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.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

Bravery.

In case you don’t know, in less than two months I am moving to South Korea to teach English with the EPIK program. Over the last year, I have been working my booty off to make my dream of living abroad come true. As of now, I have no idea where in Korea I’ll be, what age I’ll be teaching, or when exactly I’m leaving. I just know that I have been accepted into this amazing program, I will be in South Korea, and I will begin teaching on September 1st. Though the ambiguities of this adventure are some what intimidating, I am absolutely sure this is what I’m meant to do. All I have to do is wait.

I am preparing for the biggest adventured ever experienced in my 22 years. And as I share the details of the adventure with the people around me, I continually receive the same three questions, and give the same three answers.

1. Why?

Ever since I was a small child, I have wanted to live abroad. I have wanted adventure. But it wasn’t until I was 18 that I was finally given the opportunity to travel overseas. This opportunity manifested itself as a summer in Hong Kong with a group of strangers. Though it was a drastic first experience abroad, it completely solidified to me that I would do everything I could to travel. Last summer, I was able to study abroad in Ulsan, South Korea. Along with the general craziness of study abroad life, I got to experience the amazing culture of South Korea. Through the program, I was connected to EPIK. And shortly after returning to the United States, I began the process of getting a job teaching.

2. How does your family feel about this?

My family is so incredibly supportive of this crazy dream of mine. To them, the idea of me living abroad just makes sense. Though my parents have never traveled outside of the good ol’ US of A, from the moment I declared I was moving overseas after college, they have been supportive. They may be reluctant to visit. They would probably be more comfortable having me live in the same time zone as them. But they respect my goals and are almost as excited as I am about this opportunity.

3. You’re so brave!

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told I’m brave for moving to South Korea, I’d be able to buy a lot of McDonald’s Double Cheeseburgers. Perhaps to the average person, or at least to the average Nebraskan, the idea of moving abroad by yourself is scary. But to me, it isn’t. And I don’t really think it’s brave to do something that doesn’t scare me. I am a firm believer in fate. And over the past year, any time I have gotten weary of this tedious process, positive forces in my life have pushed me towards this dream of mine. To be honest, I am still amazed that this opportunity that seemed to fall into my lap. And I refuse to waste it. Starting over half way across the world doesn’t make me brave. Maybe it makes me adventurous. But what’s life without a little adventure?