semester spring break for Korea, so we’re holding on till mid-July.)

Which is a dramatic way of saying that I’ve simply been tired and working hard. Teaching is one of those professions that hits the trifecta of being mentally, emotionally, and physically draining (albeit emotionally rewarding as well).

As far as updates go:

Mentoring/demo open class:

1. I was really proud of the kids (I chose one of my favorite 3rd grade classes because I knew those kids wouldn’t let me down). They were mega amped up because WHOA FOREIGNERS. A few of the NETs were practically pushed into my classroom by overly-excited 2nd graders acting as escorts and arrived looking bemused and slightly scared. heh. Don’t mind my crazy kids, fellow NETs.

2. The class timing was perfect, and as I said, the kids really did well with being active. They cheered for game time, cheered when they got a correct answer, cheered for no reason at all. Even some of the quiet / slightly sullen kids were trying, and I appreciated that (even if it was only because they were being watched by 6 foreigners, the VP, and a camera).

3. Prior to my class, this message was sent out to all the teachers (sketchy English brought to you by Google Translate):

English drawing room today 6period
excellent native speaker the open class
That’s coming from outside to visit ~ 6 external teachers
You come welcomed HR. If you do, gladly greet sounds good.
You are teaching Mr. Mehdi  / Medicare Teacher
Please fighting ^^

Actual meaning (roughly): The “excellent native speaker” (I guess that means me) has an open class in the English Room at 6th period. Six foreigners will observe. Teachers of [my school], please come to watch and welcome/greet the foreigners. “Mr. Mehdi / Medicare Teacher” would be me. The way my name is spelled in Korean combined with the word for “teacher” (메디 선생님) makes Google very confused. And as I’ve mentioned before, “fighting”/화이팅 is the Korean phrase for “good luck, you can do it, we’ve got your back!”

At any rate, it was comforting (kind of) to feel that everyone was supporting me. We all know what a pain in the butt open classes are.

4. My co-teachers, vice principal, and principal were apparently all satisfied with the class, so I guess my job here is done. *dusts hands*

Kidding, but I did feel pretty much the whole school breathe a sigh of relief when the ordeal was over with.

Korean surprises:

Too many to count, but most recently:

1. Yesterday (Monday) I was teaching my 1st graders as usual during 4th period. Around 11:30 a.m., as we were about to start a new activity, a hoard of gigantic strangers walked into my classroom (and by that I mean about three adults from a Western country, plus some official-looking Koreans) and WELL KIDS, LOOKS LIKE WE’RE DOING AN OPEN CLASS! Suddenly their focus was perfect, and luckily for me, the timing was good and the activity they were about to do was very AREN’T WE EDUCATIONAL AND HAVING AN AMAZINGLY GOOD TIME WHILE WE’RE AT IT? LEARNING IS SO FUN! I shudder to think if they’d walked in during one of those “Maddy Teacher could walk on the ceiling while belting out the Korean anthem and juggling fire and we wouldn’t care” classes.

2. I thought it rather strange that I could hear loud music floating in my windows around 7:30 a.m. as I was getting ready for work. I figured it must be a neighbor (perhaps THE neighbor) who had apparently decided early morning was a good time to rock out to Korean folk songs. As I walked to school 30 minutes later, the music was still blasting. It just so happened to be coming from the direction I needed to go, and a good 100-200 meters* later I found the source: no less than FOUR groups of people, one on each corner of a major intersection, holding signs and blasting this music as a way to politically campaign for their candidate. What?! As my co-teacher (who lives near me) commented when we talked about it, “That makes me not want to vote for him.”

3. …which leads me to the last surprise, which is a double-edged sword: all this political campaigning is because Korea’s Election Day is next Weds, April 13. It means a day off, but it also means throwing my schedule for a loop and a lot of stress and hectic scrambling-to-cram-the-textbook-in-before-midterms for the classes I’ll miss.

Anyway, it’s Tuesday now and I’ve already had the thought “Damn it, it’s still only Tuesday” multiple times. Here’s to a speedy rest of the week.

* Korea has changed me. I now speak in meters and Celsius. Who am I?