Six Months.

Six months ago today, I packed my entire life into three suitcases, said goodbye to my family, and got a plane to South Korea. When I left that day, I had no idea what was in store for my new Korean life. There were a million questions left to be answered.  But, as things often seem to, these last six months have been better than I ever expected. I can hardly believe it’s been that long. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun.

On December 31st, my winter break began. After recovering from a New Years Eve that began with eating cheesecake and ended with sleeping on the floor of a Jimjilbang, I spent the first two weeks of January teaching English camps. After finishing the English camps, I was free to use my winter vacation time however I pleased. So, I went home.

On January 16th I flew from Seoul, to Beijing, to Chicago, to Lincoln, making it in time to help celebrate my sister’s birthday. Waking up in Lincoln the next day, it was as if no time had passed. It was like nothing had changed in Nebraska, except for me. It felt like trying to put a puzzle piece somewhere it just didn’t quite fit. Being there was equal parts “Wow, I miss these people” and “Yeah, I know why I left”.  My time at home was filled with good music, great food, and fun family time. But by the time I had to leave, I was ready to get back to Korean life.

Just as I had before, I packed my suitcases, said goodbye to my family, and got a plane to South Korea. But this time, I had no questions. I knew I had my cute yellow apartment to go back to. I knew I had a great school with coteachers I looked forward to seeing. I knew I had a support system of friends waiting to tell me stories of their own winter break adventures.

When I returned to school after my winter break, my After School Friend brought me a gift. He gave me a huge box of instant coffee and two giant apples. He told me that he would like to have lunch with me on every Sunday, and that to him, I was like a granddaughter. I may not have been in Nebraska, but it felt like home, and he felt like family.

On March 2nd, the new school year will begin here at Onsan Elementary School. Sometime in the next month or so, I will have to make the decision of whether or not I will stay in Korea another year. I hate to spoil the surprise, but as of now, I cannot picture myself anywhere else. That doesn’t mean I will stay in Korea forever, but right now, sitting on six months of experience here, I can already tell that a year just won’t be enough. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun.

 

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Different

Living abroad requires a ridiculous amount of adaptability. Being a 22-year-old recent college graduate who once slept on the tile floor of a church in Macau, China with nothing but a towel for a blanket, I would say I am very adaptable. There have been many instances during my time here that I have had to take a breath and remind myself that just because something is different, doesn’t mean its bad. In fact, it may mean it is better. One great example of this for me was Christmas.

If you have met me for one second, you know that my family is very important to me. I talk to my mother almost every morning, which sometimes makes  me feel like a huge lameo. But, as a friend recently pointed out to  me, I am getting to the age that being close with my mom has started to become cool again. I feel lucky that I have a family that I can and want to talk to very frequently, but this also means that some things are harder for me. Missing things like birthdays, rock shows, and even family dinners can really suck. Being away from my family on Christmas was not easy. But, just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s bad. And even though I didn’t get to participate in our family’s annual Christmas poker tournament, I still had a wonderful Christmas.

In Korea, Christmas is more like Valentine’s Day than a family Holiday. I only got one day off for Christmas,  which honestly was fine because I had already watched Love Actually enough times that week. I did Christmas lessons with my students all week, which were hilarious for many reasons. The reactions to Santa were priceless, and even though I’m pretty sure it didn’t translate, they seemed to think The Grinch was funny. I gave my coworkers Christmas cards. And, due to an awkward denied hug situation, was reminded that Koreans don’t like hugs as much as Nebraskans do.

In some ways, I spent Christmas like I normally do. I opened presents, sang Christmas carols, and drank entirely too much wine. I watched Christmas movies, ate a lot of carbs, and argued with someone about politics. But, as my coteacher so blatantly put it “Koreans don’t care about Christmas.” Downtown was busy with couple going on dates. Stores and restaurants sold teddy bears and flowers for boyfriends who needed last minute gifts. Everywhere from shopping malls to movie theaters were packed with people, celebrating Christmas in their own Korean way. It was definitely different, but it was also great.

I missed my family, but I felt incredibly happy to be in Korea with the family I have created here. That’s the thing about travel, though. It’s about sacrificing time with family and the comfort of home for something that is so much greater.

It is the last day of December, and I can’t help but reflect on 2015. This year wasn’t easy. I suffered great loss and experienced a lot of change. But I can honestly say that all of the paperwork and time and stress that went in to creating this adventure was so worth it. 2016 will be different, but that doesn’t mean it will be bad. In fact, I think it’s going to be even better.

My After School Friend

I am closing in on month 4 of my Korean adventure, and my blog posting has begun to dwindle. This is probably a combination of laziness, and the fact that the longer I am here, the more things just seem “normal.” Whatever may be interesting or extraordinary for someone in the states has become my every day life. So, instead of trying to catch you up on almost a month’s worth of goings-on, I will tell you the story of my favorite thing to have happened in Korean thus far.

There is an old man who works at my school and acts as a security guard of sorts. From what I have come to understand, he stays over night looking after the school on a sort of volunteer basis. It’s hard to miss him as he slowly walks around the school, silently observing students and teachers alike. The strangest thing about it, though, is that for reasons I do not understand, his English is great. And so, we have become After School Friends.

On Wednesdays, he comes into my classroom around 3:00 p.m. and we have conversations in English. He will ask me various things about the English language. For instance, how the words “wrong” and “long” sound differently. One day he came in, sang me an entire song in English, which included the words “sun burnt hands.” He then wrote the phrase on the board and asked me what it meant. I always look forward to our exchanges and to answering his questions. But last week, he took it to another level.

He brought me a letter addressed to Hillary Clinton and asked me to proofread it for him. The letter explained this man’s plan for how Hillary should join the United States and Canada together to defeat China. After I finished reading it, he asked me to give it to her directly. He had heard I would be traveling to the United States soon and asked if I would make sure “Her Excellency Hillary Clinton” got the letter. I told him I would try my best.

He then continued to tell me that if I want to, I should run for President of the United States. He said, “I can tell by your face that you can do anything you want to do, if you try hard.”

I have a lot of questions for my After School Friend. Why does he love Hillary Clinton? Why does he want me to run for President? What is his name? But, for now I will simply choose to look forward to our Wednesday meetings, and hope he brings me more letters for Hillary.

 

Halloween

There are many ways in which I am certainly beginning to adopt facets of Korean culture. However, at least once a day, there is something that makes my being a foreigner absolutely blatant. For instance, each time a student sneezes and I impulsively say “bless you”, I receive a confused and uncomfortable glance. Or there was the time I gave in to my Nebraska-like nature and attempted to greet a coworker with a hug, only to be openly rejected. In Korea, foreigners are referred to  as “Waygooks.” My waygook-ness manifests itself in many ways. But nothing made it more obvious than last week as I taught my students about Halloween.

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea. So, as a person who would define herself as a Halloween entusiast, I took it upon myself to share the joy of Halloween with all of my students. And by “share the joy” I mostly mean give all of them candy so that they love me more. I planned elaborate lesson plans that involved candy, games, and video clips from my favorite Halloween movies. I was worried that showing Nightmare Before Christmas to some of my younger students my be too scary for them, but I was assured by my Coteacher that it would be okay. This was proven to me when he decided to show Insidious, a movie that scared the shit out of me as a college freshman, to a group of 2nd and 4th graders. As I cowered at my desk, the little kids laughed.

My Halloween parties included some of my most favorite teaching moments so far. The kids were so excited to learn about Halloween. And the more questions they asked, the more I realized how strange Halloween actually is. Nonetheless, we had a great time. I allowed my students to perform tricks to win candy. This included a performance of Korea’s National Anthem that had me doubled over in laughter. Along with this were many Kpop dances, Tae Kwon Do demonstrations, and a group of 6th graders who thought their best bet at winning candy was just to compliment me. My favorite is tied between the girl who said “Sam Teacher is beautiful like a flower” and the boy who said “Sam Sam, will you marry me?”

It  became completely apparent to me last week that Halloween in the US is different than Halloween anywhere else.  As my fellow American friends and I recounted our Halloweens past, Koreans, and even non-American foreigners didn’t really seem to get the hype. As my Coteacher put it, “So, you just get drunk and eat candy in a costume?” Though I found it hard all week to explain why, to me, Halloween is a very important holiday. And, to me, it doesn’t get much better than drinking and eating candy while in costume.

Before I came here, I predicted that the times I would miss home most would be over Holidays. But during Halloween, I  found this to be untrue. There is something to be said about growing up in a country that celebrates Halloween so intensely. There is a comfort in the pumpkin patch visits, elaborate decorations, and unspoken acceptance of ridiculous Halloween shenanigans. There is something special about the weird Halloween traditions we so blindly put on every year. But there is something even more special about getting to share those weird traditions with my Korean students.

I Will Never Be a Teacher

Very early on in my life, my father made the declaration that I was destined to work with children. Because of my general stubbornness and the fact that a large majority of my family members are teachers, I have always responded, “I will never be a teacher!!!” I have said “never!” to being an educator my entire life. In college, I studied Political Science, which, to me, was about as far from education as a person can get. And yet, four years later, here I am. Teaching.

One of the many goals I’ve had for myself has always been to live overseas. And after studying here, I knew Korea was where I wanted to be. When I began the EPIK process, teaching was just a way to get back to the country that I love so much. I figured I wouldn’t hate teaching. I figured I’d be good at it. I figured that if my grandpa, my parents, and various aunts and uncles could do it, some of their teaching talent must have rubbed off on me. But I completely underestimated how much I would love it.

I am now two months into this experience. I have spent my time going on plenty of adventures with great friends, usually involving soju. Overall, Korea is just as great as I remembered, and I love it for most of the same reasons that I loved it when I was here last summer. Which are mostly food related. But the difference is that this time around, I feel like I am doing something truly meaningful. I have a job that matters.

In Korea, teaching is one of the most respected professions. This country values education more than almost anything else. My students want to learn and my coworkers value my perspective. I get gratification everyday from the people who surround me at Onsan Elementary School. I have a job that I can get excited about. Though being in Korea is a great adventure, the greatest adventure is everyday when I see progress and excitement in my students. This might just be because I give out candy and stickers like it’s going out of style, but hey, I’ll take it.

As much as it pains me to admit it, I am beginning to see why my father saw this as my destiny so many years ago. I find myself using my mother’s teacher voice to get my students’ attention almost everyday. When my friends and I meet for the occasional after school drink, a large percentage of our conversations have to do with the hilarious things that happen to us during the school day. Just as I am becoming more acclimated to this culture and my small Korean vocabulary is beginning to grow, I am also becoming more of a teacher.

These last two months have flown by, but they haven’t necessarily been easy. In light of recent events, being away from home has been harder than I ever imagined. But no matter how far away from my home and my family and Amigos I am, having a career that gives me purpose makes it worth it.

The other day, I was sitting at my desk. A first grade student whose English is almost as terrible as my Korean walked up to me, said “jelly” and gave me a bag of gummy bears. In that moment, all of the loneliness, or dare I say homesickness that may have existed in me went away. Because it reminded me that I am doing something that gives me purpose. And having purpose makes any great adventure even greater.

Love You More

My greatest blessing was given to me the moment I was born. I was born a Heibel. Each day it becomes more apparent to me how special my family is. My weird, crazy, somewhat unstable family. Through everything and in everything one thing has remained: I have a support system like no one else’s. And I was lucky enough to be born into mine.

Growing up Heibel, everything had a theme. Every family gathering, whether a birthday party or hot dog eating contest, was meticulously planned by my grandma. Marj would send out invitations with hand written poems inviting us to whatever reason she had come up with to have a party. She obsessed over our relationships with eachother, doing everything she could to foster close friendships among the kids. This usually involved some sort of ridiculous performance or game. A personal favorite of mine was the time that she made us have a snowball fight with marshmallows because there was  no snow on Christmas. This cute and fun idea quickly turned violent as one kid held another down and pelted him in the face with the tiny white balls. My grandma claimed that up until the time she moved out of that house, some ten years later, she was still finding marshmallows.

Marj and Po were in the front row of every single choir concert, dance recital and basketball game. Which, between the eight of us, was a lot. I will never forget the sound of my grandpa’s booming voice as he’d enter the Lincoln Lutheran gym and yell out “SAMANTHA” in an equal parts attempt to embarrass me and and show affection. They believed in our talent so much that every Christmas we would have a talent show. Noteable performances include when my dad and a 3-year-old me sang “I Got Stripes” by Johnny Cash, when my sister taught Jesse ballet, and when, every year, my grandma and grandpa would sing the same silly duet together, always arguing over who would sing which part.

As we’ve grown older, things have changed. We no longer pretend to be olympic gymnasts on balance beams or compete to win little boxes of cereal. But through all of the noise and conflict of life, we have never lost the thing that Marj instilled in us so deeply: that family is something to cling to, and that no matter what, we need to love each other.

The last time I saw Marj she was the happiest I had seen her in years. It was the most of us that had been together in a long time, and she beemed with pride for all of us. Before I left, she told me how special I was, how happy she was for me, and how proud she knew Po would be. Though I never said it, I think she always knew, we were all so proud of her too.

I am what feels like one million miles away from my family, and the loneliness that comes with grief feels a million times lonelier. But I find comfort and cling to the security that she found in the word and with our family. Because the love that exists in our family, that she created, is a blanket that reaches all the way to South Korea.

I already miss her, but my own sadness is outweighed  by the knowledge that she has found peace. I will never forget the pride she found in watching us grow closer and in the ambition that took us apart. I will never forget the love that she and Po had, and how it overflowed into our parents lives and our lives. But more than anything, I will never forget how blessed I am to be a Heibel.

Rest in peace, Grandma. Love you more.

Chuseok

I have just returned home from Chuseok, and though my body has not fully recovered, I am left with one million amazing memories after the long weekend. Chuseok is Korean Thanksgiving, which I spent relaxing on the beach and exploring Busan with some great friends. Though I currently have no voice, a tired body, and a sore right arm, I would describe the weekend with one word: perfect.

I arrived in Busan around 10 am on Saturday morning. Though we were told by many that Chuseok traffic would be crazy, we were able to make it to Busan in about 45 minutes by bus. Our hostel was a very short walk from Haeundae beach, which is the most popular beach in South Korea. It is beautiful and clean, and the water is freezing cold. Once we were settled in, we ate lunch at a Canadian sports bar. After my first Bloody Mary in a month and some free shots, we made our way to the beach. We played Korean drinking games and bonded over the beautiful view.

After a Japanese dinner and a couple (or more) bottles of soju, I found myself sitting on a beach, wearing a glowing pink hair bow, watching my friends join in the Korean tradition of lighting off fireworks to celebrate Chuseok. We continued to adventure to a few different bars making many new friends along the way. The best part of the night, however, came at about 2:30 am. As I walked back to the beach from a nearby bar, I came across a cat, a rabbit, 2 hedgehogs and a pig. These animals were just hanging out near a tree just off the beach. Of course, I played with them for what seemed like hours as a new Korean friend taught me the word for each of the animals, all of which I quickly forgot.

Saturday morning we ventured out to Gamcheon Cultural village. Though I was tired (and a bit hungover) this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The village was previously a site for refugees during the Korean War. In 2009, the South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism turned the village into a creative community. The small concrete buildings were painted bright colors and the street was covered in graffiti. It was humbling to see something that was once so dark turned into something beautiful.

Saturday afternoon was spent eating street food and relaxing on the beach. Just so you know, Korean corn dogs are way better than American corn dogs. Of course, we went out Saturday night. I had Mexican food for the first time in a month, which was life-changing. It was no Amigos, but you take what you can get. After a drink in a bag, some beach bonding time, and a night that can only be described as chaotic, I returned to our hostel only to find we were locked out. We sat on the steps til about 5 am, and only after help from a nearby restaurant owner, a random Korean man, and a few police officers, we were able to get in.

The weekend was crazy. It was thrilling and overwhelming and tiring. But more than that, it was perfect.  By Monday I found myself ready to return to my little yellow apartment in Onsan. After a long weekend with great friends, many drinks, and a few too many adventures, I was ready to be home. I am so thankful for the new people I’ve met, the ways that we’ve bonded, and the memories we’ve already shared. But more than anything, this Korean Thanksgiving, I am Thankful that my little yellow apartment is really beginning to feel like a home.

Adultish

The early twenties transition from college to real life is a very scary thing. My friend group spent the majority of our last year of college ignoring the inevitable end of what we thought was the best time of our lives. Though living in the land of $5 All-You-Can-Drink night was fun while it lasted, by the end I was ready for a new adventure. I was ready to feel like a little more of a grown up. When I drove away from Maryville for the last time, knowing that I would most likely never go back, I focused more  on the adventure waiting in my future than the Mug Nights I would be missing. This outlook made my transition a little less painful. But I continually find that the second I complete some task that makes me feel like a real adult, there is always something that quickly reminds me that I am not quite there yet. I am adultish.

Last Saturday night I was at one of the few foreigner bars in Ulsan. It takes me about 30 minutes by bus to get downtown. Which, if you are familiar with how challenged I am directionally, you know it is a miracle I can get around at all. I was having a conversation with a fellow teacher about the United States’ education system, in which I used anecdotes I had heard my teacher parents say and all the facts and figures I could remember from the State and Local Politics class I took my senior year of college. I was feeling intelligent and witty, until I looked down and realized my dress was on backwards. Adultish.

Last week, I was very sick. It was no illness I hadn’t dealt with before, but my symptoms were the worst I’ve experienced in years. I was miserable, hoping that it would just magically go away on its own. But once my coteachers began to ask if I was okay, I realized I needed to do something about it. This was my first “oh, shit, I’m really alone” moment. I’m not in Nebraska where my dad will make me mashed potatoes and my mom will bribe me into making a doctor’s appointment. I’m not in Maryville where I could con a friend or roommate into bringing me home soup from Happy Garden. I am on my own, completely. After feeling sorry for myself for a short minute, I found a pharmacy close to my house and got the medicine I needed. Out of fear or laziness or whatever, it took me 5 days to figure out that there was an English speaking pharmacist one block from my house.

As of now, I am feeling pretty settled here. I have been in Korea for one month. And though the time has gone quickly, each day I feel more acclimated to life here. Every time I take the bus I’m a little less close to almost missing my bus stop. Life as an expat English teacher is still somewhat stuck in the vortex of early-twenties-almost-adulthood. But there are many things about it that make me feel pretty adulty. I now have my Alien Registration Card, which means I’m almost a real Korean. I have a Korean bank account, a Korean cell phone, and am about to receive my first pay check. This all feels very grown up to me. On top of this, after 3 weeks of living in my little yellow apartment in Onsan, I have finally figured out how to use my stove. I am adultish. 

Korean Surprise

Though it may not seem like it because of my often mismatched socks and my frequent irresponsible decision making, I am a person who likes control. I am the person that will gladly do all of the work in a group project. I am the person that does my work in advance. I like making lists. I like planning ahead, doing things on my own, and knowing the outcome before it happens. I have come to terms with the fact that living in the land of the Korean Surprise will be a growth experience for me.

The Korean Surprise is a phenomenon every GET (Guest English Teacher) is familiar with. Korean Surprise: a group of students shows up for a class you didn’t know existed. Korean Surprise: your landlord, drops by to paint your bathroom in the middle of the night. Korean Surprise: your principal offers you rice wine at 2:00 pm, while still at work. No matter how it appears, the Korean Surprise can be a difficult thing for people like me.

I showed up for my first day of teaching feeling incredibly inadequate. I didn’t know the students, the textbook, or even my coteacher very well. I stood in front of my first class, saying a silent prayer that maybe some of the talents of the many teachers in my family had rubbed off on me.

In an attempt to make me feel better, I once had someone compare dancing to teaching. I was told that if I could get in front of large crowds for so many years and perform dances, some of which I choreographed, then I could teach a group of students. Dancing never made me nervous. But for some reason, teaching did. On that first day I felt, for lack of a better term, scared shitless.

People have often called me brave for wanting to move to a foreign country to teach English. That is nothing compared to the courage it takes to stand in front of a group of kids and try to teach them about something they are so far removed from. I feel like a child behind the wheel of a car. However, I got through that first lesson. And my second lesson was a little better. And now, a week after I’ve started work, I feel like I can actually do this. And as my dad pointed out, the feeling of being a child behind the wheel of a car never really goes away.

Though the uncontrollable Korean Surprise has brought a few stressful situations, it has brought on so many more happy ones. On the bus last weekend, an old man came up to me, said “USA”, and gave me a thumbs up. We had a bilingual conversation that mostly made no sense. Yesterday afternoon, I got back to my desk after lunch and had been left a bundle of grapes and 5 ride cakes from an anonymous friend. Last week, as I bolted out of the grocery store near my apartment out of embarrassment of my terrible Korean, I was chased down by a man because one of my bracelets had fallen off. Say what you will about Nebraskans being hospitable and nice, but never in my life have I experienced random acts of kindness like I have in Korea.

At times, everything about my life seems daunting. Even going to the grocery store is intimidating. But instead of letting the language barrier or the Korean Surprises or how much I miss Mexican food darken my perspective, I am choosing to look at it as part of the adventure. Korean Surprise: I love Korean Surprises.

The Mountain

I have officially completed EPIK Orientation and real teacher life is about to begin. Between the orientation classes, endless kimchi, and occasional bottle of Soju, I’ve barely had time to process the fact that I am actually here. It’s even crazier to think I’ll be here for a whole year (or more). But so far, I am so overwhelmingly excited about this experience.

Before I came here, I tried to picture the type of people who would go on an adventure like this, and it was a little hard to do. But, as a good friend predicted, they’ve all turned out to be people quite like me. There were about 50 other Ulsan EPIK teachers at orientation with me. These people come from 7 different English speaking countries, including Canada, South Africa, and even another Nebraskan. They range from education newbies (like me) to people with years of impressive classroom experience. We are from all different walks of life, the thing binding us together being exactly what we’ll be teaching: English. To me, that is pretty amazing.

If you’ve kept up with me at all over the last year, you know that the application process for the EPIK program has not been easy. The last seven months have had a constant anxious shadow as I waited to find out if I would actually be moving to Korea. Of course, to give myself a little confidence, I told everyone OF COURSE I was going to Korea. But in actuality, I didn’t really know.

Though the application process was strenuous and discouraging at times, I see now that it was absolutely worth it. EPIK is a very competitive program. But it is competitive for a reason. Orientation has been mixture of summer camp and basic training, listening to lectures and working on lesson plans for about 12 hours each day. Though there were many “it depends” situations, I feel I’m about as prepared as I could be. 

I am experiencing a moment-to-moment jump between “maybe I can pull off this whole teacher thing” and “wow I have no clue what I’m doing”, but the excitement and anticipation has failed to cease.

When I arrived in Ulsan today, I was overcome with one million emotions. I was ridiculously tired (don’t worry, I found coffee), nervous to meet my coteacher (don’t worry, he is great), and anxious to see my school (don’t worry, it’s beautiful). Above all, I was astounded that after a year of chasing after this dream that seemed unattainable, it was finally happening. I am in a coffee shop in Onsan drinking coconut bubble tea. I am (taking a break from) writing a less plan. I am an EPIK teacher in Ulsan, South Korea. My home is a cute little one bedroom apartment in Onsan with a yellow kitchen. On one side, I have a coffee shop, a pizza place, and a norebang. On the other side is a massive, beautiful mountain. Just down the street is my school, equipped with all the stickers and colored pencils a teacher could ask for.

My apartment may not have wifi yet and I may not have enough closet space, but those things are minuscule compared to the joy it is to have this opportunity. Every time I want to complain about orientation curfew or the humid weather or the lack of shitty Mexican food in my life, I take a step back to look at the mountain of adventure waiting for me in this new life. And though it may be daunting, I cannot wait to climb it.