My Hometown in 500 words: Alexandria, Virginia

“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”        – John Ed Pearce

After twenty years of living in the same state I boarded a plane for Seoul, South Korea. I haven’t been back in over fourteen months. I still have a pristine album of home lodged in my mind’s eye. As if anything I’ve seen recently could contend with two decades of memories. I shut my eyes and flip through the pages when I catch a rough feeling of homesickness.

On this page a coffee stain frames our 1960’s kitchen. My mother left it there. She never misses her two-cup appointment with the best café in the world. My family’s morning always starts in the kitchen. Not in our bedrooms or even the bathroom. We are truly awake when the caffeine hits our lungs.

Outside the kitchen lies the sleepy street where I chased my little sister through our neighbors’ flower beds. On our grey steps outside our front doors I would listen to my father play his recorder.

I grab my car keys and hold our sable corgi back with one leg while trying to squeeze by. My parents shout in unison, “Lock the door!”

Photo by: matcrazy1

Nothing feels more like freedom than speeding a few miles over the limit, windows down, and bass turned up. Decreasing the momentum and volume as I enter the roundabout in front of Mount Vernon, I quickly catch up. The George Washington Memorial Parkway is always beautiful during fall. I’ll take twenty minutes of uninterrupted beauty over Route 1’s convenience.

Slowing down again as I enter Old Town, I take a right down Franklin St. to avoid the stop lights posted every two blocks. This neighborhood seems almost too quiet. Million dollar, brick town houses guard their owners’ privacy so well cars parked along the street are the only indicators that people actually life here.

Closer to the Potomac, the activity picks up. I welcome any stop to allow me a quick, distracted glance around. It takes sharp eyes to find a free parking space. I dread the tight spots next to Founders Park. I would let my best friend park for me…if she knew how to drive stick.

Photo by: Crowne Plaza, Old Town Alexandria

This is our dominion. We’ve annexed the Starbucks on King St., the Torpedo Factory, and the park. It’s not too much to take. The city council can keep the boardwalk and the rest of the city. We just want these three places to discuss our important topics: coffee, art, and life.

I could turn the page and visit King St. during the winter when all the trees white, Christmas light dresses. I could take the car back down the Parkway and turn off at Fort Hunt Park for a spring picnic. Or I could turn to the countless Fourth of Julys spent watching fire works explode on the street in front of our family friend’s house.

I left home right after university. I don’t plan to return permanently for a while. I know I can always visit when I remember. When I am older maybe I’ll go back for good.

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Korea or Bust Interviews: Sarah

I met Sarah about nine months ago on a Christmas skiing trip in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She struck me as an easy going gal that liked to unplug from daily life and have some fun. It turns out this 24-year-old, or 26-year-old if you’re counting by Korea’s method, would become a great friend and guide to navigate me through the blogosphere. Check Sarah out at her blog Mapping Words or her Twitter.

You studied at Pratt, right?

I studied at Pratt, but I was an exchange student my junior year at Korea National University of Arts.

Oh, How long was that for? 

I stayed here six months. The semester lasted four months, but then I stayed for the summer.

Did you live in Seoul?

Yeah, I lived right where I live now. I was kind of pissed about it. With EPIK, they can place you anywhere in Seoul, because I got accepted into Seoul. I think they saw on my application that I’d already studied at KNUA and they placed me in the same area, probably thinking, “Oh, she liked it then. Let’s place her in the same area.” It’s in north-east Seoul.

What did you study?

I studied art education and fine arts. In Korea, just fine arts.

Have you had any shows in Korea?

I did have one show in Insadong. It was a group show. It was in a really small gallery called J Gallery. There were four artists. I just showed a couple of pieces. That was fun.

So, you were doing university and you studied abroad here for six months. What drew you back?

Well, there are so many opportunities to work in Korea and I felt like six months was pretty short. I had already started learning Korean. I felt I could go back and get a pretty good job in the public schools, I could keep learning Korean, and I had friends here. Also, I had a boyfriend then. We planned to come back here together. That wasn’t the only reason why I wanted to come back to Korea, though. When we were thinking about how we could be together, Korea was a good option.

Why Korea?

Well, when I was an exchange student, there weren’t that many [study abroad] options. There were a few in Europe, Japan, and Korea. I decided I wanted to go to the place that’s the most different from where I’m from. I wanted to challenge myself. That’s why I originally came to Korea. I didn’t really know anything about Korea before I came here. I had one Korean-American friend, I had met some Koreans, and I had tried Korean food. Other than that, I didn’t know much about Korean culture.

How do you stay active?

I like to stay busy. So, I’m always looking for things to do in Seoul. There is so much available for expats here. I’ve been here a year and a half, but I’ve done Bikram yoga, Hatha yoga, pole dancing, zumba, hiking, and weekend trips outside of Seoul. A lot of these [activities] I just find on the internet or through friends. I meet up with different friends a lot and go to different parts of the city. There are so many events posted all the time. You really have to choose what you want to do, because there are so many options.

Where have you gone hiking in Korea?

I’ve been to many places in Seoul, like Dobong-san and Surak-san. But I’ve also been to Seorak-san in Gangwon-do. I’ve been down South on this jagged ridge-island hiking trip, which was really cool. I went to Jiri-san. I went hiking on Halla-san on Jeju. I’ve been to the three biggest mountains and various others.

Where have you travelled around in Asia?

I’ve been to China for three weeks. I went to Beijing, Yunnan Province, and Xi’an because I had three weeks of vacation last year in the summer. I really wanted to take advantage of it. Then, this year I went to Taiwan for two weeks and Japan for two weeks. In Japan, I went to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Which one has been your favorite? Why?

They’re all so different. But I guess some of my best experiences were in Taiwan. I had such a great time because of the people I met, and I couchsurfed. I also couchsurfed in Beijing. Both times have been really awesome experiences because I stayed with local families and they took me to see things that I would never see on my own. In Beijing, we went to a Beijing duck restaurant that only local people really know about. We went biking through the hutongs. I learned a lot about Chinese culture and modern family life in Beijing. It was pretty cool.

So you would definitely recommend couchsurfing?

Yeah, definitely! Some of my best moments traveling have been through couchsurfing.

Did you couchsurf in Japan?

No I didn’t. I wanted to, but I couldn’t find many people who were offering space when I was there. Honestly, I didn’t really look that hard. I did put a notice up on my profile. This thirty-five year old man messaged me “Hey I’d like to drink sake with you.” I responded no thanks. Other than that no one messaged me. Later, I would definitely like to.

What has been your most memorable experience since you’ve been living in Asia?

Let me think. There’s this one ajumma at my work that I talk to a lot. She doesn’t speak English but she’ll invite me over to her house, we’ll go hiking together, she’ll cook for me, and she’s so cute. Even though there’s definitely a language barrier and sometimes it takes a little while to understand what she is saying or for her to understand what I’m saying, she’s not shy to talk to me. A lot of Koreans are. They feel like they have to speak English to me. That’s been a really good experience because it just shows that I feel really comfortable with her trying to speak Korean. I feel really good afterwards when I’ve actually communicated something.

For places in Korean that I’ve been, I really loved that island hiking trip on Saryang-do. It was on the Southern tip of Korea. It was just a really beautiful place and the scenery was really gorgeous. The people on the trip were really cool.

Some of my best experiences were when I was a studying as an exchange student. Everything was new and exhilarating. I developed some great relationships with both Koreans and foreigners, many who I’m still friends with.

How did your experience change after you returned to work?

It changed a lot! When I was a student here, I was studying all the time. I had tons of free time. I could work in my studio, I could travel on the weekends. I made Korean friends at school. I also met my boyfriend at the time. He was an exchange student. We would go places together all the time. We went to Busan, Jeju-do, Gyeong-ju, the Incheon islands, and all over. It was the honeymoon stage [of culture shock] experiencing Korea, but in a new relationship too. Everything was just great, I loved Korean food, I had all these new friends, and I could make art all the time. I was learning so much about Korean culture from the ground level.

When I came back to Korea, I started feeling more culture shock and learning about the parts of Korean society that I’m not necessarily drawn to or really feel connected to. I have no right to say [Korea] should be this way or it should be that way, but sometimes the standards of beauty, materialism, and my co-workers always talking about dieting wears on me a bit. Sometimes age relationships at work are a bit awkward. I had an ajusshi co-worker and I pretty much I had to do all the planning—which is fine, but then he would just decide what he wanted to do during class. I could make all these games, but then he might spend twenty minutes talking in Korean about Jesus and poop. All my plans would go out the window, and sometimes the students didn’t have a chance to speak any English. That was a bit frustrating. I’ve definitely learned a lot about Korean culture because I’m working in a public school environment.

Going off that tangent, would you consider yourself a passive observer or a lot more involved?

I wouldn’t consider myself a tourist. Since I’ve lived here for a year and a half now, I feel comfortable where I live. I’m still aware that every time I walk out of my apartment people stare at me because of my appearance. That’s not going to change no matter how long I live in Korea. In my neighborhood, they don’t see foreigners very often. Sometimes I get discouraged because I feel so comfortable living here, but I’ll still never really be accepted.

I do like to travel. For example, visit other parts of Korea, go to new places that are appealing. I don’t really see that as touristy, more like exploring my surroundings.

Going off what you said about people staring at you. Have you fully adjusted to that? Does it still catch you sometimes?

 Now, I’m used to it–I’m a foreigner. I live on the outskirts of Seoul, so people always speak to me in Korean. They either don’t speak English or they’re not comfortable speaking English–Which is fine, because I don’t want people to feel like they need to speak in English to me. I’m more aware when I’m in areas with large foreign populations, like [Haebangchon]. Yesterday, I needed to put more money on my T-Money card to swipe out [of the subway]. I asked the man working near the exit to put more money on my card. He said, “In English.” Around here, they kind of wonder “Why are trying to speak to me in Korean when I obviously speak English?” At first, this kind of situation bothered me because I wanted to fully immerse myself in Korea. I’ve realized that since I am Caucasian, I will always receive this kind of treatment. I can have relationships with Korean people, but I will never fully be accepted into this society.

Is there anything else you want to add or any advice you want to give to anyone coming who might read this?

Have an open mind. There are things that might bother you about Korea. There are definitely things that still bother me. You just have to realize that it’s Korea and this is how it is here. Try to be flexible. Get out of the city once in a while. There are so many beautiful places to see, and the atmosphere is completely different in the countryside. Learn some Korean, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

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New Everything


Hi everyone! It has been about a month since I last posted. During that time, I went to Taiwan, started and finished intensive summer schedule at my old school, moved, and transferred schools. At my new school I have a more flexile schedule. Instead of wasting all that valuable personal time. I WILL be productive.

My friend Sarah, over at Mapping Words, had mentioned that she had a positive experience with Matador U. They offer courses to improve writing skills, photography skills, and video editing skills. All with a focus on travel blogging and travel journalism. I signed up for the writing and photography courses because they are two areas that I have fallen out of touch with. You will probably see lots of assignments over the next twelve weeks. Hopefully the content and format of my posts improves to better fit what I’m trying to carry out here on T.E.T.


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Korea or Bust Interviews: Heather

The following is an interview with my neighbor Heather. She is a twenty-three year old fashionista teaching at a hagwon. After graduating from Ryerson University with a degree in Fashion Communication, she moved to Seoul. She felt a one-year contract was not enough time and resigned for another six months. Check out what she has to say below.

What made you want to resign and stay?

My contract was for a year and a huge reason why I resigned was because I didn’t feel like finished what I wanted to get out of this experience. Of course, I have my boyfriend, Jay. I still had friends that were staying. Even though I’ve been here for a year and I try to see all the different tourist attractions and go to different places it still didn’t feel like enough [time]. Even though one year seems like a long time when you think about it. But when I really look back into my experiences it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I wanted to get more out of it. A year and a half felt like it was more substantial.

You said you’re from Canada. What were you doing in Canada before coming to Korea?

I graduated in 2010 and I decided to come here right afterwards because my sister was here already. I was working part-time until I left for Korea. I didn’t want to make any big commitments since I knew I would be leaving soon.I also spend a lot of time preparing for my move here. You don’t just pick yourself up and move to another country, I needed time to prepare and plan.

So you already had a contact here.

Yes, because my sister was here already, she was a huge reason why I wanted to come here. I’d heard a lot of good things about the culture. She learned a lot while she was here, she made a lot of connections and a lot of new friends. I hadn’t seen her in so long, I really wanted to come here and spend some time with her where it’s just sisters. We’ve never had that chance where it was just she and I in a foreign country and we’re relying on each other. It was really great!

I was working part-time in a design firm. I was waiting for this to get going. Some things kind of stalled it. I ended up waiting for a lot longer than I expected. I was supposed to come here in September of 2010 a couple months after I graduated. It ended up taking another couple months. So, I didn’t come here until February 2011. It was nice in a sense, I got to spend more time with family and friends. While I was in university, I was just studying. It was such an intense program I didn’t go out a lot. I was getting a lot closer to my school friends because we’re always working together or doing projects together. It was always they and I. It was good to take some time away from that and to really spend time with my family and other friends.

Bringing up family. How did they react when they found out their second daughter was going to come to Korea?

That was the hard part. I think my parents have always known that with my sister and I, we always do what we are passionate about. This goes to even with the choices that we’ve made in university, what kind of program we wanted to do. They know that we don’t just listen to other peoples’ options. We are really just passionate about, if it is something that we like, love, or really believe in we’re going to do it. She was a huge reason why I was coming here. So, I think they were kind of glad that they’ve gone through it one time already with her and the second time they didn’t have to be as worried because she could help me out. At the same time, letting two of their kids go so far away at the same time it was still hard for them to accept. If they had a choice I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted us to leave. As we started to become adults and they started to accept that they really start to let loose to let us make our own decisions.

But other family members, like certain aunts, uncles, and my grandma who are a little bit more traditional gave me a hard time. They really gave me a lot of pressure, almost between choosing my family or this. Lots of pressure to tell me why am I going back to a developing country when my family has worked so hard to [get to Canada? The world has changed so much and it’s not about just staying in one place, settling down, making money. I really want to travel and my parents respected that. As long as I got their respect and they understood what I was trying to get out of this, I was fine with moving to Korea. I respect my family. At the end of the day, if I listen to them, they’re not the ones living my life. I don’t want to let other people control what I want to do with my own life. After choosing to do this and being here for so long I don’t have any regrets. Not listening to them and always sticking to what I want and what I’m set to do.

Did your sister live in Seoul?


Did you look anywhere else?

No! Definitely it was not an option. We are totally city girls. I cannot imagine myself being far away in some farmland, teaching in some really small school, eating the same thing, and going to the same restaurant. I can’t even picture that. I was really glad that she was placed in Seoul. If she was placed somewhere else, then I probably would have considered that and I may not have been happy about.

Since you’ve been here what’s something that shocked you?

I think what completely shocked me was not the culture itself, but how fast I have adapted to the culture.

How so?

A lot of people when they think that going into Asia it would be so different, but after coming here you really start to see that there are a lot of foreigners here. They’re so accepting of foreigners it doesn’t faze them. Because of that, it doesn’t make me feel like there are a lot of barriers that stop me from getting comfortable with the culture. People have made it comfortable for me, it made me eager to get more comfortable. That has allowed me to really feel like I’ve been making a part of my life here. Maybe it’s because I’m Asian too. People don’t look at me and say, “Oh yes! That’s a foreigner! Let me say hi to them. Everyone just thinks I’m Korean. If they don’t think I’m Korean, they think I’m Japanese. They start talking to me in all these different languages. Sometimes that is awkward for me. That has pushed me to be more comfortable because it feels like everyone has accepted me already and there really is no barrier to break down.

Tell me about barriers. How do you find communication? Is that hard?

It’s harder because people assume I’m Korean. If it was more obvious that I’m a foreigner, people would not even attempt to speak to me in Korean. Or at least if they speak to me in Korean, they don’t expect me to say anything back. Because they think that I’m a Korean, and when I don’t reply to them in proper Korean sentence structure, or saying the correct things with the correct formalities then they start to really question “Why is this Korean not speaking her own language?” I have to tell them, NO! I’m not a Korean. I’m Canadian. Then, they start to get confused, “Why does she look Asian if she’s Canadian?” It’s often a lot of unnecessary explaining and sometimes I just let it go. I don’t even want to explain. Because now I’m more comfortable to try to communicate in Korean I think that because they see that I’m trying whether they think that I’m a Korean that’s trying to speak the language or a foreigner that’s speaking the language I think at the end of the day they do appreciate it. I have no problem making the effort because I am living in Korea. I do feel like it’s necessary to learn the language and to learn the culture.

Has there ever been, in terms of working and adjusting, where you felt you needed to go home?

When it comes to the job you start to realize being in Asia you don’t get the same kind of job security and job protection that you get back home. There are a lot of things where you start to realize you can’t really question why it’s done that way, you just have to go with it. I guess, partially, if you’re going to ask me again what shocks me, it’s the working culture. I sometimes think, if I was back home, some things would never happen. The point is I’m not back home. A lot of things you have to adapt to. It makes me feel like I am growing up because there aren’t a lot of protections around me. I have to grown up and adapt to other peoples’ rules and cultures.

If you had to pick one thing, what has been your highlight of being in Korea?

My boyfriend here [lots of laughter, especially from him]. I’m not going to lie, definitely my highlight. Which, I didn’t expect at all to happen because when you’re going to a foreign country you struggle to make friends. But when you find a boyfriend or a girlfriend it starts to [more laughter]. It was an amazing thing that happened because first of all, I didn’t expect it to happen. I was solely here to really build personal experiences and grow up. While I was at home my parents always sheltered me, I only lived at home, they always helped me out and being here I just wanted to grow up. Just seeing how I am now, my perspective, the experiences that I’ve learned here and looking back at how I was when I first came here. I think that growth in perspective, learning to let things go and adapt is kind of thing that…

So you feel you’ve grown up a lot?

Ya! Definitely! I think a lot of the growth I was anticipating, but even if you anticipate it, it may not happen. So, witnessing the growth is a huge advantage for me for being here.

How do you find teaching? You said you studied…

Fashion communication.

Ok, something more visually oriented…and not dealing with kids.

Right, I’ve always loved kids but I never would have thought I would be in a foreign country and teach. It never crossed my mind. As much as I love kids. I always had certain expectations about teaching in Asia. While I’ve been here, there were some things that proved me right and proved me wrong. With the company I am working for, they’re a really structured company at least with the teaching methods. They are really strict on what they want you to do, time management, classroom management, and following that kind of structure was really foreign for me. It wasn’t something I was use to especially being a really creative person. To be here doing something totally new and to teach when I really didn’t have a lot of teaching experience before, that kind of methodology was really hard to grasp initially. At the same time, seeing my kids’ different levels of English proficiency was really surprising. They spoke so well and they were so knowledgeable. This refers to the high level kids, because we go up to college material. Prepping for those classes was difficult at first. The lessons have taught me a lot, from learning about North Korea, political issues to seabirds. We teach them so many different things. I learned pictures and body language are a really great ways of communicating too. When I first started prepping for the high level classes, it would take about an hour and a half or two hours. I would go through all the readings looking for words, finding synonyms, definitions and looking for visual aids. There are a lot of things I didn’t know. It makes me humble. Even though you’re a teacher and even though you speak a lot of English, at the end of the day you’re human. There are a lot of things you still don’t know. We still learn everyday.

What do you think of the expat community?

I don’t really think much of it. It’s great that there is such a big community here. If there are any issues I always feel someone else will have the answers. There are others who have done it and been here long enough to tell you where the sources are. At the same time, certain foreigners have different perspectives than my own. Sometimes I’m glad that they’re here. I’m glad that there’s such a big community because that’s partially why we all feel so comfortable here. You’re not just the one foreigner with a whole bunch of locals.

Revisiting the home topic, what is something you wish you brought?

I brought a lot! I brought two full suitcases, a carry on, and a purse. I stuffed them good! I can’t think of anything.

Have you had any trouble finding something from back home?

That’s what’s surprising, a lot of the things I need, I could find it here. If I have to say maybe one thing…maybe more shoes! The weird thing is I actually can’t really buy into Korean shoes. I don’t know about men’s shoes, but women’s shoes are cheap. Yet, you do get what you pay for. I feel the styles are all the same, the quality can be cheap, and even when you pay a high price they still feel like cheap quality. A lot of the shoes I bought are from Zara. I wish I had brought more shoes because I thought I could buy a lot of shoes here, but I don’t really own Korean shoes.

What do you expect is going to be difficult adjusting back to Canadian life or adjusting back to having your family so close?

When I go back, I’m going to be living with my family. I am use to being on my own and I have developed little habits, my own way of doing things. It is really hard to imagine being back home and following other people’s rules again. Even though they are family, but parents are parents. You are never going to hear the end of nagging. You’re never going to hear the end of worrying and constantly reminding. That is one thing I don’t really miss. It’s going to take some adjusting to go back to that. Being away from the industry for so long and to be back in this competitive design industry I know id going to be difficult. That’s the sacrifice you have to make. When you leave and you come here looking to gain certain experiences, there has to be a sacrifice. I knew from the beginning when I go back, I’ll have to start from the bottom. I might have to take more courses or go back to school. Whatever it is, I’m willing to do it because I didn’t expect it to be easy.

Any regrets because of that?

NO! No regrets.

This is my last question. What advice would you give someone moving to Korea?

One big one, is to keep an open mind. A lot of times, coming from a developed country we think we know more than everyone else and you’re not willing to adapt. Keeping an open mind would make your experience here so much more comfortable and so much more rewarding. Whether it is trying new food or making new friends or meeting a boyfriend/girlfriend or your job. Whatever it is as long as you keep an open mind and you stay safe you’ll enjoy your experience.

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Done vs. Finished

The longer I teach English, the more I find myself re-learning long forgotten grammar rules. One such rule is done vs. finished. At Catholic school, we drilled “Cakes and pies are done. People are finished.” You never hear of steak being medium finished or well finished.

“Teacher, I’m doneeeeeeeeee!” Usually I imagine my students as talking cakes in the oven announcing that they no longer need baking. It was exhausting correcting them. Now it’s hilarious! They know I’ll ask them what kind of food they are and I’m greeted with “Teacher, I’m [their name] fried chicken!” or “Teacher, I’m [their name] cake!” A class of nine five year-olds telling you that they are food because they have finished their work is the funniest, if not the cutest thing I have ever seen.

Native English speakers usually don’t differentiate between done and finished (hellI normally use done for everything), but I want my kids to learn the proper way of speaking; especially if they want to study abroad. I also can’t shake the voices of my grade school teachers chanting, “Cakes and pies are done. People are finished.”

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Sunshine Award

Aneesa & Faraaz over at Live.Explore.Learn.Remember. chose to award me the sunshine award. It is awarded to blogs “which contribute to the blogging community in a positive or inspirational way.” That made my day! Thanks Aneesa & Faraaz!

Photo Credit: John Barnhardt/ National Geographic Traveler Photo Credit

I am asked to complete the following items:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and write a post about it.
  2. Answer ten questions about yourself.
  3. Pass the award on to 10 bloggers you enjoy, link to their blogs, and let them know you nominated them.

Questions and answers:

  1. What is your favorite color?: Dark teal
  1. What is your favorite animal?: Resplendent quetzal
  1. What is your favorite number?: 25
  1. What is your favorite drink?: Home made sweet tea
  1. What is your favorite website?: Google…I’m always looking up info.

6. What are your passions?: Languages, eating, traveling, photography, music, art

  1. Do you prefer getting or giving presents?: I like a balance.
  1. What is your favorite pattern?: The designs on Costa Rican carretas.
  1. What is your favorite day of the week?: Right now it’s Tuesday because it’s my shortest work day. Usually it’s the day I have the most time to do things outside of work and studying.
  1. What is your favorite flower?: White calla lilies

The ten blogs I nominate are as follows:

Chocolates & Raspberries; deepsoulphotography; Girl and the world; Mapping Words; Müchow’s Creative Photo Blog; Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel; 100 Things; The Nomad Grad; Urban Wall Art & Murals; Wicktravels

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What has been your most memorable experience in Korea so far?

I have traveled to other countries in Asia and have had awesome, memorable experiences. Unfortunately, none in Korea have left the same impression…until two days ago. Some co-workers and I went to the DMZ. Or the DMZed if you’re like my British peers Lu and Stu.

The USO totally exceeded my expectations. I thought we were going to follow our group through some boring museum exhibitions, look into North Korea, and stand over the line for a few seconds. This tour delivered!

We started by going down into the Third Infiltration tunnel or Third Tunnel of Aggression. Donning yellow hard hats, the group proceeding down a cylindrical slope. The hard hats became clear as we reached the real entrance at the bottom of the slope. Basically it is a roughly carved tunnel less than two meters high and two meters wide. It was impossible to walk up right. Every so often I would knock my head against the roof. After about 2oo meters or so, we reached the Military Demarcation Line. North Korea has blocked the way with multiple barricades, but left a tiny concrete window through which I got my first glance of North Korea.

The bus took us to Dorasan Station. Up until 2008, this was the last  stop before crossing into North Korea. Now, it is only open to tourists. For the price of 500 won you can go out to the platform. It was interesting to stand on the tracks that at one point allowed people and goods to pass between the two countries. A station sign really put into perspective how close Seoul is to the border. It’s about thirty-five miles from the DMZ.

The train tracks leading into North Korea and to Pyongyang

After eating lunch, we arrived at Camp Bonifas. A U.S. Special Officer boarded our bus to check our passports and told us of the rules. His pistol caught my eyes. It dawned on me that I had not seen a pistol up close in eleven months. It’s not something you really think about back home. Guns are part of police officers’ and military personals’ uniform. I haven’t seen a Korean police officer carrying one and the sight of a pistol really jarred me.

Our driver followed another tour bus to the briefing point. Once inside we signed a document acknowledging that we are knowingly entering a demilitarized zone, yet that injury or death is a possibility. What an opening sentence!

Another Special Officer informed us of the DMZ’s history. He also told us about two violent altercations. This is the point where I started to question if going on this tour was a good idea. Our tour went from historical and informative to a world current event.

At the South Korean Peace House, our group got into two single file lines and escorted outside toward North Korea and into the UN MAC conference room. We crowded together around a table in the middle. Our guide informed us that those of us on the left side of the table were standing on North Korean territory. He explained that the two South Korean officers inside were in a modified taekwondo stance. These guys were scary. Sunglasses and a low brimmed helmet hid their faces and eyebrows. This is a military tactic that makes the person more of an authority figure by hiding any possible facial expressions. Also, the guard farthest from us was guarding the door into North Korea.

Behind that door lies North Korea.

Our stay in North Korea was brief. Our guide escorted us outside and made us fall in with our backs towards the South Korean Peace House. He explained in detail what each building meant and then gave us free reign to take photos of the North. He joked saying that they’re probably taking our photos and it was only fair that we took some of our own.

The North

Atop the stairs of the North Korean Peace House we saw a North Korean officer. He was watching us through binoculars. They called him Fred. He stood there for a few minutes but then communicated with a peer in side though a tinted window. Fred watched us while we snapped his photo. I wonder what Fred would have to say about standing guard along the one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.

Fred hiding in the shadows.

We finished our tour by going to a check point. The view was stunning! Bright green rolling hills leading up to mountains. I expected to see concrete and exposed dirt everywhere. The scenery was amazing. It was sad to see such a beautiful landscape and know that beneath and around it were military deterrents.

North Korea’s propaganda town. That is the largest flag in the world mounted on the second tallest flag pole in the world.

Our last stop was at the gift shop. I try not be a tourist that gets herded through sightseeing and goaded into buying a trinket at the gift shop. I failed. I bought DMZ shot glasses and 1 won from North Korea. I mean come on. Who knows how this place will look in the future; if at all. It was such an amazing experience and all the workers were so positive about reunification. They succeeded in making me believe that reunification will happen.

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Korea or Bust: Survival Essentials

Preparing to traverse thousands of miles for a new job is stressful enough. Add on top of that packing your belongings into two bags. What will I need? What won’t I need? What will I need, but don’t even know I’ll need until the situation presents itself? I kept worrying that I would over pack or forget something essential.

I started the first five on my old blog. You can see them here. Here is a quick summary of the first five: 1. An open mind, 2. Patience, 3. Friends, 4. Toiletries, and 5. Sleep.

6. Smart Phone

I bought an iPhone 4 as a birthday present to myself back in October. Besides traveling, it  is my favorite purchase. It is a helpful navigation tool. I can’t count how many times google maps helped me find my way. Or, the translator app helped describe my destination to a confused taxi driver.

Seoul boasts an incredible, albeit confusing bus system. Luckily, there are a slew of bus apps that tell you down to the second, how far the bus is from your current stop.

My kids love Angry Birds! I don’t let the students play it class. I am not a bad teacher. If a student goes off on a tangent in class about the laser angry bird being the best (yes, this is a common occurrence) I have a way to connect and engage the class on their level.

7. Language Skills

You DO NOT need to speak Korean to get around in Seoul. Even though the subway maps are in English and the announcements are in English (as well as on the buses), knowing a little Korean is helpful. Knowing the politest way to say “hello” could get you a larger portion at a restaurant or make a taxi driver more inclined to take you all the way to your stop instead of leaving you two streets away.

It does not take long to learn the Korean alphabet. It takes most people about a day to learn how to write. I would definitely invest some time learning how to read, to write, and say every day key phrases.

8. Vitamins and hand sanitizer

Kids will cough and sneeze all over you after they just had their hands in their mouths for twenty minutes. Ya, working with kids all day is gross. The younger they are the grosser they get. I fight off their colds by using hand sanitizer/washing my hands regularly and taking vitamin C as an extra boost. 

9. Coffee

Coffee is my savior! It keeps me awake while teaching all day. I now understand why all my teachers and professors are addicted to it. I would struggle without my two cups before work. Thank goodness Koreans are addicted to the dark brew. There are thousands of coffee shops in Seoul. You can’t walk more than five minutes without passing one.

10. Good shoes

I never considered how much time teachers spend on their feet. A good pair of shoes with support make it less strenuous on your body.

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Korea or Bust: Interview with Lucy

What’s your name?

My name is Lucy.

Where are you from?

I’m from England.

How old are you? What do you do?

I’m 26 and I teach English at a hagwan.

What did you study in university?

I studied combined honors arts. In which I did English literature and philosophy.

How long have you been in Korea?

Four months tomorrow.

What were you doing before you came to Korea?

I was working full-time at the University of Nottingham in an administrative job.

Did you like it?

No, but I stayed there for four and a half years [lots of laughter]. No, there were some bits of the job I liked. But, by the end, It was just too monotonous. It wasn’t stimulating.

Why did you come to Korea?

For a change of pace. I always wanted to go away and I have my list of a hundred things to do. One of them is to live out of England for a year. Another one is to teach English as a foreign language. So, this is kind of killing two birds with one stone.

I was looking for another job in England. I was trying to move to London. There are just no jobs. Nobody wanted me. I was speaking to Luke [a mutual friend], who was in Korea then. He’d always been trying to get me to go away and do something like this. And then, I was speaking to him one day. He sent me the link to YBM and about an hour later I had sent my CV. It was a very impulsive decision [said half laughing].

Do you think it had a positive outcome?

Oh gosh, ya! Oh my god, ya! For sure [even more laughter].

Did you look at other places in Korea?

I was always just going to go with YBM, because they seemed like the most stable company. I have no teaching qualifications. They were the ones where you get paid [on time] and stuff like that.

Well first, I looked at Bucheon in taking Luke’s position. But, it had already been filled. I kind of accepted [a job] in Songpo, I think it’s Songpo. Which is in Incheon, but it would started at the end of March and not the end of February. I was speaking to my friend Luke and then a friend from home and [YMB] had mentioned working at Ssangmun. So we looked the both up on google maps and then just again, an impulse, I told them I want to come at the end of February to go to Ssangmun. But I was looking at Seoul, Busan, and Incheon.

So, big cities?

Ya, big cities. At first, I wasn’t going to live in Seoul.

What’s something that shocked you when you first got here? Where you paused and thought, “Wait, hold up…they don’t do that where I’m from!”

Not putting toilet paper down the toilet [we had to pause for a second because the two of us were cracking up]. How do you not put loo roll down the toilet!? I don’t get it. So that’s one thing…that still shocks me, four months later. I think that was probably the biggest shock. I kind of thought that it was just one restaurant we went into. It said to not do that. Then when you figure out it’s actually everywhere. Ya, that bin there is full of used toilet roll.

What do you want to do while you’re in Korea? 

Nothing in particular. I just want to have a good time and meet new people and be around new people. I have always been in England. It’s nice to meet some people who are not English and see that they’re not all that different.

Even across the pond?

Well…you know…

Do you want to travel while you’re here?

I do! I really want to go to China because I was learning Chinese for two years before I came here. I don’t think I can remember any of it now. I never really thought of coming to Korea, but I really like it now. I’m going to go to Taiwan.

I think afterwards, when I go home, I won’t fly. I probably wont be able to go to China because of the visa, but maybe I’ll fly somewhere and take the rail. Go through Asia and Europe and back to London. Do it that way and not fly. Why not?

What has been the most difficult adjustment? 

Um…there hasn’t really been anything difficult. Everyone is really nice, like people in the street. I haven’t found anything difficult. I expected to find the language barrier a little harder, but people are so welcoming. If you go into a restaurant and they know you have no idea what to say they just bring you their best dish. Which is brilliant! It’s great and you can usually stumble something together. People try to have conversations with you. So the language thing isn’t as big of barrier as I thought it would be.

Work is….work is probably better because I’m really not a morning person. Now, I’m in a job where I start at eleven.

You brought up language. Did you study any Korean before you came?

I didn’t and I really mean to. But you blink and it’s four months later. Oh my god, I still don’t know any Korean. I know enough to get home in a taxi and say that I’m from England.

How have you found work so far?

Quite good. It gets easier when you know the kids. Its’ like any job where you have those days when it is really difficult. On the whole, it’s a good job. If I wanted to start jumping around the room and tickling my kindergarten students, I can! Pretending to act like a gorilla is perfectly acceptable. So, that’s good! I really like the job actually.

They’re kids, you’re going to turn into one.

Well, I already was one before I came. I used to try to be a kid in my old job. But when you’re around adults all the time it’s quite difficult.

How did your family react?

Everyone was really shocked. My mum was really supportive, but then she told me a week before I came that she kind of didn’t want me to come. She did want me to come, because she knew it was what I wanted to do. But she was going to miss me. She never really said anything about that before because she didn’t want to be the reason I didn’t go.

I think a lot of my family thought I was joking. It was like, oh ya…I’m going to Korea. They would do a double take, “What!? Are you joking!?” I don’t think any of them thought I’d actually go.

People from my work were more shocked. I handed in my notice. They asked, “do you have another job?” Ya, “alright, where are you going?” I’m going to teach English in South Korea. Everyone said “WHAT!?” It was great.

What has surprised you so far? Positive or negative. Something you did not expect.

I really didn’t come with any preconceived ideas of what it would be like. I made sure I was really busy at home. I never really thought about it. When I got here and heard how much research everyone else had done I felt really bad that I had just rocked up and done it. I think that was better. I don’t know if I’ve been shocked…was that your question?

Ya, what has surprised you? Maybe something out of the blue that you just did not envision seeing or hearing or doing while you were here. 

I didn’t envision going out later than I was when I was at university when I was eighteen. I didn’t expect that from Korea. I didn’t expect people to rock home at 7am. Or to see drunk older men on the street. I don’t know…

I guess it’s a lot more western than I thought it would be. I expected it to be completely different to where I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. I thought people’s view on things would be different. It is a lot more western. There are a lot of western shops and food. I didn’t expect there to be McDonald’s 24 hour delivery. I expected just Korean food all the time. Boring answer…

No! I’m from the south. I did not expect to find good fried chicken.

YES! I did not expect that! When I saw KFC, I was like ok they have the chain. Then I found out they have friend chicken everywhere. It’s absolutely mental! Chicken Mania!

What do you think of the food?

Good! So good! So cheap and so good. Korean food, I’m going to miss that when I go home. There’s so much more to try.

You’ve got eight months.

I’ve got eight months to gorge on galbi  and jjimdalk. Oh, and that bone soup place down the road. I don’t know what that’s called but it’s really good.

I probably going to write a post about friend chicken in Korea…ok. What do you think of the expat community so far? Based of what you’ve seen in your four months. 

Ok, everyone that I work with luckily is good. I haven’t really run into many military guys. One guy that I did speak to, who is in the military, was actually really nice and really chatty. He didn’t seem to have attitude. But you see clubs and bars that don’t want them in. You hear about all the stories where the military have been bad. I haven’t seen any of that myself so I can’t really say about that.

People are either really in the same mentality, where they’ve come to experience something new. Or I feel like they don’t really know why they’re here and they’ve just kind of found themselves here. I don’t hang around with anyone who I think is like that. I just get that feeling when you go to immigration. When we went to go get our fingerprints done, there were some people who just won’t engage you in conversation. You’re kind of like, surely we’re here for the same reason, we could at least be nice to each other. On the whole, I think everyone is pretty decent. Everyone’s respectful of the culture here, but you sometimes see people who are not. That’s like anywhere. I think everyone is on the same wave length, though.

I’ve run into a couple of people who just despise hanging out with other foreigners. 

I can understand if you don’t want to hang around with foreigners all the time because you can just stay home for that. But, there is never an excuse to be rude to anyone no matter where you are, no matter who you are. Unless, they’re being rude to you.

What’s something you wish you’d brought from home?

Um…more clothes. We had a very low [baggage] allowance, so I really didn’t bring much. I’d spoken to you and Aliya before I came. I knew to bring deodorant.

Any toiletries?

No, I wish I had been able to bring more photos. I didn’t really get to bring anything. It’s been hard to personalize my living space. I got some photos sent to me in the post. I couldn’t bring them, and I felt bad because some of my friends had given me photos. You had to leave something because there’s just no more room. Then when I rock up and see all the Americans with their five suitcases and ten carry on bags, I’m like WHAT!? I came with one suitcase and one hand luggage, am I insane?

Everything is bigger in the States…next question! What do you miss from home? 

I miss my friends. I miss a Sunday roast. It’s probably the biggest thing. I’ve tried to make yorkshire puddings in my toaster over. I’m determined that in this little toaster oven, I am going to make a Sunday roast one day. That’s my dream over the next eight months. That’s it really. It’s very easy to stay in contact with people, except for the time difference. There’s just sometimes when someone mentions something and you’re like “oh my god! I miss that!” There’s nothing that I long for. Except, every Sunday…I long for a Sunday roast. That’s about it.

What’s a Sunday roast?

It’s a roast dinner that you have on a Sunday. It has roast chicken or roast beef, veg, yorkshire pudding. You’ll have to google that. It also has roast potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. It’s very fit. You go to any pub in England, in Britain, on a Sunday and you can get a Sunday roast. It’s brilliant!

This is my last question. What advice would you give to someone moving to Korea?

DO IT! And that’s it! Don’t think about it too much. You can actually get anything you need here. Food is not an issue. The food is good. There are foreigner places, which are not as good as you remember the food to be at home, but it still kind of takes the edge off if you’re really craving something from home. You can get deodorant. You can get things like that. You’ll have to pay slightly more, but you can still get it. Just chill out, it’s all right, there are lots of nice people. Everyone is willing to help you. There’s not a thing you can’t do.

Alright, those are all my questions.

Can I ask you questions now?

Sure! YA!

Oh, I don’t know what to ask you. Sean, why Korea?

Well, my major was in Spanish and I didn’t want to go to a Spanish-speaking country. I wanted to go somewhere else and learn a new language and my cousin is here. 

Why YBM?

Well, my cousin’s boyfriend had worked for them. From the research I had done online and now my personal experience, they’ve been so stable. They also have a good reputation. Everything is on time and everything is legitimate. I’ve read so many horror stories online. Some of the crap people had to go through at sketchy schools. I know some people who have to deal with some real shady activity like late payment, not being paid in full, or being given a month’s notice that you’re being fired because the school doesn’t like you. I’m very glad I lucked out with a good school. 

How long have you been here now? 10 months?

Next week, will be the end of my eleventh month.

WHAT!? Ok, so in the last eleven months, if you had to pick one highlight. What has been your highest point? Is there anything that sticks out in particular?

Not in Korea. I’d have to say my trip to China.

Oh ya?

That was amazing! Completely unexpected. I did so much in four days. 

So, what about China? What made it so good?

I was expecting it to be like very secretive and very Communist. I don’t know how it is in England, but in all our history textbooks, China is portrayed as the red devil. I formed my ideas around the pictures in the books. I imagined a very backwards country. Then, I stepped into the Beijing airport…I was totally unprepared. It was so awesome. I was blown away. Beijing is super modern, but there is so much history. It was really cool to see places that I had read about in grade school. 

So that’s a must do?

Yes! I feel that people fear China in the States. Especially with the way China plays a role in our economy. It hit me, why did I fear this? China was totally not what I expected. 

What’s been your lowest point?

The cold. I came in August and I floated for five months of “Oh, I’m in Korea! I’m in Asia!” Then the cold hit. There was less going out, less seeing friends outside of work, less interaction, like everything kind of slowed down. Also, that’s when I realized Korea is where I live. At the end of January, I got out of that dip and now I’m not in the honeymoon phase, but it’s just my life now. Every time I fly back into Incheon or Gimpo, I get excited because I’m going home. I never thought I’d think of Seoul as home. 

In one of your low points, did you ever consider just going home?

Um…no. Well, the thought has crossed my mind, but then I would stop myself. What would I be doing at home? I’d be living with my parents, working…

You’d want to leave again. You’d want to come back.

Yes! I start by imagining living at home and working in a fast food joint. No! I’m going to stay where I am. Then I’d start to think, summer is coming. I’m going to be traveling. I have been, and it reminds me why I’m here. Sometimes I forget I’m in Korea because I hang out a lot with my coworkers and my foreign friends. When we go to a restaurant, I feel like I’m at home. When we walk outside and there’s hangul everywhere and Koreans everywhere…I’m reminded I’m in Korea. 

That’s usually what I have. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m a little drunk and I’m like “WOO! I’m in Asia!”

It’s just not worth it to leave; to break a contract. Unless, obviously something family related or an emergency, yes I would drop everything and go home. If I was in a position where leaving was my only option, I would miss Korea. It’s just not worth it. The lifestyle I have here is WAY cooler than what I had back home. 

I’m nearly four months in and I’m all ready thinking, “Oh my god, I’m going to miss Korea.” Come on I’ve got like another eight months.

They blow by. It still feels like I stepped off the plane. At the end of next month I will have been here for a year. It doesn’t feel like it. It has just blown by. Any more questions? 

I don’t think so…thank you for your time.

NO! Thank you!

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Father’s Day

I spoke with my parents this past Sunday as I do every weekend. Sunday was also Father’s Day. It reminded me how much I missed being home. It also reminded me that I learned a lot of parenting tips from my mom and dad without even realizing it. These tricks have been helpful maintaining classroom order.

1). 3…2…1

The countdown commanded  immediate obedience from my sister and I. Although I start at five, my students know that they better shape up before I reach zero. If they don’t behave by then, I take away rewards. I learned that kids responded to firm rules and discipline. 

2). Fairness  

When my sister and I fought over something trivial such as sitting in the front seat or who had to wash the dishes that week, my father use to pick a number and tell us to guess it. I tell my students to guess a number between 0-100. The closest student to my number gets to answer the first question, the second closest get to answer the next question, and so on until every student has a number. I write their names and numbers on the board so that everyone can see. Some kids get upset if they end up last. They don’t realize the number are unimportant. What matters is that every student speaks and answers at least one question. This game also works as a great segue into the lesson. I learned that treating children with fairness gains their trust and cooperation.

3). The eyes  

My mom use to joke about torciendo los ojos or “twisting her eyes”. That was her silent threat. It quietly shouted “behave or else!” I learned body language is a great way to communicate. It works especially well with kindergarten students that don’t speak English well.

These are maneuvers I never thought I would use at the age of 21. I see myself in their shoes or hear them in my voice. It’s kind of scary thinking that I am turning into them. I know they raised me right and I’m beginning to half understand the world of parents. Thanks mom and dad.

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