Culture Quirks

Photos from lunch

Jordan and I are typically too busy watching the line and helping out during lunch to take photos, but another volunteer has taken the time to capture some lovely images over the past few days.

Photo credit: Diana Tircomnicu

At 12:30ish, even before the white van from Hot Food Idomeni rolls up, men and boys gather in line to get their one hot meal of the day. Hot Food serves 1,000 meals a day. Although over a thousand people are squatting in these abandoned warehouses, only about six hundred get in line for the soup.


Photo credit: Diana Tircomnicu

A few volunteers hand out the soup while the rest of us stand and guard the line.


Guarding the line doesn’t sound fun, but I really enjoy getting to see all my new friends as they pass by me, chit-chatting with new people, and cracking jokes with others.

“You smile a lot,” someone told me today. “Why do you smile so much?”

“What? You want me to frown?” I pretended to scowl. “Is this the Hungary border? I’m a border guard now?”

They all laughed. One told me he was heading to France after lunch.

“Oh, really?” I teased. “Take me with you! I want to go to France!”

“Problem, problem.” The man’s friend shook his head. “They’ll let you through, but not him.” He pointed to my purse. “Put him in there, and take him across!”

I laughed. “I might be able to fit a 10-year-old, but maybe not a grown man!”


As you can see, many of them love flirting with the camera.


After getting their food, they take the trays and slices of bread and try to find somewhere to sit. Many just crouch on the ground and eat, eager for something hot in their bellies.


They live in a couple of warehouses behind the bus station. One is walled off in separate rooms and even has a couple of old cots. The other, however, is just a wide-open space with shattered glass windows that let all the heat out.


Sometimes it gets so smoky you can’t see more than 10 feet ahead of you. The reason it’s so smoky is because 1) it’s open fires and 2) they’re burning trash and treated wood.


There’s an old pile of railroad ties they scavenge from to keep their fires going. It keeps them semi-warm, but the fumes are toxic.


They have plumbing that (usually) works, but I’m pretty sure this is the entrance to the toilets. I haven’t been there myself, but that’s what I was told.


A few days ago we had a blanket drive! Doctors Without Borders organized the event and provided a few of the blankets. Refugee Aid Serbia provided more blankets. Hot Food Idomeni helped distribute. As you can see, it got a little crazy there for a while. Communicating to over a thousand people where to start the line, stay in line, and be patient because we have enough for everyone is kinda difficult. I watched for cutters and pulled people out of line constantly for the hour it lasted.

As a person who enforces the rules, sometimes it can be frustrating to see the same people trying to sneak into line over and over again. But I’ve learned to remember that 1) Lines are a British/North American thing and line ettiquette just isn’t a big deal in the rest of the world, so this 600-person line thing is as foreign to them as Pashtu and Farsi are to me. Also, 2) when you’re freezing cold and see a finite number of clothing or blankets being passed out, urgency sets in and adrenaline kicks into the system. When you’re fighting against frostbite every single day and you see a pile of blankets, you feel desperate.

Most people are happy to follow the rules, of course, just like people in the rest of the world. And over all, the blanket distribution went really well. I’m pleased to have been a part of it. There’s just always that one guy who insists he was in line when you watched him walk right up and cut.


I mean, really, if you’re walking around like this, and you see winter clothing being distributed–aren’t you going to be willing to hop the line?

I’ve met a lot of really neat people here. Most of the people in the barracks are boys, ages 9 to 18, though there are a few adult men as well. I saw a couple of women and a family being moved out, hopefully to a camp, the other day.


This boy in the middle is my friend Milan. I gave him gloves and a hat today, but had to tell him no boots, to try again tomorrow.

“But you told me to wait,” he said, confused. “You said you’d find me boots.”

“I know, and I’m so sorry,” I told him, cringing. “Things just got crazy, and now there’s car trouble. Try later this afternoon. Come back and someone will be here with shoes.” I hope to see him tomorrow with new boots.


Kaship is on the right with the blue scarf (donated by one of my friends!) He has a hard time with my name as usually calls me “Angry.” Well, I’m not sure that’s what he’s saying, but that’s what it sounds like.  While I watched the line today, he stood and talked with me. (And if you notice their eyes, yes, there are plenty of hazel eyes, gray eyes, and gorgeous baby blues.)

“I got into a camp!” he told me.

“Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful! When do you leave?” I asked.

“Tonight, or maybe tomorrow night.” He paused. “And now I am crying.”

“Crying? Why?”

“Because I am leaving.” He shrugged.

“It’s just the camp down the road,” I told him. “You’re still stuck in Serbia.”

“Yes, but I won’t see you or the others any more. I won’t live here, I’ll live in a camp.”

“But a camp will be warm,” I encouraged. “And I can see you at Miksaliste. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. We’ll see each other.”


Ahbed is 16, but he looks 26, he’s gone through so much. I gave an impromptu English lesson to him and a few friends of his four weeks ago, and he hasn’t forgotten. Whenever he’s in line he always greets me, “Hello, teacher,” very shyly. His friends always laugh at him, I guess because they think it’s funny the American woman knows his name. I gave him some gloves three weeks ago (donated by another friend!) and he refused. “I can’t take your gloves.”

“It’s okay, I have more at home. I promise. Take them.” I pressed them into his hands.

So two days ago he found me and handed me an apple.

“Oh, I can’t take your food,” I told him, smiling.

“You must,” he insisted, smiling, dipping his head in embarrassment. “It’s just a small gift.”

I finally accepted. It was a pretty good apple.


Ahmed is fluent in English and helps translate for the volunteers. His hat and gloves were donated by one of Jordan’s family members! He’s teaching me a few Pashtu phrases–two or three words a day! Today I learned, “it doesn’t depend on me.” Last week I learned, “no boots, no blankets, nothing.” So you can imagine what I say a lot. He’s always cheerful and eager to work with us. He arrived in Serbia about three weeks ago. During the crossing through the Bulgarian forest he got separated from his cousin. I asked him today if his cousin had arrived.

“Not yet.” He shook his head. “The weather is bad. I talk to him though, and he will wait a week, maybe two, and come when weather is better.”

“That’s good,” I agreed. “It’s too cold and dangerous right now. Did you hear about the two refugees who died in the forest yesterday?”

“I know,” he said. “More people than that have died. Sometimes people get lost for days. So he is waiting.”

“Oh, good.” I grinned. “I’m glad you get to be together again!”

He laughed and told me to practice more Pashtu.

I can’t believe we’re leaving this week. It’s going to be so hard to leave all the amazing people we’ve met. I’m grateful for this blog, for my readers, who read to all these rambling stories, because I want to get this down and never forget all my friends and coworkers. They’re inspiring, all of them, the volunteers and the refugees, and I’m going to have a hard time leaving them.

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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.

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Great aspects of Korean culture

So recently I wrote a blog post explaining what ESL teachers mean when they sometimes complain about Korea. So now it’s time for me to detail all the things I personally love about Korea!

Hardworking people: Koreans (and Asians in general) have amazing work ethics. They work and work until the job is done, and then they ask for more work. They’re a great example to live by, and I hope some of their work ethic has rubbed off on me.

Good students/kids: Kids (once past toddler years) are expected to be polite, respect their elders, and behave appropriately. This means teaching is, by and large, easier than in the States. The kids are expected to listen closely and fill out worksheets quickly. When you tell them to do something, generally they obey without question. I always thought middle schoolers would be the worst group of students to work with, but these Korean kids proved me wrong.

Beautiful landscapes: Korea is roughly 72% mountains. The country has numerous national parks. Hiking is practically a national pastime because Koreans love to get out of the city and see nature. I live out in the boondocks, and I get to wake up every morning surrounded by mountains. It’s gorgeous.

Always polite: Manners are incredibly important here. Koreans tend to be very formal, polite people, and it’s kind of a nice change from the US’s casual atmosphere. They care about protocol and making sure everyone knows what to expect, that way there are no nasty surprises. It is nice to be greeted with smiles everywhere you go (in the American South, this is the case, too–everyone smiles)

Quiet culture: I hate loud, loud noises. People yelling in stores, static, car alarms, rushing of people in big cities all irritate me. Sometimes I really hate crowds. But I’ve never felt as claustrophobic/panicky as I do in the States, and this is mainly because everyone respects one another in terms of noise. You’d never guess Seoul has over 11 million people in it if you were blindfolded on the street. I really love that.

Clean: So for some reason, Korea has a thing against trash cans. I don’t know why, but it’s almost impossible to find one in public. We commonly set our trash down on the curb and walk away. But somehow, still, Korea is a clean country. Litter doesn’t stay around for long, and we see tiny, old ladies sweeping the streets clean all the time. No dirt or trash or leaves in sight!

Safe: Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. Although most men know how to shoot a gun, private gun ownership is strictly regulated. They also have a huge social stigma against stealing. People will commonly mark their places with their belongings or purse, then walk to the bathroom. Korea has much less crime than the United States.

Strong sense of heritage: Korea is one of the most monoethnic nations in the world. They have a strong sense of shared history and culture. They maintained their culture and language despite being invaded several times by China and Japan, and they have fought long and hard to keep their identity. And they’ve done a great job at it. Even though most Koreans wear jeans and blouses/polos most of the time, at their Lunar New Year they always dress up in traditional garb and enjoy their ancestors’ food and culture.

Interest in everyone getting along: This trait can obviously be taken too far (see my last post). But it’s really refreshing to be in a community where people care about your feelings. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, and I’m always overthinking and very aware of my words and body language (too an extreme). So it’s nice to finally be in a culture where tone of voice and facial expressions mean just as much as what you say. I also love that people will work to accomodate others’ feelings and opinions to create a harmonious environment where everyone feels valued and respected.  This is something the East does extremely well, and I wish the US would pay attention sometimes.

We’re nearing the end of our contract, and I’m starting to realize I’ll miss a lot from this place. It’s been an interesting year.

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“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

Sokcho and Seoraksan

Jordan and I had a five-day weekend recently, and really wanted to explore another corner of Korea. We live in the southern/central part and haven’t gotten much of a chance to see other parts of the country.

This fixed that problem!

So we hopped on a bus from Changnyeong to Daegu, took a 40-minute subway ride to bus station in the north of the city (BukDaegu) and hopped on another bus. Six hours later, we arrived in Sokcho. Multiple events conspired against us. I had originally hoped the entire trip would take 6 hours, but it took 9. There was terrible traffic, rain, a fight on the bus (and the driver pulled over to yell at people!), and more traffic.

Nevertheless, we were determined to enjoy our time away from CEV.

Our first full day in Sokcho was spent hunting down Korean food we like (and avoiding Korean food we don’t like), eating Baskin’ Robbins ice cream (yes, we live in an extremely rural village), and going to the beach.


Dinner was bibimbap, or not my favorite Korean dish. But it’s quickly made and a Korean favorite:


The next day was probably our favorite way to spend our mini-cation (or at least Jordan’s favorite!). We went hiking in Korea’s most beautiful national park, Mt. Seoraksan.


The mountains are incredible. Korea’s favorite pastime is hiking, so we encountered plenty of casual and very serious hikers. (We fall into the casual category). The park is massive, and the trails are miles and miles long, so the park is set up more how the Appalachian Trail is, with bunkhouses along trails.

We stuck with the two-miles-or-less trails near the entrance of the park. Besides this being Korea’s prettiest park, it may also be the most popular. Buses and cars lined the road, searching for parking spots. Once inside the park, however, people spread out and I had personal space again.

Jordan and I took the cable car up one of the mountain peaks to hike a trail to an old fortress.


Although it was cloudy and muggy, we still caught a few beautiful views. The trip to Sokcho (the town) and the national park wasn’t easy, but I’m glad we did it. I feel like I have a much better appreciation for Korean nature and even Korean people.


And that’s pretty much it! For anyone planning a trip, some prices are below:

  • Bus from BukDaegu to Sokcho: 25,600 won per person one-way
  • Entrance to park: 2,000 won
  • Cable car 10,000 a person
  • Hotel: More expensive than it should be. This will be by FAR your greatest expense.
  • Beach: free, unless you want an umbrella or shower


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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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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. 





Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Buddha’s Birthday Bash in Seoul

The eighth day of the fourth lunar month was Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday in Korea (May 14 this year). It’s such a big deal that Seoul had a ten-day celebration of the event. Last weekend we (and all our American coworkers) hopped on a bus and drove up to Seoul to see the parade.

We arrived on Friday around 2:30 pm and spent the evening eating at Gusto’s Tacos (the top-rated restaurant in Seoul–highly recommend it) and bar hopping for a bit. We stayed in Insadong, which was a fun, touristy little place. We all loved how near it was to three subway lines and how there were fantastic souvenir shops down the road from our hotel.

Saturday night was the main event for us: the parade to Jogyesa Temple. Called the Lotus Lantern Festival, it kicked off Seoul’s celebration of Buddha. But before that happened, we had some sightseeing to do!

Jordan and I walked to Gyeongbukgung Palace. I had been at the gate previously, but this time we toured the place. There are multiple changing of the guard ceremonies, but the biggest one was at 10 am, which we arrived just in time for.


Gyeongbukgung is also known as “the Northern palace” because it the most northern of all the Seoul-area palaces. Behind the palace is Bukhansan Mountain. Surrounding the palace today is the City Hall area. One of the things Seoul does best, I think, is the incorporation of new and old.


There were many tourists today. I’m so used to be the only white person/foreigner around, it was strange to see Southeast Asian women in hijabs, Chinese tourists, and a few other Westerners. I’m in such a rural area of Korea that I forget how good it feels to be mixed together with different ethnicities.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was originally built in 1395, and were later destroyed by the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). It was mostly left in ruins until the late 1800s, when the current king renovated and restored the premises. He built a beautiful pavilion on the edge of the property, surrounded by a pond that nobles and courtiers could boat in during lazy summer days.


Because it was Children’s Day/Parents’ Day weekend the entrance to the palace was free (though normally it costs about 3,000 won a person). Swarms of tourists crowded the areas. I can be a little grouchy when surrounded by Chinese tour groups (because honestly, any tour group is a little frustrating to navigate around). But this sweet woman came up to us and asked for a photo. She was very shy, and it was clear that we were some of the first white people she’d ever seen. After complicated hand gestures,  she got a photo with me, then a photo with both of us. “Thank you,” she got out in stilted English, probabl ythe only words she knew. “Xie-xie,” I replied.

The palace grounds were only interesting for so long without a guide, so we moved on to the National Folk Museum. This was a really nice, free museum. Audio guides were only 1,000 won apiece, so we got English guides and headphones. I recommend it.

The first exhibit started with prehistoric times, then moved on to the bronze age and iron age. They showed ancient  text and models of iron age villages. According to myth, the first kingdom was  Gojoseon (Old Joseon) kingdom in what is now North Korea. After that, during the European Dark Ages, there were three kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. They were all united under Silla in 676 AD. Then the Silla kingdom crumbled in the late 9th century. The penninsula was (mostly) united under the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. This, in some ways, was Korea’s golden age. They did, however, have to fight internal coups, fend off the Japanese in 1592, and content with Western powers. The Japanese invaded again in 1910, which ended the Joseon Dynasty.

The later half of the folk museum was about life in rural Korea. this is probably new and interesting information to most Korean children and tourists, but we breezed through because we already know a lot about it. For example, this is a model of an old Korean farmhouse. We’d find it interesting, except most of the houses in our small village look like this.


These faces-in-posts are found in rural villages throughout Korea. Though not really used anymore, they were at the crossroads of villages or at the entrance. The faces would ward off evil spirits. There are several of these old wooden posts in the middle of Changnyeong, actually, so it was nice to learn what these were.20160507_120227 small

The afternoon was wearing on, so we went in search of a cafe for a smoothie and lemonade. I really wanted to check out a raccoon cafe, so we went to Blind Alley, which is near the Sookmyung Women’s University. There’s a subway stop named after the university. We took exit ten, walked through a tunnel, and then cross a large intersection. We walked about seven more minutes, passing a Subway and Baskin’ Robbins. Blind Alley was on our right, tucked away.

The cheeky, fat little guy wouldn’t sit still long enough to get good photos!


The cafe was reasonably priced (for an animal attraction cafe), and we ordered our drinks. The raccoons are kept in a separate area, away from the food and kitchen. We sipped on our drinks, then slipped onto the back patio to check out the raccoons.


There was only one, the white one, today, but he was pretty interested in Jordan. He sniffed his hand and pawed at his jeans, which was fun to watch. We didn’t want to wear the guy out, though, because everyone comes to play with the raccoon. Still, it was fun to watch him waddle around for a while.

That night was the parade! We were pretty excited. Our coworker/friend, Rachel, had suggested our hotel to be in Insadong, only a few moments’ walk from where the parade would walk by.20160507_203713

Delegations from different countries, sects, and traditions of Buddhism streamed past. People danced, dressed in traditional hanbok garb, and sang at the top of their lungs as they marched toward Jogyesa Temple20160507_201429

Most of the floats were images of Buddha in various stages of his life, but we say a long dragon float go by with about twenty people inside! Later we saw the float resting on a side street and snagged a photo:


At this point, we couldn’t help ourselves. We bought an electronic and plastic lotus lantern. 20160507_220856

The march to the temple was only a block longer, and we followed the path of countless others. The temple was small but breathtaking. Everything was covered in paper lanterns. The effect was so beautiful it was dizzying. In the courtyard stood a tree, holding many of the lanterns. We made that our gathering point, then the couples branched out to explore all the parts of the temple.20160507_213042

Many people were worshiping inside the actual temple building, bowing to a Buddha statue. We didn’t go inside, out of respect, but enjoyed the artwork surrounding the courtyard. Jogyesa is the chief temple if Korean Zen Buddhism, and considered a very important cultural/religious landmark in Korea.20160507_212714

In one corner we found a tunnel of lights! It was magical.20160507_213624

By the time it was all over, we were starving, tired from walking 15 miles that day, and ready for sleep. We grabbed some finger food near the center of the celebration and listened to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”

We slept in, but the next morning we strolled along Insadong street. They have the only Hangul Starbucks sign in all of Korea!

20160508_101749 Small

If interested in souvenirs, this is the place to shop. It’s a good mix between touristy and uptown style. We saw Koreans shopping here as well as English teachers like us. Jordan and I plan to go back, maybe in October, and by souvenirs for family members. There’s a discount pottery shop with the most beautiful shades of jade I’ve ever seen. Although the pottery might have a few flaws from the kiln, they’re the only pieces I’d be able to afford in Korea. We can’t wait to return.20160508_104005

Categories: Culture Quirks, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A call for unity: My election thoughts (so far)

So how ’bout this election cycle, hmm?

This will certainly make it in the history books.

I’m intensely interested in politics, though I try to keep my political rants to a minimum on social media. But I’m breaking my half-silence to talk about unity. And yes, Trump. Because, unfortunately, no one can say anything this election cycle without talking about him. But I want to make this post more about unity, if that’s okay with you.


This election has been the most divisive and rhetoric-filled in my short memory (Clinton became president right after I learned to walk), but I’m pretty sure it’s been quite a while before I can remember as well. When Trump announced his candidacy, no one was really sure what to make of it. Was it a joke? Satire on the current political climate? Publicity stunt? A way to push moderates to Hillary in the general? None of us really thought it was for real. Probably not even Trump. I laughed when I heard and immediately wrote him off.

“He won’t win the presidency,” I assured my non-American friends. “He won’t even win the Republican primaries.” Well, here’s me now crossing my fingers and hoping still that he won’t win the primary.

Anger over the current establishment, both at the federal level and at party level, have reached record highs over the past few years. Pundits point to the rise of a candidate as a celebrity (Obama in 2008) and the emergence of the Tea Party in the Republican party. We all know the Republican party has been fracturing for years now, the party elites ignoring the base. In their (little) defense, however, who even is their base anymore? Evangelical Christians, once the bulwark of the party from 1980s onward) are shifting and changing stances. The party is hemorrhaging Latinos and other minorities over hardline stances on immigration reform (or non reform). The log cabin Republicans and other moderates are increasingly tired of putting up with “traditional values.”  For a decade or so scholars have lamented the “polarization of American politics.


So perhaps we shouldn’t have been so shocked when Trump swooped in and capitalized on the grievances and anger felt by a large swath of the American public. What I mean to say is, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, Nikabrik turned to a second-best candidate in Prince Caspian.

But here I am and here we are, and here the American electorate is. While I believe that many of the people have good reason to feel disenfranchised from the economy and politics, what they do with this anger is even more important.

I am seriously concerned right now for the US.  Trump has whipped the latent anger into a frenzy, coaxing rage into nonsensical action. We were already divisive before. Some of my conservative friends say “liberal extremists are dangerous for this country.” Some of my liberal friends say “all Republicans are idiots and racists.”

My conservative friends:  “The Liberals” do not get together in a back room and plot how to take down America.

My liberal friends: The Republicans aren’t trying to keep us in the Dark Ages or destroy all the progress we’ve made as a nation.


We can and should clash with ideologies, ideas, and action plans, but we have to trust that the other party are just like us and have the same goals, they just chose a method that’s misguided. Our social contract isn’t just with the government. It’s with one another. If that trust breaks apart, we have nothing left.

And Trump is stoking that narrative, blatantly calling for “them” to be silenced, carried out in stretchers, removed, etc. Who is “them”? Anyone who protests his rallies or disagrees with him, however respectfully. It’s “the blacks,” the “Mexicans,” the “Muslims,” and most recently “our communist friend’s [Bernie Sanders]” supporters.” Sometimes protests just make the division worse. But Trump isn’t calling out the differences in our beliefs and ideologies, he’s insinuating there’s differences in what makes us human. Words have consequences.

This ” us versus them” mentality is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. I would hope that we can all disagree on policy, economics, even religion, and still have more that unites us than divides us. This mentality of social identity assures us that we are better than the “others.” And superiority breeds indifference which breeds suspicion and hate which eventually turns to violence and discrimination. Just ask the Bosnians, the German Jews, the Tutsis, or the Yezzidis, to name a few. While the “us versus them” belief doesn’t always lead to ethnic cleansing or genocide, every instance of ethnic cleansing and genocide begins there.


Friends, don’t buy into the rhetoric that distances “us” from “them.” We are all one, American, and in this mess together. And Trump’s bombastic, violent rhetoric has energized some of the worst parts of ourselves,inciting violence, death threats, and mobs on the streets.

This disintegration of trust is dangerous to all of us. At this point, I’m not even concerned with who’s going to win the presidency any more (I still think Trump won’t win in the long run). I’m concerned with how our country is going to recover from this ugliness. Regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, regardless of who wins the general election, we will still be left with angry, hurting, resentful people willing to lash out at anyone that unintentionally stirs up their own fears and insecurities.

So what are we going to do? How are we going to mend this?


My conservative friends: Please be troubled by what’s happening in the Republican party. Be a Christian (or Muslim or Jew or agnostic) first and a Republican, like, fifteenth. You don’t have to be liberal to be against Trump’s tone, fascism, or division. Please be willing to pray, to speak, and to act against this growing violence. Be willing to listen to another point of view before writing someone off as a “bleeding heart liberal” or “whiny black kid.”

My liberal friends: Remember that as disgusting as you find Trump’s tone and his supporters’ response, as protester you must behave better than them. Protest all you like but do it peacefully, respectfully, and constitutionally. Think of the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. And remember that most protests only cause Trump supporters to dig in their heels. Be for unity rather than just against Trump.

My Christian friends: Christ rescued us from our hate. He loved us before we first loved him. He loved us despite our unworthiness to be loved. Speak truth, but speak it in love.  God loves the Trump supporters that scream racial slurs and willingly embrace the neo-Nazi comparisons. And God loves the reckless youth that rip posters and disrupt rallies. We are to bandage the bleeding (and at this point we’re all bleeding because we’re all human) and hope for the despairing (and despair was definitely one of my emotions after Super Tuesday).

These sentiments that Trump has tapped into are larger than I first thought, and they will not–cannot–be ignored.

So what are we going to do about it?



Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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