You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

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

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

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Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea

I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:

Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?

Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?

No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?

Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.

Yeah, they're angels.
Yeah, they’re angels.

Do you know all of your kids’ names?

Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.

Are you friends with your co-workers?

I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.

Are there any other foreigners where you live?

Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.

Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.
Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.

Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?

No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.

Are your classes graded?

No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.

How do you keep your kids disciplined?

Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.

The only surefire teaching method: bribery.
The only surefire teaching method: bribery.

What do you like about your job?

I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference?

Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.

Can I have some candy?

Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.

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If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or sign up for the email list, if you’d like.

An Honest Review of 16 Months Studying Korean

I came to Korea for a variety of reasons; money, foreign-ness, a new language and a high potential of personal growth were all factors that pushed me to buy my plane ticket. I didn’t choose Korea specifically for Korean, rather I wanted to learn a new language in general, so I choose Korea and therefore Korean. So while I never had any special interest in the Korean language, per say, I did come to Korea preparing to learn the language and hopefully end up conversational. It’s been one of my big ongoing goals throughout my life in Korea and early on in the year, I was also writing about my progress with Korean language updates on the blog.

[Previous Updates: My Initial Plan, My Brain Exploding, Tortoise-ing, Writing A Story About a Tomato, Improvements]

Recently I’ve been quiet on the subject. I never stopped learning Korean, but the structured studying ebbed and flowed, ended, started, slowed, disappeared and was often put aside for more pressing matters. I poured a lot of energy into getting this blog officially up and running, I started practicing my photography, I ended up with a rescue puppy and significant time commitments to make sure she wouldn’t eat my house while I was at work, everyday. But while I haven’t been cracking open a textbook everyday (or even on a weekly basis), I have been learning Korean in less direct ways, through conversation, random research on a word I’d seen, and sometimes Korean music/media.

So now that I’ve got less than two months left in Korea (eek!), I thought it would be a good time to take an honest look at my methods, my progress and what I could have done better. While I can have basic conversations with a Korean, or text message conversations (where I can take a minute to look up any unknown words), more in depth in-person conversations are still impossible for me. I can ask for anything I need in a restaurant, store, or from a co-worker, but their responses remain a mystery to me 50% of the time. I have room for improvement. But to say I haven’t gotten anywhere would be a gross misstatement of the truth. I’ve gone far, but Korean requires more of me.

[Related Post: Tips and Resources for Learning Korean]

What I Did Right

I started off on the right pronunciation foot. Before arriving in Korea, I got private help from a Korean-American in town who taught me the alphabet and the correct pronunciation for words. When I arrived in Korea, I started meeting a Korean weekly and practicing vocabulary and verbs. By spending time with native speakers in the very beginning, I was able to get the right sounds off my tongue from the get-go. (To this day, I’m complimented on my pronunciation by Korean speakers.)

I collected a variety of resources. Studying can be boring, really, really boring. But I collected a bunch of different resources, from internet to books to flash cards to conversation partners and used them all. It was this variety that made it possible to study so often in my first couple months. It’s hard to get bored when you’ve got resources that engage all of your senses!

I met a Korean weekly. This ended for tragic, unforeseeable circumstances, but the two/three months that it continued was extremely helpful. Sadly, once it came to a stop, there was no way to begin again and I never found a replacement partner. But I learned a lot while this was in session and I think it’s one of the best ways to up your Korean game.

What I Did Okay

I spoke Korean with Korean people, sometimes. You’d think that by working with Koreans, I’d have taken that opportunity to practice my Korean with them everyday. Sadly, those opportunities arose fewer times than you’d think. When my co-teacher spoke to me, it was understandably to communicate some kind of important information. Which meant she spoke in English to make sure I understood. As for meeting Korean friends, I ended up adopting a kind of half Korean, half English conversation style. While I did use some Korean, it would have been better if I’d really pushed myself harder and tried to say more complicated sentences.

I got a Korean boyfriend. You shouldn’t get a Korean boyfriend unless you like your Korean boyfriend; the foreign language practice should be a bonus. But I can’t exclude this, because it’s played a big part in my language development. It’s been invaluable to have a living dictionary, kind of, whom I can text a question and get a quick response, or ask to clarify some grammar point I don’t understand. However, we don’t speak exclusively in Korean which would have really upped my level over time.

What I Did Badly

I invested time in language projects that I didn’t use. I spent a lot of time making flashcards, which was helpful at least to make them. Sadly, though, I made them, used them one time and they’ve been collecting dust in a pile ever since. Instead of spending hours finding the right card stock, drawing the pictures, writing the words and organizing the cards, I should have just studied more from the book. Or used Quizlet. Or anything really. I’ve never been a huge flashcard person, so I’m not sure why I thought this time would be different.

I never replaced my Korean conversation partner. While it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t meet my first conversation partner anymore, it was definitely my fault that I never found another virtual one. My town is a third elderly, a third single middle aged men who work as laborers, and a third young children and their parents. It’s extremely difficult to find people my age in the neighborhood, so it’s understandable that another in-person conversation partner wasn’t in the cards. But I could have easily turned to iTalki, or any of the other Skype conversation exchanges available online. I didn’t.

I didn’t stick to a self-study schedule. Granted, once Mary came into my life, all schedules were thrown off. But I never had a consistent one to begin with, just a vague goal of “everyday” and some free time. If I had set aside certain times every week, then I think I’d have gotten a bit farther. My sporadic study sessions should have been regular. If I could go back in time, this would be the first thing I’d change.

At The End Of The Day

It’s funny how hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, I can see everything that I could have done better. But when it comes down to it, I’ve still learned a lot of Korean. No, we can’t discuss the intricacies of the USA political system in Korean (and a shame, because I’ve got a lot to say about that!). But I can tell you how to cook a classic American breakfast correctly. Still, I could be better at Korean by now, and it’s my own fault that I’m not. But while I can’t go back in time, I can apply these lessons to the next language on my plate. Like not to bother with flash cards, ever.

And when I get to my next foreign language (which based on history, is inevitable), I’m grateful that I’ll know, at least a little better, what to do.

[Related Post: A Critique: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Language Learning Method]

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Photoessay: Cherry Blossoms in Korea

In Korea, this past month, it was an important time of year: cherry blossom tree blooming time! Japan may be most famous for cherry blossom trees, but Korea definitely doesn’t disappoint. Because the trees only stay flowered for a few weeks, if you’re lucky and it doesn’t rain, it’s important to pay attention and not miss it.

So, one weekend in April, I researched the cherry blossom tree festival in Seoul and made solid plans to go. I didn’t want to miss out!

I woke up early, packed my bags and camera and headed out to Seoul. Two hours and some wandering around later, I found the park and festival. Imagine my disappointment (with myself) when I forgot to pack the battery for the fancy camera. Even more disappointing, though? The trees were barely blooming! What?! And it was still crowded… go figure, Seoul. Continue reading Photoessay: Cherry Blossoms in Korea

The Eight Month Mark

As of the 23rd, it’ll be eight months since my plane touched down in South Korea and I started my first “real” job. There’s nothing special about why I picked the eighth month to write about and not the ninth or the seventh; it just happens that I decided to count recently, as I’d lost track of the time. So here I am, eight months in, and (as always, as everyone always does) wondering when all eight of those months passed me by, exactly.

A lot has changed since that month of June. For one, working with my students has gotten infinitely easier. They’ve gotten used to me being a teacher, I’ve picked up some actual teaching skills and I’ve gotten accustomed to what it’s like to work in a private middle school in Korea. No doubt, I’ll have surprise after surprise still sprung at me (as usual), but that’s okay. I’m flexible. I’ll figure it out. Continue reading The Eight Month Mark

Christmas is coming!

and before I get started: happy birthday to my other, older, apparently cuter brother! (my students weighed in on it…) I love you!

Korea and Christmas aren’t really best friends the way USA and Christmas are. there’s no week off of school or extended holiday break because of it. there’s not a strong tradition of buying everyone multiple presents and filling up the tree with boxes and boxes. no one will pay me to wrap all of their presents for them, this year. families don’t gather together from far and wide. Continue reading Christmas is coming!

I Almost Fainted in Public… Again.

When I’m sick, I need to be padlocked to my bed for 48 hours, because this is the second time I’ve left the house for something I “need” to do and it’s ended less than pleasantly.

Last time, I was in Buenos Aires, on a subway, and I actually completely lost consciousness. (You can read the entire story here.) This time, the scenario was eerily similar: I was on a bus, once again there were no seats and I was stuck standing. Continue reading I Almost Fainted in Public… Again.

being sick in Korea

no matter where you are in the world, being sick sucks.

but as an expat, it’s even more miserable, because the likelihood that your mother will fly in with six blankets and endless amounts of chicken noodle soup for you to eat is pretty close to zero.

I’ve been sick twice, probably because I work in a middle school where students are expected to attend classes even when they are sick. which leads to germs spreading and me ending up with a fever. ironically, I still go to work and just nap, hidden in the English room, the entire time to try and combat it. which is exactly why I get sick, because someone didn’t stay home. whatever, it’s the way it works in Korea! Continue reading being sick in Korea

Reflections on Five Months in South Korea

This is no joke. And I’m not sure where time went, that suddenly I’ve hit a huge landmark. Five seems like an arbitrary number, but it’s actually quite significant. Five months is the longest time I’ve ever spent away from home and not seeing anyone in my family. From here on out, it’s uncharted territory. (Except that every day I spend in Korea is already pretty uncharted territory for me… this country is full of crazy.)

And as my friend so eloquently put yesterday, you’re probably wondering: “So, what’s the verdict?” Continue reading Reflections on Five Months in South Korea