Friday, November 22, 2013


“Take full account of what Excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.” 

All of a sudden it is late November. It’s hard to understand how 3 months have already flown by. Rather than being very good about chronicling my endeavors, I have been much more consumed with experiencing them. But, today it snowed for the first time. I have settled down and feel much more able to write and reflect on these past few months, given the shift of energy and perspective that always accompanies autumn, maybe winter, now...

The first posting I made after coming to Korea reflected the excitement and elation I was feeling, having just arrived, in experiencing all the fresh wonders and energies of a new place. Life felt fast, absorbing, and incredibly beautiful. It is still beautiful, but in a different, more peaceful (perhaps real) way. Things now have slowed and cooled; I have as well.  Still, I do have a few exploits to report.

I’ve been to a couple of festivals that have included parades: world celebrations with music and performers from every corner of the world.  I’ve always been a sucker for a nice marching band, and the energy and fanfare aren’t lost on me!
Not sure why I was trying to be her height. I'm at least 2 feet taller

In the street in Cheonan, very close to where I live

Flag corps!

All-female marching band at the world food festival in Seoul. Amazing!

Gorgeous traditional (ceremonial) dress of Singapore. Beautiful women!

In the final dog days of what turned out to be an exquisite Indian Summer, I (along with friends) went ocean kayaking on a beach named Mallipo.
The air was crisp, but sun hot, enough for one last, slight sunburn.

Somehow, a nice day in boats turned into gladiator fights and pirating. SO much fun!

The kayaking crew
A couple that was in company is from South Africa, and afterwards, introduced others and myself to the concept of  “braai” which is the South African answer to our American “BBQ.” There is a restaurant in Seoul named Braai Republic that serves the best lamb I’ve ever had. The owner sends his chefs to S.A. for a year for them to train and learn authentic South African methods.  Needless to say, I am a fan!
Braai brothers

South African brews

A group of guys and I went hiking the mountains of the East Coast in Sokcho, at Seoraksan National Park, in the midst of the leaves’ peak season.
Hiking buddies
Being from Nebraska, where the foliage just kind of dries up, turns brown, and blusters off its source unceremoniously, I have never seen such vibrant fall colors. It felt like a different world; almost like being underwater, except I was suspended amid hues and swirls of colors and aromas, rather than bubbles and liquid.
Simply stunning views

The light, through these leaves, was almost red

Made it to the top, and don't know what to do with my hands!

So vibrant!

Feasting after our trek. The hostel owner took us to a local dive and it was AMAZING (note, the TP hanging for quick access)
About a month ago my school called off classes for the day so the whole student body could go to a soccer arena and have a “games” day. I enjoyed watching the boys play, but my favorite part about this day was the “garden picnic” custom I was introduced to (I’m sorry to say I didn’t get any pictures of it). Alongside the field, there were trees. The mothers of the students made an incredible spread, put blankets down, and it was a feast! All the adults just piled in and plunked down anywhere there was room and dove right in. I was also introduced to Makkoli, a Korean wine derived from chestnuts, or acorns (I forget which) and customary at any celebration. I had one sip and that was enough, but many teachers and mothers had plenty. Fun times had by all!

Cheonan Tech. High student body at the soccer arena
I have explored Cheonan a bit more and made it up to a monastery that’s a short 15-minute bus ride away. The compound is made up of about 10 different temples, and is home to one 3-story Buddha. The sounds of a chime accompanied by the familiar and mesmerizing undulating tones of monks chanting, and the scent of pine word burning in a bakari (wood burning stove) somewhere in the distance- they conjured deep sentiments and nostalgia about Bhutan and Nebraska at this time of year. My former statement that I don’t “miss” the places or people I have left no longer applies.

Compared to Bhutan, although there are SO many more foreigners here (everywhere you look, actually), but I haven’t made those kinds of connections. Bhutan was 15 hand-selected people, salt-of-the-Earth, every one of them, and although geographical proximity and travel were considerable hindrances to how much time we got so spend together, I bonded and appreciated every single one of my fellow BCF’ers. Here, on the other hand, it’s such a mixed bag. I am starting to come to understand that the ex-pat life and community is quite different from anything I have been in before, and quite different from where and how I’d like to end up. I, thankfully, have made close relations with a couple of people. I don’t exactly feel lonely, but I do spend time alone. I’d rather that than join random and various crowds and/or individuals for mostly-drinking centered get-togethers, simply to avoid isolation. I am quite a social person, but only with the right crowd, and I prefer solitude to unsavory company. I spend that time cooking, which I am getting rather good at, despite my slow beginnings, listening to music or the news, reading, Skyping, or the occasional weekend outing. I do want to find a yoga studio and/or start taking some art classes. It’s a bit difficult with my schedule, but I still hope to be able to immerse myself more.

The first month of life here felt so full and consuming, I have felt the need to rest and repose. As I become more accustomed and settled with my life and work, the heightened energy I had in response to the newness of everything has subsided, and I feel a bit more subdued; but that’s also more natural for me. I have developed a strong sense of home in my little apartment and put a lot of time in there. I love waking up on a Sunday morning, putting on a turtleneck, listening to NPR, and letting the city be outside as I make myself tea and do everything and nothing within the confines of my little den.

Teaching remains challenging. I have ascertained that the English of my students is such that some, many in fact, can’t read, let alone understand or speak. As in any new teaching job I’ve had, it has taken me a while to gain a realistic understanding of the true levels and needs of my students, and how to effectively communicate and teach within that context. I still don’t have it down to an art. There are days when I think I’m really great and making a difference, and then there are days I’m quite sure I haven’t actually taught a single thing in the 3 months I’ve been here. Both may be true. As I predicted, I will never have the pleasure of teaching such sweet students as I had in Bhutan, regardless of proficiency levels.

Thus, life ebbs and flows. I have to say I was surprised by the changing of the leaves, and then by the temperature, and now by the snow outside my window today. Feeling that marked passing of time in such a visceral way can make me long for home, because (I think) I have only experienced that in Nebraska, really. It is these factors, I believe, that have left me feeling slower, calmer, and longing for the comforts of my home and family, wanting to be home by the warm stove, with something roasting in the oven, maybe a dog or two near by.

The holiday season is already here, and I am acutely reminded of how blessed I am. To you who are reading this- my family and loved ones- I am abundantly joyful to have your amity and care. The thing about “missing” home and people is that it just means they’re very good, and worthy of being returned-to. I wish you all the warmest of things this holiday season, and always. Spend time together- eat, drink, laugh and enjoy. Know I am there in spirit. I have so much to be grateful for. And I am.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” 
Marcel Proust

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wash and Repeat

New Beginnings. Again...

“Let the grateful heart sweep through the day that it may recognize in every hour some sweet blessing”
-Henry Ward Beecher

So, Korea: yes. I have arrived- very much so. As promised, I will do my best to relate my experiences here and write them in a somewhat coherent and succinct way; however, I cannot promise to be concise…

There has been a (for some) noted lapse in my updates, which will be explained presently. Much has happened, and so I will do my best to put it into categories and pictures.

Arrival/Orientation- I came in on a Monday evening, which would have been Sunday morning at home- a Sunday in which I would have been quite hung over, given the previous night I had with Willow, circumstances considered. Disorientation doesn’t do it justice; yet, due to the jetlag, I still rose early with enough time to do yoga and ruminate before leaving at 6:00 a.m., via Alistair Weary- my Korean liaison, with Bill and Will, the two fine fellows that arrived that same day, by happenstance. The following week was consumed with 11-hour days filled with a very regimented schedule in Asan, a city within the province of Chungnam (like a state) along with the other 60 or so Native Teachers in this district. Professional development and making friends was the name of the game. This is the first time I have taught English as a language, versus a subject, so the input, personal stories, and insight of those that have been here for longer than me was invaluable. Even more important were the personal connections I was able to make right off the bat. Amazing people and energy; I do believe that there are a special several, few kindreds, that will be key players to come. Key.
During orientation, we took a field trip to the National Independence Hall. This Starwars-y looking place housed the most powerful, reverberating bell I've ever heard.

Jo Min-a, the cutest orientation counselor this side of the Yellow

On the final day of orientation, we gave group presentations. I may or may not have been the self-appointed choreographer for our group, that WON!

All Chungnam orientees sweating in the heat

The soccer field at the orientation grounds

Independence Hall

The previously-mentioned King Kong bell

I can't remember the name of this, but I believe it's a memorial built in honor of the comfort women of the past.

The main little area of the orientation compound. That building is dorms. 

Home- Though it took some work, (which I don’t mind because putting effort into something makes worth-while) my new home finally feels quite comfortable and like my own. Here are some pictures of my building and its surroundings, which is within spitting distance of my school. You could literally throw a stone and it would land on the basketball courts. I will post pictures of the inside of my apartment when I get a few more accouterments and it’s completely done so I can present it as a finished product. It’s still a work in progress.

My building. I will call it the city flat

If you walk outside my building, and look/step to the South
If you walk down to the end of the above street
My Placement/School- I am posted in the city of Cheonan. It is a proper city. I’m not used to this. It’s thrilling, and will be an adjustment. Upon leaving our orientation in Asan, my main co/contact teacher (with whom I am and will become even-more good friends), Ji-Yeon Choi, and Mr. Han (the director of the internship program that I teach) picked me up and took me to a hotel, where I stayed for the following week because the Native teacher I have replaced had not yet left.

In front of my school, Cheonan Technical High. The campus is huge.

My domain

My desk, and just on the side, Mouse, self-appointed "officer"
 I teach at Cheonan Technical high school. My school is 95% boy. It is the biggest school in the entire province (over 1,500) and the best technical high school in the whole district. I teach 7 classes of “regular” English during the week, with 4 different co-teachers that vary in style and commitment. Additionally, every day, I teach an Internship Class, from 4:50-7:50 p.m., that is preparation for a platform which will, hopefully, prepare those chosen students for an actual real-life chance to go to either the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, or Australia to work as interns after they graduate. For this, I have no co-teacher. I also have done a little special tutoring, and am working on building a fan club. I am amazed at the right-brained brilliance of my students, (even more so of in that of the young women that have made the conscientious choice to come here because they want to be mechanical engineers) and many of them commute for over an hour to be here. And, as a general rule, there is very little interest to learn English. They are truly striving to succeed within their chosen fields- electro mechanics, bio engineering, megatronics, ect.- and have no need or concern for learning the nuances of a foreign language- which I totally get. Would I learn how to speak fluent German if I had no plan of ever living in Germany or using it in my practical life? Doubtful. Therefore, I will be quite challenged to be effective, maybe. On the upside, I have been proposed to well over a dozen times already, so I do have their attention, in a certain, albeit superficial way at the moment. I mean to utilize whatever small edge I have, for now, to engage them in games and fun, activity-based lessons to bolster motivation. As is always the case, those that want to learn will, and those that don’t, I hope to at least build rapport with. Lots of smiles, acting a fool, wild gesticulating, drawing pictures, power points, and winking ;)

A gorgeous botanical garden on Anmyeondo Island, named the Arboratum- clearly not Cheonan

Lily pads and frogs abound in the countryside here!

Same garden as above

Greenhouse in that garden
 I am humbled with the gratitude I feel for the care and kindness with which I have been treated. For example, after Choi and Mr. Han got me settled in the hotel where I stayed for the following while, they walked me to my school so I would know. Then, Choi had to split, so Mr. Han and I walked back together. He speaks almost no English, but we stopped for food after looking at the school. Even though communication was patchy, there was such an ease and gentility to his presence. He insisted on paying and said, "No, it's on me!" I have a feeling he learned that just for the occasion. I very well cared-for. I feel cradled by the universe right now and unbelievably blessed; I am inspired to give it right back....somehow.

Hound sleeping very peacefully there, on the busy street in Seoul

Coolest car ever! (street of Cheonan)

I'm a sucker for a nice foul 
Because it's funny
Food- As seems to be consistently the case, I can connect with the people and culture through my willingness eat anything put in front of me, and actually really love it. I have also earned points for being good at eating with chopsticks! Nothing more to say here than I love the food; it’s doing my body good!
Seafood market

Local delicacy- squid

Despite my skeptical look, I was way into this seafood cornucopia of deliciousness
To the face!

Seriously all I do here is eat...

And grill thick bacon whilst wearing a bib....

And drink. I do some of that too... ;)

Personal- Without meaning to protest, it has felt like a long stretch that I have been rather disjointed. Yet, that has been somewhat of a pleasure, so the former statement isn’t as much of a complaint as it is a reflection of my own expectations. Right away, I applied for my alien registration card: without which, I cannot get my phone to work, bank account, anything, really. On the other hand, the forced hiatus from being connected at the hip with people back home has forced me to be fully present with and to my circumstances, which are beautiful. Speaking of which…

I can’t say that I feel necessarily homesick, or the separation anxiety that I did last year. This is not to say that I don’t think of the people who are reading this and yearn to share these visions and moments with you every single day; but I have brought you all here with me. I look at it this way: I won’t compare Bhutan to this; I can’t. Apples to oranges. But I can say that, when going to Bhutan, I was hoping/assuming that I would magically trans-morph into a certain type of person, simply by osmosis. The time I spent at my home in Nebraska in between Bhutan and now, though not felt or seen as that at the time, added to what I felt and experienced in Bhutan and prepared me for this. I am now fully open, ready, and receptive to all this newness, and I can’t say that was the case in my previous experience. Running the risk of sounding redundant, again: I am so open, grateful, and aware of the blessings that are being bestowed on me now. I feel that life is gifting me in such big and small ways. And with this recognition comes the mitigated sensation that I’m cashing in all my chips at once, inadvertently so. So I hope I can do enough to give back. Because I feel vibrant; I feel vital; I feel I am who and where I should be right now. I am thriving.