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.