Unexpected Changes

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During the interview they asked me a bunch of hypothetical situations, one was “what would you do if you arrived and they didn’t have an apartment for you and you had to stay at a hotel until they found one…?” While this didn’t happen, something along those lines did.

On Wednesday my co-teacher, casually threw into our conversation, “Joe, I think you’re going to be moving” no warning, no build up, just put it on the table. I responded dumbly, “like apartments?” “Yes” she responds. Up until that point, right before lunch I was having a good day. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but it wasn’t about apartments nor was it related to the topic of moving.  I then ask “why is this happening?” she responds, “the boiler is broken and the landlord doesn’t want to put in a new one, so he’s going to sell the apartment.” Well, that doesn’t make any sense at all; one, I don’t know of how many people are looking to buy a place in Boseong; two, I don’t know many people who would want to buy a place and have to buy a new boiler; three, instead of replacing the boiler and having a steady income for however many years there is a native English teacher, he’s deciding to forgo this and “sell” it.  Maybe I should buy it…

“When will I have to move?” I asked, “I don’t know, within the month.” the answer

Over the past two months I’ve come to really like my apartment, it’s big especially by native English teacher apartment size standards, it has two bedrooms, one of which I use for my bike and a large living room kitchen area with a couch and tv. Not everyone can claim these amenities, let alone a separate bedroom/living room area.

I’ve gotten use to where I live, going to my building, the view, how long it takes me to get to the bus, my running routine, sleeping in my bedroom, where things are and anything thing else you can associate with moving to and living in a new place.

During my conversation with my co-teacher she says, “Joe, the other teachers will help you,” I responded “it’s okay, I don’t have too much stuff.”  It didn’t dawn on me until today that literally everything will have to be moved; the fridge, the washing machine, the bed, the couch, the pots and pans and all the previous stuff left by past teachers. Within a two month span, I’ll be moving like I’ve been living somewhere for years. Not something I was really planning on doing, but there’s nothing I can do. I just hope my new place is big enough to host thanksgiving and that’s it’s in the same apartment complex.

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Chuseok Part I: Seoul

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Chu-what….? Chuseok pronounced Chu-sock is the Korean thanksgiving. This year it was called the golden holiday because it fell precisely in the middle of the week, which prompted the government to declare the Monday (between the two weekends) a day off, giving us a total of 10 days.  From what my co teacher tells me it’s normally only 3 or 4 days. It would have been nice to leave the country and explore a new one, but flights were ridiculously expensive and besides, I’d only just arrived in Korea, I didn’t feel a strong urge to go traveling just yet.

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We decided on Seoul and Busan, Seoul is the largest city in Korean and one of the largest in the world with 10 million people and Busan is the second largest city in South Korea with 3.5 million people. We planned four night in each and by we, I mean my friends and I; 12 from orientation plus 2 who had been living in Boseong =14 for Seoul and 9 plus 1 arriving later for Busan. I’d never traveled with so many people before, my past travels were either solo or with a friend or two. As a solo travel I despised big groups staying at hostels because they’re usually set on each other’s companionship and rarely branch out to meet new people, which if you’re a solo traveler is something you must do. Also, even though you may be invited to join the group, you feel removed because of the past memories shared and talked about between them, things you can’t relate to. On the other hand, if you form a group of solo travelers, the common bond you share of being alone is something that others can easily relate to and join without feeling removed it. For the first time I was going to be one of those groups and I knew it was going to be an interesting experience.

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Large groups move slow, like a bear waking from hibernation, it takes time for them to fully be awake. We found this out our first full day when our plan was go to Seodaemun Prison and then either the Lee Samsung Art Museum or the War Museum.

*A little history about Korea, the Japanese forcibly took control of and exercised complete rule over Korea from 1910-1945. During this time they tried to wipe out Korean culture, their language, their customs and instill Japanese ones. During this time Korea was basically one giant cell, prisons dotted the country and hundreds of thousands of Koreans were incarcerated, tortured and killed.  Seodaemun Prison is one of these that has been preserved to serve as a reminder of this period and to remember those who for those who lost their lives trying to stand up to Japanese rule.  Today, this still remains a cause for contention between the two countries.

We successfully visited the prison and got a snack afterward (something I may have forgone if I was traveling alone), but by the time we had finished it was around 4 and both the museums closed at 6, we didn’t have enough time. So, we decided to go to Itaewon, a famous tourist district of Seoul. Itaewon was nothing special, full of overpriced shops and chain restaurants, but we did find a place that sold postcards. For some reason post cards hardly exist in Korea. I’ve never been to cities where they aren’t on every street corner, but here they are almost non existent. We then found a bar and hung around playing pool for a bit. Another great thing about Korea is that you don’t have to pay to play pool in any of the bars,  unfortunately where I live in the little town of Boseong, all the pool tables are pocket-less.

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The next day we made a conscious effort to try and leave earlier, which after going out the night before was a little more difficult. I believe we did, however we probably spent the same amount of time eating, mingling and running back to the rooms forgetting stuff. Our plan for the day was two things, visit the Bukchon Hanok village and Gyeongbukgung. The Bukchon Hanok village is a traditional Korean village, over 600 years old in the heart of Seoul and Gyeongbukgung is the royal palace built in 1395 not far from the Hanok village. Both of them are an odd sight to see, traditional buildings flanked by skyscrapers in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the world.

*An introduction to my friends as I’m sure they’ll appear in more posts and I need to refer to them in this one: 4 are from South Africa (Robynne, Nicara, Andile, Sebastian); 5 are from England (Christian, Tom, May, Alex, Sanchez); 4 are from the US (Me, Melissa, Joey, Logan) and two are from Scotland (Lisa, Ryan).

The Hanok village was interesting to see, but underwhelming. Supposedly it’s 600 years old, but all the house are renovated so they look completely new,  I also feel I can find more authentic ones around my area. However, one of the best parts of the trip happened as we were leaving. Robynne and I had separated from the rest of the group and wandered into an art gallery in one of the houses. We started talking to the artist and he told us to sit down and asked if we were girlfriend and boyfriend. We’re not, so he ripped the paper he had in half and proceeded to draw each of us. I knew the group was going to be wondering where we were, standing around in the sun (it was hot out) and waiting; something I would have been annoyed at had I been on the other end. Eventually they left us, which was fine because we met them at the palace after, well, most of them. By the time we arrived to the palace the group had split yet again. Two polarizing half’s, one by the exit wanting to leave and the other just hanging with no time frame to go.  Later that night when we regrouped, it felt as if I hadn’t seen the others in over a day, even though only 6 hours had passed.

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Our third and final full day in Seoul is when the group fragmented the most. We had planned to divide into two groups to visit the War Museum and the Art museum. Upon waking I discovered that everything was closed, Chuseok was in full effect. Well almost everything, the Bukhan mountain hike was still open. I didn’t want to waste a day shopping plus I had nothing to get, Joey and Robynne felt the same, so the three of us set off. The others separated into two or three smaller shopping groups. Now I haven’t really mentioned it much, but every night in Seoul including the night before we had gone out drinking, the first night was the fireworks festival on the river, the second night we went to some bars and the third night (the night before this) we went clubbing. It definitely wasn’t easy getting up and even less so what we were about to do.

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The hike started calmly enough, thankfully the sun wasn’t out and we even joked about how easy it was; as time progressed we joked less about how easy it was, but whether or not we were going to make it to the top, the inclination grew and the steps became more frequent. Not far from the top, the steps were almost vertically and we were on the verge of collapsing, our shirts were soaked in sweat and our water bottles were empty. Three Empire State Building later we made it….to one of the parts (I don’t actually know how high it was, but we walked up so many steps I didn’t want to walk up any more the rest of the trip). Unfortunately it wasn’t the objective I had in mind, a granite cliff face where you have to pull yourself up by rope. That was even further and we started to go, but with enough persuasion from Joey and Robynne we stopped before getting too far. We would have been hiking back in the dark if we had continued to listen to me. It was only 2 o’clock but it would have required a lot more time to get there and even more to get back. Still, the one we reached provided beautiful views of Seoul and the surrounding valley, it was nice to get out of the city and into nature. It took us between an hour and a half to two hours to go up and about 50 minutes to come down. Afterwards we found our way back to the hostel, joined back up with the group and went out like it was our last night in Seoul, since it was.

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Check out was at 10:30am, we all made it!

Some cool places we ventured to in Seoul:
Arcade bar: A bar with an arcade theme and arcade games

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Bar다 (da): Tucked between clothes stores with only a stairway going up it doesn’t look like anything from the outside, it doesn’t even look open or that it has windows.  It did have windows and was the coolest bar we went to.  Hip, grungy, artistic and alternative is how the interior can best  be described.

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Meerkat cafe: A cafe where you get to play with meerkats! they also had two baby kangaroos, two raccoons, two foxes and various cats

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game…

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Take me out with the crowd, buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks……one song you definitely don’t hear at a Korean baseball game, but you do hear a plethora of others.

Each batter has their own song and when your team is up,recycled songs from the US with new lyrics are constantly being played to fire up the crowd. Nothing like hearing a Christmas song with new Korean lyrics in September at a baseball game in Korean to pump up the crowd. Unlike in the US where the batters song plays as they walk up to the plate and stops shortly after, here the song is continuously being played and sung while they are at bat. The song is also a made up song about the batter with his name placed throughout so the crowd can chant it. One of the batters lyrics was something saying handsome man and then after the crowd chanted “Lee Ho Min,” while another players songs lyrics was something saying the real handsome man and then the crowd chanted his name. You can only imagine the depth of the other players songs.

The constant noise singing and chanting while the batter is up to bat is one difference, another is that the fans from opposing teams sit on opposite sides of the stadium. So, when a team is up to bat only those teams fans are singing and making noise, while the other teams are quite. It was strange that there wasn’t any cheering for the pitcher when he had two strikes on the batter or if he struck a player out. The only exception was if one of the fielders made a catch. All the singing and chanting needs to be lead by somebody and they don’t use screens to do it. With that leads we have another one of our differences, Korean baseball games have cheerleaders and a cheer man organizing the chants. Intrigued by this new addition to a baseball game, I sometimes forgot that a game was being played. I’d look up at the scoreboard and see one out, turn to my friends and ask them, “when did somebody get out….?” Or “the inning started already….?” I wouldn’t be against borrowing this idea.

At US baseball games we have hot dogs, peanuts and crackerjacks, in Korea they have chicken and beer. You can’t go to a baseball game and not have chicken or beer.  Maybe you can pass on the beer, but the chicken is a must.  It’s like when you crack open an egg, you’re always going to get the yolk.  You’re also allowed to bring your own food and drink into the stadium.

In the US we have a 7th inning stretch, in Korea it’s a 5th inning stretch.

I don’t know if it was just the game we went to, but when they needed to make a bullpen change the pitcher came out in a car. In one inning they changed pitchers three times, so the driver really got a workout.

And that’s about all that I can remember, I’m sure there were others, but those are the most memorable.

The game we went to was the Kia Tigers vs the Lotte Giants. Ohhh! another one is that all the teams are named after and sponsored by major Korean companies.  Lotte is a conglomerate of different businesses, while Kia is Kia. The Tigers are/were the best team in Korea and represent the biggest city in the province I live in. The game we went to was a good game until the 8th when they let up 5 runs and ended up losing. That also put them in second place with one game to play.  The score didn’t matter to me though, it was an interesting experience and I only spent 20,000₩ ($17,45) for the seats and chicken and 40,000₩ ($34.90) if you count the bus ticket.

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I think we were the only foreigners there

The Search for a Korean Teacher

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You’d think finding a Korean teacher in a country that’s homogeneously the same would be easy.  As of now my journey has been been a roller coaster of hope and disappointment. Learning Korean is important for me, living here and not being able to speak it makes me feel disrespectful, buying fruits and vegetables I feel like a child pointing to things and holding up my fingers indicating how much, I feel awkward in the car of those teachers who offer me rides home unable to create small talk and the personalities of the teachers I work with remain hidden, as does mine. Fortunately, there are ways to communicate without language, but for me those are not enough.

There are many ways to learn Korean over the internet and through apps, but for me, the self discipline always fades after the first initial weeks. I need a teacher and I need that routine of them coming to my house.  I need that hour set aside for nothing but Korean. So far my success rate has been an abysmal zero. My first inquiry was to ask the other natives in town if any of the teachers at their school would like to teach me, but apparently like me they are contractually unallowed to give private lessons. Strike one, I thought. As if sensing my predicament,  fate decided to toss me a bone in the form of Chris, our orientation leader and program coordinator. He sent a Facebook message recommending some ways for us to learn Korean, most of them online except one.  An after school extra help service called Kumo in various subjects (for kids). They would send a teacher to your house for a half hour a week, they would teach you, give you a book, homework and tests.  It sounded perfect and promising, Chris had even used it and endorsed it. It’s as if my prayers had been answered. The following day I mentioned it to my Korean co teacher, she laughed saying it was for children, I told her Chris said you would laugh and she called the company for me. They gave her the name of the Korean teacher and she called.  I was eager to hear the news, but disappointed by the results. My co teacher (Ms. Su Hee) said the lady told her that because I was an adult it would be twice the normal price at 66,000 won about 66 dollars, and that she only teachers for about 10-15min, less than half the time of what she is supposed to. I thought it had to be a joke, how could she possibly think someone could learn a language like that. Su Hee called the company again, told them what happened, they said that was unacceptable, called the lady and then called my co teacher back. The lady said the reason for the price was because she said she was going to come twice a week (a lie)…….twice a week at 10-15 minutes is still twice the price of what it should cost. Strike two. Back to the drawing board I went. The following day my Su Hee asked me “Joe, how about learning through Skype,” I thought it could be a possibility. She had found someone who taught Korea to foreigners in the city she lives in. While promising, I didn’t want to jump on the opportunity just yet, I told her I’d think about it, I still had one more card to play.

Rewind three weeks ago when I first moved here. I think I wrote about it, but anyway I went in search for air to put in bike tire and I ran into another foreigner (Matt) accompanied by an old Korean man, Mr. Son who speaks four languages and has lived in Boseong for some time. I hadn’t seen him since that day and I thought it was due time I paid him a visit and he lived in the building across from me. On Wednesday before going to my flat I went to go say hi to him. I wanted to see how he was doing and after my two failed attempts also ask him if he knew any Korean teachers. He told me he would see what he could do and allowed me to borrow two books from his library, The Book Thief and The United States and the Division of Korea, 1945.  On Thursday I received a message from Matt (Mr. Son didn’t have my number) telling me to come to his place at 18:30, he found a teacher! I was excited about the prospect of finally finding a teacher. I arrived to his place at 18:30 expecting the teachers shortly, he told me there were two and they should arrive any minute. As the minutes dragged on and the sky changed color we waited. We went outside so he could smoke a cigarette and I asked him questions about his life. At 86 he still hasn’t forgotten English, it just comes out a little slower then it used to, mentioning many times during our conversation that he’s getting old and he hates it. When the sky was dark he told me to go home, he’d call me if they came. Disappointed I was resigned to the fact they weren’t coming, only to receive a call by Mr. Son at 21:30 saying he was sorry, but they weren’t coming, maybe another day. Thanks  for the call Mr. Son, but I had already gathered that. Like the sun fading from us as we sat on that step talking, so too faded my last opportunity to find a Korean teacher. Strike three.

“Culture Shock”

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Culture shock defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.” However, I think shock is a very strong word and in today’s interconnected society it’s hard to be shocked by anything; we can prep ourselves on the internet beforehand and easily talk to and connect to people who have already been through a particular experience.  When moving to a new country your not shocked about different things rather you recognize them as differences and thing “hmmmm, that’s different or we don’t do that back home.” Living in Korea for three weeks now I have experienced and seen many differences, here are some of the ones I’ve noticed:
Koreans will ask you super direct questions seconds upon meeting them, like: are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? How old are you?
They hardly ever drink just water, I believe they have water storage capacities like camels
They have no traffic laws and people in cars do what they want, they also don’t realize there is a device that signals which way you are going to turn
When accepting things from other people, or if someone is pouring you a drink it you need to use two hands. For example as a lefty my right hand would support my left hand receiving the money or if someone was pouring me a drink or a shot my right hand would be under the glass
If you don’t eat rice for breakfast it’s not considered breakfast
They use that playground Astro stuff for the sidewalk
They don’t stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, I don’t know why they have them. I think it’s to signal to drivers that the pedestrians will be here if you want to hit them
Every time I want to use hot water in the apartment I have to turn it on, so I just started taking cold showers in the morning
They have different chalk board erasers, they’re like pillows for a new born baby
They’re very self conscious about their English, if you ask them “do you speak English?” They’ll answer “no” when from my experience they have no problem understanding it
In my schools we wear slippers, but then sometimes have to walk outside with them and then go back in, so why not just wear shoes? Wearing slippers definitely makes it feel like you’re not working
They have 7Elevens everywhere, something I would have never thought
They have claw games everywhere
On some seats they have bamboo seat covers over the cushions and they’re a lot more uncomfortable
The students and teachers eat together, but hardly anyone speaks to each other. Luckily I have my co teacher to eat with 3/5 days of the week
They have barber shop rotating blue and red signs everywhere, but the double ones give you something extra 😉
They love banners and will make a new one for almost any situation
The food is some of the spiciest food I have ever eaten. After only three weeks tobacco sauce tastes like water
Taxi’s are extremely cheap, like very cheap, I don’t know how they pay for gas and make money
They love volleyball at the schools, Wednesday is volleyball day and all the teachers play together
Just like Costa Rica I’m back to throwing toilet paper in the trash
It’s really hard to sit cross legged on the floor for a full meal
None of these things are “shocking” they’re just things you have to get used to and recognize when living here.  This is only some of the differences that I’ve noticed since I’ve been here, the list could go on an on.

The Bubble is Broken

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Leaving the comfort of the Shingyang bubble was scary, what was even scarier was being dropped off in front of my apartment saying goodbye to my co-teacher. That’s when it hit me, I was alone and on my own, my first thought was “I wonder what everybody else from the program is doing.”

It felt strange to be separated from the people I spent almost every hour together of the prior week, I imagine how a yolk might feel when it’s separated from its egg white (assuming they were capable of emotions). However, I wasn’t as alone as that yolk, I had my friend Sebastian living on the other side of the village. That first night after unpacking he came over with two weird sweet potato, pineapple, sauce-less pizzas for dinner, he thought they were Hawaiian; I couldn’t blame him, I probably would have too. When he left I decided to walk with him so I could see the village and expel those initial fears of being in a new place and not knowing where anything is, but just as we were leaving my building a car stopped and English came out. We chanced upon two other English teachers, Jackie and Chris who drove us to Sebastian’s and then me back. I had to save my exploring for a later date. When I got home I spent the rest of the night browsing social media, not wanting to go to bed yet, not wanting to be “alone.”
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The following day I visited my main school for the first time and two others. I’m teaching at 4 different elementary schools. Monday and Wednesday are at the same school while every other day is a different one. The schools I’m teaching at are rural schools, surrounded by trees and rice paddies and not much else. My main school is the biggest with around  32 students, while the other 3 have around 20. In the whole school. From kindergarten to 6th grade. My main school’s 5th grade class is one student who happens to be both the president and Vice President of the class, in another one of my school’s I teach a combined 5th and 6th grade class with a total of two students, one in each grade. The biggest class I have is 12 students and it’s a combined 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade class. It feels more like tutoring and less like teaching, classroom management is definitely easier, but their English levels are extremely low. Officially they don’t start learning it until third grade.  For some reason I imagined it being a lot better.  The schools while rural are equipped just as well as any, they have large smart screen tvs in every classroom,  proper gyms facilities with more stuff than the amount of students, computer rooms so every student has a computer, one of my schools even has a ping pong room and they all have a cafeteria that serve delicious Korean lunches.  So far everything has been going great, I was invited to go on two field trips with my main school, last week we went ice skating and  today we made green tea.  Boseong is famous for its green tea fields which I hope to visit soon!

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Living in a new country where you don’t speak the language is very difficult, even more so when it’s not Latin based and you have no idea what anything is or how to even ask for something. Luckily my co-teacher at my main school is amazing. If it wasn’t for her help I’d be lost, the day before my first day she came with me to the bus stand so I knew what buses to catch (even though I was extremely nervous taking it for the first time and had no idea what the stop looks like and where to get off).  I had to show the bus driver a note on my phone that said please tell me when I arrive at…..(school name). She’s helped me set up my bank account which was an hour long ordeal, she translates for me and the other teachers (I’m sure she’s tired of it), she helped me get a SIM card which would have been impossible since the first place we went to even she had no idea what the people were saying, she’s helped me set up and online shopping account and a bunch more little things that are so dependent on knowing Korean you can’t do them without help. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. So far life in Korea has been like swimming upstream, eventually I’ll get there. Each small victory whether it’s successfully buying a ticket to the next city over or successfully ordering something online, makes living here feel a little less daunting.

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Orientation Week in Korea

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I arrived to Seoul almost an hour later than expected, I chose the slowest customs line and my bags seemed to take forever to come out, I didn’t have wifi and didn’t know if the orientation group would still be at the airport, I accepted that I’d be on my own taking a bus to Gwangju, our orientation destination for the next week. But I wasn’t! They were still there waiting for me, the last to come. In the end it took an hour or more for the luggage truck to arrive and then for the buses to come so I wouldn’t have missed them anyway. After a 14 hour plane ride the journey continued another 4 hours to our destination, the Shingyang Park hotel in Gwangju.

For the next week the Shingyang Park hotel was our orientation bubble, a contained Korea surrounded by foreigners in the same situation and an unchanging hotel staff.  Served three meals a day it was almost like we were on vacation, a vacation in which we had class from 9-5 and if we wanted to make breakfast we had to be up even earlier; thanks to jet lag it was never missed. The first couple of nights I barely slept and was wide awake at 5:30 in the morning and crashing after the first two hours of orientation. To say it was hard would be an understatement, my body was physically and mentally drained and that tired eyeball pressure never left.

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The orientation while tiring was an awesome experience, I wish the program in Spain had something similar because In Spain you show up and they throw you out with very little guidance and with no idea what to expect and do. Here, over 7 days they guided  us through teaching methodology, what to expect, class management,  demos, and intricacies and curiosities you may face in the work place. We even had a short 8 minute lesson presentation, which I thought was pointless because teaching to a bunch of your peers is a lot different than teaching in a classroom among kids, but  I can see it’s usefulness for those who may have never taught before. We even had a poorly misguided cultural excursion day where we drove an hour and a half to spend the day in doors (one of the only days where it wasn’t monsooning) making our lunch, a typical Korean dish; we also made  paper and we decorated a stationary thing with paper. All of this nonsense for a cultural excursion trip when the city we were in, not more than two minutes away had a preserved traditional Hanok village we all wanted to see. Later that evening we did go for Korean BBQ! so that did make up for it. Aside from this blemish the program was incredibly well run. It provided a conducive environment to meet new people and make friends with those people. Friends that I can now visit and do things with in a country where only two weeks ago I knew nobody.

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Orientation ended last Monday with a ceremony and lunch with the co-teachers from each of our schools. We entered one by one and we went to the front of the room and introduced ourselves in Korean to the crowd of Koreans who had come to pick up their native teacher. I thought I had mine down pretty good and had it memorized, but as soon as I got up there words came out, just not the right ones and everything I had memorized I forgot and had to read off the card I prepared, but even then my pronunciation faltered.  I’m sure at that point my co-teacher begrudgingly raised her hand to signal who it is I would go to (we didn’t know at that point), resigned to be stuck with a foreigner who couldn’t at the very least read basic Korean off a card. Luckily during an unmentioned award ceremony I made up for it by winning an award for my enthusiastic and positive disposition during the program, something I was surprised to receive. Afterwards we had lunch with the impending realization that the bubble was about to pop; we were heading to the unknown in a Korea that had yet to be seen.

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Coming up, my first week and experiences in Korea.