Sunday, August 31, 2014

Let's travel!

This was my expensive purchase of the week.  A brand new traveling backpack all of my own!

Due to the emotional chaos of this past week, I'm trying to just focus on more exciting things and the main reason I decided to stay in Korea another year: traveling.

Next week is Chuseok, so we'll have a five day weekend and my friend and I will be heading to Japan.  Even though I just got back from my vacation at home, I feel more than ready for another mini-vacation.

After Chuseok we will be in fall festival season, which I'm sure will have me busy traveling around the country once again.

I have one more year left in Asia, and I'm feeling determined to see as much as I can before time is up.

Bring on the adventures!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Endings and beginnings.

As of Tuesday this past week, I began my second contract with EPIK.  Although I thought my second year would be a breeze to adjust to, in many ways I feel like I'm starting all over again.

This is my fourth year teaching.  Each of those years has been at a different school, and  I'm getting a little tired of getting comfortable, only to start all over again.  Just as I start to know what I'm doing, I start back at square one. I'm really looking forward to being able to teach at the same place for two years in a row someday. Unfortunately, this probably won't happen for quite some time.

This year is especially challenging because I'm actually working at three schools, meaning that I had THREE first days.  That means three times the pressure to make good first impressions, three times the awkward small talk, and three times the nerves. It's been a long week. 

I'll write a longer post about my new school-life next week when I have a better idea of what's going on, but here are my impressions so far:

--Third grade is SO CUTE!!! Since I've been in Korea, I've been saying that Korean kids are the CUTEST, but third grade is just helping to prove this point. When I first met them they spent a solid 15 minutes just asking me "Do you like ______?"  Hmmm I wonder which phrase they just learned?  Then yesterday when I taught them they were extremely enthusiastic about simply repeating the phrase "I have ________" for the entire class.  When they started to sing and dance to the song that went along with the lesson?! I just about lost it.  Cuteness overload. These kids are going to get me through this year. 

--The only thing that matches the cuteness of the third graders is seeing the kindergartners at lunch.  These little babies are killing me at lunch each day when I see them carrying their lunch trays, which are just as big as they are.  

--Teaching elementary is much more straight-forward than high school was.  This is mostly due to the fact that the elementary curriculum revolves solely around the textbooks.  There are cds that go with each book, and essentially we are expected to just put the cd in and teach.  Last year I didn't really use a textbook, and I don't know how many Sunday nights I stayed up late thinking "what am I going to teach this week?!"  Last year I pretty much made all of my materials, especially for the writing class I did, which was entirely my own.  Overall, planning this year is going to be a lot easier, especially because when I do need extra materials, there is a TON of stuff on I think teaching the textbook will get old quickly, but for now it's at least making life easier. 

--My schools are really in the countryside.  The middle school I'm teaching at has a total of 24 students.  The elementary school I'm teaching at on Thursdays only has 15 kids in grades 3-6.  I'm totally amazed that they keep schools open for such small groups of kids.  These middle-of-nowhere schools mean I have some long bus rides, but so far I've enjoyed the absolutely beautiful views of mountains and rice fields.  When you just stay in the cities it can be easy to forget just how beautiful Korea is.

There are many other things I'll write about with greater detail after I have a bit more time to adjust.  I think this week was one of the most difficult of my life between saying goodbye to my old school and closest friends here and trying to figure out a million different textbooks, going to teacher dinners, and trying to make good first impressions. 

I'm kind of drained and feeling a bit overwhelmed as I try to adjust to a new sense of normalcy, so sorry for the lack of anything interesting to say.  To end this post I'll leave you with a few pictures from the past week or so. 
Words cannot express how much I will these kids.  I feel so lucky to have had the chance to work with these amazing students.  I can honestly say that I will never, ever forget them.  

Some of the students who made this year amazing for me.  If it weren't for them, I'm not sure I would have ever have felt at home in Korea.  

The pensions we stayed at during the grand farewell weekend. 

Adventures at noraebang.  Thank God Jen isn't leaving Korea just yet. 

Last time out with Marize.

Farewell dinner with speeches from the departing veterans. 

Last night at Advice

My favorite person in Korea this past year...going to take a long time to get to life without James.

This picture perfectly describes our relationship.

Jeomchon family. 

Can't even say how much I will hanging out just the three of us.  It was ALWAYS a good time.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Difficult goodbyes.

A year ago at this time I was still at EPIK orientation.  The entire time at orientation we all couldn't help mildly freak out as we were filled with anxious curiosity about our placements.  As different as the myriads of EPIK teachers are, we are all cut from the same cloth to some extent. We all lack a certain amount of sanity because we all ditch our lives in our home countries and move to Korea without knowing where in Korea we will be living or even what grade we will be teaching. All of this information is a surprise they leave until the last day of orientation, which looking back on it seems even crazier to me now than it did even then.

I will never, ever forget the day we found out our placements.  They separated us into classrooms according to the buses we would be taking the next day to meet our co-teachers.  On the door to our classroom was a list with our names and our placements.  Naturally it was written in Korean, and being a Korea-newbie I had no idea what it meant, so I asked another member of our class who was Korean-American to tell me.  He told me I was placed in a town called Mungyeong.  I instantly freaked out because I had never heard of it, and while many other people were headed to the same cities, I couldn't find anyone else going along with me.

Even after I met my new co-teacher, it was some time before I actually met any other foreigners here.  I was almost convinced that I was going to be in for a long, solitary year in Korea.  Luckily, one Friday night the foreigners found me, and suddenly I knew I wasn't going to be in this alone.  What I didn't know was just how much I would come to love the people in this town.

There's a certain bond you form when you live with other people. I remember when I started college I was amazed at how close I felt to my friends.  We bonded quickly and deeply because we weren't just going to class together, we were living together and sharing every single crazy high and low together.

When you live in an expat community it's a similar situation.  You're not just hanging out all of the time, but you spend our holidays and birthdays together, being each other's families when those who share an actual bloodline with you are on the other side of the world.  You share the random, crazy, and sometimes incredibly frustrating experiences of living in a country that only other people who have lived here can understand.  Although I can share the stories about being in Korea, no one will ever understand like the people who have been here with me, experiencing the same thing. You share the happiest, saddest, crankiest, drunkest, funniest, and most vulnerable moments with these people because it's just what you do as an expat--you share it all, for better or for worse.

I was recently talking with a friend at home about our expat community.  I mentioned how much I have learned from living and becoming friends with these people because often times the people who I love here aren't people I would typically choose as my friends back home.  When you're home and surrounded by tons of people who you can communicate with, you can get a little picky about who you let into your friend pool.  It's different in Korea. It doesn't sound eloquent, but it's true: we don't have have many options, at least in small towns like ours.  This has turned out to be the greatest gift though, because it's forced me to look far beyond differences and come to love the "types" of people I never thought I would find myself close with. We have so many distinct personalities in our town, that I've sometimes joked that we could be a cast on a sitcom because we are all different "types" of people. However, these differences are what has made this community even more like a family and a truly exceptional place to live.

It's for this reason that it's been so difficult for me to say goodbye this week.  Some of the people leaving are the people who helped me make sense of my life in Korea.  They were the ones who took me under their wings when I was the newbie in town who didn't even know where Homeplus was.  They're the people I've traveled with and shared every step of this experience with. This place is going to feel so incredibly empty and lonely without these people. Every corner of this town will remind me of their absence for quite some time.

It's been a long week of farewells including an overnight trip to a pension Friday night, followed by a huge dinner, drinking,and the absolute best noraebang session I've ever been to on Saturday. Monday and Tuesday were filled with more goodbye gatherings as the last moments with these people approached. I don't think I've slept more than 4 hours each night this week, partly because of staying up late, and partly because the craziness has just meant that I haven't been able to sleep soundly because there's been so much on my mind.

I'll never forget the night I met the other Jeomchoners.  After the foreigners knocked on my door and found me, we went to a farewell party for a girl who had  lived here for a few years.  And yes, a farewell party is an incredibly awkward time to walk into a room as a new, excited-about-everything person.  However, while I was surrounded by a room of people who were strangers to me, I remember watching everyone in their sadness and thinking "this will be me a year from now."

I had a real full-circle moment last night as we gathered to say goodbye to probably my absolute best friend in Korea.  We were at the same bar we were at a year ago when I met everyone at the farewell party, when the one new person in our town arrived.  How strange it was to be on the other side of things, just where I always knew I was going to be.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Emotional overload.

I am feeling an overwhelming mix of just about every emotion at the moment.

Today was my last day at my high school.  In the morning faculty meeting I had to say goodbye to the teachers of the school.  After the meeting was finished we all had to take a picture together, in which I was in the front sitting in between the principal and vice principal.  Koreans do love their photo opps.

After the meeting I was planning on taking the bus to my new schools because my new CT requested that I go there today.  Instead, the principal insisted on bringing me himself.  The funny thing is, it wasn't just the principal that brought me, but the vice-principal joined as well.  It was kind of hilarious bring escorted to my new school with both the principal and vice-principal because naturally they walked me into the building, and then we all had tea with the new school's principal and vice principal.  I felt like a child being dropped off on the first day of school.

I was really caught off guard by these kind actions from my principal and vice-principal.  I never thought that my principal and vice-principal disliked me, but I certainly never thought they cared that much.  On the drive to my new school my principal said that "he felt like I was part of his family and if I ever miss the bus to school, I should come to the high school and they will drive me." I'm just beginning to realize how fortunate I have been over this past year.

I have so many thoughts about leaving my school and moving to elementary school, but I can't quite process it because right now my main focus is on saying goodbye to some of my best friends I have in Korea.  I can't fathom being here without them, so I'm just beyond emotionally drained at the moment and the whole new schools situation hasn't even been my top concern.  I'm going through the motions, but in no way feel like this is my new life in Korea.

I'm sure in another week I'll be able to process everything better, but right now I'm just such a mess of emotions that it's a little hard to believe that any of this is actually real.

Friday, August 22, 2014

There's no place like home.

Hello again!

It's been quite a while since I've written anything, but most of you already know that's because I spent the first half of this month at home.  It's hard to believe vacation has already come and gone, and even harder to believe that next week at this time I'll be working at my new schools.

As always, time goes by far too quickly and my time at home felt way too short.  Although I easily could have stayed at home longer, I'm glad that I at least got to enjoy a short time with my friends and family back in my home country.

My brain is a bit mushy from jetlag/the emotional overload from all of the impending changes within the next week, but I do want to note some of my observations about America before I totally readjust to Korea and forget them all.  With no further ado, here are some (very) random lingering thoughts from my time in America.

1.  America is really, really far away from Korea.
Ok, I know.  DUH, Sarah!   But over the past year counting back 13 hours when thinking about home has become second nature.  I guess somewhere along the line I got comfortable in Korea and forgot just what those 13 hours signify.  That is, until I had to make the crazy long journey home...and back again. Approximately 30 hours of travel later and Korea and America definitely felt far, far apart.

2. Bathrooms 
I guess I could have put this list in a different might be seriously questioning just how much damage jet lag has done to my brain considering I started off by stating the obvious and now I'm moving on to talk about bathrooms....but just let me explain.

Fellow Americans, have you ever wondered why we feel that it's necessary to leave such huge gaps in our public bathroom doors?  Do we really think it's necessary to have other people be able to watch us as we take care of our business?
American public bathrooms: gaps where the door meets the wall.  WHY?

Ok, realistically if you've never traveled there's a good chance you've never noticed.  However, after a year in Korea, it's something I noticed immediately. In Korea the bathroom doors don't leave any gaps at all and the doors are often much longer, which means that no one can catch a glimpse of you...taking care of your business.  I never even realized that this was something I loved about Korea until I was back in America using the airport restroom and feeling like the world could see me in the stall. Go figure.

Korea wins in overall public bathroom privacy, but America wins in a very different category.  What could it be?! I know you're dying to know.  Well, my friends America wins in the very important area of TOILET PAPER.

I know, I bet among all the reasons you're proud to be American you've never listed toilet paper among them. But here's the deal: in Korea you have to be careful about flushing toilet paper.  In many older establishments you shouldn't flush the TP because it will clog the drains.  In those cases, there is always a trash can in the stall in which you should put the used paper.  The "to flush or not to flush" debate has become such a common part of my life in Korea, that I found myself looking for the trash cans in American bathrooms.

Additionally, Korean bathrooms are notorious for not having TP at all, so you always have to make sure to have tissues with you when visiting a public restroom.  This is seldom an issue in America, which actually just makes everyday just a tad bit nicer.

3.  Not using both hands.
In Korea it's polite to use two hands when giving or receiving an item.  This could be giving money to a cashier or passing a paper to a coworker.  Unless you're good friends with someone, it's best to always use two hands. Although when I was a Korea-newbie this was something I kept beating myself up for forgetting, it has now become such a habit that when I didn't use two hands as I gave my money to the cashier I couldn't help but feel shame, as if I had been incredibly insulting.

4.  My bed in America is super, super comfortable.
Beds in Korea (and really throughout all of Asia) are really firm. Traditional Korean sleeping arrangements actually consist of sleeping on the floor, so a number of the motels I've stayed at this year don't have beds at all--just a room with blankets and pillows.  Again, this is just something that has become completely normal to me over the past year that I never even thought about how my bed in America would feel.

Well, to my wonderful surprise as soon as I got into bed after my 30+ hour trip home, I felt like I was sleeping on a CLOUD.  Each time I woke up I just kept thinking "OMG THIS BED IS SO COMFORTABLE!"

5.  Separate shower.
Wait, the whole bathroom doesn't need to get wet when you take a shower?  This was basically my thought as I took my first shower in America.  Lots of places in Korea have the sink-showers, but I've even been to some places that have showers with bathtubs but no shower curtains.  In Korea it's just perfectly normal to get the whole bathroom wet when you shower.

6.  Wicked!!!
Man, when I heard people using "wicked" I sure did feel at home. I've actually noticed that I never say this word anymore since it would probably confuse most people in Korea, but it sure did make me feel happy to hear it being used by my wonderful New England friends.

7.  No emoticons.
Ok, so I've already expressed my love of Kakao Talk's emoticons. Simply put: they're awesome. However, using normal text messages with my friends back home felt so strange without being able to use emoticons to depict my every emotion. When will America catch on to the greatness of Kakao?

8.  Architecture and the lack of neon lights in Boston.
While I was home I spent a day and a night in Boston.  While I've been to Boston tons and tons of times, this time I had a new appreciation for the architecture around the city.  Seoul has plenty of great things going for it, but architecture definitely isn't one of them.  Korea developed astoundingly quickly, and I think architecture was the casualty of this rapid development.  Perhaps this is why there are so many neon lights in Korea and why they're not needed in Boston....maybe it's all a way to compensate for the lack of architecture.

9.  Portion/drink sizes.
Yes, it's true.  American portions are crazy.  I think just about everything I ate/drink would have been meant to share if I had gotten it in Korea.

10.  Courteous drivers
One thing that makes me CRAZY about Korea is the insane driving.  When I first came to Korea I just thought it was dangerous and irresponsible, but I didn't have any real emotional reaction when I witnessed something crazy.  A year later and it actually makes me ridiculously mad when I see some of the downright stupid driving that happens all of the time in this country.  I was amazed when people actually STOPPED for me as I was walking/crossing the street in America.  In Korea pedestrians do not have the right of way, and in fact, even when the crosswalk is giving you the OK to cross the street, you still need to be careful because it by no means means that all drivers are actually going to wait for you....or check to see if you're there in the first place.

So, there you have it, 10 observations/thoughts from my time in America.  However, beyond these things I think what surprised me the most was how natural it felt to be back in America.  I fully expected to feel uncomfortable being back in the US, but the truth was it felt incredibly normal. I don't know...maybe I just adapt easily because I never experienced culture shock in Korea like everyone warned me I would.  Perhaps reverse culture shock would have hit if I had stayed longer, but mostly I just enjoyed being able to communicate with everyone, eating food, and shopping at Target.  Go America!

I should note as great as vacation was, the worst part of being home was having to leave...again.  I've mentioned before that the hardest thing I ever had to do was leaving my friends and family when I left for Korea one year ago.  Well, it turns out it wasn't much easier the second time around.  Yes, this time I know where I'm living, I have friends here, and I have an idea of what awaits me.  However, I also know about all of the tough parts of living in Korea.  I know about how isolating and lonely it can feel when you are always "the foreigner".  I know how much it sucks to miss holidays and how homesickness can strike at the most random and unexpected moments.  I know what it means to feel like you're missing out on important moments with people you love.  These are the things that filled my mind as I said goodbye for another year.
I know how quickly a year goes by.  However, I also know that a year is a really long time to be away from friends and family.

Oh! One last thing I should mention that really surprised me--I was really shocked to learn how many people have been following this blog.  Thanks to everyone for the wonderful support.  Now that I know how many people are actually reading I'm going to try to put in more effort into my writing (like you know, proofreading and editing?!).....that is, after this post.  This one is super rushed because it's already midnight, but I know with the combination of farewell events and starting at my new schools next week if I don't post now, I never will!