Teaching English at the Changnyeong English Village

Prospective CEV teachers

Dear Prospective CEV Teacher,

Congratulations for wading through all the internet and finding my blog! You must’ve dug deep, because searching for Changnyeong English Village information is hard.

You want thoughts? You want to know if it’s a good job?

First, I recommend you check out this thread (read to the end, don’t stop at the first post) and this thread. Dave’s ESL is a great resource for anything, not just checking out this job, so make sure you use it! 🙂

If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to comment or email me. Even if it’s a couple years later. We waygooks have to look out for each other, especially at Changnyeong English Village.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on South Korea

So we’re leaving Korea in a week. The year here has sped by so fast–we can’t believe it’s over. In between all the packing and sorting we’re doing, we’re also reflecting on our past experiences. I don’t think we’ll fully know how we felt about our time in Korea until everything’s settled and over, but a few thoughts have come to mind already.

No cultural practice is wholly good or wholly bad. Culture is created by and for society, which is a tricky little monster in that society is just one great, aggregate lump up the most inconsistent, confusing things in all of creation: humans.

While there are definitely practices that are not beneficial or healthy to society at large (racism, for example), often the ideas and values behind them are perfectly amoral or helpful. Culture is also a conundrum because what is good in some circumstances isn’t so good in others. What I’ve found helpful in my own understanding of different cultures is careful language in framing the differences and similarities. For instance, a die-hard New Yorker once told me that Southerners are “dishonest” and that the phrase “Bless your heart” should die out and was only hurtful to people. I heartily disagree with everything he told me about my own subculture, and it showed me how important understanding value systems are. American southerners aren’t dishonest, but they do often prioritize keeping the peace over bluntly speaking one’s mind (unless you’re family–then you can be blunt).

Value systems, I believe, are where it’s all at. Hofstede thought so also. My theory that it isn’t personality so much that causes a person to like or dislike a culture, but the value system. While my personality is similar to the esteemed and exemplified personality (introversion, compassion, quietness), my value system is different. In this sense, I’m pretty Western (honesty over harmony, etc).

I didn’t get to know Korean culture as intimately as I had hoped. Part of that was my fault (I didn’t self-teach Korean). I also lived in a rural village of about 80 people, most over the age of 60. I interacted with very few Koreans regularly. Most Koreans I interacted with on a regular basis (at my job) were not people I wanted to befriend, and they were not interested in showing me their culture. Looking back, I’m not sure what I’d do differently (besides learning more Korean). My situation was pretty weird, even compared to other ESL teachers in Korea.

Still, I did fall in love with some things in Korea, and I’ll always have fond memories of those.

Without further ado, here’s some things I’m going to miss:

  • The bright yellow ginko trees. There’s rows and rows of them near where we live, and they’re so cheerful in the fall.
  • The mountains. Korea is 72% mountains, and I just love that so much.
  • The politeness of Koreans. It’s so refreshing.
  • The friendliness of Koreans.
  • The kids I taught. Most of them were angels, and I am so sad to leave them.
  • Samgyeopsal (Korean bbq). It’s basically pork belly with all sorts of sides. Delicious.
  • Our expat church in Daegu. It was a lifeline when things were bad in our work situation, and I felt supported and loved there.
Categories: CEV, South Korea | Leave a comment

“Korea crazy”

So we English teachers in the land of the morning calm have this catch-all phrase that we use whenever describing something we see as illogical, ridiculous, disturbing, or just plain weird. We call it “Korea crazy.”


Person 1: My boss is crazy.

Person 2: You mean Korea crazy or crazy?

So let me break down for you what we mean by this. “Korea crazy,” like I said, is a bit of a catch-all phrase, a subgenre of the normal word “Crazy.” In my time in Korea, from experiencing Korean culture, Korean workplaces, and other English teachers, this is what I’ve come across. Interestingly, being called “crazy” in Korea is a much bigger insult than it is in the West. While it’s certainly rude in the West, in Korea it includes the connotations of “useless” and “worthless,” so while English teachers use “Korea crazy” as shorthand to explain otherwise strange behavior, we wouldn’t say any of that to a Korean’s face.

Crazy means:

  • Anything that offends our Western sensibilities, is flagrantly opposite Western values, or just doesn’t make sense
  • Parts of Korean culture that really don’t make any sense or are flaws in an otherwise fascinating, rich, ancient, and amazing culture
  • Illogical, irrational human behavior, often accompanied with mental illness, personality disorders, and actions that should require medication.

“Korea crazy” covers the top two bullet points.

The first bullet point, of things that don’t make sense to Westerners include

  • A monument to how humiliating and degrading South Koreans treated Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean war, with loud, patriotic music in the background
  • A play based on folklore at a festival that has magical farts as a major plot point
  • A lantern festival with an entire row of lanterns portraying Japanese soldiers being tortured
  • Koreans lining up for a bus before there’s ever a need to, but refusing to follow a line in any other situation
  • Tiptoeing around a problem rather than addressing it
  • A highly paternalistic work culture and expectation of the government to educate and care for the people
  • Strong desire to “fit in” and not stand out in any shape or form
  • Absolute insistence that Dokdo matters to the world and is Korean land.

Some of it is just weird by Western standards, and I don’t know the reasons behind it. Some of this is just like humor, I think–some people love puns, others hate them. Some people love quirky behavior found in East Asian countries, other prefer quirky behavior found in North American countries.

And the rest of this boils down to culture differences, right? And much of the things that rub Westerners the wrong way have their roots in Confucianism. It is an ancient, highly paternalistic, respect-driven culture. From that stems the rigid hierarchy of elders telling young people what to do (even strangers), expectations that the government will handle most problems, the saving face and pretending problems don’t exist (if Korea ever has a natural disaster, saving face will not serve them well), and the belief that bosses can rule your life and deserve lots of respect.

And while I respect Korean culture and realize that in many ways Confucianism has served them well, I think there are significant flaws. Which leads me on to the second bullet point.

Every culture has weaknesses and flaws. Although I love my own American Western culture, I am intimately aware of all the problems that come with an individualistic, polarized, and materialistic culture. There are significant problems with the way we do things in the States, just as there are significant problems in every country and in every culture. I’m not trying to bash Korea, Korean people, or suggest that their culture is in any way inferior to the rest of the world. It has great strengths, but this blog post is about its weaknesses as perceived by Westerners. Most of these points are also strengths of Korean culture, just played out a little too far so that they now hinder, rather than support, the culture.

  • Lying to save face, especially in serious situations like crime, natural disasters, and office mistakes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and Koreans usually aren’t willing to do that. This is also probably one of the main reasons alcoholism is rampant–no one will admit it’s a thing.
  • Expecting employees to come to work when sick. Colds and viruses spread like wildfire out here because people aren’t allowed to quarantine themselves when sick.
  • The hierarchy stifling otherwise a vibrant, creative, productive generation of young people into following their grandparents’ desires. While I love the fact that the elderly are respected in East Asia, rather than ignored like in the West sometimes, I think this goes too far. It also hurts my American individualistic beliefs, too.
  • Materialism. I was quite shocked to come to Korea and find many people far more materialistic and focused on flashy, expensive cars and clothes than people I’d met in the States. This is a flaw that Korean culture shares with American culture, I think, though Korea’s materialism stems from the confucian belief that the outside reflects the inner (a beautiful woman is a kind woman, a flashy car doesn’t just mean a man’s rich, but that he’s a good person). The rates of plastic surgery in Korea are some of the highest in the world.
  • Societal pressure to perform really hurts everyone. This is something that happens everywhere in every culture, I think, but because this is a blog post written by an American about Korean culture, I’ll keep my comments germane to the topic. This issue also affects the United States, but I think the pressure to live up to your family’s name, to be successful in all that you do, is even stronger here. Alcoholism is a real thing here, though they pretend it’s not. Korean kids are stressed, sleep-deprived, and always worried about their schoolwork, and Korea’s depression rates are some of the highest in the world (Japan’s rates are also high). The speed of industrialization in the 20th century also may have something to do with pressure and expectations.
  • Strong nationalism and suspicion of “the other” will really hamper South Korea’s growth on the international scale unless something changes. Korea has a difficult history, and it’s sandwiched between China and Japan–two regional powerhouses. The fact that Korea has kept hold of its identity and homeland over the past two thousand years, defeating both Chinese and Japanese invasions multiple times, is astounding. It’s worth celebrating. They’ve kept their language, made their own alphabet, and have progressed rapidly in just 60 years. But this is not without cost. Many (not all) Koreans are very racist. Not just curious about other types of people (which I fully support and think is healthy) but actively racist. I’m just lucky we somehow convinced Koreans that white people are cool. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. 20% of Koreans have the last name Kim. Four last names make up about 50% of the population. Every human, every culture, has a suspicion of the other (which isn’t of itself is bad), but the Korean government has encouraged its people to make value judgements based on people’s skin color, last names, and other characteristics.

And finally, the last bullet point, actual craziness. Sh*t you don’t want to be around. (I have so much personal experience with this I’ll have to document it later, when I’m out of Korea). I think one reason English teachers come across so much “Korea crazy” is because many of us work in hagwons and even a few iffy public schools.

Hagwons, or private, for-profit schools, are in it for the money. That’s the name of the game. So while Korea is full of wonderful, amazing people we’d be lucky to know, hagwons are full of administrators that care about money, not people. And when they have a steady influx of foreigners who don’t know the language, culture, work expectations, or anything else, really, it’s very easy to abuse the system. I think English teachers come across power-hungry men at a much higher rate than regular Koreans living in their own country do. And these power-hungry men know they can get away with so much more because we’re, well, clueless. This can seem like “Korea crazy” because it’s most of what we see, but it actually takes up a much smaller segment of the culture/population than we think.

As for the actual mental disorder stuff? Well, mental illness “doesn’t exist” in Korea, so that’s just your imagination. Get with the program, folks.

A video on Why Not to Teach English in Korea Hilarious with a lot of truth in it. A critique of the ESL industry.

Final words: Korea is an amazing culture, but everything has its flaws. This is just an American’s explanation of a common ESL teacher view of the country, with a little explanation of how the culture got that way. If you’re interested/concerned with something I’ve said, comment and share your thoughts. And do some research on your own to learn about Korean culture and the subculture of ESL in Korea.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grocery shopping in Changnyeong

Grocery shopping isn’t something most people find entertaining or even very interesting. But when you’re thrown into a foreign country with foreign foods, prices, and language, suddenly it becomes a lot more time-consuming and interesting!


Although we live in a village called Gyeseong, we don’t have a grocery store. There’s a 7-11 and a GS25, both small convenience stores, but that’s about it. So on Monday nights our boss, Richard, drives us into Changnyeong so we can do proper grocery shopping.

Changyeong has it’s own mini supermarkets and convenience stores, but the three main stores in town are Jin-Mart, I-Mart, and Topmart. We hardly ever go to Jin-Mart (I don’t know why Richard won’t drive us there).

I-Mart offers great deals on bread, while Topmart has good prices on frozen chicken breasts, so we normally rotate between the two every other week.


The biggest surprise I had when shopping was the price of the food–everything was so much more expensive than I was used to! I think it’s because Korea is a peninsula and very mountainous–most of it’s farmland is used for rice, garlic, onion, and cabbage. Many other foods, especially fresh fruit, must be imported.

I’ve gotta say, though, my eyes bulged when I saw that a small carton of strawberries would cost me 8 USD.

It’s been almost 10 months, though, so I’ve adjusted to the price. I buy a few vegetables every week and one type of fruit, usually one on sale. A lot of the produce is seasonal, so we get strawberries in the spring, nectarines in November/December, and grapefruit in August. Apples, lemons, and oranges are pretty regular, thankfully.

Beef is very expensive in Korea, so we normally buy chicken and pork. Most grocery stores have aquariums of live fish, eel, and octopus ready for sale, but I have no idea how to prepare those dishes, so we just cruise right past that aisle.


Soy, teriyaki, and sukiyaki sauce all comes in large containers, and we regularly buy it along with pounds and pounds of rice. Ramen is practically considered a food group in East Asia, and many stores have an entire aisle dedicated to the flavors, spices, and types of Ramen they sell.

We don’t know what half of the store’s goods are, nor do we know how to cook with it. So our diet is pretty limited to the stuff we can recognize. Thankfully, gmarket is basically Korea’s version of Amazon, and it delivers real cheddar cheese (as well as other non-perishable goods). iHerb, also, is a California company that ship organic and all-natural non-perishables overseas, so we make an order from them once a month.

Also once a month we visit Daegu’s eMart, a much larger department store that carries all the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seasonings we could want. They have a great foreign foods section, which doesn’t have much American, but it does have a little Mexican, Thai, and Italian. Between eMart, gmarket, and iHerb, we’re able to fill in most of the gaps that our small town grocery store doesn’t provide for.

At checkout we buy our monthly allotment of garbage bags (pink bags by local law) and pack our groceries in our shopping bag we bring or a cardboard box the store allows us to take.


Shopping in Korea was definitely an adjustment process–even greater than the adjustment I made when in South America. But after 10 months we’ve made our peace with the missing things in our diet (don’t get me started on how much I miss American Chinese food, Chik Fil A, or Sonic though) and had filled the gaps as best we can. It’s a good chance to assimilate into the local culture, and while we haven’t done it perfectly, we’ve certainly tried!

Categories: CEV, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Crazy crap my students say

One of the privileges and burdens of being a teacher, I think, is that you stand at the frontlines against the fight of racism, misappropriation of culture and ideas, and parroted stupidity.

A good teacher, I think, encourages students to air their opinions in the classroom (in this case, usually parroted opinions from their parents), and gently applies logic and ethics to the crazy crap that sometimes surfaces. Honesty, humor, and empathy I think are the tools teachers need to use.

This post is about the humor of it all.

*Let me preface this by saying: I think every human is a little racist as heart. That is not an excuse for hurtful words or behavior, but an acknowledgement that we are all fallen, broken people and we all need one another’s help unpacking our baggage.*

*Let me also preface this by saying: This isn’t to make generalizations about Korean children (that would be a little racist in and of itself). They’re great, hardworking, enthusiastic kids, and I love them to pieces.*

So, without further ado, a conversation I had today in my classroom:

“Where is the Taj Mahal, students?”

“India, Teacher!”

“Good, good.”

“Teacher! Indian people….they uh, they uh…hands….dirty.” And my student proceeded to mimic wiping their hindquarters with their hands.

“Um, no, Indian people wash their hands,” I assured.

“No, Teacher. Indian culture,” another blurted.

Ah, another one of these moments, I realized. And we only had eight minutes before the bell rang. “I have Indian friends who wash their hands. They are very clean,” I said firmly.

“But Teacher–”

“Some Indian people are dirty, just like some Korean people are dirty. Some Indian people are clean, just like some Korean people are clean.”

Half the class stared, completely lost. The other half seemed to accept what I had to say.

“Now, let’s look at the continents.” We turned the page in the textbook. “What’s the biggest continent in the world?”

“Asia!” they happily chorused.

“Oh, Korea is so small!” a girl on the front row exclaimed sadly.

The girls murmured amongst themselves, hastily comparing sizes.

“It’s okay,” I said. “a country doesn’t have to be big to be powerful.” I thought for a moment about the British Empire (on which the sun never set), then decided that was far beyond their level of English.

“Strong?” They looked up at me, puzzled.

“Yes, very strong. I think Korea is strong.” I flexed my arm muscles.

“Ah, yes.” A girl on the back row grinned. “America is strong, too.” She flashed two thumbs up at me.

I laughed and nodded at the compliment. “The United States is strong, too.”

“Strong….whole world,” she tried to say.

“Yes, the United States is a strong country,” I compromised.

“But you like Korea?” another student prompted.

“Of course I do,” I immediately said.

“But…China bad.” Two thumbs down from another student.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think China is bad. I like China.”

“But you like Korea more,” the girl on the back row said.

I picked my words carefully. “I like most people in the world: American, Chinese, and Korean.” They clapped, happy with my answer.

“Teacher, what do you think of North Korea?”

“Well,” I hedged, trying to think of the simplest answer in all of this conversation about stereotypes, bias, and culture differences. “I  think North Korean people are good.”

They stared at me, waiting for more.

“Korean government, not so good.”

They clapped, grins spreading across their faces.

“Kim Jung Un very bad man!” a quiet student exclaimed.

“Um, yes. Kim Jung Un is bad. Government is bad.”

And they grinned at one another, pleased that I had given the correct answer.

“All around the world there are many good people but many bad governments,” I tried to explain, but they weren’t really having it.

“And Japan?” another student asked. “What do you think about Japan?”

This was trickier. Many Koreans have a distinctly negative view of Japan because of a long, dark history. Japan invaded Korea multiple times (the most notable in 1592 during the Imjin Wars and in again in 1905) and during WWII had very brutal policies. Still, many young Koreans are fascinated by Tokyo today and want to visit.

“Well, I like Japanese people,” I began.

“Oh, Teacher.” Several gave me skeptical looks.

“Japan very….” One girl’s English failed her, and she pounded her fists against an imaginary opponent.

“Yes, sometimes governments do very bad things.” I nodded.

The class enthusiastically nodded. “Like Japan!”

“Well, every country does good things and bad things. Japan did bad things against Korea,” I admitted, “But America did some bad things, too. We bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We were fighting, but a lot of women and children died from the bombs. Many Japanese people are still sad about that. Many American people are sad about it, too. It was a very bad time in the world–”

“Yes, Japanese government bad.”

“Dokdo, Teacher! Dokdo!”

*Side note: Only Korean people care about Dokdo, a tiny string of rocky islands between Korea and Japan. It’s a matter of national pride that Korea claims it as their own. No one else cares, not even the Japanese. Korean students this year are being fed a lot of propaganda about how important it is and how the rest of the world cares about the claim.*

“But sometimes countries do good things! And many, many times people do good things. Like the Olympics!” I tried to put a positive spin on things as we wrapped up the lesson. “Japanese people in Olympics:good!” I gave a thumb’s up. “American people in Olympics: good! Chinese people in Olympics: good! Korean people in Olympics: good!”

“Oh, yes, Teacher!” they agreed.

“But North Korea?” another girl insisted.

“Well…not North Korea. Not many North Koreans will be at the Olympics,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” the agreed.

“Kim Jung Un….pig!” The same girl in the back blurted, quite proud of her English skills.

I laughed, also impressed with how well they’d expressed themselves. “Yes, he looks kinda funny.”

The bell rang, and our conversation was over.

And that was pretty much that. Sometimes these conversations are so surreal I can’t help but laugh and shake my head.


Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Random Korean ESL tips

New to teaching? Trying to get an idea of what it will be like?
Here’s a few cultural tips we’ve picked up (some passed on to us, some learned the hard way).


1. Never write a student’s name is red. It symbolizes death. Though, for some reason, it is a popular “favorite color” among youth.

2. Common discipline for unruly students involves sending them to the hallway and raising their hands in the air for 4, 5, or even 10 minutes. Do with that what you will.

3. Work environment is very community-based. The downsides of that can be automatic deductions in your pay for office snacks, an office-wide gift for someone’s wedding or funeral, and mandatory office activities, like taking hikes together. The upside is you may get treated to ice cream by the boss.

4. When beckoning a student, don’t curl your fingers with your palm facing the ceiling–that’s how Koreans call animals. Flip your hand over so your palm is facing the floor, then curl your fingers to your palm–this is how they communicate with other humans.

5. In Asian culture being called out, or sticking out from the crowd in some way, can be very anxiety-producing, especially for kids. Being called on in class can be seen as a punishment, rather than just the pedagogical method used. I personally think that students should become used to Western culture (why else would they be learning English?), particularly if they hope to continue higher ed in the United States (I had Chinese classmates in grad school that became almost paralyzed when a teacher called on them in class–I want my students to avoid that future.). Just remember that speaking up in class is highly irregular for Korean (and other Asian) students, so be patient with their lack of response.

This is just a handful of things we’ve picked up along the way to smooth cultural differences in the classroom. What would you suggest?

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Typical week at CEV

We’ve been here for seven months, and I realized I haven’t done a post about our actual job!

Each week we receive a group of students from a nearby elementary or middle school in the county. There are usually 30-63 students.

On Mondays, they arrive at 1:00 pm. At about 1:15, the teachers interview students with a short placement test. It’s no big deal, but sometimes the students are incredibly nervous. Interviews and placement usually lasts into the second period, but we go to our rooms and greet our students for the week. Another CEV staffer has already read the rules to them and passed out their workbooks.We have third and fourth period left to introduce ourselves, get to know our students, and begin on a section of the workbook.


On Tuesdays, the different classrooms follow separate schedules. There are normally six teachers (the other two work at night in cyber school), but we’re going to be short-staffed this summer. There will be only four teachers, but I think we can manage. The kids are always great. Our classes alternate between classroom periods and simulations rooms. My classroom, Class 4, goes to the hospital first.


At the hospital, the kids get to do a scavenger hunt from the book, play dress-up, and review body part vocabulary. Then it’s back to the classroom for the next few periods to work on the book.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday all have four periods (usually), and follow a fairly strict schedule that works well. We start at 1:10 and end at 4:30, with ten-minute breaks between periods. The students’ favorite simulation room is Duty-Free Mart, as you can see by the photos.


Their second-favorite simulation room is Language Lab, where we play a jeopardy-style game based on the vocab they learned through the week. My personal favorite simulation is the Art Room, where I let the kids color, converse in English, and listen to KPop songs on an old boom box. It’s calming, and on my schedule happens halfway through the week, right when we need it the most!


Friday is a little different. Because it’s the last day, it ends about an hour early. We usually have one classroom period, which is our last chance to finish up the workbook. The highest level students have usually finished the book by Friday, and their teacher gives them puzzles and fun worksheets to fill out. The lowest level students are not finished, and by this point their teacher just writes answers on the board and coaxes students to copy it in their books.

After the one period, the students go down to the auditorium to watch a movie. This is (obviously) their most favorite part of the week. We teachers rotate through the movie as a watchful eye. When the students leave at 3:30, we all go outside and wave goodbye to them.

At the end of Friday a weekly report and a student report is due (on top of daily reports handed in Monday through Thursday). Most of our work is scheduled between 12:30 to 9:00 pm (with an hour for dinner). When students leave, we plan curriculum for the next year’s workbook, write reports, or watch Netflix. However, on Fridays, we get off at 6:00 pm.

And that is a regular week at CEV!


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I’m a migrant worker

Expats and immigrants–what’s the difference?

Grammatically speaking, expatriate is a verb or adjective, describing a person living in a foreign country. Immigrant is a noun, describing a person who has moved permanently to a foreign country.

Legally speaking, expats have an easier time moving between borders, getting visas, and doing business with multinational countries. Immigrants, as defined by many governments, don’t usually get those luxuries.



First photo of a person in my Google images search of “expats”


Colloquially, expat conjures up images of growing wealth, technology, banking, ambition, education, and success. When I think of the word “expat,” I think of the people living in high-rise apartments in Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and other growing cities. But the word “immigrant” or worse, “migrant worker,” makes people think of illiterate tomato farm workers, poor families fleeing economic hardship, the obstinance of grandmothers refusing to let go of the “old ways,” and a situation I don’t really want to find myself in. As an American, when I hear “immigrant,” I think of Mexican housekeepers, Nigerian janitors, and Indian gas station workers.



This was the third photo from my Google images search “immigrants today”



That’s a problem, isn’t it?

How we use words matters. Government regulations about visas, passports, and borders definitely add to the problem of Westerners freely flitting from country to country while the Global South struggles to keep up. But they aren’t the only perpetrator. Words matter, because words shape the story we tell ourselves about how the world works and how it got this way. To tell a narrative you need words. To use words you need a voice. So let’s think back to those images of expat and immigrant. Those people in the high-rise apartments, when you imagined them–were they white? And the immigrants–were they anything but brown or Asian?



Top image from my Google images search, “migrant worker”


Basically, white (or those of North American/European descent) get to be expats, but everyone else has to be immigrants. In a few of my grad classes at FSU I had a classmate who was Kenyan. He and his wife had moved to the US to pursue PhDs together. Based on the official definition at the start of this blog post, they should be expats. But they’re black, so Westerners call them immigrants.

And what about me? I moved to South Korea for economic betterment. I needed a job, and Korea would pay me more that the US would. I live in South Korea now, working and trying (and usually failing) to assimilate into Korean culture. By definition, I should be called an immigrant. Actually, I should probably be called a migrant worker (under United Nations legal code, my status is skilled migrant worker). But I’m American, and I’m white. So I get to be called an expat.

One blogger made the point that expats have fewer expectations on them, because they may not live in their host country permanently (as opposed to an immigrant), and that’s fair to make. I’m not expected to learn Korean, have an intimate understanding of the food, or fit seamlessly into the culture. So in that sense, yes, I’m definitely an expat. While lower expectations for expats isn’t necessarily a problem, it does seem hypocritical that expats hail from countries that have infamously difficult expectations for immigrants.

There are (thankfully) exceptions to this social rule that only Westerners get to be expats. But they are only exceptions.

There’s not much I, personally, can do about this, but to admit that I get a fancier title just because of where I was born and the shade of my skin. And though it doesn’t mean much, here’s my words, my tiny voice in the narrative:

I’m a migrant worker. 





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Workshop trip: Goejedo, POWs, bad weather, and cable cars

Usually twice a year our boss likes to take all employers on an overnight workshop trip. It’s an all-expenses paid, teambuilding trip.

Every year the Korea government requires English instructors to have a training trip. While public school employees all go to Changwon for workshops and lectures on  lesson planning and working with Korea co-teachers, we go to “explore Korea” and “create harmony” and team=build with our bosses (the government pays for it, though).

This spring we went to Geojedo, an island off the southern coast of South Korea. Originally, we were also going to an island with a botanical garden, but the weather was too bad and the ferry wouldn’t run in choppy waters. Our bosses had to scramble to come up with an alternative plan for us.

“A vacation?” you cry. “How lucky your boss takes you on vacation, pays for it, and calls it work!”

No. The government pays for it because they want trained English teachers. And this wasn’t a vacation. The expectations and demands put on us were actually higher and more taxing than a regular day in the office or teaching kids. In the words of one of my coworkers, “it’s just another workday. Do what he wants.”

We hopped in the vans at 9 am. Six teachers went in the back van with the school’s IT guy, and two teachers went with our bosses and the administrative assistant. Because of the bad weather we drove slowly. At the coast we stopped for a long lunch, and then were instructed to walk around for 45 minutes to enjoy the scenery. We huddled inside with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Thankfully, halfway through that allotted time it stopped raining so we could go outside and enjoy the scenery.


To get from the coast to the island of Geoje we had to cross a bridge. This bridge was actually pretty cool. Finished in 2010, it has a tunnel and bridge combined. According to the Korean times, “The fixed link broke several world records. It has the longest immersed tunnel pieces at 180 meters each; parts of the tunnel are located 48 meters underwater, the world’s deepest; and the tunnel is the first immersed one constructed on the open sea.” It took us about 10 minutes to cross. We went through a tunnel under the sea, up on a bridge, through a tunnel in a mountain island, then under the sea, then a bridge over the sea. It was pretty intense and really cool.

The ferry to the botanical gardens was closed, so Plan D (or E, or F) was to take us to a museum about a former Korean president. I like history, so this was interesting. Except Korea doesn’t have a tourism industry, so nothing was in English. It was the childhood home off Kim Young-Sam. He was (I think) Korea’s first democratic president in 1992. Based on the murals and models, he fought in the Korean war, led riots against the government, and was elected president. His mother was shot and killed by someone on her front porch. That’s what we were able to piece together when no one offered us English translation of what was going on.

From there we went to the POW museum. This was definitely the highlight of the trip. It was a highly educational, eye-opening experience. When we first arrived we went up to this big memorial-looking fountain with flags. I thought, “this is interesting. This looks cool.”


We went up a hill and started looking for English signs. Our next main thoughts were, “Too bad there isn’t much English. This looks interesting. The park is well taken care of. Lots of buildings are new.”

We learned it was a UN-run camp from 1951 to 1953 that housed (in total) 173,000 North Koreans and Chinese forces. The signs stressed that the South Koreans treated their prisoners much better than the North Koreans (“possibly, I’d believe that if I had proof” we thought) and the prisoners had so much leisure time to pursue hobbies (“yes, I’ve seen The Great Escape. I know what POW leisure time looks like,” I said to Jordan).


Read the signs. The state, “A POW in bed is under medical care’ (Translation: we had doctors for them! We had beds for them!”) POWs wash themselves outdoors at leisure. (Translation: “This is really just a spa, folks. Look how happy they are to wash themselves in the great outdoors.”) POWs attend religious service (Translation: “We let them gather, we let the worship, we’re really just nice people all around”).

Although the war was pretty recent, no camp buildings remain in tact. There were, however, lots of photo opportunities with cardboard tanks, jeeps, standing next to painted pictures of POWS bathing, and etc. Hordes of schoolchildren were racing through the park willy-nilly. “Kids often don’t understand the gravity of war memorials,” we thought, “But shouldn’t the teachers be quieting them?”

The atmosphere felt like an amusement park. Patriotic music blared from speakers throughout the park. We were told that at the end of the park there were  arcades for the kids to play shoot-em-up games, with fake rifles and everything. Slowly it dawned on us that this wasn’t a memorial. Not at all. It was a monument. “Jordan, this is really weird,” I said around the halfway point.

20160503_152254It got weirder.

We walked by the mannequins portraying daily life in the camp. I have never seen a mannequin’s butt before, but I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth now. Instead of portraying the prisoners sitting on beds or reading or cooking, they had four gathered around the latrines. One was squatting over a hole. You were supposed to stand next to him and pose squatting also (though I think real people were encouraged to keep their pants on). Two or three others had their pants unzipped and urinating in a metal barrel. They were all anatomically correct. Another mannequin was holding the most detailed model of excrement (with maggots) in a bucket I have ever imagined.

“So this really isn’t about commemorating the war and how sad it was to be a POW, was it?” Jordan asked as we tried to decide how horrifying it was to encourage visitors to take photos of POWs relieving themselves.

“I think this is more a monument to South Korea,” I replied, “Like, ‘look what we did! See how we didn’t outright kill our POWs? We offered to send them back at the end of the war? This is a part of our history and is what makes us great.'”

“Everyone is way too fascinated with the POWs pooping,” Jordan decided. “Should I get a photo?”

We decided not to. Dignity matters in all human beings.


Everything kind of blurs after that. We got used to the patriotic, happy music playing, the children laughing and making fun of the mannequins, and the blatant propaganda. There was a peace pavilion, but it was just random quotes from Gandhi and MLK Jr.

Our last building was a portrayal of a battlefield. I’d been in one of these before (Battle of the Somme exhibit in Northern Ireland) and knew to expect sounds of explosions, strobe lights, barbed wire covering our heads, etc. What I didn’t expect was the platform we paused on with fake guns mounted to the railings. Lasers streamed from the exhibit toward us (like we were being shot at) and the signs said to shoot back (like war is a game).


We did get a photo with it, just because it was so shocking. We left the building with the distinct impression that they were saying, “war is cool, kids! Practice shooting those North Koreans!” It was disturbing.

 Anyway our boss likes high energy, lots of action, and so he took us to a noraebang (Korean karaoke) later that night. I think the whole group has mixed feelings about this.
The next day was up in the air also. We were probably on Plan L at that point (don’t ask me why) and eventually ended up at a cable car. It’s the longest cable car in South Korea. We drove to Tongyeong, a island (and town) off the coast of Geoje, and went to the Hallyeo Waterway Observation Cable Car.

There was lots of drama involved getting tickets and knowing where to go (I think most of us Americans were ready to hop on the cable car and not come down) because our boss doesn’t like things to be easy or smooth.
The view from the top of the mountain, however, is gorgeous. It’s a famous spot from a naval battle against the Japanese in 1592-3. We only got 20 minutes on the mountain before we were told to come down and head to a shopping mall for lunch.
We arrived back home late in the afternoon, completely exhausted. I had some whiplash from the driving (it wasn’t the IT guy who’s the bad driver) so we crashed in bed for a few hours.
All in all, it was highly educational and a team building experience. the American staff bonded together certainly, over some of the experiences we had on the trip, and I learned a lot about Korea culture through the POW camp.

Categories: CEV, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Photo Essay: Gyeseong

Last Saturday was a gorgeous spring day. Jordan and I walked around the village and took a few photos.


The trees have leaves again and I am so happy!

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We stopped at the GS 25 (a convenience store) and grabbed a bottle of Gatorade to sit and watch cars go past our one stoplight in town.

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Our one and only gas station in town, right next door to the post office.20160424_142238 small

A nice view of CEV from the main road through town.

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This is a view down the main street (again, by the one stoplight). Our village has two bulgogi restaurants, one or two other restaurants, a post office, gas station, bike repair shop, elementary school, several farm-and-garden shops, a 7-11, a GS25, a bank outpost for the geriatrics, and a health clinic for the geriatrics. That’s really about it. And plenty of onion fields, of course.


See the bike repair shop? Jordan and I bought a tire for a friend’s scooter last week. Service was immediate, though he wasn’t happy about being pulled from watching his baseball game.


On the edge of town, near the highway on-ramp, is a very nice golf course. Halfway up the mountain to the golf course is a nice view of all the onion fields.

That’s Gyeseong!

Categories: CEV, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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