Korea is Racist (Part 1)

Ask any expat living in Korea, and they will likely agree: Korea is racist.
Stick around long enough and you come to expect it. In fact, racism is so commonplace here that a comedian at an open mic I attended a few weeks ago included the following joke:
blah blah blah… “a racist Korean. Sorry that was redundant, I should just say a Korean.”
I think what strikes westerns (or at least Americans) most when they encounter racism in Korea is not that there is racism here (after all, our country has it’s own MOUNTAIN of problems in that department), but how it presents in this community. People from the U.S. have gotten used to thinking about race and racism in certain specific ways. But, situations, language, and observations that make U.S. residents—especially white ones—tread carefully often go completely unnoticed by Koreans, and as a result, they tend to step all over our not-being-a-racist-jackass sensibilities.
Within my first few months of living in Korea, I encountered the following woah, WHAT?! situations:
  • While out with some friends, a monk (yes, a monk, I thought it was weird, too) approached my group and began chatting with us. After a while, he turned to the black woman among us and said, “You know, Obama.” The President of the United States, we were all thinking, no, not personally. “Yes,” we answered. “Obama—your father?” he tried to joke with my friend. (Needless to say, the attempt was unsuccessful.)
  • The teachers in my office and I were chatting/gossiping about men. They asked whether my boyfriend was handsome. I got out a picture to show them and when they looked at the image of me, a white woman, smiling beside my very handsome boyfriend, one asked if my mother cared that he was black. Another said he looked like Denzel Washington.
  • A older man I was helping with English told me a story that to him was both funny and remarkable about a movie he saw as a teenager with an interracial relationship (between a “negro” man and a white woman—and no, this movie was not set in the South during Civil War reconstruction). He and his friends thought this movie was just fiction, and then they found out that a very famous black person in the United States—Obama—has  a white mother and a black father. His mind was blown. (Though, his explanation of his shock used much more Korean-man-with-a-limited-command-of-the-English-language terms.)

Add to that list, the half dozen anecdotes I heard from my friends about activities in class that resulted in everything from students laughing and calling Louie Armstrong a gorilla to writing “black man” and “white man” down as “opposites,” and I had a pretty disturbing picture right off the bat about attitudes toward race in this country.

I should add a disclaimer that not every person believes/behaves/speaks this way. One of the teachers gossiping about my boyfriend remarked only that he was “bald” (he is a soldier who keeps his hair cropped short), my group of students seems unphased by the presence of people of color in the materials I use, and I’ve seen and heard of plenty of perfectly civil interactions between black expats and Koreans.
Nor is it fair to say that the racism prevalent among Koreans and often exhibited in the Korean media is going completely ignored or unaddressed. This article in the Korean Times condemns the use of blackface in a popular Korean sketch comedy, calling it out, not as an isolated incident, but as part of a larger, disturbing trend in Korean pop culture. “It’s entirely inappropriate for 21st century television to feature people wearing blackface makeup, but KBS ― Korea’s state-run broadcaster ― must have missed the memo, or indeed the twentieth century,” writes Jung Min-ho in criticism of the show and the station that allowed it to air.
Blackface on KBS show "Gag Concert" (Photo credit: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2014/02/201_150883.html)

Blackface on KBS show “Gag Concert” (Photo credit: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2014/02/201_150883.html)

Further—and I’m still working to investigate this claim so if you have any insight regarding it, please let me know—I believe much of the institutionalized and systematic presentation of racism that courses through U.S. political, social, economic, and cultural spheres like blood borne disease that we can’t seem to shake is strikingly absent here. I intend to do much more research and publish future posts to substantiate this hypothesis, but from where I’m standing right now, I get the sense that as far as “the system” is concerned, an expat is an expat.
For those entering Korea from a country that likes it’s racism hidden in the seedy underbellies of our bureaucracies, a place in which citizens of privilege do their best to spread the “ideal” of color-blindness and where “negro” was so effectively rendered a dirty word so long ago that to modern ears it sounds like something that must be quoted from a historical document, comments that blatantly call out a person’s race (whether in a malicious way or not) can feel like a bit of a slap in the face.
I’m writing this piece in installments. I don’t know how long it will ultimately be. This is unquestionably a huge topic, and I don’t believe I can cover everything I’d like to all at once. And to be honest, this is the sort of subject matter that wears me down a bit. However, it’s on my mind A LOT, and I think deserves my attention. It also deserves careful and thoughtful consideration and discussion that will be most easily delivered in small doses over time.
My country’s history of race relations is not the same as Korea’s historical and cultural experiences of race. It would be easy to point a finger at some of the country’s more unsettling incidents, write the whole place off as “racist,” and call it a day. But to see real change, we need to seek real understanding of the conditions we hope to improve or eliminate. We cannot look at Korean racism through western eyes and judge it with our western knowledge of how the world works. Nor should we judge too harshly that which we’re still quite a long way from perfecting ourselves.
So instead of judging and instead of giving Korea a pass because it’s Korea, I’d like to spend at least a few posts looking closely at racist issues and incidents and see if by examining them and learning more about the country as a whole, I can foster the sort of understanding that might lead to real change.
If you’re in Korea, your input is especially welcome as I explore this issue. Feel free to comment or send me an email! (jclarkwriter@gmail.com)

The Foreigner at the Table

Something tells me I'm not putting this together right... (Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Something tells me I’m not putting this together right…
(Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Sometimes, it takes stepping outside your language culture to understand the parts of it that you take for granted. So often, we think about language learning as merely a process of picking up a manageable set of grammatical rules and filling in the blanks with vocabulary. It requires tons of memorization and practice, but get those things down and you’ll be chattering away in Farsi or Mandarin or whatever language you’ve decided to dedicate your brain space to in no time.

The thing is, communication just isn’t as simple as all that. For one thing, literal translation is inadequate to interpret what a speaker intended to convey. Why is it that in English a person is a number of years old, but in Spanish, he or she has a number of years? What about face-saving expressions like “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” uttered by a person who is decidedly not sorry?

Then, there are the rules about how a conversation is conducted. Speakers take turns. There are appropriate moments to interrupt and for clarification or to add your opinion and there are inappropriate ones. There are relevant questions and observations and irrelevant ones. You can probably remember a time when somebody with limited social awareness derailed a conversation you were engaged in over and over and over again by making inquiries and comments that did not fit.

Imagine that the person who skipped socializing day at school is you. How does the group feel about talking to you? Now, imagine that you suck at conversation because most of it is happening in a language you don’t really understand.

Congratulations. You are me.

Every day, I sit at the lunch table among Korean teachers, and they speak Korean. Of course, they speak Korean; this is Korea—this is their everyday life, and even those who do speak some English are not going to constantly choose the language that limits their expression and makes them uncomfortable over the one that they live their lives in, whether there is a speaker of that language sitting across from them or not. I know I didn’t when the seats were reversed.

I never chose to have a conversation with my colleagues in Spanish when I worked for The Literacy Center even though I have limited ability in the language, even though some of them speak it fluently, even though we were often in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Had one of those Spanish speakers chimed in with something to say, I would have listened and tried to understand, and tried to engage them in conversation a little. Then, I would have gone back to the conversation I was having in English before that person spoke up.

In the two years that I worked for The Literacy Center, this never happened. In two years, I didn’t notice that this never happened.

Doesn't anyone want to talk to me? (Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?
(Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Cut back to me, now, the foreigner at the lunch table. There is a conversation happening around me in Korean. I catch a word here and there, a name, the word for “this.” Sometimes I know they are talking about the new school some teachers will be moving to in March. Sometimes I know nothing. I am silent. I would like to talk to the science teacher about where she will be teaching next year, to discuss whether she is happy about the move or not, to find out if her school is larger or smaller than ours, to find out what she thought of the teachers she met when she visited it.

I cannot have this conversation. The only thing I’ve heard to clue me in to the discussion is the word “Dongbaek,” spoken with rising intonation and her affirmative “mmm” plus slight head nod. I cannot have this conversation, and it’s not just because I don’t speak Korean and can barely tell where one sentence ends and the next begins. I can speak to this group in English, and most of them can answer me in English.

But I don’t want to speak just to hear my voice. I am not a child figuring out how this conversing stuff works. I know how to have a conversation. I want to contribute meaningfully to this one. If I ask something that’s already been asked or that is related to “Dongbaek” but not what they are talking about, I am the social failure. I am the penny on the tracks that derails the train that was taking everyone else where they wanted to go. I am the noise they are humoring until they can get back to what they are talking about.

Nope. I’m not going to be that person. Not today. Today, I will be silent until someone invites me into the conversation. Today I will wait until I know it is my turn to speak. It happens less often now that the novelty of my presence has worn off.

I am the foreigner at the table. I am silent. I am waiting.


This article and others about language and literacy can be found on ThinkLiteracyBlog.wordpress.com.

How I Quit My Job as an English Teacher in Korea

Author’s Note: This post has been sitting in my draft box for a few months now. At first, I didn’t post it because finding all the images and videos I wanted to include was WORK, and every time I sat down to do it, I got distracted. Then, I didn’t post it because it didn’t quite feel true anymore. It’s a funny thing about adapting to another culture, sometimes you can take it, and sometimes you can’t, but it goes back and forth. You’re fine for a while and then you hate everything. I’m back around to being mostly fine, so I think it’s time this post saw the light of my browser.

"I quit this job!"

“I quit this job!”


I’m a geek. I’m the brand of geek that is a HUGE fan of the beloved television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m also the brand of geek that connects everything in my life to everything else in my life, so when I quit, immediately thought about this show.
If you haven’t seen it, you should—it’s amazing. The basic premise is this: Buffy is a high school girl chosen to slay vampires and protect the world from evil. A few seasons in, she must also protect her sister from a bit of big bad evil that’s out to get her, and it’s—well, it’s all a little much. The stress takes its toll on Buffy, eventually putting her in a temporary catatonic state, during which the audience gets to actually see the loop that her unconscious mind keeps running her through.
Buffy-this is when I quit
In-brain Buffy keeps going back to a particular scene that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest—Buffy is standing in the magic shop where they do their demon research, and she puts a book back on a shelf. End scene. Eventually, she explains to her friend Willow (who has magically entered Buffy’s consciousness to snap her out of it),
“This was when I quit, Wil.”
“You did?”
“Just for a second…”
Still with me? Buffy’s character tortures herself over this moment of quitting. She blames herself and that moment for the all-kinds-of-bad they are in the middle of at that particular point in the story. But here’s the thing…she did the right thing. Quitting was the healthiest choice Buffy could have made at that moment.
Obviously she can’t, and won’t, really quit and let the world spiral into darkness. She has slayer responsibilities to keep up with (not to mention a narrative to sustain), but at that moment, she acknowledged that there was an alternative. She could choose not to succumb to the soul-crushing power of the fight she was in the middle of.
“I wanted it over,” she explains.
“This is—all of this—it’s too much for me. I just wanted it over. If Glory [the bad guy] wins, then Dawn [the sister] dies. And I would grieve. People would feel sorry for me. But it would be over. I imagined what a relief it would be.”
I think we can all agree that quitting something awful is a relief—we don’t need a TV show to tell us that.

(We have movies for that.)

But when Buffy quit, she did it just for a second, and it was “a relief,” and then she just kept on doing her job.
This is what happened to me in my second grade class last month. This class was literally listed on my To Do list as:
E2-After School
**Occasionally referred to as a slow descent into hell.
The students neither respected nor understood me. In fact, they closely resembled a pack of 3 foot tall demons themselves (they do scream, hit, and communicate in a language I don’t understand), and I felt increasingly like I was losing my battle against them.
This all culminated in me standing in the middle of a room where approximately 50% of the students were out of their seats, many were running, yelling, throwing things, and the few who were in their desks would at best offer a cursory glance my way when I tried to get their attention.
I was watching one particularly troubling cluster of boys who feed off each other’s chaos, trying to decide what I should do about them, and realizing there wasn’t a large enough classroom in the world to separate them enough to make them behave well. I was on the verge of tears.
And then I quit.
I pictured myself walking down the hallway, grabbing my bag out of my office, descending the stairs, walking out the doors to the school, and never coming back. The class would surely continue to run amok in my absence, but I would not be standing in the middle of it. All that disaster would be happening behind me, and I would be moving forward, rising above it…
It was glorious.
And then I just kept teaching—or more accurately, physically placing children in their seats only to have them pop back up moments later like a more frustrating game of whack-a-mole in which the moles scream and taunt you in a foreign language. This continued until the period ended and they went screaming down the hall to a land I call “Somebody Else’s Problem.”
If you’re following the actual events of my story, they look like this:
  • Jessica tries desperately to gain control of class
  • Jessica stands in the middle of the class breathing slowly and eyeballing the door
  • Jessica returns to physically separating kids, getting them off the floor, and returning them to their seats
  • Class ends
So what changed? Class was not actually better. I was still surrounded by demons. I was still having the worst time in a class that I’ve EVER had, and between studying and teaching, I’ve spent a lot of times in classes.
Why did I stay? And more importantly, how did I stay in a class that moments earlier had me ready to cry in front of a bunch of 9 year olds before fleeing my job and subsequently the country?
Answer: I quit.
I quit just for a second, and in that moment I knew I had a choice. I knew if I left there were other things out there for me. It wasn’t really, as one might expect, a weighing of pros and cons. I didn’t stand in the class comparing the shame and embarrassment I would feel when I tried to explain to the people back home why I didn’t finish my contract with the pain and frustration of continuing to try to make this class work and decide which was more bearable.
I just quit. I let it all go. Once I did, I could see a way out, and once I knew there was a way out, I suddenly wasn’t so desperate to go there.
It was like getting lost exploring a cave. Overall, the cave is pretty cool—interesting geology, totally mind blowing to be somewhere so dark, etc. But, then you start thinking, it’s kind of cold in here, and I only have so much water and food, and it’s got to be getting late and cold outside, and my flashlight battery could die at any moment, and the longer I’m down here, the better chance of a hungry vampire stumbling upon me. All you can think about is finding a way out before one of innumerable awful fates befalls you. And then you find the path and think, well, if the exit’s right there… I can hang around a bit more. I have enough water for a while and an extra flashlight in my bag, and vampires aren’t even real!
Like Buffy, much as I may want to sometimes, I’m not ready to give up my fight yet. I’m not quite done exploring this cave, and that exit isn’t going anywhere.
My determination to conquer the class was also renewed. I made some big changes—getting permission to move it to an earlier time in the day so we can get right into the lesson, getting help from the students’ homeroom teacher to explain the rules and reward systems—and the next time I saw my students, it was like a different class. They listened, they participated, they stayed in their seats. Suddenly, they were the picture of good behavior, and they’ve mostly kept it up since then.
This change didn’t happen because I refused to quit. It was possible because I did quit, but only for a second.
I’ve been in a place so dark that I couldn’t see the way out before; I’ve been in a bad situation that I refused to quit, and I can tell you, it’s no way to live.
So if you’re feeling stuck, I implore you—quit. Just try it out. See how it feels. Maybe to quit is what you’ve needed all along. It might stick, and if it does, that’s great! You’ll be free. It might not stick. You might find you have it in you to start again. Either way, you’ll have taught yourself that you are in control of your fate. You get to choose what you will endure. You get to walk away.


EDIT EDIT: I did my first spoken word reading in Korea last night at a bar in KSU called Cafe Radio. It was so great to be back in front of a microphone reading my words again. When I was there, I was surprised by how much I had missed the concept of reading poetry in general. Of course, I miss Barley Rhymes and Hops on Birch, because they are populated and run by the best people in the world.

As it turns out, though, I also miss just sharing my work. I miss having a reason to put poetry together. I miss the bravery it takes to stand up in front of people (beer in hand, of course) and lay everything bare, to be open, to say here I am–well, part of me–take me or leave me.

WordZ Only gave me the opportunity to do that again. I’m looking forward to attending many more events in the future, and writing a lot more because of it.

Tell me what you think of my reading in the comments!

EDIT: Nick was actually featured reading this poem in Episode 3 of Barley Rhymes’s web series! Yay! Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTd4lmi88_U#t=449

I don’t really fit here.

Korea is beautiful. The ocean, the mountains, the forests… I see amazing, beautiful things everyday. But I don’t fit. I think maybe there are places where you feel immediately at home, as if you always should have been there, and there are other places that you merely exist in, no matter how much they have to offer. For me, Busan is the latter. There is nothing wrong with this place, but it’s just so very far from the person I am.

I wrote a poem on this theme, my first in quite a while, and I wanted to share it here with you all. (My brother also read it at the best spoken word poetry EVER, Barley Rhymes! You should definitely check out their web series. Nick doesn’t appear, but tons of other great poets do!)



There are birds here,
black and white,
that look like mockingbirds.

A thin, dark-haired woman,
smiles, wrinkling the corners of her narrow eyes.
Every morning she tells me
about something beautiful.
Today, she says
that when a Korean hears the song
of the black and white birds,
she will know
good luck is coming.

I step out of her car
and the bird we’ve been watching
picks insects
from between blades of grass–

In the hills behind my school building,
there are dozens of tiny farms.
One day, I stand on a road and watch.
A man squats over a row of cabbage
while the birds
fly in arcs from field to forest
above his head,
landing first on green house,
then rooftop,
then nesting in the nearby trees,

The sun sinks and their black bodies are silhouetted
against the grey and pale pink sky’s
dimming light.

Sixteen birds on a wire
turn their backs to my bus as it passes.
If they are singing, it is a sound
I don’t hear.

Are you mocking me,
bird in the grass
with your beak too full of bugs
to speak?

Or do you know
I’ve already had my share of luck,
enough to bring me here
to a country road
where you shower a man with your song,
to a setting so pastoral,
it seems pulled from a painting
in a history book,
removed from time
and set here
on this hill
just far enough from the highway
for the song birds to stay.

One evening, I walk through woods.
My path winds its way
around houses with crumbling concrete walls
that were once washed in brilliant white,
and then between fences
built to keep farms
and farmers in,
and then between clumps of bamboo shoots
and trees with fall reddened leaves.

Among the farm plots
sit small shacks, of plastic sheeting
placed against itself at right angles.
From one shelter,
across the ravine,
I hear saxophone notes.
They follow one another slowly,
then a few burst forth
all at once,
unable to endure the wait,
to sit back in a man’s breath
while the others
ring out clear,
in the cool air,
building a melody that settles
on foreign ears,
ears that are deaf to all language but this.

The notes rise and fall
and drag from her a sweet sadness.
She thinks of her home
and she smiles and cries all at once.
The notes penetrate her chest
and massage her heart
until its beats slow,
fill her lungs until her breath
comes deep
and low.
Her eyes close.

She stands there,
her non-conforming blonde hair,
her clothes that aren’t right,
her voice only capable of forming words
that don’t belong here,
and she listens.

The notes sweep up the hillside and break
against the edges of the ravine,
like water over the spillway of a dam.
The melody surrounds her
until she is no longer separate
from this country, from this world,
until she is no longer a woman
among the trees and
the breeze and
the sound.
She is sound.
She is breeze.

She opens her eyes
and a bird that’s not a mockingbird
flies silently by.

My luck has all been spent,
she thinks,
chest tightening,
eyes closing.

Alone in the forest,
slow saxophone tones
carry her home.

The Word of the Day Is: Vulnerability

UPDATE: I linked you below to the Barley Rhymes Facebook page because they’re YouTube site was unavailable, but it’s back! Watch Barley Rhymes Episode One here!

I started out my morning reading this post on my favorite blog, Paging Dr. NerdLove, and he hit on a topic that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently. NerdLove’s piece is skewed–necessarily given his audience–toward how being vulnerable is a boon to your dating life, but underlying the how to get better with women premise of the article is woven a complicated story about the myriad ways that vulnerability affects our relationships with others and with ourselves.

I’ve been thinking specifically about vulnerability and performance, because I have plans to do A LOT of performing, both in very public, on-stage kind of ways, and in more private, among my friends sorts of ways. A while back, I saw a TED talk by Amanda Palmer (one of my pop culture heroes) called, “The Art of Asking.” This talk focused on developing close personal relationships with your fans and allowing those connections to fund your art as opposed to the more traditionally corporate way of making money via art by signing with a label and so on. The talk intrigued me in a number of ways. I was employed by a non-profit at the time and was very interested in how its themes crossed over with and might be applied to asking the community to support my organization. But perhaps what hit me the most, and the reason that it comes to mind for me many months later, was Palmer’s emphasis on vulnerability and connection.

“The perfect tools aren’t going to help us,” Palmer claims, “if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly.” I love that language, and that idea–connection with other human beings is giving fearlessly, receiving fearlessly.

Maybe I like it because I spent many years doing everything I could to be invulnerable. Because I spent many years afraid. I was prone to trying to show just how unflappable I was even as a kid, and then I spent a good long time dating a man who controlled me, in part by invalidating the pieces of myself that I exposed to him, so I conditioned myself to keep–well, myself–pretty well under wraps. Around that same time, though, although it terrified me in some ways, I found that I actually really enjoyed being on stage. I gave a talk at my college’s undergraduate symposium/benefit concert (about connecting with people actually…it’s been a long running theme in my life), and I sort of loved it.

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I totally failed to post any pictures before like I said I would...)

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I failed to post any of the other pictures I said I would.)

As I gradually started to rejoin the world, I found myself more and more interested in developing the part of myself that got such a thrill from putting myself out there, eventually on stage. I began dancing in public, singing karaoke, and reading poetry at my favorite bar. (Shout out to Barley Rhymes and their excellent new film series!) I talked to one Barley Rhymes audience member once who told me that she couldn’t do what I had done; she couldn’t make herself so vulnerable on stage. I knew where she was coming from, because I was scared every time I did it. As Dr. Nerdlove puts it, “Vulnerability is about willingly, even deliberately, opening yourself up to rejection, to judgement and humiliation.” Those are pretty valid things to be afraid of.

At the same time though, when you get up on a stage (or step onto a dance floor, or speak up about in a crowd, or sing aloud), you are saying to the world, I’m here, and I’m not ashamed of it. Some of the people watching or listening will judge you; some will reject you. You might say or do something humiliating. You might fail. Then, when you do that thing anyway–when you willingly expose deeply personal parts of yourself, all that potential failure and judging and possible bad stuff just sort of falls away. Maybe you do fine. Maybe you make a huge mistake (hell–I’ve seen countless videos of Amanda Palmer, ROCK STAR, stopping mid-show because she screwed something up, but then she just laughs it off, picks back up and keeps going). Either way, you let yourself be yourself in the world–you let people see you.

Not everyone needs a stage to do this, of course. There are plenty of intimate conversations that have the same effect. Even the fiction I’m currently writing, even this blog post, expose me to your judgement. But, I’m getting to the point where I’m interested in sort of the next level of human connection. The one where I stand in front of a crowd people and become open to their judgement. Maybe it’s an over correction after doing my best for so long not to have a presence. I want them to see me. I want them to feel like, in a way, they know me. And I want to know them.

Here, in this new place, I’ve picked up some hobbies, that I am planning to use to further my education in being vulnerable…and reap the benefits of the confidence and sense of self it gives me. I am learning to play the guitar. And while I’m doing in because it is just a really good way for me to spend my time (I’ll likely post another time about that…), I am also doing it with an eye toward performance. My goal is to be good enough to perform at an open mic night by the time my birthday rolls around in February. I think I can get there–I won’t know many songs, but all I really need is one!

I’m also singing with a group, which will improve my open mic performance, but also gives me a broader range of musical skills, especially when it comes to harmonizing and connecting with other musicians. I’m still getting used to sharing my voice with others. I had a sort of confidence crushing moment years ago that I’m really working to overcome, so using my voice at all is a huge level of vulnerability for me. Singing with this group is a good conditioning for getting me ready to sing on stage.

Additionally, I’m joining a group of newbie burlesque dancers. I’m looking forward to the kind of control and command of my body that dance will give me. I’m also looking forward to participating in a performance that allows me to communicate that I not only to I have a presence, but also a body and a sexuality, and I’m not ashamed of any of them.

I hope that in communicating those elements of myself, I am able to leave things open for a reciprocal exchange–that by saying hello people, this is me, I will open the door for others to authentically share themselves with the world as well.

Korea for me is turning out to be a place where (at least in my off-time) I am much less prone to letting life happen to me, and much more ready and willing to take charge of it. I am becoming an agent in my own experiences. I am choosing to be vulnerable. And I feel stronger and more capable than I ever have.

Being a sand mermaid…

There are a lot of fantastic things about living in Korea. The beach being SOOO close to my house is one of them (and the temperature of the water here in October is another–still super fun to swim in!).

But even better than those superficially good things is this: I can do anything I want in Korea.

Okay… not anything exactly. I still can’t fly (unless I just happen to fall and miss the ground one day like Arthur Dent, but since I don’t have any missing luggage to be distracted by, I find that somewhat unlikely), I can’t eat fire, I can’t really do anything that would make my school look bad, causing me to lose my job and get kicked out of the county, but that’s not exactly what I mean. At home I was a certain person, people expected me to act a certain way, to do certain things, to be the person they knew me to be. I liked that person–or more accurately, by the time I left, I had learned to like that person and was working on making some minor adjustments to the parts I liked a little less.

But the rules for the person I’m supposed to be were left somewhere back in the states–probably at the airport in California. Now being different, pursuing different things, having different priorities is not only acceptable, but a really easy thing to do, because I don’t have everyone I’ve known my entire life here expecting things of me. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t necessarily think those expectations are always bad. Having people in your life who care about you and what you’re doing with yourself is a definitively positive thing. (And since my readers are mainly those people, let me just say–thank you all so much for the support and caring and expectations you’ve so far had for me.) But having a template version of yourself as defined by everyone around you can make it extra difficult to make a change even when that change is going to be good for you, even when it’s something you may really need.

Becoming mermaid

Becoming mermaid

Here I find myself just doing things–not harmful things, not dangerous things, just things that I otherwise probably would have hesitated over. So, yesterday I was a sand mermaid. I rode on the back of some Korean guy’s jet ski. I ate Indian food. A few weeks ago, I went to a club. A month ago, I bought and started learning to play guitar. Many of the spontaneous things I’ve been doing are not specific to Korea–I could buy and learn to play a guitar anywhere, eat Indian food anywhere, ride on a jet ski anywhere with a beach. But I’m here, and I’m alone, and I don’t feel like I’m being monitored in the same way I was in the small town I grew up in (although I am… Korea has cameras EVERYWHERE). This lack of watchful eyes gives me the chance to do things–things that I might not follow through with, things that I might screw up, things that I might turn out to hate–and to try them all without worrying what people will think of me for trying…or what they will think of me for failing.

My world opened up a lot when I started living it for myself and with my happiness as the priority. Here in a new place it has opened even further. I miss things about home–especially the people there, but I like the person I am able to be here–the person it is easy for me to be here. I hope to take some of her with me when I go back to my country.

Update: One Month in Busan (or the first time I’ve manage to make time to work on this blog since living in Korea)

I’ve been at my school for one month now, and it’s time to do some blogging. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get this thing updated—I know a lot of you back home have been waiting to hear from me, but it’s taken quite a bit of adjustment to get to this point. In any case, I’m here now, and I’m going to try to post regularly from here on out. You can also expect to see some posts that fall out of chronological order, because while I wasn’t posting, I was actually writing, and I still want to get some of that stuff up, so you can get a sense of what it was like for me on—say—my first day in my neighborhood.

The view from my bus stop. My apartment building is just to the left of this picture.

The view from my bus stop. My apartment building is just to the left of this picture.

So, one month in, here’s where I stand:


  • Friends made: about 400,000
  • Friends who live within an hour of my place: 0
  • Times I’ve seen Ryan (my boyfriend, and the only person here who I knew before I left): 3
  • Hours of travel to see Ryan or vice versa: 5 and a half


Pretty waterfall in Ulsan near Gajisan--some advice: DO NOT walk up the road to get to it; take a cab.

Pretty waterfall in Ulsan near Gajisan–some advice: DO NOT walk up the road to get to it; take a cab.

  • New hobbies acquired: 1 (bought a guitar!)
  • Hours of guitar practice: 15-20 (songs learned: no complete ones; songs written: one mostly done—because I will not let lack of skill get in the way of creativity!)
  • Korean words/phrases learned: about 20 on a good day (language is a process!)
  • Korean words/phrases actually used in conversation with Koreans: maaaaybe 10
  • Good beers consumed: zero, but I read about some good bars that I’ll be trying soon!
  • Bad beers consumed: too many to count
  • Hangovers: really, only one…a bit surprising, actually
  • Hikes: one not too pleasant 3 hour walk down a road in direct sun; pretty waterfall at the end, though
  • Nights out in Busan: 1 bar/club hangout (see hangovers above)
  • Days at the beach: 3! I love the beach!


  • Co-teachers: 2
  • Teachers at my school who seem to like me and talking to me: most of them (there are 8 full-time, but I think a few more when you count after school)
  • Students: about 100
  • Students whose names I remember: 1 for sure—there are a handful of others who if the teachers are talking about them, I know to whom they are referring, but whom I can’t remember off the top of my head yet
  • Grades taught: 6 (Kindergarten, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th), plus one for the teachers
  • Classes per week: 22
  • Lesson plans per week: about 13-15 depending on the week

So, that’s the overview. How do I feel about it? Most days really good. It’s so great to be away from the trap of a predictable and unchanging life back home. So great to be experiencing bigger things than myself and the small little cavern of the world I had carved out for myself. So enlightening to see and hear how other people live and experience the world around them…

But, on tired days, like today, I miss the stable and predictable life I had back home. I miss my friends, my family. I miss the sense that I was building something or working toward something with my life. Things here are so transient for me and everyone around me (every foreigner anyway), that I can’t help but feel like I am passing through this year and this country like a ship through water or a plane through air. I can never stop; if I do I will drift, or worse, crash. When I’m gone, everything behind me will be EXACTLY as it was before—I am barely even making a ripple now.

It’s not so bad really, but the life I’m used to is one of scaffolding. Everything I did—every job I worked, every social interaction I had, every decision I made—all of it contributed not only to the life I was living, but to the life I would live, the life I could live. (I guess that’s what having small town roots and a small town life is.)

I left because I was tired of that sort of building. It was too much pressure. And when I realized that the thing I’d built and tried to call life, was broken, was something I barely fit into and didn’t want, I couldn’t stay. I needed to be somewhere and do something where nothing would stick for a while.

I got my wish, and I’m so happy that I’m here, that I’m doing what I always wanted to, that I am lucky enough and privileged enough and smart enough and driven enough to get this opportunity, to experience this part of life that I could never get any other way. Not from television, not from books, not from stories other people told, not from travelling as a tourist.

But today, I’m tired. Today, I really miss the easy, predictable, stable life where I could stop for a moment with both my feet on solid ground. Today, I don’t want to think about everything, I want to stop, to rest, to breathe.

More and cheerier posts to come soon, I promise!

Learning the Language–Korean Class 101 Videos

There’s a lot–make that A LOT!–that I have to do to get ready for Korea. One of the more fun tasks, for me anyway, is studying Korean language.

I’ve had a lot of trouble learning and retaining languages in the past. I think the main reason is that I never really put them to use. I studied Spanish in high school and my first year of college (a practical choice, living in the Southwest), but I rarely, if ever, went anywhere that people were actually using Spanish. I didn’t watch Spanish television or movies, didn’t make Spanish speaking friends, so most of the language I had acquired faded away pretty quickly.

After giving up on Spanish, I switched to Japanese–I am a geek & do enjoy an occasional anime flick, after all–but even after four years of Japanese, my competency is extremely low. Again, I had very minimal exposure to actual language use and in Japanese, I had to start even farther behind, learning whole new orthographic and phonological systems in addition to vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.

The primary source of my exposure to Japanese language for a while. (I did know enough to recognize when the subtitles did not match what they actually said!)

The primary source of my exposure to Japanese language for a while. (I did know enough to recognize when the subtitles did not match what they actually said!)

Today I know about enough Spanish to have a very slow, very basic conversation, and I can write about as well as a 1st grader, but probably with a worse vocabulary. I know enough Japanese that if I hear people speaking it, I know they’re speaking Japanese, I recognize the grammatical structures they are using (i.e. “that was definitely a question” or “that was a negative statement–as in something is NOT…”), and I recognize a handful of vocabulary words, but that’s it. I can’t even have a basic conversation at this point.

So, when I decided to live abroad, did I choose a country where I could potentially develop the language skills I started when I formally studied language in school? No! Much better to acquire completely insufficient ability in yet a 3rd language!

Which is what I’m doing now. Independently. In my spare time. (Not that I have much of it to begin with, and a lot of it has lately been spent writing for this blog.)

I know that once I am in Korea, I will be hearing and seeing the language much more, and will have to interact using it, so I will pick it up, but before I get there, I would really like to have a basic survival vocabulary.

Currently, I have a native Korean speaker as a tutor (one of the many advantages of living in a town with a great TESL/Applied Linguistics program is that you get a pretty diverse set of international students hanging around), a couple of books on basic Korean, and the internet at my disposal.

If you, like me, are trying to use the internet to learn Korean I highly recommend Korean Class 101’s YouTube channel. The website itself seems to be mostly locked unless you pay for it, but there are a ton of videos available for free on YouTube, that integrate listening, speaking, reading, and vocabulary (throw writing in there too if you choose to take notes), and that use a variety of methods to get the content across.

Here’s a great example of one of their videos–which made me really hungry when I watched it, by the way–Korean street food is amazing!!!


This is what I love about this video series:

  • Important vocabulary items like the word for street food ( 분식 )1 are 1) pronounced by native speakers 2) written on the screen 3) pronounced slowly when introduced 4) visually broken into their syllables while being pronounced, allowing viewers to understand the word in a variety of ways.
  • Vocabulary is put in context–the hosts discuss not only the definition of the word being used, but when and how it is used, the nuances of meaning, and so forth.
  • The hosts’ mixture of English and Korean discussion related to the lesson is one that keeps me from disengaging because I don’t know what they are talking about, but that also exposes me to authentic use of Korean language
  • The lesson itself is focused on an authentic conversation about a given topic. Images accompany the conversation providing further context for the interaction.
  • After the main conversation of the lesson, the hosts pull important vocabulary, and teach it in more depth.

Potential downfalls:

  • If you don’t yet know how to read 한국어, the written Korean characters, these videos may not do you much good. However, there is another series on the Korean Class 101 channel that can help with that.


So far, this series is proving to be very engaging and good for helping me pick up the language (although I definitely need to practice more and take notes if I want things to really stick!!!)

Check back for more resource reviews once I finish my TEFL class and have a little more time to devote to intensive studying. In the mean time, if you know of any great resources for studying Korean, share them in the comments!



1-Wondering how I did that? I used a Virtual Korean Keyboard program.