Third year’s the charm: Reflecting on culture shock and expat life in Korea

I spent my first year in Korea being totally enamored with the country – fairly typical for most expats when they arrive in their new home. It would be quite unfortunate for you if you didn’t experience this honeymoon phase, since that’s what makes everything so exciting and cool as you start learning the customs and culture. I was also so busy with my new job, my new students, my new relationship, and trying new things that I didn’t have time to sit back and critique.

I spent my second year in Korea sitting back and critiquing a lot. To be honest, I was frequently stressed out and angry at various things that I deemed cultural shortcomings and flaws. I let the things I couldn’t understand and the things that were different than Western culture get under my skin and bug the heck out of me. Why do it this way when there is clearly a better way (aka my way)? Why do people say this? Why can’t they do that? I let my students stress me out. I let my co-teachers stress me out.

Now, in my third year, I’m adjusting. I’m accepting what it means to live in Korea as a foreigner with a well-rounded, more matured perspective on the good and the bad.

In fact, the anger and frustration I had in my second year are textbook symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock is commonly misconstrued as the initial feelings of confusion and floundering when you first enter a new country, but actually, there are multiple stages, and that honeymoon stage is just the first part.

Culture shock is NOT just “Whoa, Koreans take their shoes off before they enter their homes!” “Whoa, Koreans eat rice, kimchi, and mildly-to-very spicy soups every day!” “Whoa, Koreans bow to each other and they want me to bow too!”

It happens after you learn all that stuff. It happens after you think you know what’s up. It happens after you think you’ve got this foreigner-in-Korea thing all figured out, no problem.

It happens when you realize that you think X, Y, and Z aspects of the culture are annoying or unnecessary or weird. It happens when you encounter (insert somewhat-irritating cultural phenomenon here, e.g. good ol’ street-spitting ajeosshis, or even something as trivial as botched “Italian” cuisine) for the 1,859,374th time and you’re like “Why does it have to be like this?”

After all, how many people can go through an experience that flips their life around and just immediately be and stay happy about it (even if it was a change they wanted in the first place)?

It takes time.

It takes a gradually-developed, ever-growing, rational understanding of the realities of life in this culture as a foreign person.

Some people get stuck in the anger and frustration stage, though.* Some people get depressed. Some people start loathing everything about the country and culture, as unfair as it may be. It’s understandable; adjusting isn’t easy, especially for English teachers in Korea, where quality of life can be so totally dependent on students, co-teachers, the school-provided housing, etc.

But if you do get through it, you emerge on the other side. You enter the final stages of culture shock: adjustment and acceptance.

For me, and perhaps for many expats in Korea specifically, acceptance means accepting that in this homogeneous culture, I will always be a bit of an outsider – but this doesn’t mean I can’t have really good connections with Korean people.

It means accepting that there are cultural things that irk me – but I don’t have to let them irk me, and that perhaps they aren’t that irksome anyway. Maybe I’m just blaming my stress, which I would experience from time to time no matter where I live, on the external cultural things around me instead of placing the blame within myself and finding ways to overcome it.

It means accepting my role here:guest English teacher. No, I don’t have the power that a regular Korean teacher has. I can’t discipline and control my classroom the way I did as a taekwondo instructor in America. I can’t form the same bonds with my kids that I could with my students back home because of the language barrier.

Sometimes that hurts. But it’s okay. My job is to give my kids a positive experience with a native English speaker. My job is to teach them things about Western culture that they might not otherwise know. My job is to make English less boring. My job is to spark their interest in learning the language.

I can still show my students that I care about them and their progress. I can still try to inspire them. I can still have a positive effect on my school and my students, however small it may be.

I can still make a difference.

*From what I gather on forums and such, a surprising number of people seem to stay in the country even though they’re stuck in the frustration stage. Maybe they need the money, maybe they just feel trapped or unsure what direction to take next. But conversely, it certainly doesn’t mean that people who only stay in a foreign country for a year or two leave because they’re bitter about the culture. Obviously.

Also, if you’re an expat and you skipped from honeymoon to adjustment and acceptance, well… go you!

Beauty and Korea

It’s not exactly a hidden aspect of modern Korean culture: looks matter here. Even more than in the Western world, beauty is favored and beautiful people enjoy elevated social status, the admiration of those around them, greater leniency around making mistakes, and various other benefits. (Seriously.)

Having a “high nose” (meaning, basically, a Western-looking nose with a higher bridge) is considered beautiful.

Pale skin is considered beautiful.

“Double eyelids” (the extra fold or crease over the eye, as opposed to the “monolids” that Koreans have naturally) are considered beautiful.

Hair that is naturally a color other than black and eyes that are naturally a color other than brown are considered beautiful – mostly because they stand out in a largely homogeneous culture.

It’s sad that so many of the traits that are considered ideal are ones that Koreans are not naturally born with (i.e. the “high” nose, the double eyelids, the hair and eye color), which leads to the high rate of plastic surgery for things like nose reconstruction and creating “double eyelids.” (That’s not to say that natural Korean traits are not considered beautiful, but there is this prevalence of idealizing a more Western look.)

It should also be noted that I fit the bill as a Westerner, and traits that get me no attractiveness mileage in America (such as rather large nose and pale skin) earn lots of compliments here.

As a result, sometimes, it’s like we’re having this conversation from The Swan Princess… every. single. day. And not only with my students, but sometimes even with adults.

is beauty all that matters to you

Derek (Korea): “You’re all I ever wanted! You’re beautiful!”
Odette (Me): “Thank you. But what else?”
Derek (Korea): “What else?”
Odette (Me): “Is beauty all that matters to you?”
Derek (Korea): “What else… is there?”
Me: *internal sigh of despair*

an interview with myself

(Double post today because the first is not directed at my general audience. This post IS directed at my general audience and particularly dedicated to my few very loyal friends & family who check this blog every day, and who every day have had their hopes dashed for quite some time. Sorry it’s been such a long wait!) (Oh, and this post is also very goofy because I just needed something to start me writing again.)

Q: Where have you been, Maddy? THIS BLOG HAS BEEN DEAD FOR 6 WEEKS. 6 WEEKS!!! What the heck?? What’s your deal?

A: Yes, well, I have been busy, uninspired to write, living my mundane life but the good kind of mundane. I’ve been very Zen this school year. Taking stresses and surprises in stride. Not letting my feathers be ruffled, my mellow be harshed, my buzz be killed, my vibe be ruined. So to speak.

Q: Uh… okay then. So how are your co-teachers this year?

A: The first I am convinced has no idea that there could possibly be anything but herself at the center of the Universe. As a former psych student I find her fascinating. As a coworker I find her a nightmare err… interesting.

The second is very sweet and motherly but much busier than last year because she got a promotion and has Bigger and Better Things on her mind.

The third is actually a year younger than me, which was a huge surprise because I’ve never worked with anyone even close to my age at a Korean middle school. Not sure if that’s just luck or if younger teachers tend to go for the elementary school positions. Regardless, we share an office and it’s really nice to have someone to relate to.

Side note: I’ve discovered, upon chatting extensively with said co-teacher #3, that being surrounded exclusively by well-meaning ajummas (35+ yrs) for my first 2 years in Korea has led me to have distinctly OLD PERSON TASTES in Korean food and culture. Which I find hilarious.

The fourth is as old as the hills, and he spends every class we have together:

A) intermittently yelling “HEY! CUT IT OUT!” at the kids in Korean when the whim strikes him
B) asleep
C) staring into space with tortured eyes as if by staring hard enough he might Apparate himself out of the classroom

Occasionally he raises a hand from his chair in back and says “Maddy, wait” and lectures them for a good minute. As far as I can tell, “Maddy,” “wait,” and “OK” are the only English words he knows how to speak.

He seems to be a bit of a gruff old dear, though (I have no way of knowing for sure due to the language barrier). The kids who aren’t scared of him seem to like him – but come to think of it, not sure if it’s affection or just a desire to poke and prod the bear because it’s funny and they know he won’t do anything worse than growl a little.

Q: Wow, what entertaining descriptions. That’s fantastic. Bravo. Alrighty. Moving right along, how are the students this year?

A: They’re possibly the same as last year. Possibly better. I’m not sure. I’m too Zen to figure it out. (See answer to Q1) Sometimes they’re cute and hilarious and adorable and lovable, and sometimes I swear they flew straight from the depths of hell into my classroom just to torture me.

But I don’t carry it home with me. All the stresses or disappointments or failures in the classroom stay at school. This may not be something a “regular” teacher can do (i.e. not an expat ESL teacher), but it’s a benefit of this particular job that I’ve finally, in Year 3, learned to enjoy.

Nevertheless, the kids know me well, I know them well (except for the 1st years; we’re still kind of getting acquainted), I know my school, and I know the teaching ropes. So it’s been good, overall. Quite good.

Q: Great, great. You sound so enlightened and cool and stuff. You’re probably like the very first person to ever figure this teaching stuff out. Er… next question… I didn’t think this far ahead…

A: True. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do this interview, after all.

Q: Well, um… hmm… what’s your favorite color?

A: Blue.

But actually, I just always say blue automatically because that was my favorite color when I was a kid and I never reexamined it as I grew up. Even though maybe I’ve changed my mind and I just never thought about it. That’s got to be a metaphor for something about life.

Q: Stop trying to be cool. What did you eat for breakfast?

A: Coffee.

Q: That’s not breakfast.

A: That’s not a question. And I never eat breakfast. Never have, never will.

Q: Okay interview over. It’s getting weird. People will think you have a split personality or a massive ego.

A: Agreed.

In all seriousness, I have edited and polished some old drafts and lined them up to auto-publish this week. Maybe it’ll boost me back into it, but if nothing else, at least I’ll have a few posts up after a long hiatus.

here today, gone tomorrow

Well, here today, gone next week anyway.

Yesterday the school halls were echoing emptiness back at my footsteps. Today there were stamping feet, loud voices, the whir of heaters doing their best to combat the cold. And soon – in a few days – we will return to the emptiness.

Maybe the purpose is to make all of us remember what our responsibilities are lest we get too lazy during break. To stop us from feeling too relaxed. Get that cortisol flowing again, you know.

The night before a stressful day, I try to cope by making some kind of mantra for myself, typically involving the formula “No matter what happens tomorrow, by [X] time I will be at home doing [Y].”

Yesterday, it was “No matter what happens tomorrow, by 5:00 p.m. I will be at home eating spaghetti and cheesecake* and watching The Office.”

It really does help. With practice.

*Not, like, mixed together. Ew.

The day wasn’t as dreadful as anticipated.

Classes have been shortened to 35 minutes. I waste spend the first 10ish minutes on a group memory game (they memorize the picture, then I hide it and they try to remember all the items). Honestly it really isn’t that much of a waste of time since they often seem to be mute after not speaking English for over a month. I consider it a nice easy way to remind them what English even is.

Then we talk about New Year’s Resolutions. I have them guess the Top 10 most popular resolutions for Americans (based on an article I found) and if we have time they write their own resolutions for this year.

Yes, it’s February, but talking about the new year isn’t that belated in Korea since the Lunar New Year was just last weekend.

Anyway it hasn’t been too bad. We all know no one cares what goes on in class during this mini semester, and the kids were as nice as could be expected in the circumstances. Except for the one truly evil class in today’s crop, who were consistent with their general behavior throughout the year (evil).

But all that matters is I survived it for the very last time, and since they’re graduating to high school next week, now I can truly say:



There were a few other nice things about today as well.

  • The science teacher came to my office – “Maddy, I have present for you. Name stickers!” She ordered every teacher at school a personalized sticker set as a little new year’s gift and she didn’t forget me!
  • Before I started one of my 3rd grade classes (not the evil one), their homeroom teacher came in and requested a few minutes of my class time (purely with eye contact and body language, that is). She had just received their high school placements, which made them cheer and gasp in anticipation. I guess it’s kind of like getting into college, since they have to apply and might not get the one they want. Anyway, it was cute to see some of them get excited about their new school.
  • Two 1st graders came in at the end of the day to deliver some traditional rice cakes. Another boy popped his head in and said, “Maddy… Maddy? Is it really Maddy? Oh my God. We again meet.” Apparently he’d been convinced he would never see me again after the end of the semester.

I suppose the best part is that after we grind through these few days, there’s more vacation until March!

From the desk of a bored person.

Here I am deskwarming in the main teachers’ office again. The minute I stepped in at 8:20 a.m. on the dot it was as if I’d never left, like my whole week+ of vacation had never happened.

The same freezing cold office. Should’ve worn my scarf.

The same voices rising and falling around me as the VP and head teacher chat.

The same computer which is vastly inferior to the computer in my office, particularly due to the lack of browsers other than Internet Explorer and an apparent inability to download Chrome or Firefox.

The same lesson plans and PPTs that have sat ready on my USB for weeks now, since I finished preparing for the February interim week classes and my first-week-of-school classes ages ago. I have looked them over so many times that it nauseates me to even click the folders now.

Students come in to clean. They look older than just a month ago when we finished the school year. Maybe it’s their street clothes instead of the school uniforms. Or that all the girls are wearing bright lipstick and mascara (forbidden during the semester).

I estimate that I am 50% ready to see all of them again in the classroom. Good thing we have another month before the school year starts, because at this rate I should be 100% eager to greet their cute faces when the time comes.

(I realize that I’ll be facing them in the classroom in 2 days for the February interim week, but in my head I’m still pretending that isn’t happening okay?)

My sly glances at the computer of the teacher next to me tell me that she is just as bored as I am. I think she’s browsing clothing sites and stuff but she covers it with official-looking documents as soon as someone comes in the room. Now I feel an unspoken bond with her because I’m doing the same thing (except with my blog instead of clothing sites).

Deskwarming alone = tolerable, even nice in small doses. A room to myself to read, browse the internet, and be exactly as productive as I want/need to be.

Deskwarming with the vice principal and head teachers = very very mindnumbingly unfun.

My VP is cool though. Sometimes she says “bye” to me in English.

Also we ordered lunch from one of those we-have-every-Korean-food-you-can-imagine places and I got dolsot bibimbap (hot stone bowl mixed rice and vegetables; the stone bowl keeps cooking the rice so if you leave some to set onto the edges of the bowl, it gets all golden and crispy and delicious) which is one of my favorite Korean foods, so that’s cool.

In other news I’m considering changing my name’s spelling to Meddy since that’s essentially what my name is here. (The “æ” sound is nonexistent in Korean so they change it to a short “e”, the equivalent of 메디 in Hangul.) Okay not really gonna change it but I think it’s kind of cute.

That is all.



Of course we all know it’s essential. How else would we communicate with each other? Yes, there is body language and eye contact and gesturing and tone and all that, but words are still pretty darn important.

I’m really making an effort to use Korean these days, particularly with my boyfriend (to alleviate the burden of communication that he upholds every day by speaking in English with me). In doing so I’m realizing just how scary it is to attempt to produce your own thoughts in another language.

Even though I encourage my students to “just try,” to put themselves out there and just say something in English on a daily basis, it’s… much easier said than done.

As a teacher, of course it’s easy to be delighted by the outgoing, bold kids who just shout out whatever they feel in English, even if it makes no sense, because it’s still an attempt at communication and it helps the student to make progress (plus it’s cute). Of course it’s easy to be frustrated or disheartened by the shy and quiet ones who don’t want to say a single word, even though they actually know enough vocabulary and grammar.

But I am that quiet student who doesn’t want to speak for fear of making a mistake. For fear of embarrassment, of saying something wrong, of the awkward confusion that could result from an error in pronunciation or grammar.

Logically I know that it’s better to just make the effort and let the grammar mistakes roll off my back, to just push through and improve by doing – I know this because I’ve seen the benefits in action countless times – but the fear is really a big obstacle.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that Korean is less forgiving than English (in my opinion) in terms of pronunciation, and less exposed to a variety of sounds since so few foreigners actually speak it.

But mostly it’s fear on my part.

To get back to my original point, I’ve been frustrated as I recognize that the words I choose in Korean (and I have a very limited selection to choose from before resorting to Naver Translate (more accurate than Google)) might have a different undertone or connotation than their English translation. But I have no way of knowing unless I constantly ask, “Is that right? Does it sound natural? Is it too formal? Too stiff? Too casual? Rude? Blunt? Standoffish?”

Do I say “교장선생님이 나한테 얘기했어”? Or “교장선생님이 나에게 말했어”? Technically they both mean “the principal said to me…”, but which is politer? Which is natural in context?

Is it 맞아요, 맞죠, or 맞다? By definition they all mean “Right/Right?,” but there is an appropriate context for the use of each.


Not to say that English doesn’t have a similar mess – sure, English is even more confusing in many regards (I’m sure most of us have read “The Chaos“), and uses a ridiculous amount of slang, borrowed words, and cultural context (almost like inside jokes among all native English speakers), perhaps more than any other language.

But still, Korean is particularly troublesome, where you have a bewildering and treacherous interpersonal minefield of the ‘levels of speech,’ ranging from 반말 (banmal, casual language only for friends) to 존댓말 (jondaemal, polite language) with a million levels in between which make it downright terrifying for a non-native speaker to navigate.

I do think personality can have a lot to do with language learning as well. Extroverted people are more likely to put themselves out there in an effort to get the human interactions that will energize them. For me, and I’m sure many other introverts out there, I’m pretty good at listening, reading, and writing in Korean on a basic level. It’s the speaking that can be overwhelming (so basically exactly the same as English… heh heh).

It’s going to be an uphill battle. Wish me luck.

Noobish mistakes in Korea

While I’m sure I continue to commit cultural faux pas on the regular here, there are a few particularly embarrassing ones that I thought I’d share to perhaps help other noobish expats out. Or just for your amusement.

Most of them occurred very early on in my time here, so don’t judge me too hard.

I shall omit the Getting Lost Incident, which has been previously documented.

1. The taxi incident.

I was taking a taxi to an open class observation at another school which was pretty far away from my own. After managing to get the driver to understand my feeble “[school name] ga juseyo“, I was feeling quite empowered by my clearly amazing Korean abilities. So when he asked me something in Korean to the effect of “do you mean THIS school or THAT school,” I confidently replied 몰라요/mollayo,” which means “I don’t know.”

The driver chuckled in a surprised way and repeated, “몰라요?” “네,” I said, feeling oh-so-proud of myself.

(Luckily for me, the driver knew where the correct school was anyway and dropped me off there with another little chuckle as I handed him the money.)

What I found out MONTHS later is that there are two ways to say “I don’t know” in Korean. 모르겠어요 (mollegesoyo) means “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out/I’m sorry that I don’t know.” 몰라요, which I used, has a connotation of “don’t know don’t care.” LOL. Sorry, Taxi Driver Ajeosshi. Didn’t mean to be rude. At least he found it funny.

2. The bus incident.

I still cringe when I think about this one.

In my first couple days in the city, I decided to attempt to take a bus that I had been told would stop near my school. I wanted to prepare myself for how I would get there come Monday, my first day of teaching. I knew the general area but didn’t know exactly how to get there from my house.

Can I just say that Korean buses. are. terrifying. I can take them now, but I prefer not to for fear of being thrown into the windshield before I have a chance to grab onto something after boarding.

So I got on this bus, and after a couple of stops I realized I was now the only person on the bus. And it seemed like we were going the wrong way (not that I really had any way of knowing).

Worried that I would end up in like another city, maybe, I cautiously approached the bus driver in this empty bus and said in Korean, “Chogiyo, ajeosshi (excuse me, sir),” and then said what I now realize is the Korean equivalent of “Bus go [school name]?”

The gruff bus driver responded with a few grunts and then energetically waved me off at the next stop. He probably thought that I thought that he was some sort of taxi driver who would take me exactly where I wanted to go. Obviously I was just trying to figure out if we were going to get close to my school, but I must’ve seemed like an extremely clueless and/or entitled weirdo with the language skills of a two-year-old.

Anyway then I took a taxi and found my school and was able to work my way backwards to figure out a walking route and it was all fine.

Come to think of it, taxis saved my life more than a few times in the first couple months.

3. The Olive Young incident.

Olive Young is a makeup/beauty products chain and my go-to for buying BB creams and facial masks.

Whenever you check out they’re required to ask a series of rapid questions including “Do you need a bag with handles?”, (if yes) “It costs xyz extra, is that okay?”, “Do you have an Olive Young rewards card?”, and “If you want to return anything, you have to do so by this date.”

Nothing out of the ordinary, but the first time I experienced it, I only understood the “do you need a bag” part. When she said the part about the price, I had no clue what she was saying and just stared at her helplessly, which led to a series of even more confusing attempts at communication as I didn’t know whether to say “yes” or “no” and she didn’t know how to explain it any differently, apparently, so eventually she just charged me for it. Of course, it just so happened that half the population of Daegu was behind me in line, witnessing the whole thing.

Not that this is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen or that it’s the only awkward communication issue I’ve had, but it just illustrates how frequently you can feel completely stupid when you first arrive and don’t know much of the language yet.

Incidentally, I recently had one of the Olive Young cashiers do her spiel entirely in English for me, which impressed me greatly since the location I go to probably doesn’t get many foreigners. I know Koreans have no obligation to speak English to foreigners in Korea, so I always feel warm and fuzzy when they do. Especially in grouchy Daegu.*

*I love Daegu but it’s a little bit of a crusty old man sometimes.

4. The co-teachers incident.

I guess it sounds worse than it is, but it’s still a bit of a faux pas. When I first met my co-teachers I tentatively addressed all of them as, for example, “Kim Seonsaengnim” or “Park Seonsaengnim” (“Teacher Kim”/”Teacher Park”).

Yeah… don’t do that.

I was trying to be respectful, but it just sounds really clumsy and awkward and will probably make your co-teachers feel weird.

Honestly, you should just ask them “What should I call you?”, since some like to go by an English first name, others like to be “(Korean Name) Teacher,” and some (rarely in my experience) like to be “Mister/Miss (Name).”

Personally, when I’m referring to them to the students, I use “(First Name) Teacher” in English, or just the Korean way of referring to other teachers, which is “(Full Name)쌤/Saem.” However ‘saem‘ is technically slang and is a casual, borderline too casual way to say ‘teacher’, so don’t use it right away / unless you hear other teachers using this method. English is the safest bet.

5. The paying incident.

This one is an ongoing cultural muddle for me. In Korean culture, when you go out to eat, traditionally the oldest person pays for everyone in the group (part of the Confucian hierarchy, and I suppose the only beneficial part for younger people, is that older people are supposed to take care of and look out for them). If there’s a round of coffee or dessert after the meal, the younger person can then pay for this smaller bit as a way to say thank you.

There is a “Dutch pay” concept (a.k.a. splitting the bill; somehow “going Dutch” got Konglishified into “Dutch pay”), but it depends on the circumstances and who you’re with.

However, deeply ingrained Western norms about splitting the bill when out with friends or coworkers plus confusion about what is expected from me, as an often-younger yet also foreign person in Korea, make this such an uncomfortable situation for me.

I’ve had many an awkward half-conversation, half-skirting-around-the-topic with my Korean co-teachers, something like “Oh, I can -” “Oh, next time -” “Can I -” “I invited you -” “Half? -” “Don’t worry -” *awkward silence*.

I honestly still have no idea whether I’m supposed to keep completely quiet and just thank them, offer once and then shut up, or continue protesting. I suppose I should try to figure that out.

Okay, there are my Top 5 Embarrassing Moments in Korea. (I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting at the moment.) Thankfully these days I’m a bit better at remembering to avoid most of the faux pas.

Also, though I’m grateful to all the taxis that saved me in the early days, I now avoid taking any form of transportation that is not my own two legs whenever possible. Walking is the one method of getting around that is guaranteed not to stress me out.

On the embracing of music and the acceptance of irrationality

*Edit: So it’s bugging me that I mixed the use of the verb “embracing” and the noun “acceptance” in the title, but I’m not going to change it. I just wanted to note it. In case it’s bugging anyone else.

So here we are in the midst of another week of deskwarming. (Well, here I am. I don’t know where you are.)

Each morning I half-jog through the breathtaking cold to school. I have enough walking time to listen to about 1.3 songs, so I have to choose carefully. These days I’ve been going through Bastille’s “Wild World” album, song by song.

There’s something to be said for learning an entire album by heart and deliberately embracing each of the songs on it, even if you don’t initially like some of them. Not to force yourself to be a “true fan” of a particular group – I dislike that attitude, personally – but to watch and feel how certain songs grow on you. After X number of listens, the lyrics or an inflection in the singer’s voice make you feel something. (You obviously have to start out with an artist you like, though.)

Plus, through repeated and dedicated listening, you get the added benefit of creating a powerful memory capsule embedded in that album, and even if those memories aren’t purely happy ones…

I attempted to write my next sentence several times before realizing that I’m only trying to paraphrase Joe Henry (“God Only Knows”), and he says it better, so:

The worst of life looks beautiful as it slips away in full retreat.

Yesterday I decided to publish my old Yeongju trip post, and I might publish one or two other lingering drafts as I finish up the first round of deskwarming this vacation season.

Next week I have vacation, which I managed to join with the Seollal (Lunar New Year) long weekend to get an even longer vacation.

After that it’s back to school for one of the more absurd aspects of the Korean academic year: the random February week.

The length and purpose of this week varies by school, but for my middle school we will have three random days of class (Thursday, Friday, and Monday in the first week of February) – and not even normal class, but classes that are 10 minutes shorter than the usual time – followed by a graduation ceremony for the 3rd years on Tuesday.

And that’s it. Then we’re back to vacation – “spring vacation” instead of “winter vacation” – until March 2nd.



I really can’t fathom the reason for this, as it needlessly breaks up the much-needed vacation time and accomplishes little to nothing in the way of education for the kids, since A) in 3 days with 35 minutes per class, there’s barely time to delve into any topic and B) they literally will not care since these classes have no bearing on their grades and all they’re thinking about is vacation.

I guess I have it easy, since I believe some elementary schools go for a full week or so. And it’s really not the end of the world to teach a few random classes, I suppose.

But I really dislike irrationality, especially when it’s so deeply and stubbornly ingrained in a system.

(If there is a plausible reason for this week being plopped in the middle of vacation, I will stand corrected.)

Yeongju Festival

Disclaimer: Okay, I wrote this post in September, and yes, that was 4 months ago. I just never got around to polishing it up and adding pictures. But I’m in the process of cleaning out my drafts once again, so I decided to just publish this one anyway. Better late than never.



Last weekend, I joined my favorite co-teacher’s family on a trip to the ‘city’ (more like rural area) of Yeongju (about a 2-hour drive from Daegu – short by American standards, long by Korean standards). They were having an all-day festival, sort of a family fun package deal which included a packed program from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for just 10,000원 (less than $10).

I was really grateful and touched that she invited me, since it was actually the event her extended family had chosen as the location for their quarterly family reunion. Her cousins (or maybe second cousins or cousins once removed? that stuff is confusing enough in English let alone translating from another language) and their kids met us there, 22 people in total. Everyone was very kind and welcoming to me, and I enjoyed being around the craziness that is a group of kids under 10 years old again.

It was basically pure countryside, mountains, and fresh air. Thankfully, the weather was cool and cloudy – perfect for the walking and stair-climbing we were going to do.




It ended up being just our group and a group of high school boys who were on a Saturday field trip with a few teachers and their principal – which was amusing because the boys kept gawking at me (if they’re from a rural area, it’s possible they don’t have a foreign teacher at their school). A few said hello, and one brave soul asked me where I’m from (maybe on a dare from his friends).

The first item on the program was a brief introduction by the program’s leader/tour guide inside what used to be a tiny countryside high school, but has now been converted into a sort of cultural building to be used for programs like this. We then watched a “Little Red Riding Hood” puppet show, performed live but with a blaring prerecorded voice-over / soundtrack. What relevance this had to the rest of the day I’m still not sure, but the young kids seemed to enjoy it. The poor high schoolers were pretty bored, though.

Next we walked to a soybean museum, which was literally just down the road. A brief tour yielded some interesting facts about the different uses of soybeans in Korea vs. in China and Japan. Koreans use A LOT of soybeans in many traditional dishes.

For whatever reason, this museum also had a giant outdoor spiral slide attached to it, starting at the 2nd story roof. Instead of normal slide material, it was called a “roller slide” and the surface was a bunch of rolling metal bars. For anyone in the martial arts world, imagine sliding down a series of metal nunchuks.

My co-teacher convinced me to try it with her against my better judgment, but I was wearing shorts and quickly experienced one of the more severe friction burns I’ve ever received – red, itchy, burning welts from my calves straight up the back of my thighs, and yes, also my bottom (though these were not visible obviously). Whoops. They were fine the next day, mostly.

There was an apple museum practically next door, because I guess Yeongju is famous for really sweet apples.

*Sidenote: Every city or even village in Korea seems to be “famous” for something. It’s a popular and somewhat endearing catchphrase among Koreans when they speak to foreigners – “You will go to Busan? Busan is famous for hwe (sashimi/raw fish).” “If you visit Cheongdo, you must eat persimmons. They are famous.” “I will visit Jeonju. Jeonju is famous for the hanok village.” “Do you know that Daegu is famous for makchang?” I don’t know just how famous all these famous things can possibly be, when there are so many of them, but it’s fun to try all this famous stuff anyway.

Next we headed to one of the highlights of the program: Buseoksa Temple. There were over 120 steps to climb on the way up, and one of my ears was plugged by the time we reached the top of the small mountain. But if you come to Korea, you should be prepared for intensive stair-climbing at just about any temple you visit, so it wasn’t a surprise.

They were really steep though.


And the view was amazing.

The tour guide/program leader had a Polaroid camera and took pictures of every family and small group. My co-teacher insisted I be in their family photo. He took two and gave me a copy.

We stayed at the top for about an hour, because dinner was scheduled at the traditional restaurant just at the bottom of the mountain at 6 p.m. On the slightly-treacherous trek back down (not only because of the very steep, railingless stairs, but also the steep, gravelly path after the stairs), we stopped to buy the aforementioned famous apples from the ajummas selling them on the side of the path. They were indeed very sweet and fresh.

Dinner was mackerel (also apparently a famous dish in Yeongju – not sure why, since it’s not a seaside town), 된장찌개 (soybean paste stew, much better tasting than it sounds), rice, and a variety of vegetable side dishes. We sat on the floor, traditional style. My co-teacher’s 8-year-old son was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to eat because it was all Korean food, which was cute.


After dinner, it was back to ‘base camp’ (the abandoned high school) for a traditional drumming lesson.

In which Maddy discovers she has Absolutely Zero Drumming Ability.

After hardcore failing at learning to drum, I slowly backed away and sat on the sidelines with my co-teacher and a few of the other adults who were over it as well, and watched everyone else.

Now it was 8 p.m., the sun had set, and it was time for the highlight of the evening: a bonfire and lighting Chinese sky lanterns. I got to release one of them with my co-teacher. So pretty.

Then, apparently because I was a special guest because I’m a foreigner, the tour guide announced that the high school principal and I should do the honors of lighting the bonfire. At the same time. Holding the same flaming torch stick. It was about as awkward as it looks.

While we ate the barbeque (which I honestly wasn’t that hungry for considering we’d just eaten a couple hours ago!), a C list magician performed some weak magic tricks (but for 10 bucks, what can you really expect). The adults drank beer. The kids ran around. I found it odd that we kind of abandoned the bonfire right after lighting it – rather than sitting around it, we were facing the opposite direction to watch the magic show.

Then it was time to go. I hovered near the dying bonfire, part of me feeling cozy as I watched my co-teacher’s extended family planning their next reunion and saying their goodbyes, thinking of my own family gatherings and that safe warm feeling you get as you joke around – the other part feeling alarmed that 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds were being allowed to throw things (plastic bottles, soda cans, grass, whatever else they could find) into the fire to see what would happen. Just as I was sure they were going to set the whole field and forest on fire, it was time to bundle into the cars.

“Bye!” shouted a few of the adult cousins cheerfully as I climbed into the back of my co-teacher’s SUV.

After a sleepy and quiet drive home, including a couple of bathroom/rest stops, we arrived back in Daegu near midnight. A long day but a fun one, and a nice chance for me to experience a more casual side of Korean family and culture.

Korea Level 2: CLEARED

Or almost, anyway.

The school year is basically done. There’s a week in the beginning of February during which the 3rd graders will graduate to high school, and we may possibly have some random classes thrown in, but then we continue our winter vacation until the new school year starts on March 2nd.

We just finished up the English camp for Winter 2017.

After some teeth-pulling moments in last summer’s more academic-themed camp (I made the mistake of focusing too much on vocabulary and sedentary projects and not enough on energetic games and activities), I was determined to keep this one in the “fun with a dash of English” zone. The kids at my previous school would’ve been just fine with the sedentary stuff, but my current kids NEED ACTION AND THEY NEED IT NOW.

As always, although 21 students signed up, only 15-18 appeared at any given day or period. Flexibility is the key to teaching ESL in Korea. Or just… the key to life in Korea.

I put them into teams (with their friends, unlike in normal class when they can’t be with their friends because they’ll talk too much) and gave them a series of challenges. Winning or putting in great effort earned them stickers, and at the end of camp, the team with the most stickers earned small gift certificates (provided by my co-teacher).

Fewer English-focused games are nice for mixed level because even the lower level kids have a chance to win at something while there’s a bit of English practice/learning running in the background.

We did things like:

  • Flip Cup. Yes, the drinking game – but instead of drinking I put slips of paper in each cup with questions on them. The students had to read and answer the question before trying to flip their cup. Two teams competed at a time and then we had a final champion round.
  • Balloon Popping Race. Maybe some of us played this as kids at birthday parties. Normally you’d tie a balloon to each kid’s ankle and they try to stomp on each other’s balloons, but I wanted to avoid the possibility of someone getting kicked in the ankle or shin. Instead, we had the kids blow up all the balloons themselves and, before tying them, slip a piece of paper inside with an English word on it. Then we put all the balloons in the center and everyone tried to pop them with their feet. After collecting as many words as possible, they went back to their teams and tried to make the longest grammatically correct sentence they could using as many words as they could, at 1 point per balloon word (no points for filler words).
  • Running Dictations. The classic ESL game. You can find explanations and variations all over the internet, but essentially one student runs to the wall, where an English sentence or story is posted, then back to their teammate to dictate the sentence. Since we had teams of 4-5 kids, we rotated who was running and who was writing after each sentence. *My 1st graders, who also happened to be the lowest level, did have a harder time with this. So for low level students, I’d recommend very simple, short sentences. However, the high level 2nd graders had no problems and really loved it.
  • Paper Airplane Contest. Maybe it sounds too simple, but they had fun with it. I told them they could make their plane however they wanted (showing a step-by-step for the basic paper plane, in case they didn’t know how), then let them decorate it, and then we went out into the hall and took turns throwing them to see whose could fly the farthest.
  • Alphabet Hunt. Some of my kids have already done the ‘photo scavenger hunt’ from previous camps or after-school classes, so I decided to mix it up. I told them to find something beginning with each letter of the alphabet, take a picture of it and write the word down (such as “S”: Student, ” I had some very creative entries for the less common letters, such as “X”: “Xerox” copy machine, “X-Canvas” brand TV, and “xenophile” (one of the girls, unbeknownst to me, made a heart shape with her hands in the foreground with me, the foreigner, in the background inside the heart). (And no, they did not know the word “xenophile”; they looked up “X” words in the dictionary.)

We also did “cooking” for the last part of the last day – and I say “cooking” because we didn’t have access to the cafeteria or any actual cooking tools, so it was more “making snacks.”

We did dirt pudding cups and PB&J sushi rolls. I wanted to keep it simple for the purposes of: A) budget, B) ease of completion, and C) clean-up.

Thus, I chose the dirt pudding recipe that doesn’t involve Cool Whip, milk, powdered sugar, etc. but is literally just Oreo crumbs and pudding. However, to make it more interesting for the kids, we did it parfait style and included the options of layering in granola cereal, strawberries, and bananas with the pudding, then topping with crushed Oreos and gummy worms.

Meh, it’s no Top Chef material but the kids seemed to have fun creating their own combinations.

When it came to the PB&J rolls, the crucial element is, of course, the flattening of the bread via a rolling pin. My co-teacher was only able to procure one rolling pin, and logistically it is just not feasible to have one rolling pin among 18 kids who all need to flatten two pieces of bread… so we improvised. The kids put their bread in a Ziploc bag and smushed it with their hands. It kinda worked, especially for the more determined kids, but I definitely recommend rolling pins. (Or at least soda cans or something.)

At any rate, it was probably their first taste of PB&J as a combination (it’s just not a thing here), and they all seemed to like it, except for the few who don’t like peanut butter and opted for just strawberry jam.

Also, I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth saying again: Koreans just don’t have peanut allergies, so this wasn’t a concern. In fact it’s often quite surprising to them to think of someone having an allergy to nuts (especially a life-threatening one).

TL;DR: If you want your camp to be well-loved, plan lots of active games and always include food.