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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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.

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.

The Great Life

The Great Life

One year ago, I returned to the United States after the best month of my life. I had just finished studying abroad in South Korea. Upon my return to Nebraska, which is known as The Good Life, I declared to my parents that in one year, after I graduated college, I would move to Korea. My mother had a miniature panic attack and my father scoffed in disbelief as they welcomed me home with love, laughter, and food from my favorite Mexican restaurant.

Here I am, one year later. I am sitting on an airplane back to the place I have missed so dearly to begin a career as an ESL teacher with the EPIK program. A year ago, when I made the declaration that I would be teaching English in Korea, the concept seemed slightly far fetched. Graduating college, applying to the EPIK program, and preparing for life abroad have all presented me with many challenges. There were times when I began to think that this dream was too ridiculous, and that maybe I should just settle for The Good Life in Nebraska.

Nebraska would be comfortable. I could go to graduate school or get a decent job. I would be near the people that I love most and get to eat at that Mexican restaurant as much as I wanted. But over the last year, every time something has gotten in my way that seemed unmovable, certain opportunities have continually pushed me towards my goal.

Small, but promising signs have popped up everywhere. The more people in my life looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to live overseas, the more motivation I had to make it happen for myself. And now, after a year of constant anxiety about every single aspect of this adventure, I sit on this airplane. Achieving this goal is absolutely the most satisfying thing I have ever experienced.

I believe that in order to be truly happy, one has to find purpose. Whether that purpose is being a supportive parent, a loving partner, or an inspiring role model, every purpose is equally as important and impactful. For me, right now, my most important purpose does not exist in The Good Life. And that may change. But for right now, my purpose exists in a school in South Korea. And I know that no matter how hard it is to be away from The Good Life, that purpose will allow me to be happy and fulfilled.

Before I left for this great adventure of mine, my mother gave me a bracelet she made me. On it is a charm that said The Good Life. She told me by wearing it, I could carry a part of the Good Life with me wherever I traveled.

For me, The Good Life,  and Nebraska, hold so much. It holds my wonderful family and some great local bands and a whole lot of memories. It holds my hilarious nephew and my sweet niece. It holds the best shitty Mexican food a person can find. It holds the entirety of my support system, cheering so loud for me I can hear them from halfway across the world.

It’s not that I don’t love The Good Life. It’s that I’m searching for the Great Life. And for me, the Great Life starts with this great adventure.