The Ridiculous Story of My Buzzcut

If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you may have noticed a little change to my look in the last month. And by little, I mean drastic, and by change, I am referring to my haircut. Normally I wouldn’t talk about something as simple as a haircut, but this haircut happens to come with a hilarious story. A story that’s begging to be told.

I (quite ineffectively) let the secret out first on Instagram, when I had less than five followers:

But, Why?

Sometime in Madrid, I woke up wishing I had no hair. I’ve always had a little desire in the back of my head, a voice that said “Someday, I’m going to chop all of my hair off.” And I woke up in Madrid realizing that the day had finally come, and if I really wanted to cut off all of my hair, this trip was the time to do it. Instead of simply a someday desire, I now had a full-fledged drive. Suddenly my hair wasn’t just there, it was annoying. It was a burden. I woke up thinking get it off my head.

But I’m on a budget, and I couldn’t justify paying $20 for someone to run buzz clippers over my scalp, when I could probably find someone who owned hair clippers and do it myself. My flight out of Madrid came and I found myself in Dublin for a week, as annoyed with having hair on my head as ever. The week passed quickly, and finally I made my way west to the Aran Islands to work at a hostel for two weeks. I made friends. And I knew the time had finally come, when someone knew someone who had hair clippers and agreed to let me use them.

The Story

I’m not sure why the whole thing got so hyped up, but my boss at the hostel started telling everyone that I was going to shave my head, and I gained an audience of people from all over the world, asking when I was going to cut my hair. One of my friends made a Facebook event, and we decided to do the deed at night, in the Irish pub next door, because the bartender on Mondays wouldn’t care about some random girl getting her hair shaved off while she was working. One of my friends decided to conduct interviews and make a mini documentary, just for fun. (She’s into film making.) Some of the guests at the hostel decided to come along for the show. That night, some 15 people walked into the bar to see me cut off my hair.

Apparently, it was a big deal.

“No, don’t do it! You’re beautiful!”

“But… why?”

“Don’t do it. No, don’t do it. Don’t cut your hair, it looks good already!”

It seemed like everyone had an opinion about me getting a haircut. Even the guy renting bikes out to tourists. Especially my two brothers, who’d been both angry and annoyed that I would change my hairstyle. I was a little baffled, considering that it’s just hair and it’s also my hair, but my support in the endeavor was small. Me being me, I didn’t really care what anyone thought the best length of my hair was. I wasn’t trying to be beautiful, I wasn’t trying to look good. I just really didn’t want hair anymore.

Some people didn't react so well to the news...
Some people didn’t react so well to the news… but they got over it.

So sitting on a stool in the middle of an island Irish pub, I let a random French guy use his knife to cut off a big chunk of my hair and then hold it up to his face like a mustache.

 

The first cut.
The first cut.

Everyone took turns with the machine. Some people were rough, almost pulling the hair out of my scalp, other people could have been scratching my head for all I noticed. Piece by piece, big chunks of brown hair fell onto the pub floor as the local Irish people looked around in curiosity at the strange party. I sipped a Guinness while my hairdresser became someone else, having to be careful to avoid getting pieces of hair in my drink. I wasn’t completely successful with that, unfortunately, but there’s only so much one can do when you mix haircuts and the bar, eh?

Eventually everyone had their turn and my patchily buzz-cutted head was turned over to a different French guy. He told me that he cuts his friends’ hair when they ask him to, which officially qualified him as a professional among the other slightly tipsy guests at the pub. Taking off the plastic guard for the clippers, he sculpted my fuzz-head into an actual style, short on the neck and near the ears. It didn’t look half-bad for a haircut a bunch of slightly drunk people gave me in the middle of an Irish pub. Several people commented that I looked like Sinead O’Connor and that short hair looked really good on me; these were unsurprisingly often the same people who said “Noooooo!!! Don’t!!!” just a few days and hours earlier. The filming came to an end with a few final interviews and we enjoyed a little encore: one German guy ended the night with a ridiculous haircut and eventually had to shave his entire head to the scalp just to look normal again.

(That’s what happens when you mix alcohol and hair clippers in Ireland.)

And best of all, I finally did what I always wanted to do. I cut all of my hair off. I even have a ridiculous, ridiculous story to go with it.

How Does It Feel?

At first it felt weird. I didn’t recognize my reflection in the mirror. At times I still run my hand over my hair and wonder where it all went. Before bed, I kept trying to pull out an imaginary ponytail and finding nothing there to take out. I suddenly had nothing to do in the shower, anymore, since washing took so little time. A few people looked at me strange, but for a little while I did look like a dandelion running around in clothing.

Now? I picture myself with short hair. I’m excited to try new short-haired styles when it grows out a little more. I can’t say I’m entirely happy with my short-haired-styles thus far (see above re: dandelions) but I am glad that I cut it. I’m confident that it’ll settle in, and I’ve now let a friend of mine (who actually cuts hair) style it into something that’ll grow out well. Based on my shower times and how little my hair gets in my mouth, which is never, I’m not sure if long hair is in my immediate future again.

I’m not “pretty” like I used to be. But that was never the goal. I just wanted to follow through on something I’ve always wanted to do someday, and took the plunge to make it happen, awkward growth stages and all. And for that, I’m happy.

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Note: The video my friend filmed is still being edited, and it’ll take quite some time. When it’s done I’ll definitely share!

Have you ever had your hair buzzed off by half drunk people in an Irish pub too? Do you think I’m crazy? (It’s okay if you do!) Do I look like a dandelion or a more like cotton ball head in that one picture? When are you cutting your hair?

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, on Twitter & Instagram or you can subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

What is This Place? Notes on a Return Home

Everyone asks about culture shock, about strange foreign customs and scary food. But as strange as living abroad can sometimes be, particularly in Asia, there is one ugly monster that never fails to rear its head and make me scream while I try to run away at full speed. That horrible nightmare is also known as reverse culture shock.

Now, I’m no stranger to culture shock or reverse culture shock. I’ve been around the block, as they say. I’ve lived 5 months in Austria and had to readjust to the big, bad, high-school world in my hometown. I lived another 5 months in Argentina and had to come back to my University and deal with a mate deficit and loads of people who just couldn’t relax, in stark contrast to the Argentine lifestyle I’d learned to love. Arriving in South Korea and trying to figure out how life works wasn’t always a walk in the park. But coming back from 18 months of expat life? Now that’s some heavy hitting culture backlash. I knew what was coming but I definitely couldn’t have been prepared.

And to be honest, I may have needed all 18 months to be prepared for the return. Somewhere between six and sixteen months, a sickening feeling began to emerge every time I imagined a visit home. The stupidity of uneducated Americans, the ignorance about life outside of its borders and the thought of even having to discuss my “adventure abroad” all seemed like incurable diseases I didn’t want to face. But in the final two months I started having intense cravings for American food, missing Pittsburgh sights and attractions and looking forward to happy holiday times. Without these small bits of homesickness to overcome my fear of a return, I would have had quite a tough time getting on that plane headed back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Home sweet home, after getting adjusted.
Home sweet home, after settling in.

But, I did. And I’ve been back. And unsurprisingly, it’s hasn’t been quite as horrible as I originally envisioned. Actually there have been some wonderful parts. And some weird parts. And an incident or two after which I realized that my social skills were a little rusty and maybe those Korean tendencies to be direct and extremely nosy weren’t really appropriate for conversations with USAers. But I’m pretty sure I can declare myself adjusted and look forward to fun times ahead.

Now that this serious talk is over and dealt with, let’s have some giggles at my expense. Here are five things that made me tilt my head and nearly curse with confusion, because I’d forgotten that’s what the USA is like for a hot second.

Cleavage, Everywhere

Korea is not so big on cleavage, and their standards of modesty are pretty much the exact opposite of what the USA calls modest. In the USA, showing your upper body (arms, shoulders, chest area, cleavage, back) are all pretty standard and accepted, provided it’s in moderation. In South Korea, those parts of the body need to be covered and if you want to be a little risqué, then a sleeveless shirt or a little collarbone will do the trick. In the USA, a short skirt screams sexy and if you can almost see someone’s butt, then you’re probably trying to force down super judgmental thoughts about that person’s life choices. In Korea, short shorts, skirts and dresses are the norm and there are plenty of times that I’ve caught a glimpse of someone’s undies.

Anyways, I’m rambling. The point is that I arrived in the USA and immediately thought “Oh my gosh, boobies are everywhere! What is this place?” and was very uncomfortable for a long period of time.

Flushing Toilet Paper

In South Korea, toilet paper goes in the trash can next to you when you’ve finished using it. We can debate the merits of this versus flushing TP all day, but that doesn’t really matter. After 18 months of being in the same toilet-using routine, I was pretty caught off guard during my return to the USA. It wasn’t really glorious, it was just weird and flushing toilet paper just felt… wrong.

People “Dressed Up” in Sweats

I understand that everyone has their bad days, but there has to be an end to this weird fashion trend of wearing sweatshirts, sweatpants and other junk clothing, just to straighten your hair and put it in a messy bun on top of your head. And then put on a face-full of makeup. I guarantee you that person showered, too. It’s just ludicrous. What’s so hard about clothes, again?

Wearing Shoes Indoors

“SHOES ARE DIRTY!” Korea said. And now I’m supposed to walk into my house, still wearing them. Because if I don’t, I’ll end up with a wet sock from some puddle of ice that someone else tracked in, while wearing their shoes inside. Because apparently that’s how things work in this weird country where I was born and raised. Whatever.

Massive Portion Sizes and Nothing Healthy on the Menu (Except Salad)

This one seriously drives me crazy. I cannot order healthy food off of a menu, unless it’s in the salad section, and even then, it’s questionable. Or unless I go to one of the “hipster” health food restaurants, which seems a little counter-intuitive to me. Why would I eat unhealthy food, when the whole point of food is to make our bodies keep working? Why are healthy meals not mainstream? Man, the USA needs to get its shit together so I can eat a sandwich that isn’t ten thousand calories or perfectly healthy but three times the size of what a meal should be. (Please note: the exception to this frustration of mine is Pittsburgh’s iconic Primanti Brothers’, where you arrive expecting to clog your arteries and almost explode post-meal. Then it’s okay.)

My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread, bread and bread.
My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread and bread.

It’s not all weird, head-scratching moments, though. I’ve encountered a few things while being home that I forgot were so damn awesome about the USA. And I rejoice every time I’m able to partake in these luxuries.

The 24 hr Pharmacy

I know that Korea has really cool convenience stores, but RiteAid, CVS and the like are America’s version of the same kind of awesomeness. I love walking through the aisles and staring at garden gnomes, Valentine’s day chocolate boxes galore, twenty-five different kinds of hair brushes and my favorite section, the drink refrigerators with Arizona Green Tea. They’ve even got all the candy you could ever need, ugly Pittsburgh magnets, horrible stationary and cards and the print-it-yourself photo booths. All open 24 hours. It’s glorious and I love it.

Delicious Beer, On Tap

Oh, Korea… if there is anything you cannot do for the life of you, it’s all things made of wheat. Your bread is sugary and lame and your beer tastes watery and sad. In the USA, there is a beautiful beer culture where you go to a bar, order a delicious, flavorful beer that you’ve never tried before and then you enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a locally made craft beer, sometimes it’s a local chain, sometimes it’s a popular beer but only in Michigan. In any case, I am soaking up every moment I can with amber ales, dark lagers, bright hoppy brews and all of the other incredible, tasty and wonderful beers that the USA has to offer.

(Oh, and I can’t WAIT to go to Germany again in April.)

Drip Coffee

I’m a coffee addict, and South Korea tried to placate me with those sugary instant coffee horrors. It didn’t work, Korea, you hear me?! I am enjoying opening a bag full of aromatic beans, grinding them, filling the coffee maker with either six or eight cups (depending on my mood) and enjoying cups of coffee all morning, while I’m still in my pajamas. And visiting the coffee shop or a breakfast restaurant and getting cups after cups of delicious diner coffee, instead of an Americano.

Yeah, I probably couldn’t have worked this out in Korea if I had tried harder, but I didn’t and I really missed it.

Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.
Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.

Full-Sized Towels

No one will understand why this is so great until they’ve lived somewhere that forces tiny foot towels upon you for all of your post-shower drying needs. May I also remind my readers that I said “foot towel”, as in a towel that is only sufficient for drying feet? And that my hair needs a foot towel of its own, since it hangs only a few inches above my waist? Full-sized towels are angelic, warm, fluffy awesomeness that blankets your cold, shivering and wet body and then makes life happier and full of rainbows. Also known as a bath towel. Also known as the kind of towel the world needs to start using after baths and showers, everywhere. Cough, cough, Korea. *Points an angry finger across the ocean*

Cheese

Korea, why couldn’t you do cheese correctly? I’m so glad I can eat delicious mozzarella and melted cheese that actually stretches and add cheese to scrambled eggs without ruining them. It’s great. And enjoy sharp cheddar and the cheese that’s both orange and white and fresh cheese from a block instead of in slices.

And there are a few things that I miss, now that I’ve departed kimchi-land (and one of those things is not kimchi). I’ll just list them, as they don’t need much explanation.

  • Pat Bingsu
  • Saunas
  • Rice
  • The Korean Won (and prices in 100 won instead of 1 cent increments)
♫And I----I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫
♫And I—-I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫

Time has flown by this month, but it’s now to move on to warmer pastures, literally, because I’m going to Spain in a few weeks. And then I’ll have another five months of travel and I’ll have to face the reverse culture shock beast all over again in July. But hey, I’ve done it before and there’s not a bit of doubt that I’ll be facing it plenty of times over in the years to come. Because in the end, reverse culture shock is the reason we travel. It causes us to question what it is we once accepted as par to the course and it creates appreciation for small things we never realized we would miss. It’s what we’re scared of and overcome, because we have to. Friends and family and loved ones are waiting on the other side. Your life doesn’t change by going abroad, your life changes when you go abroad and come back. That’s the hard part. That’s the part that makes us who we are.

And I wouldn’t change that monster hiding under my bed for any reason.

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13 Defining Moments of 2013

I don’t usually pay too much homage to the change of the year. After all, it is just a number and on some level, the difference between 2013 and 2014 is just an arbitrary 24 hour period that happens to be a special one. Suddenly midnight strikes and everything has changed… not. But as I read through other blogs and their recounting of adventures, it got me thinking about what’s happened to me in 2013 and I started feeling a little nostalgic. I changed my mind; I’ll write about it after all, I’ll commemorate it. Because when I think about it, 2013 has been quite a year. Besides, who can resist the chance to link to at least ten previous posts and substantially increase blog traffic? Definitely not me! (Was that a trade secret? Oops.)

So I sat down and tried my darnedest to write about it. It didn’t go well, I slept on it and my dreams offered nothing. Rude, subconscious. Then someone used the title I was contemplating using, “A Year of Firsts” and wrote a pretty good post to rub it in. Later I searched “2013: A Year of Firsts” on the internet and realized there were about a billion posts with that same title, all over the internet anyways. And now as I sit here and think about it, I’m realizing that it should be my goal to make every year of my life a “year of firsts”. I should always be challenging myself. When I don’t think of the previous year as a year of firsts, then maybe that means I’m actually doing something wrong and I need to do some changes.

So back to the subject, I’ve settled instead on listing 13 things that happened in 2013, a bullet-listed summary of sorts, firsts and otherwise.

1

2013 will be the first full calendar year that I will have the pride (yes, I’m thrilled about this!) of saying I was 100% financially independent. I earned my own salary, paid my own bills, did my own grocery shopping, had to put up the money for those big purchases that my parents love to cover, like winter jackets and running shoes. Although my parents have always been beyond supportive and never put any stipulations on their handouts, it still felt really freeing to be on my own, financially. I guess you can say I’m a big girl now! (Tongue in cheek, I’m five foot three and will never be a big girl, woe is me.)

2

I bought my first car and it was lime green, fulfilling a childhood dream. Driving around my rural community completely changed my mindset; suddenly I wasn’t stuck in the countryside, I was experiencing rural Korea. Later I also sold my car and mourned the inevitable loss of Princess Fiona and her beautiful maroon pleather interior. Maryanne, treat her right, I’m entrusting you with a vehicle of great importance and prestige.

3

Double first, I still have never had an official cavity but this past year I nurtured and grew two troubled, slightly decaying spots on my back molars! I guess 2014 will be the year of more vigorous dental hygiene.

4

This year, I was also completely stationary. I haven’t lived in the same apartment for so long in almost four or five years, so that’s a little bit of a big deal, eh? College had me bouncing between universities, then dorms, sometimes countries and houses but for the first time since high school, I lived in the same place for 18 months straight. (No wonder I was so sick of that apartment by the time I left!)

Home sweet home.

5

I transferred my blog from Tumblr to WordPress this past May and finally joined the official blogging community. It’s been an incredible experience, I’ve made a lot of Internet friends and adore the friendships that have blossomed around my posts and in the comment sections. So now that I’m official… where’s the T-shirt?!

6

Sad but true, this was the year I accepted the loss of a lot of really close friends and also acknowledged that no one I’d met since then would be able to fill that void. Yes, I have a great boyfriend, but this is friend talk. And coming to the end of 2013, I’m realizing that I really don’t have many. But the ones I do have are precious.

7

This year, I made a huge transition, too. There was another frontier that I’d never crossed, and as soon as I felt a Kindle in my hands, I knew that a vast and enriching world had just opened up and I’d never be the same. I’ve always been a bookworm but I’d had to put that passion on the backburner when I traveled abroad previously, not wanting to splurge on expensive English books all the time and break my wallet. Getting my Kindle has reignited my love for literature and I’m now reading more than ever, more intentionally than ever and seriously feeling so… myself. That’s a good feeling to have.

I wish I could own these, but having them in E-book form is the second best option.
I couldn’t have read these books if it weren’t for eBooks.

8

This is a travel blog, let’s talk travel: I stepped foot in Istanbul, Turkey and Cyprus for the first time in my life. This trip was also with my mom, so there’s another first. (Not vacationing with my mom, vacationing with my mom abroad!) We spent a total of 10 days between the two and had a blast. And another first, I’d impulsively selected a city on the map and decided to vacation there, which I’d never done before. As my cousin might say, life achievement: unlocked.

9

One more first when it comes to travel, it was also the first time I really explored Germany. Now when I say that I studied German in college and the next question inevitably is “So have you been to Germany?” then I can concisely say “Yes!” instead of hanging my head in shame and then later explaining the difference between Austria and Australia. (I learned my German in Austria.) Now that some family news has come in, my travel plans for 2014 will give me even more chances to enjoy Germany and its delicious gassy water.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"

10

Two thousand and thirteen will always be the year that my Christmas day was 38 hours long, thanks to cross continental travel and International Date Line magic. It will also be the year that I started Christmas morning hiking a mountain in Seoul and ended it laughing with cousins and gifts, next to a decked out Christmas tree in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

11

This past year, I completely paid off my government student loans and am ready to pay of the rest of my private student loans, which will make me completely free of all debt! I know that a lot of students carry larger loans than me and sometimes I feel guilty, but I also know that I worked my butt off to get to Korea, do well in my job, and get this dollar sign off of my back. And that feels really good.

12

I had a really serious realization this year, too: I hate cleaning. I am not domestic. I despise washing dishes. And when left to my own devices, I am disgusting! It sucks to come face to face with your own weaknesses, but I did this year and I’ll have to face those demons again, someday, once I’m ready to settle somewhere for another year or more.

13

The biggest, bestest, craziest and most life-changing part of this past year was hands down the adoption of my rescue puppy, Mary. I didn’t anticipate becoming a dog mommy at any point and I had to work really hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, to take care of her and myself. But I’m sitting here on my parents’ couch in the USA, covered in a blanket, and Mary is now eleven months old and fast asleep, cuddled next to me with her paw over her eyes to block out the light, being breathtakingly adorable. This month may be a bit of a trial for me (isn’t living in your parent’s home always?), but so far Mary has been my comedic distraction, stress release and the best bundle of crazy and cute that has ever existed, buffering me even from culture shock. I think that maybe ten years from now, when I look back at 2013, it’ll be defined as the year Mary arrived; that’s how much she means to me now.

IMG_7182 ED R

Mushy stuff over, it’s number time!

Planes Taken: 6 + 6 + 2 + 2 = 16 (Oh dear…)
Distance Traveled: 4968.5 + 4968.5 + 5090.8 + 5090.8 + 6846.4 = 26,965 miles
Time Spent on Planes: I refuse to do that math, for my own sanity.
Foreign Countries Visited via Airport: United Arab Emirates, China, Netherlands
Foreign Countries Actually Visited: Turkey, Cyprus, Germany, South Korea
Beds Slept In: 10
Apartments I Called My Own: 1
Hours of Christmas: 38
Miles Run With Mary: Countless
Miles Walked With Mary: Countless
Energy Mary Still Has: Countless
Dogs My Father Likes: 1

The Five Most Popular Posts of 2013

  1. 7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me
  2. White & Pretty in South Korea
  3. How To Stay Warm in Winter Like a Korean
  4. 13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best
  5. Meet Mary: Rescuing a Puppy in Korea

Resolutions for 2014

Brush my teeth more often. (See defining moment #3)

 squiggle3

What defining moments did you have in 2013? Are you ready for the new year?

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

The 10 Stupidest Things I Did While Living in Korea

When someone mentions they are an expat or living abroad, you might feel like they’re being a little pretentious. Some blogs (cough cough Thought Catalog) like to romanticize the experience, talk about why home will never be the same and generally just drone on and on about what an original experience everything is when you’re abroad.

Yeah, I’m sorry, but I need to tell you the truth. Being an expat is just a series of stupid moments and mistakes that never end. Yes, it’s like no other experience, yes, you’re better for it, yes, you’re automatically a little misunderstood when you go home because no one was there with you. But let’s cut the shit: being an expat isn’t glorious. You go somewhere, act like an idiot and learn enough about patience to accept that sometimes you’re stupid. And it’s okay.

Being an expat is asking yourself this question: how many times in one day can I embarrass myself before I just die?

As I’ve learned from living in South Korea, the answer is, well, a lot. In fact, after all of these stupid moments, I’m still living! I think that’s the big lesson here when you move abroad; it doesn’t even matter. Life goes on. Embarrassment isn’t actually a cause of death and most of the time, except in extraordinary circumstances, you will get out of stupidity alive.

What did I do that was stupid? Oh this will be fun. Take a seat, I’m an idiot, so prop your feet up and settle in for some belly laughter.

I said the word “bitch” to my bosses.

In my defense, they knew I meant the word “year” and just kind of blinked and let me finish talking. But the fact that the word for “bitch” and “year” are the same, but the meaning changes depending on sentence context is just lunacy. Someone change the Korean language.

I gave myself food poisoning.

I was too lazy to go to the grocery store, so I walked half the distance to the convenience store and bought what turned out the be the most disgusting meal I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. I couldn’t eat solids for a week after that and I’ll spare you the details of my bowel movements. See the full story here, if you actually want more information than that, ew.

NEVER AGAIN.
NAVER AGAIN.
NAVER AGAIN.

I withdrew $200 from the ATM when I only wanted $20.

In Korea, they count their money in 10,000s, because 1,000 won = ~$1 and it would be difficult to keep track of, otherwise. They even have a special word that means 10,000, “man”. So while I typed in 20 into the screen, which I assumed would mean 20,000, what I was actually typing was 20 ten-thousands. Or 200,000 won. I immediately ran into the bank, shame-faced, with my hands overflowing with bills and somehow communicated to the banker that all this money I’d just withdrawn should go back into my bank account. Never made that mistake again.

I walked into places with my shoes on, multiple times.

In South Korea, shoes do not come inside, only socks or slippers are allowed. I forgot this a couple times, at first, but within five steps there were screams and arm grabs and generally, just a tragic scene of horrified Korean faces around me. This happens to me even now, because some places are a little unclear about what is a “socks only” area. Just two weeks ago, on a ferry boat, I got the death state when I unknowingly stepped one foot into the shoe-free zone.

I agreed to adopt someone’s dog and then gave it back, all before 8am.

I can’t explain this story in only a few sentences, so just head over to the post I wrote about it to see the full story. *face palm*

There she is. Parry.
My short term adopted dog that shit on my floor as a welcome gift.
My short term adopted dog that shit on my floor as a welcome gift.

I fell on my ass in public.

Sidewalks during the wintertime in South Korea should be renamed “ice walks”. Need I explain more? People laughed. My butt was sore.

I wore Hanbok to work.

This wasn’t really my own stupidity, but simply one of the most embarrassing moments of my teaching career. My boss told me we were going to the city right that moment, took me to a Hanbok shop (traditional Korean costume), made me choose my favorite and then wear it for the rest of the morning. To work. And show the students during their English class. And show my bosses. And he stopped at the local gas station on the way back so my neighbors could see me, too. (The picture can be found, here.)

I asked where to find the salt in the grocery store.

Who can’t find salt? This girl. It was in clear view, but apparently my eyes just weren’t working that day. I also remember using Google images to show a shop owner a picture of an onion, so she could help me locate them.

Luckily, the tuna wasn't as hard to find.
Luckily, the tuna wasn’t as hard to find.
Luckily, the tuna wasn’t as hard to find.

I ordered food that I couldn’t stand to eat.

Never, ever point to something random on a menu and order it. What comes out might be cold noodles drenched in gochujang, red pepper sauce, and literally nothing else. Within three bites, my gag reflex started up and the cause was lost. Consulting my phone for pictures of what the menu said, I successfully ordered hot food for round two. The giant plate of disgusting noodles sat wayside for the rest of the meal. Yuck.

I went on dates I didn’t know were dates.

Actually, I’m not even sure that they were dates, to this day. I’m still confused about some. But there were several times I went to a dinner or two with my “guy friend” and later found out that his intentions were more romantic than platonic. I usually found this out when he had some alcohol in his system and felt he should confess his love. Even though we might have had frank conversations about how we were just friends. Anyways, I don’t have any “guy friends” that are Korean, anymore. That didn’t work out very well.

G-Dragon_2012_4
My accidental dates would have been much better if they were with G-Dragon.
My accidental dates would have been much better if they were with G-Dragon.

Those are just ten instances that I remember, but there are probably a few repressed memories hiding in the dark corners of my brain. Even after all of this, though, my self confidence is still intact and I still wake up breathing, every single day. I also still do stupid things. That never ended, unfortunately.

So next time your friend comes back from Paris and starts to drone on about the croissants, stop them. Say, “Tell me about the stupidest thing you did while you were in France.” You’ll be able to laugh instead of rolling your eyes, something both of you will appreciate, and no one will be under the illusion that expat-ing is glorious in any way, shape or form.

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What are the stupidest things you’ve ever done while living abroad? Don’t you wish you were an expat, now? Do you agree that being an expat is more misadventure than adventure?

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The Guide: Teaching English in Korea

So you wanna know, how does one teach in Korea? What do you need to know? Whats the best way to go about it? My best advice and tips are below. I’m not all-knowing, but I can certainly tell you about my experiences and the way I came to Korea, as well as some of the things I’ve learned through talking to other teachers and researching. This is my advice, these are my tips, my knowledge can now be your knowledge.

Note: This article details the how. If you want to know why, check out my article 5 Reasons to Teach English in South Korea over on Life After Study Abroad’s website.

Quick Links:

Program versus Recruiter

If you’re interested in teaching in Korea, you’re probably wondering exactly how to go about it. Going through a program is definitely an option, but it’s not the only one.

About signing up through a program:
One of the biggest advantages of a program is exactly that: it’s a program. People are employed to answer your questions, help you through the process and in general, make you feel more comfortable with the fact that you’re going to live in a foreign country. If you don’t understand the paperwork you need to fill out, you’ll be able to get help from someone in a timely manner. In addition, since you’ll be part of a group arriving in Korea, you’ll have some sort of orientation with other English speakers that gives you the opportunity to meet people right away. Programs are designed to help with those rough edges of a huge transition and that’s a plus on all accounts. Also, side note, programs work exclusively with EPIK schools. (What’s EPIK?) The downside of a program is that most cases, you won’t know where you’ll be placed until you’ve already arrived in Korea. That piece of information was important enough for me that I chose the alternative route of recruitment. This might not bother others at all.

About being recruited:
How does one even go about being recruited? Well in my case (and in most cases, from what I’ve read), people are recruited through job boards. I went through Dave’s ESL Cafe and found my job on the Korean Job Board. The advantages of doing this are that I was able to see my salary ahead of time, choose the age group and look up information on the school itself and where it was.
The disadvantages of going this way are a bit obvious: I am on my own. There was no orientation for me, there was no buffer time between my arrival and beginning my job. The first weekend here, I had to use my survival skills (neighborhood-people-asking-skills) to figure out how to find food and the grocery store.

Regardless of which way you go about it, once you’ve started your job and met your bosses and co-workers, you’ll be able to ask them about anything. And then recruiter versus program becomes irrelevant.

Public School versus Private (Hagwon)

The Korean school system has two main elements: public school and private. Many students are involved with both, signing up for classes at the Hagwon after school and on weekends. Which one should you choose?

Public school teaching is a more typical structure: normally hours are 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday. Most schools aren’t in session on Saturday. Kids are kids and obviously public school is required, so they may not be thrilled to be there (but some definitely are!). You might be asked to run or plan an English camp during vacation. You’ll teach classes by age group, just like you’d imagine. Public schools are known to give more vacation (and work-from-home) time to their teachers, but this is of course a generalization and is not true for every school. Many teachers are busy doing English camps during vacation, as well.

Private tutoring schools or Hagwons are a huge industry in Korea. The hours are normally later, so you’ll start the day closer to noon than 8am and work later. Hagwon teachers also teach on Saturdays, with some exceptions. Your classes will likely be mixed age groups, unlike the public school system. The vacation time is shorter, in general. The pay, however, can be a lot better, but of course it depends. There are plenty of public school positions with comparable pay. Hagwons are also vulnerable to sudden changes, such as being purchased by a different hagwon company. Your job could be less stable, because of this, but I’ve met many people who didn’t encounter this issue at all.

More than anything, it’s important to remember that each school is different. Everyone will have a different boss, hence different rules and a difference schedule and different levels of flexibility in their contract and schedules. These descriptions are pointers, guidelines, but by no means rules.

What’s EPIK / GEPIK?

EPIK is the government sponsored English Program in Korea, which provides opportunities and the basic benefits that you associate with a native teacher position in Korea: your housing being paid for, a good salary, Korean healthcare, etc. If your school uses EPIK funds to hire you (all public schools and some private schools), then you’ll be filling out a little extra paperwork. GEPIK is the same idea, but it’s specific to the Gyeonggi Province, the area surrounding Seoul. Once again, it just means that your school uses government funds to hire you and give you those benefits. An orientation is included and the hiring season is limited to twice a year.

It’s possible for a school to not be funded through EPIK or GEPIK and not be hagwon. For example, I work at a private school and don’t have an EPIK contract. I still have all the typical visa requirements to receive my E-2 visa, except for EPIK paperwork. I was also able to partially renew my contract (i.e. not a full year) and negotiate the details of it. But as a result, I also missed out on the EPIK orientation week and didn’t get to meet all the other foreign teachers right away.

Getting Started: Paperwork

So you’ve decided you’re going to do it. You’re moving to Korea, baby! What’s first?
If you’re from the USA, don’t wait a single moment longer: start the paperwork for your criminal background check. It takes up to three months to fully process everything. Even if you’re only kind of sure, a little wishy-washy, still: start the paperwork. You can always not finish the process if you change your mind.

The paperwork you need can be found on this website: a great, detailed overview of the required documents, from the point of view of a USA passport-holder. Also, compared to getting your criminal background check, the rest of the paperwork is cake. My advice to you is that you read multiple sources’ information about paperwork processes that confuse you and if you’re still not sure, contact your program or recruiter for clarification.

In regards to the Apostille, here is the simplest way to explain it: an Apostille is a kind of notary, but for international use. It certifies that your paper is real from an internationally trusted source. Your criminal background check needs an Apostille from Washington, D.C. because it is a federal document. Your university degree needs an Apostille from that state’s capital, because it’s a state-issued document (in a way). If you are using a letter of expected graduation in replacement of your diploma because of university processing time, it will need an Apostille too, also from your state’s capital.

One last paperwork note: be ready to shell out some cash for the paperwork and visa process. It’s not fun and it adds up, but as long as you’re prepared to do so, then you won’t have any problems. I spent about $200 on paperwork, copying, notarizing, mailing and apostilling. However, my costs were a bit escalated because I (1) got double of all my documents in the case of an emergency and (2) I needed to mail documents to Korea twice: if you do it right the first time, you’ll only send things once. Paperwork is a big pain, but landing in Korea and then starting that first day of work will all be worth it.

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Aren’t Teachers in Korea Being Eliminated?

Ah, the rumors. Ever since 2011, newspapers have reported that native English teachers in Korea would be phased out and there would no longer be jobs available in the public sector. As of this writing, December 2013, there is plenty of evidence of these budget cuts but it’s by no means the end.

First of all, these are only teachers in the public sector: hagwons and private schools are still widely hiring. Secondly, the budget cuts seem to primarily affect two groups of teachers: those living and working in Seoul and high school and middle school teachers. Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, its neighbor, have had wide cuts to their public school programs and if there are any jobs left, they will be tough for a first timer to get a hold of. If your heart is set on Seoul, try going a different route, such as a hagwon, because applying through EPIK and hoping for the big city is a very long shot. As for the second category, elementary school teachers in public schools across Korea still (seem to) have job stability. It’s only high and middle school teachers that are affected right now. So if you’re hoping to teach older kids, you’ll want to search for private schools (recruiters can help you) or hagwon jobs. While it’s still very possible to do that, EPIK won’t be the best route to go about it.

That said, it’s important to know that especially in Korea, things could change within a moment’s notice and you should always be flexible. Also, each Province has their own provincial budget and ways that they are dealing with the budget cuts. Some provinces, such as my own (Chungnam), adore their native English teachers and are doing everything they possibly can to keep them in schools. Others may be less reluctant to let go of jobs in public schools. In any case, jobs are still everywhere in Korea, but they’ve just been redistributed. The budget cuts are no reason to not apply for a job in Korea.

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University Jobs

Korean universities also hire native English teachers, but the requirements are much more strict. You’ll need at least a few years in-classroom experience, definitely a TEFL (if not a CELTA) certificate and best case scenario, also a Master’s degree in any subject. As well, these jobs tend to go to people who are recommended by the former teacher, so you may need a stroke of luck and the right friend to get an in. Universities also like to test out teachers during their summer camps over vacation time, so if you can get a job at their camp (and do a good job), then they’ll likely offer you the upcoming position. If you’re lucky enough to land one of these jobs, the vacation time and pay can be phenomenal; four months of paid vacation and usually no more than 20 teaching hours a week.

There are also jobs at Universities that are part of the “language center” and offered to civilians and other non-traditional / temporary students in the area. These are nicknamed “unigwons” (university + hagwon) and generally offer less vacation time, work hours more similar to hagwons (later in the day until evening) and the courses aren’t for credit. Unlike the more “serious” University jobs with long-term students, you don’t need an incredible resume to get one of these positions. (But you will need some experience!)

When it comes to the money, every university (and unigwon) is different. Some pay next to nothing compared to public school teachers and others pay quite well, so you’ll have to check on an individual basis.

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Other Resources

I’ve written a lot about teaching in South Korea, here you can find all the articles I’ve had published on the subject including more personal accounts of my time here. Perhaps you’ll find the answers to any more of your questions in one of these.

Things other people have written:

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Helpful? Useless? More questions? Contact me here or, if you’d prefer, at abreathofforeignair [at] gmail.com. You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

A Look Ahead: The Last Month in Korea

book coffee happiness

It’s the end of November and it has been for the past week, but this November has absolutely flown by. The everyday blogging, the everyday work, the weekend commitments and events, book-binging and the daily routine of having a dog have all contributed to the light speed with which the month disappeared. More and more, I’m looking ahead.

This December isn’t just the end of the year, it’s also the end of my time as a middle school ESL teacher in Korea. I’m making that very specific on purpose; I will very likely be returning to Korea and ESL is a pretty marketable skill, but I can’t say I want to do it in this context again. It’s just not my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the experience and wouldn’t trade it for much. (Maybe mashed potatoes, though…)

Let’s take a look at what’s coming up this next month:

A trip to Jeju Island. Technically I leave tonight, November, but I come back on Sunday, the first day of December. I’ll be trying to see as much as possible, eating as much as possible, and generally just going against my usual travel philosophy of spending all of my time at a coffee shop watching people.

– My November Reading Roundup! Look for that within a few days.

Selling my precious, bright green car with a maroon pleather interior. I’m going to be so sad to see it go. Princess Fiona has treated me quite well, this past year.

– Running a benefit pancake brunch for friends in town to try to raise some cash for Typhoon Haiyan victims. Pancakes will be involved, so that makes up for the stress of cooking things that people need to eat.

– Ridding my apartment of extra things. I’ve got clothes, books, general things and I live outside of town, so a “garage sale”/come-to-my-house-take-my-things-for-free situation won’t be possible. I have a feeling this may be my biggest stresser.

– Other general preparation, like finding and buying Mary a dog crate for the flight over (suggestions? please tell me!), those last dinners and one-on-ones with friends, shipping things home for which there is no room in my suitcase, making sure to eat everything delicious ever, one last time. (If only I could eat Bingsu again!)

– Eating three meals of macaroni and cheese, because my mom sent me some Easy Mac from the USA. I am actually quite excited about this, it may be one of those (three of those) bright spots in the midst of a hectic and stressful month.

– Finishing all of my Christmas shopping; buying online and making sure it’s delivered on time or grabbing any last-minute souvenirs from Seoul for family members.

– A goodbye party which will be super sad and hopefully also involve cake, because cake is delicious.

– A 36 hour Christmas in Korea and Pittsburgh (due to a Christmas flight and the time difference), my birthday in Pittsburgh, and the beginning of a very unplanned and crazy year to come.

Well, December, you’re pretty much already here, so come at me! Bring it on!

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Do you have suggestions for keeping stress levels down this month? How about for a good airplane dog carrier? What does your December look like?

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Sacrifices of Travel: Thanksgiving Away From Home

If I had to pick a favorite holiday, I’d stop for a moment on Easter, because of the copious amounts of chocolate involved, then I’d debate over Christmas and the great times with family and gifts and hot chocolate, but eventually, I’d conclude that Thanksgiving, with all of the aromas and haste, rows of seats and unearthly amounts of incredible food, is definitely it. Something about the big table, mixture of gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes and the fact that it’s usually not terribly cold, not just yet. So yes, after serious though, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. Hands down.

One of the sacrifices that expats and long-term travelers, study abroaders and other world explorers all make is missing family events. Sometimes they are birthdays, graduations, unexpected funerals or just regular, annual holidays. As the missing family member abroad, I often try to Skype in for parties, send messages and generally just let my family know that I wish I could be there for the event. It’s never quite the same, but it’s something. And once a year, that event I’ve missed is Thanksgiving.

Three years ago, after my semester abroad had ended in Buenos Aires, I spent a month traversing the country and visiting every city I could get myself to. I made a choice to miss Thanksgiving in exchange for the adventures, a choice I wouldn’t take back. But not being there for the turkey, the stuffing, the family shenanigans and occasional mishaps was hard. Three years ago, in a mountain city of Argentina with friends I’d only met a week prior, we came together and did our best to celebrate. Me and Zoe, an American working in Bariloche, cut and boiled potatoes, prepared a casserole and readied chicken to be baked. Someone else would bring the pie. Ironically, the Argentines showed up, saw our cooking attempts and immediately fixed everything; turning up the heat on the potatoes and slicing open the chicken to cut cooking time in half.

Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.
Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.

We ate and laughed, and though the food was good, we enjoyed the holiday more for the people. But just as the smiling faces of friends were comforting to me, they were also a reminder of exactly what I was missing.

Almost two years ago, I signed my contract to move to Korea and teach English. On Thanksgiving, last year, I worked. The foreigners in town chose the following Saturday to get together and have potluck style Thanksgiving dinner. Two homemade pumpkin pies arrived, mashed potatoes were devoured (before I even got any!) and chickens were roasted, turkey hadn’t made its way into town. We had all of the classic fixings of Thanksgiving, aside from Turkey, and we stuffed ourselves to the breaking point in true Thanksgiving tradition. As the night wore on, it developed into singing and merriment which had to be taken outside. A long line of foreigners poured into the streets of this small Korean town, celebrating their holiday, like a single bit of sun on an otherwise cloudy day.

Last year's Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.
Last year’s Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.

A week ago, I labored over a cutting board, slicing carrots into strips, peeling ginger with my fingers and adding clove after clove of garlic to the mixture. The end result was far from pretty, but finger-licking good and I dutifully carried my Tupperware containers to the annual foreigner’s Thanksgiving potluck. We packed ourselves into the tiny apartment, ate a strange mix of foods including spicy pasta, bacon mac and cheese and roasted chicken. Mashed potatoes had been promised but not delivered, stuffing arrived almost an hour late and gravy was nowhere to be found. Pumpkin pie, store bought but a god-send nonetheless, was delivered several hours after we’d finished our food. Wine was consumed, ice cream was spilled and space was tight and cramped; what last year had felt very Thanksgiving-like, this year felt nothing of the sort.

The food was good, though, and the laughter was still there. What was supposed to be a Thanksgiving potluck was more of a strange miscellaneous potluck drinking-fest with pumpkin pie and stuffing. I had my fun, I enjoyed spending time with my friends, but at the end of the night, I wasn’t hesitant to go home. More than any year before, this Thanksgiving reminded me, painfully so, of what I was missing. Of what I’d given up to live abroad, teach and earn money in another culture and expand my horizons.

My five months in Argentina, one month of it backpacking and my year and a half of life and work in Korea are experiences that could never be replicated at home. They’ve brought me trials and lessons, laughter and new ways of thinking. My brain expanded to accommodate new languages, faces and customs. I’ve grown as a person and become more confident, daring and content with what I already have. But I haven’t lived as an expat without sacrifice; missing my favorite holiday and the family that go with it are a price I pay. Missing Thanksgiving three years running is part of that cost.

Is it worth it?

Yes.

Do I miss my family and mashed potatoes?

More than they’ll ever know.

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Have you missed holidays while traveling or living abroad? What do you miss the most from Thanksgiving? Is there one holiday you refuse to miss?

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11 Christmas Gifts for Travelers, Vagabonds and Wanderers

christmas gift traveler
Gifts! Whoopie!

Shopping for a traveler, let alone a perpetual traveler can be tough. Those who spend a lot of time on the road usually tend to reject the notion of “stuff” and try to be as minimalist as possible. If the traveler you know has sold their home, then it’s even harder to shop; if your gift isn’t well-received, it will probably be left behind somewhere, maybe re-gifted to someone you don’t know or left at the local Goodwill donation center. So what should you buy someone who is easily burdened by the unnecessary? What should you give a traveler for Christmas?

Being a traveler myself, a person without a house to keep things in and someone who is constantly shedding their belongings to fit them in a suitcase, I thought I’d offer some tips. But I, just one person, can’t speak for everyone. Each traveler is different, but hopefully this list at least sparks an idea for you. Christmas shopping is hard, I know, and my mom can vouch that it’s especially hard when you’re shopping for a moving target.

So here are my suggestions.

eBooks

Provided your traveler enjoys reading and has an eReader (many of us do!), then eBooks are always a hit. Not only can you buy and deliver this gift from the comfort of your chair, but the traveler doesn’t have to jump through any post office/redemption hoops. They just need to find WiFi. And within minutes, they’ll be reading.

The tricky part is which book to get them. As this is a highly personal choice, I’d recommend getting a third-party to ask if they have a wish list somewhere and shopping from there. If you have to shoot blindly, then a wanderlust-inciting story is usually a safe bet.

Note: if your traveler doesn’t have an eReader, then you may need to help them. I’d recommend the Kindle Paperwhite; I’ve had mine for two months and it’s revolutionized my (literary) life.

I wish I could own these, but having them in E-book form is the second best option.
I wish I could own these, but having them in eBook form is the second best option.

Thin, Versatile Clothing

Folks on the road are constantly wearing their clothes out. While it’s easy to buy clothes abroad, it’s also nice to be gifted quality threads. Traveling clothes usually need to be lightweight, frill-free and easy to wear in a variety of situations. Think t-shirts, thin sweaters and undershirts, neutral colors or classic patterns, like stripes. For most jet-setters, trends fall to the wayside while comfort and usability become paramount.

I packed for five months in one bag; sadly, there wasn’t a lot of room for fashion.

A Custom Map Key Chain/Necklace

A nomad’s life is place-independent and yet, completely fixated on location; a strange mix. Getting a traveler a small token of a special place they’ve been, where they are from or where their loved ones are is a sure way to put a smile on your wanderer’s face. And the gift is small, which is a must.

You can find several shops on Etsy that will put any map into a necklace/key chain/tie fastener/etc and for not too much money. This shop, Brass and Chain, has a nice mix of items and won’t break the bank.

map necklace christmas gift traveler
A little bit of home, wherever you go. (Or a little bit of Rome, no matter how long you’re at home!)

Small Notebooks

Situations pop up all the time when traveling where the vagabond in question needs to write something of importance down for later. Scraps of paper are easily lost and memory can be faulty; sometimes language barriers require a drawing of some kind. A small, portable notebook is always a big help on the road and serves as a principle place to put down directions, phone numbers, the address of that night’s hostel or anything else of importance.

I’m a Moleskine girl, all the way. I use this small, soft-covered version with a grid inside, but you can also get notebooks hard-covered, lined or blank inside and in different sizes.

moleskine notebook christmas present vagabond
When you gotta write, you gotta write.

Socks

You know when you were younger and opened up a present, then hid your disappointment with a big exaggerated thank you, because Aunt Susan gave you socks, again? Well this is the opposite reaction of those always on the road; socks are destroyed and smelly in short order and constantly need replaced. If you give socks to your favorite traveler, the thank you and accompanying smile will be genuine. Their feet will thank you, as well.

socks christmas gift wanderer
New socks are pure happiness.

An Unlocked Smart Phone

This gift is only for the rich among us, as buying smart phones out of contract is tremendously expensive. Any traveler can tell you that their smart phone is their life and not because it can make phone calls. Essentially a smart phone can be used simply as a mini computer, when it has access to WiFi, and in-country SIM cards can be purchased just about everywhere, so wandering foreigners can call their hostel if they’re in a jam. If your traveling friend has an old or broken smart phone, no phone or even worse, a Blackberry (!!!), then they would likely be very appreciative of an iPhone 5, for instance. The obvious downside is this gift is pricey.

This is a real stock photo that came up when I searched "iPhone". I'm dying of laughter. (I'm sorry, I couldn't not include this in the blog post.)
This is a real stock photo that came up when I searched “iPhone”. I’m dying of laughter. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t not include this in the blog post.)

A Wide Scarf

Travelers all know of the usefulness of a good scarf; not only can it keep your neck warm, but it can cover your head in conservative places, double as a towel when in need, cover legs in the middle of doing laundry, keep breakables from breaking… the uses go on. Just make sure you buy a scarf wide enough to be versatile and lightweight enough to bring everywhere.

While I haven’t purchased from FashionABLE myself, I’ve heard tons of positive things not only about the scarves themselves, but also the business. Ethiopian women make these scarves by hand and get the opportunity to leave poverty behind at the same time.

Erm, yes. Scarves can also be headbands.
Erm, yes. Scarves can also be headbands. [Source.]

Camera Gear

Chances are your vagabond wants to document what they’re seeing either for themselves, for you, or possibly a wider audience. While I don’t have one myself, every traveler and their mother mentions GoPro cameras as a must-have. It’s essentially an ultra-durable and waterproof camera with excellent video capabilities. If your traveler already has one, they may be lusting over the GoPro head-strap for situations where they need both hands. If your vagabond is more of a DSLR kind of guy/gal when it comes to photography, they may want a GorillaPod when extra hands are unavailable. Camera gear can become heavy and burdensome, though, so proceed with caution and understanding; this gift is a hit or miss.

The days of disposable cameras are over, please don't give one of these to anyone with itchy feet.
The days of disposable cameras are over, please don’t give one of these to anyone with itchy feet.

Buy What They’re Selling

If your wandering friend is on the road long-term, chances are they are offering some kind of service to make money while mobile. Lots of travelers have written and sell eBooks, some people offer web design services, yet others offer prints of their photographs (like me!) or the chance to buy a postcard from them. Whatever it is that your friend is offering, consider sending them a big order. You could even buy from your favorite vagabond as a Christmas gift, and then give that product to someone else who’d appreciate it more than you. Two birds with one stone, my friend, you’ve just double Christmas shopped.

The well known Hecktic Travels, one of many bloggers selling an eBook.
The well-known Hecktic Travels, one of many bloggers selling an eBook.

A Gift Receipt

Aside from straight cash, this may be the best gift you could give a traveler. Whatever it is you decide to buy, always remember to include either a gift receipt or contact information for doing a return/getting a refund. No wanderlusting friend wants to leave your gift behind because they couldn’t figure out how to return it and pick up something more useful. And you wouldn’t want them to: always give the option of returning/exchanging your present.

The magic little white piece of paper.
The magic little white piece of paper. (Okay, this is not a picture of a gift receipt but I didn’t have much to work with, when it comes to stock photos…)

Money

Plane tickets are getting more expensive, but your friend’s desire to see the world is probably still on the rise. There’s nothing better than receiving money, and if you want to make sure the money is put to good use, write a little note about what you’d like your friend to put it towards. Flights always need paid, hostels booked, and buses paid for. If your vagabond is young, chances are they have a loan or two that is keeping them from total freedom. If they blog, then they may have yearly web hosting costs. Sending them $50 to help them on their way, even just a little bit, is a gesture that every traveler appreciates.

Every traveler's dream: a green Christmas.
Every traveler’s dream: a green Christmas.

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Travelers, what’s on your Christmas list this year? What’s the best vagabond-related gift that you’ve ever received?

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Language Misadventures: How I Adopted and Unadopted a Dog Before 8am

I’m all about going with the flow, saying yes to opportunities that present themselves and diving in when I have no idea what I’m doing. This has brought me nothing but interesting opportunities, if not sometimes mildly uncomfortable, but always something manageable and usually a good life experience, to boot. But this morning, that tendency lead me to end up in the most absurd situation imaginable. I still don’t believe that just happened. It’s not even 9am, but I need a beer.

It all started last week, Friday, at 6:15am, as I made my way to the exercise track near my school with Mary in tow. As is usual, some Korean ladies on their way to… somewhere… stopped me and asked about me and my dog, commenting on how cute she is. One mentioned that she had dogs at home, but one died. We spoke in Korean, which means that I was understanding the gist of everything, but would occasionally miss a sentence but could struggle through. For some reason, which I couldn’t correctly comprehend, they (or she?) wanted to meet me. I reluctantly agreed to meet the following week, at 6am, in front of the school. Maybe they or she wanted to meet to exercise with me? One lady or two? To show me her dog?  To feed me kimchi? Who knows. I said yes and figured that I’d find out Monday morning what exactly we were meeting for.

Oh boy, was I in for a surprise.

Monday morning, I groggily dragged myself out of bed at 5:45am, knowing that I was supposed to meet this lady whom I knew nothing about for unknown reasons in 15 minutes. I threw on an exercise outfit, put Mary on a leash and we headed out into the freezing cold. She was nowhere to be seen, so I headed to the track to begin running. About 6:30am, one question of mine was answered as I saw one figure walking towards me with something in her arms. The sun was still hiding and a full moon was shrouded in dark, ominous rain clouds, but as I got closer I was able to see that she was holding a dog. A cute, white, shaking, adorable little dog wrapped in a blanket like a baby.

We conversed in Korean, in which I understood really just one thing. This was her dog, and she had kept her promise to meet me. (Indeed!) She asked me a question in Korean, which I guessed to mean “do you want to hold her?” I motioned “holding” and we were both a little confused, and I said yes. She repeated this question, I said yes again. That verb I don’t know, it must mean “to hold”, right?

Damn me and my “yes.” I didn’t know it yet, but I had just agreed to keep her dog and raise it with Mary.

She motioned for me to walk with her, which I did, wondering when I was going to hold her dog like I’d just agreed to do. A question I am well accustomed to and understand clearly, always, she asked me where my house was, and we started walking towards it. I understood at this point that my run was over. Answering, I told her where I lived, at which point I gathered that perhaps she was going to leave the dog with me for a time. To play with me at my house? This was turning out to be more than I’d hoped to agree to.

Mary doesn’t even like other dogs, how are we going to play together at my place?

She told me about how she loved the dog and her younger sibling also loved the dog, but no one else in her house liked her. It was a sad tale, and I felt her pain. I answered a weird question about where my dog sleeps, which now in retrospect, was a question about where poor little Parry would sleep. “Oh, you really speak Korean very well, Sally!” she said. She asked when she should visit, which I assumed meant pick up the dog and take her back.

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure at all what I had agreed to. The verb “방문” means, very clearly, a visit. Not a return. A visit.

Confused, I carried a swaddled dog in one arm and pulled Mary on her leash back to my home. Mary hadn’t yet noticed that I was, indeed, carrying a dog and hadn’t commenced her usual aggressive barking when another canine is near. She was oblivious. I was also oblivious. And really, really confused.

Parry wasn’t in my house more than ten minutes before she shit on the floor.

As sweet as little Parry is, there is no way I want to have an unhouse-trained dog in my house, even to play. Even if her little white tail is dyed orange. It wasn’t even 7am yet, but I figured I could use some help from a Korean speaker. I called my boyfriend, woke him up, and was yelled at for telling this stranger my house address. I don’t even know her! Now she knows where I live! It’s a weird situation, what if she’s trying to farm my organs or something! His grumpiness, unclear morning thoughts and paranoia about my safety combined into an unfortunate combination. I sent him a picture of Parry and the lady’s phone number, amid cleaning dog shit off my floor.

Mary finally noticed that there was another dog in the house, and barking hell broke loose. I shut her in the bedroom, separate, and mentally apologized to all my neighbors that weren’t up already for work. She was one unhappy puppy, clawing at the door and barking, even though little Parry didn’t respond one bit.

I poured myself a very much needed coffee.

After a few minutes, my boyfriend called me back and I was not prepared to hear what he had to say, as the official translator. I’d ignored my deepest suspicious, that I was supposed to keep this dog, because it seemed like way too strange a scenario to be real. My gut already knew, though. This lady that I had met twice, randomly, had given me her dog to keep. She couldn’t afford to raise it anymore, because extra family had moved in recently and they didn’t like poor little Parry. She thought I would be a good candidate, because I already had a dog and like dogs and I’m nice. Apparently I had gone along with it the whole time.

I had accidentally adopted a dog.

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My official translator then communicated to her that it wasn’t possible for me to keep little Parry; I have dog allergies (true, Mary is hypoallergenic) and I’m leaving soon for the USA. I had misunderstood. I thought I was just supposed to play with her for a little bit and then give her back. I thought I was babysitting. I, sadly, can’t keep the dog and raise her. Mary doesn’t even like other dogs. I’d meet her at 7:50am and bring back Parry, and she’d have to find a different home if she couldn’t keep her.

I literally burst into a fit of laughter, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I also felt stupid, stupid and really stupid for somehow agreeing to keep her dog and simultaneously really guilty for letting her hopes down. In my guilt, I put together a little package of dog food and grape juice packets as an apology gift. An “I’m sorry I pretended to speak Korean, adopted your dog and then unadopted your dog immediately afterwards,” gift. I got a fair warning from my boyfriend to not say “yes” to questions that I don’t understand and a nice apology for yelling at me when he was tired.

I continued laughing.

As Mary barked repeatedly, still scratching at the door, as the little white dog pissed on her own blanket only twenty minutes after shitting on my floor and as I continued to try and choke down some caffeine so I could understand what was happening in my absurd life, I laughed out loud until it hurt. I bellowed.

7:50am, waiting outside my school, I held little Parry in my arms as she shivered in the cold. The same Korean lady walked up, a big smile on her face of amusement (and probably a little hidden disappointment) and took Parry back. I handed her the bag of goodies, my apology gift, which she graciously accepted as well as my apology, in Korean. She didn’t try to say anything else in Korean to me, probably out of fear that I wouldn’t understand. Her fears were grounded in a very recent reality of huge misunderstanding.

I walked into work, still in disbelief, recounted the story to my early morning class and took a moment to breath. By 8am, I had accidentally adopted a dog and then unadopted her. This story was one for the books.

Sometimes, I don’t believe my life.

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Sorry, Parry, it just wasn’t meant to be.

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I would ask whether you’d ever accidentally adopted a dog before, too, but I feel like I’m alone on this one.

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Mini iPhone Photoessay: A Week of School Lunches

[See also: Rebe’s Week of School Lunch
& An Entire Blog Dedicated to Korean School Lunch (Eat Your Lunch-ee)]

Ah, school lunch. Growing up, it was the time of day almost everyone looked forward to. Worry free, Mom or Dad would hand me either a bag lunch or money to buy something in the cafeteria. Once I began living on my own, I realized that cooking food for myself was much less easy. Mostly just time consuming. Dislike!

And when I came to Korea for my first big-girl job, I was thrilled to find that lunch was provided. During the week, even if I failed completely during breakfast and dinner time, I’d at least have one balanced, good meal to keep me going. Well, they are usually good; though there are moments when I wonder who thought cooking pickles with spicy sauce was a good idea. Or who would think spaghetti and rice and a soup with deokk (rice cake) in it was a balanced lunch. Anyways, I digress.

My goal was to photograph a week’s worth of lunches. The plan failed quickly and completely when forgot about it on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thankfully, I found some backup photos of school lunch from earlier in the year, so the project was salvaged! Please pretend that this was a consecutive week, you know, for congruency’s sake.

Monday

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See the upper left hand corner? That’s what I’m talking about. Pickles in spicy something is just gross; thankfully this side dish doesn’t come around too often. Top middle was deokk (rice cake) and mini hotdogs also covered in spicy pepper paste (gochujang). The rice is just rice, and the soup was pretty much the best soup I’ve had all month. Beef and assorted root-y vegetables. Soup saved the day on Monday.

Tuesday

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In the top left, we have Korean “pancakes”, which are kind of scrambled egg circles. Vegetables and seafood are mixed in. The top middle is one of my favorite side dishes, beef and hard-boiled quail eggs. The top right, you’ll notice I was still trying to pretend that I liked kimchi (this was a back-up photo from February), which by now I’ve given up on. Rice, as usual, and a light soup with fried tofu balls and some white things. Honestly, it’s been 16 months and I still don’t know what those are slices of… embarrassing.

Wednesday

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PURPLE THINGS IN MY LUNCH! Actually, the cabbage is purple (mixed with corn and apple) and it’s just covered in yogurt. So it looks like the whole thing is purple. Then in the top middle, we have spicy chicken and potatoes, which by now I’ve finally learned how to consume with chopsticks. Missing kimchi, this backup photo is from last month, some plain rice. The soup is a Korean favorite; seaweed and tofu soup. I kind of love it.

Thursday

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Ah Korea, always full of surprises. The top left is a mix of bean sprouts and other stringy vegetables. Yes, those are fish that were literally deep fried, as is. I’ve never seen this in my lunch, before, but maybe the lunch ladies knew I was planning to write this post and wanted to freak all my readers out. You just pull all the bits of fish out with your chopsticks. Plain, old, boring rice and kimchi chigae, or spicy kimchi and pork soup.

Friday

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In the upper left hand corner is a soy sauce mixed with green onion and sesame seeds (and probably some other unknown ingredients). No, it’s not meant for eating as is; you either dip those cheese sticks in it or mix it with the rice situation. Those cheesesticks were a surprise, I’ve also never seen the lunch ladies make those. It was a special treat, since I’m always mourning over a lack of cheese. The rice was mixed with pieces of beef and bean sprouts. The soup, a tofu and cabbage soup, was surprisingly tasty.

Bonus!

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I’m sorry for tricking you into thinking this was going to be a congruent week, the post title is a big fat lie, so I’ll make up for it by including a bonus lunch. Sometimes fate intervenes and the lunch ladies serve us something incredibly yummy. Apple juice, a weird sweet bread thing and a single piece of kimchi sit in that top row. (This was about the time I gave up on kimchi altogether, this past July.) The rice is mixed with purple sticky rice (hence the color!) and the beautiful bowl of noodles is graced with egg, seaweed, carrot, cucumber, and spring onion. Mix and nom!

Your Turn

For the other ESL/EFL/any other kinds of teachers in Korea, listen up. For once in your life, I want to know what you had for lunch. You can do an entire week (or piece together a week’s worth, like I did) or you can do just a day; however many or few you’d like. Take a picture of your delicious cafeteria food and post it to your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, personal blog or wherever. Just use the hashtag #KoreanSchoolLunch, with a link to the lunch in question. (And if possible, send me a link to your lunch by Tweet or private message so I don’t miss it!) Those with blog posts, I’ll link to them here. Show me your noms, people!

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Think you would enjoy eating school lunch in Korea? What terrifies you? What makes your mouth water? What’s just straight up weird?

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