Expat life: When “Home” Is a Holiday

Settling into school life and hoping for the summer to end as quickly as possible. I’m enjoying the new group of students and happy to see some of my best kids from the spring back in my class for part 2. I’m also working up the steam to start my next major research project which will hopefully be the key to the next big chapter of my story. Until then, I’ll continue on with the story of my July in America. As promised, this one’s all marshmallow.


Originally I was going to try and squeeze all my US stories into a single post, but I thought people might get “wall of text” fatigue. It’s true that the “worst things” post was a bit longer, but this one has better pictures ;P

The Best

Despite the months of stressful bureaucracy and anxiety inducing news stories, once I actually arrived in Seattle I had a pleasantly surprisingly nice time. I managed to avoid all the Nazi rallies, mass shootings, bad weather, or other catastrophes. I stayed with my friends who I traveled in Europe with last summer, and who were kind enough to also lend me a spare car. In an all too brief 16 days, I was able to reconnect with some of the best people in my life. Words cannot express how grateful I am.

In regards to headline news problems, I think in large part, I was just lucky (with a small dose of white privilege). It turns out that I just happened to miss the Nazi rallies and mass shootings which happened either right before I arrived or right after I left… it’s like having good weather or something, which I also had because thankfully the west coast was not on fire this year… tho it appears the southern hemisphere is instead?

My last visit to Seattle was only 9 days. I was sick from root canal and kikuchi, and working on emptying my storage unit in a way that would make Marie Kondo proud. I was not in a good space physically or mentally. Despite these hurdles, 2017 helped me to realize I didn’t need to be afraid of returning to Seattle, that the people who hurt me there couldn’t reach me anymore.

This trip (2019), I only had two real “errands” and so was able to take more time to really devote to spending with friends. Sometimes I forget just how important that really is. I live my life at the end of a very long line that ties me to Seattle and gives me stability. I was starting to feel my anchor line fray and now it’s repaired with all the love. I wasn’t lost or breaking, but perhaps dragging a bit. Now I feel stronger and more buoyant, ready to face another year or two of expat challenges out here at the end of my kite string.

Moments and Memories

I got to be in the US for July 4th for the first time in 5 years. I had a beautiful brunch cooked by friends, visited a local backyard party in the afternoon, got to see some friends. The fireworks show I went to was put on by some friends way up in the Snoqualmie mountains and was highly enjoyable. Plus, I got to geek out with people about my ideas and research in a new and exciting way. 

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I got a lovely camping trip near Mt. Baker with some gourmet s’mores and just enough rain to remind me where I was but not enough to ruin the night. My friend brought her boys along and they spent the evening picking huckleberries and later we taught them how to be “dragons” using their breath to keep the fire going strong. ❤ PNW 

I got to visit my friend’s new farm, see all her beautiful and delicious plants, snuggle with the baby bunnies and chase the baby chickens around with a camera. It never occurred to me to use peacocks as guard animals, but it turns out they’re way better than dogs at watching the skies for raptors like eagles or hawks, which in the PNW are a bigger threat than coyotes or wolves.20190708_175710

I got to sit in a living room in my PJs and trade silly YouTube videos and teaching anecdotes. That may sound mundane but when you’ve spent several years socializing exclusively in bars and cafes it’s a huge relief to just chill with ppl with whom you have mutual caring.

I got to eat all the foods I miss: Mexican, Ethiopian, Seattle-style Pho, large American style chunks of beef. At the mexican restaurant we told the waiter I hadn’t had any good mexican food for years because there were NO MEXICANS where I lived… he was so deeply perplexed, unable to imagine a place Mexicans had not yet migrated to until I explained it was Korea. I also got homemade goodies.20190703_094405.jpg

I got to have a whole weekend of the best sunny sailing days and bbq nights in my memory. A couple years back, some very good friends of mine (really amazing people, too) finally fulfilled their dream of selling their house and moving on to a boat. I didn’t realize it, but apparently it had been over a year since they took their home out for a sail before my visit, and as he says it, unless  you go sailing, it’s really just a very small and inconvenient house.

The weather was amazing, calm and sunny (ok, maybe not as windy as we’d like for a sail, but excellent for relaxing). We puttered around the Puget Sound and watched the other boats and abundant wildlife like harbor seals, porpoises and even a couple humpback whales. In the evening back at the dock, we grilled up steaks and burgers with fresh summer corn and talked and laughed well into the darkening hours. I had two days with two different groups because so many people wanted to come along we couldn’t fit them all one one sail. I got to meet some kids, and I got to introduce some of my favorite ppl to each other for the first time. The whole weekend felt like one amazing gift.20190713_143906.jpg

Finally, I got to karaoke it up with my fav singers and watch friends on the outs make up. Way long ago, we had a standing Tuesday night Karaoke event which has since fallen by the wayside except when I come to town. My flight left Seattle on Wednesday afternoon, so that last Tuesday I was in town, we brought back the tradition. Not everyone could come, so we had an earlier event the week before which was much smaller, but allowed 2 ppl I love to talk for the first time since a messy online fight and to make up!66668387_10219151571557527_1426599298904096768_n (1)

At a karaoke night we sing our fav songs from back in the day, and do silly duets, and generally have a great time. Even when it’s not as dramatic as a friendship restored, I love watching ppl who haven’t seen each other in months or years come together again and catch up because they’re both coming to see me. Most of all, I love that our last song is a group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the “choir” song in general, but some time in the last 5 years it has become the “farewell Kaine song” and it feels like nothing so much as an arcane Bacchanalian ritual as ALL my friends in the bar get up on a tiny stage and circle around me to sing this 6 minute absurdist mini-operatic aria to/with me. It’s actually a palpable feeling of love and support I find stunning. 

I know that none of the people I visited with live that way all the time any more than I do. I felt a little like the Doctor whirling into town for a wild adventure, and at the same time I felt like I was living in one of those quintessential “last summer before everyone goes to college” Hollywood movies where the days are an endless succession of ever more wonderful and heartwarming experiences. We’ve all returned to our daily grind lives, but for two beautiful weeks it was really a golden summer.20190714_203512_2

In Dixie Land

From Seattle, I went on to Memphis to visit with family. To be honest that was much less a “one last summer” movie and much more a “home for the holidays” movie but in July instead of December. That might sound cute, but take a minute to actually think about those movies… Ironically, I had actually suggested we do a Christmas in July event because I miss the heck out of my traditional American holiday foods, but in the truest spirit of “home for the holiday” movie tropes, it was planned for and never executed.

Comedic family drama aside, I did have plenty of good experiences:

My sister and I FINALLY got the tattoo I designed for us when her daughter was born (in 2011). We wanted to get it at the same time rather than doing it in separate cities, and it’s taken all this time for us to be in the same place with the time, the money, and the health (apparently you can’t get a tattoo while nursing) to finally get it done! And with all that, her tattoo artist is also her daughter’s uncle (there’s some by-marriage of her father’s sibling in there somewhere, I’m honestly not quite sure how he’s her uncle and I’m her aunt, but we are not related at all).

I gave the niblings all their accumulated gifts and my niece was very gracious about all of them, but my nephew who is a bit younger and still lacking in social graces was unimpressed by all but the car shaped pencil case. I mean, he always said thank you, but there was a clear difference in his level of enthusiasm once we got to the car shaped gift.

I got to dye my niece’s hair! Super exciting bonding experience there, as you know I love the crazy color in my hair. She wanted purple, and because she’s still a bit young, her mom and I decided on an ombre so that we wouldn’t be putting any of the chemicals near her face. She was a real trouper about sitting still (although playing the new She-Ra on my tablet probably helped), and all the showers she had to have, but in the end she was very happy with it. I later heard her teaching her brother how to be Bo to her She-Ra… wait till they find out who She-Ra’s real brother is…

20190721_145646.jpgI also had a chance to catch up with the girl that saved me from my own misguided desire to be “preppy” in high-school. She could not have been more grunge/alternative if she’d walked out of a Nirvana album. We were thrust together as locker partners by happenstance and eventually I got some JNKOs and flannel and we became great friends. We lost touch after the birth of her first kid, but found each other on Facebook last year and she took the opportunity to drive me all over backwoods Mississippi where I got to enjoy the woods, wash up in a ground pump (icy cold fresh water!), eat at a diner that was stuck in 1956 (prices too, I think) and learn all about what she’s been up to in the decades we were out of touch.

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*Internet life disclaimer: yeah, this post is dedicated to all the nice and good experiences, but that doesn’t mean it’s always sunshine and roses. Never compare your real life to someone’s online life… even your own.


Over the next few months I am going to be working on posting all about my trip to both Irelands. Given that I’m going to also be working on teaching and researching, I’m not sure how much time I’ll really have for writing. To keep you entertained, however, I plan to be releasing a series of Chinese folk tales I translated several years ago. I once intended to make them into bilingual children’s book with short language lessons, but it’s been close to a decade and I don’t think it’s happening, so you might as well enjoy the fruit of my efforts in the form of traditional Chinese stories in easy to read English.

Expat Life: Nothing Simple Is Ever Easy

Those of you following along with the Facebook or Instagram may recall that I spent most of July in the “good old” US of A. I can’t write quite as much about visiting home as I do when I’m on an adventure, but I’d still like to open a little window into my life. In the next two posts, I’m going to share the ups and the downs of travel in the US as an expat. Because I like to finish on a high note, I’m going to start with the downs first. It’s OK to laugh, schadenfreude is healing.


Why Go to America?

Although there are a lot of wonderful things about America, recently I struggle to recall what they are. I have no intention of moving back, and I don’t really dream of “visiting home” with any kind of heartfelt nostalgia. Mostly it scares me.

I have a lot of anxiety about visiting America. I will admit that not a small amount is fueled by the news: will I have to punch a Nazi? Will border patrol get unreasonable about letting me in? Or out? What will I do if I’m adjacent to a mass shooting? What if I need healthcare? It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy, and I’m not terribly sure I started on the “sane” side of the goal line to begin with. So why go at all? Glad you asked.3821492016_7b1a758042

It’s our favorite game: Bureaucracy!

The main reason I needed to return to America this summer (as opposed to exploring Iceland or something) was to renew my driver’s license (DL). I needed a new license so I could drive in Ireland in August, and so I can vote in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

What’s the Word for Negative Serendipity?

Of course, I came to this conclusion through a hilarious series of unfortunate events. When I went online to try and fill out the application form for an IDP (International Driving Permit), I realized I could NOT FIND my DL! Anywhere! I remembered having it on the way back into Korea from Malaysia in February, so I knew I hadn’t lost it in some random country, but I could only imagine it fell out of my wallet in a taxi or shop in Korea and was gone forever.

The Other Bad News

Back to the DL. So there’s me in a panic because we’re planning a ROAD TRIP for Ireland, and my mom does not know how to drive on the left. I HAVE to have a DL, and according to recent EU laws, an IDP too. I go back to the WA DOL website to replace my license and it says I’m in range to renew, so I think “hey, might as well”. I go to renew only to find out that I have to come in person every OTHER renewal… so that 2 year lottery really bit me in the bum. The good(ish) news is that I have the ability to get to the US before Ireland. The bad news is that WA has the licenses printed out of state and they take 2-4 weeks to arrive by mail. Only. By. Mail.

Sidenote: I never was able to get anyone in the DOL or DMV or USPS to explain to me how a homeless person gets a license. What if you’re living out of your car? Even if you don’t drive, the license is the primary source of ID in America used for benefits, employment eligibility and voter registration. Yet one more untenable obstacle to make a path out of poverty impossible.

The OTHER bad news is that according to the internet the EU is taking this IDP thing pretty seriously. It used to be you could just show up with a US DL and rent a car, but laws change, I guess. So it’s looking like I could be in big trouble for not getting the IDP and I have to have a valid DL in hand to get an IDP. So. I applied online for a replacement DL (still expires in 12/19) to be sent to my friend’s house where I’m staying in WA so I can pick up up when I arrive, then go first to AAA to get the IDP with the soon to expire DL then run over to the DOL to renew in person and get a DL that I won’t have to show up in person again for 12 more years.

Except. It can’t be that easy.

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The Problem with the Post Office

The DL is returned as undeliverable and shredded. I’m told if you aren’t “registered” with the post office, then your official gov’t mail will not be delivered. I thought that mail would be delivered to the address written on the envelope, silly me. Now we’re registering with the post office. (BTW, when I did the DL renewal back in 2016, this was not an issue. The postal service delivered it to my friend’s house with nary a qualm. Clearly this rule is optional.)

Regardless, you’d think it would be easy enough for me to just have this sent to the address that the post office has on file for me, right? No again! My US apartment is a shitty run down poor-ppl apartment, so the mailbox is not safe AND frequently the mail carriers deliver mail to the wrong box, or just decide not to deliver it. This happened so often while I was residing in the US, that I started having anything I cared about sent to my office instead.

In addition, there’s no way to “register” multiple addresses with the USPS. In the end, I did a temporary address change for the period of time necessary to accomplish this and had the DL sent out again.

In the end, I got it all to work, and I got my updated DL and my IDP and then literally no one in Ireland even cared about the IDP. The rental company and the guard (name for Irish police) were only and exclusively interested in the American licence. So much for getting your info from the internet? But seriously, don’t take my word for it if you’re going to drive abroad it’s better to follow the laws as written, even if the locals don’t enforce them.

What’s Up Doc?

Since I now had no choice but to visit America, I had this dream of seeing my primary care provider (another weird American eccentricity that doesn’t exist here) to get refills for my prescriptions that are either uncommon or not available here in Korea (not illegal, just not here). I go to a sliding scale clinic in Seattle because when I was poor and unemployed (which in America means also uninsured) it was the only place I could afford at 15$ a visit. When I got insurance, I kept going there so they could bilk my insurance company for as much money as possible to put toward their operating budget. My care provider of many years actually left America shortly after I did and joined DRs Without Borders (cool!) which sort of means the only health care professional that knows anything about me is AWOL. But at least the office has records, right?

But if any of you have heard anything about American health care it’s about the cost. Some of the (if not THE) most expensive health care and prescription drugs IN THE WORLD. In order to afford it, I would need insurance.

l-35426-usa-accessible-healthcare-we-dont-do-that-here-e1567743486654.jpgI have great coverage in Korea, but it is ONLY in Korea. Generally speaking, traveler’s insurance DOES NOT cover the country you reside in… or the one you are a citizen of. You know, in case those are different. Even though I live, work, and am insured in Korea, traveler’s insurance policies would not cover me in the US because of my citizenship. Foreigner’s visiting America can get traveler’s insurance. People who live in the US can get regular insurance. But Americans who live overseas? Well, heck, that should only be military personnel, no private citizen could POSSIBLY want to live overseas and come home on holiday while still being exempt from medical bankruptcy! /sarcasm

Some expats can get insurance when going home by signing up for a short term insurance plan. Because of the way that insurance is linked to employment, a lot of these are available for ppl who are between jobs, but often exclusive to ppl who are between jobs, such that, if your insurance has lapsed for too long, you are not eligible. There are still some generic short term insurance policies around, but it turns out that’s another state by state law and it’s not allowed in WA state.

Sometimes I really do think that the countries of the EU have a more stable and interchangeable system of rules than the states in America. I don’t really understand how you can have health insurance in only one state. I wonder in retrospect what would have happened if I’d signed up for short term insurance in another state and then presented it in WA… probably I would have been told I was out of network.

With regular “short term” plans off the table, and regular travel insurance ineffective, I found exactly ONE expat insurance plan for my situation: short term visit to my country of citizenship but not residence. However, it excluded so much (pre-existing conditions, reproductive health, most prescription medicine, the list goes on) that it was basically useless. All too often people buy these policies without realizing what they don’t cover.

1280px-Healthcare_costs_to_GDP_OECD_2015_v1In the end, I decided against getting an additional plan. I have good US car insurance, so anything involving a car (even me as a pedestrian) would be covered by that, anything else would probably be covered in liability. For things like a cold/flu it’s cheaper to go to a drug store than a doctor anyway, and for emergencies? Well, car, crime, and accident would be covered and that basically leaves things like aneurysms, and I decided that if that was going to happen, it’s just my time. ‘Murica!

The Price of a Pill

I was able to see the doctor in Seattle, and after some awkward explaining of my situation re: employment, income, and insurance they decided to give me the sliding scale rate. I have to say I was pretty happy with the way they treated me overall, the doc was invested in my whole well-being not just “why are you here today” and was happy to help me get refills that would last me until my next bi-annual visit. The challenge came in filling those.

Even if I had gotten that expat health insurance it wouldn’t have covered the prescriptions. I found a website called “GoodRx” that does coupons (oh the insane dumbness of THAT process) and was able to cut the cost down. This still ended up being a multi-week, multi-state process because they could only use the coupon on 2 doses a day and I needed 8. I ran out of time in WA and had to finish in TN, and good on those pharmacy reps for going the extra mile to help me, but ffs would it KILL the US to just sell prescription drugs at affordable rates? I bought the same medication in Thailand for pennies on the dollar what it cost even WITH the coupon in the US. The only reason I didn’t do that again is that factoring in the airfare to Thailand it ends up being more, and I’m not planning on being there any time this next year or two.

COSTCO-SIZE ME

On the other hand OTC drugs are sold like gummy bears over there. In Korea, I have trouble getting basic things like acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as Sudafed and Claritin. In some cases they need a doctor and have to be refilled CONSTANTLY because the Korean docs don’t give long prescriptions. In other cases you can buy them at the pharmacy OTC, but like 5 pills at a time. I’ve actually had Drs prescribe Tylenol that is weaker than the American OTC stuff I had at home. Maybe the locals who haven’t been overexposed and built up some kind of pain med immunity can get away with that, but I cannot.

Plus, whatever weak-ass decongestant they sell here cannot attack the portal to the mucus dimension that opens in my face when I get sick. Only that good pre-meth ingredient Sudafed stands a chance. Hence, my desire for Costco sized bottles of all of those meds, and in the case of Sudafed, however much I can buy before I end up on a meth-cooker watch-list. The last refill I got was 2-4 years ago (I got a couple on the 2017 visit but some were from 2015). One short trip to Costco with my mom later and I was 100% restocked for under 50$.

Ladies and gents, the US pharmaceutical economy:

2 years of birth control = 500$

2 years of the top three NSAIDS + allergy meds +cold meds = 50$

This is what I did from April until July. I fought with banks, government offices, and healthcare providers because the US does NOT want it’s citizens to live abroad, or travel, or be healthy.

The “ex” in Expat = extra paperwork, extra hassle, I swear.Expat-Problems


Had enough of complex bureaucracy, crazy international systems, and general complaining? Me too! Stay tuned for the next episode where we explore all the happy and wonderful things I got to experience on my visit to my homeland. Good friends, good family, good weather, good food, so much goodness it will turn your brain to sugar! Coming soon: Expat life: When “Home” is a Holiday.

Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

Renting in a Foreign Language

Every job overseas I’ve had so far has provided housing. One of them didn’t technically provide, but did everything besides sign the lease and pay the bills. Despite having lived and worked abroad for several years, I’ve never had to deal with this particular aspect of expat life. Moving to Gyeongju was more than a little nervewracking because I didn’t know anyone here, the school was not going to provide an apartment or even help in finding one, and my apartment in Busan would be unavailable by February 25 (2 days after my last day at that job). Not every adventure is a holiday.


In the US, when I had to look for an apartment, I would go online (or in the old days, open a newspaper) and look at ads, then go visit the apartment manager and view the unit. The one time I moved across the country as an adult, I chickened out and signed up for student housing so I could put off apartment hunting until I was in the same city. How did I get to this point in my life without having this skill?

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I managed to find some online sources for rentals in Korea and was preparing to try to navigate them despite the language barrier, but reviews online revealed that they were just ads for real estate agents and that the listings and photos shown were almost never real. Housing in Korea is usually brokered with a real estate agent, budongsan. Like every other critical service here, they operate during the same hours I was required to be at work in EPIK. Plus, Gyeongju is an hour away from Busan, making a quick afternoon apartment hunt completely impossible.

One of the teachers at the University said her friend who spoke Korean well had volunteered to help me hunt down a place after the staff meeting on Feb 22 (remember, I was getting booted from my existing place on the 25th), and I gratefully accepted, and asked what I could do to prepare because I literally had no idea about the town or about renting apartments in Korea. “No, no, it’s so easy, we’ll just walk into an agent’s office and they’ll find you a place that’s ready to go.”

I did some research anyway.

In Korea, most people rent their apartments jeolsei style by paying for a whole year of rent up front at once. Weirdest part? They get it all back when they move out! I still have no idea how this financial arrangement works for the property owners, but by and large, I think it sheds some light on the crazy world that is “money”. Sadly, I had no idea I was going to have to rent my own place so I hadn’t had time to save up that much. Ironically, I was going to get enough in severance pay and contract bonuses to bring me up to enough, but I wouldn’t get the money in time. Which says more things about how the rich stay rich and the poor loose money, because if you have the money to rent a whole year at once, then you don’t actually have to spend it, you just have to let someone else use it for a year. But if you don’t have that lump sum, you’re stuck actually paying a monthly rent.

Related imageMonthly rent in Korea, or wolsei, is still miles lower than it is in the US, and my salary includes a housing stipend so it’s not actually something to complain about. I am, however, trying to put aside the cash to change to the lump sum system when I renew the lease next year.

If you can’t do jeolsei lump sum, then a large deposit of key money is still required in addition to the monthly rent. The larger the deposit, the smaller your monthly payments, and you get the deposit back at the end (minus damages). That was what I had to do. I read that the key money could range anywhere from 2-5,000 US and I was already worried that the upper range of that could clean me out if I had to pay it before my February payday (which happened to be the same day they were kicking me out).

I tried getting advice about where to live in Gyeongju but as with every Facebook page in the history of Facebook, no two people can agree and at least 60% of the comments will be random, useless, wrong, or cruel. I tried looking at the map to get an idea of where the university was, where the bus routes were and where the good amenities were, but it was really difficult to make sense of the map when I had only been to the bus terminal and university once for the job interview and nowhere else.

Confusion and Disappointment

The day of the staff meeting, I headed out in the afternoon with two other teachers to look for my apartment. First, they went to their own apartments to drop off things and get ready for the march around town. They lived in a more recent development with an elevator and nice view of the river, but as I asked more about what was around them, it turned out to be a whole lot of other apartments. The nearest corner shop was a 5-minute walk and there were no nearby restaurants, cafes or bars. I was trying to be as polite as possible because they clearly liked their neighborhood and thought I would too, but as we walked out looking for the real estate agent, the office of which my guide could not remember the location of, I was getting very disappointed very fast.

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Google Maps

The first agent was super confusing. He wrote down a bunch of numbers and my “translator” had no idea what he was saying. Later we realized it was the price difference between the two types of rental agreement, but at the time I didn’t really feel comfortable about it and his price points were a little high. We wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood as they tried to remember ‘that one really helpful lady”. I never want to sound ungrateful when someone has offered to help, but it seemed to me as though they had no plan whatsoever, but neither had they given me any guidance on what I should plan. Agent after agent, we visited. Some had no one rooms apartments, others had only unfurnished units (which in Korea also means no a/c unit, no refrigerator, and no washing machine).

We finally found someone who had a furnished apartment in my price range and we headed off on foot to take a look. The day was unseasonably warm for February, and I had been walking a lot already. I was so hopeful about the apartment, but by the time I mounted the stairs between the third and fourth floor, I realized there was no way I could do that every day. (yeah, I’m out of shape, but unless there’s a temple or a stunning view at the top, 3 flights of stairs is my limit). On top of that when the agent opened the door to reveal the room it was so tiny I felt claustrophobic. Trying to stay kind and polite yet be firm, I had to reject it.

Finding an Agent

However frustrating it was, it became clear that I had to get really specific with these agents if I didn’t want a top floor shoebox. The list of what I wanted was getting longer with every agent, and predictably, more of them said, no way. Eventually, my guides realized that their neighborhood was really made for families and multi-person housing and that we should go to a different area to find more singles. We called a taxi and while we waited the volunteer apartment finder told me that there were never any taxis on the road in that area but they always showed up quickly when called. As we drove away, I felt intensely grateful that I had escaped that area, bereft of shops, food, and transportation options. It was a lot like the American suburbs, except all apartments and no McMansions.

When we arrived in Seonggeon-dong, I instantly felt better. I could see the plethora of tiny shops, and shops stacked on top of shops that I had become accustomed to in Busan. I knew nothing here would compare to Seomyeon, a bustling shopping, party and medical tourism hub, but it was a solid relief to see that not all of Gyeongju was built on the soccer mom model.

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Google Maps

We asked the driver to stop as soon as we spotted a real estate agent (the green one) and headed in. She was the very answer to my prayers. With the mild exception that she did not speak any English, she was perfect. Kind, attentive, and very good at explaining in Korean in such a way that us poor waygook (foreigners) could understand. I realize in retrospect that there are a lot of waygook in this area. Most are not native English speakers, but they can speak a modicum of Korean, so that makes more sense as to how she got so good at explaining things to non-Koreans.

We rattled off the long list of things I wanted and lowballed the price tag (having had some price issues with every previous agent) and she didn’t look even slightly phased, but instead nodded confidently and opened up her bright pink planner and began flipping pages and texting on her phone. Within a few minutes, she had gotten in touch with a nearby apartment that was fully furnished and on the second floor, close to the bus lines and the university, with internet included in rent, and well within my price range.

Finding a Room

As we walked over, I was pleased to see a wide range of restaurants and cafes. She pointed out the CCTV cameras and the high school at the end of the road. The presence of the all-girls high school meant extra police presence and security cameras so the neighborhood would be safe for me.

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Google Maps

The Facebook group of longer-term Gyeongju expats had advised against this particular neighborhood because it was “too dangerous”, so it was clear to see that word was getting around. As far as I can tell, some Thai folks got drunk and had an argument that ended with knives, but it was personal. Additionally, some of the blue-collar expats were creeping on the white-collar expat ladies. Being American, it takes rather more than this for me to be worried, but it was nice to see that the police were taking the issue seriously and I spotted several bright yellow signs about making it a safe alley, as well as plenty of cameras and even some police call buttons on telephone poles.

The building was small with a hair salon occupying the ground floor. We headed up, hoping that the apartment itself would not be a grand disappointment. Looking inside I was instantly pleased. Perhaps my standards had been lowered by the other places we’d visited, but I felt like the layout of the room, and the provided furniture was ample for my comfort. Although it is a “one room” the kitchen, bathroom, and balcony/laundry room all have doors. The main room had not only a bed but also a desk, dresser, armoire, and bookshelf. The only odd part was that the refrigerator lived in the main room instead of the kitchen. 

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moving day, it will never be this clean again

I was fairly sure I was not going to find anything significantly better, and my guides were starting to lose patience with me. I would not have settled for something that had problems just to wrap up earlier, but I didn’t feel the need to go on searching with the evening coming on.

Legal Paperwork

We headed back to the office to draw up the paperwork. In Korea, it’s standard to pay a 10% deposit on the day the contract is signed and then pay the remainder of the key money on the day of move in, which was going to be a huge help to me since I could then get my February paycheck in the bank before having to pay the large deposit. The agent was kind and patient and helpful the whole way through. Even when mistranslations popped up, she worked at it until we were all on the same page. Then she had myself and the building owner sign three copies of the lease (one for each of the three of us) and I transferred the deposit and her agent’s fee via my mobile app. No sooner were we back out on the street than my guides departed in a rush. I was left with the impression that they had expected this chore to take an hour or so at most and that they somewhat regretted having made the offer of help.

Screenshot_20180225-153443If I had to do this kind of thing again, knowing what I know now, I would have hired one of the professional expat aides. There are bilingual people here who hire out services not only as translators but to find things too. I think I would have been more comfortable discussing my exact needs with someone who was being paid to help me that I had been with someone who volunteered to help. Additionally, she might have been able to have a list of agents and apartments ready for me on the day we met in Gyeongju so there was less aimless wandering involved. Live and learn. This isn’t an ad. It’s the person I wish I’d called. In case you live here and need her, too.

Here to There

The only thing that remained was to get my crap from Busan to Gyeongju, about an hour away. I had not done any packing prior to getting the job offer because I didn’t know if I was going to be moving to a new place in Korea (taking most of my stuff with me) or moving to another country (reducing life to a maximum of 3 suitcases and a carry on). Once I knew I was going to Gyeongju, I thought of the idea of spending a day going back and forth with my 2 existing suitcases until everything was moved, but that would not work for my toaster oven and small shelves. My next choice was to hire a moving company. I knew that one of the other teachers had recently moved from Busan to Gyeongju and asked who she had used. It turned out not to be a company or anything, but just some guy with a van. She called him while we were waiting for the lease to be ready to sign and made arrangements for him to come and collect me and my things that Saturday.

20180223_194036.jpgMoving out of my place in Seomyeon wasn’t too hard. There was a garage so he was able to pull in and be quite near the elevator. We loaded my awkwardly packed boxes (which I had scavenged from the cardboard recycling piles of nearby apartment buildings) and headed off. It strikes me now that the things we take as normal are constantly changing, because I’m reasonably sure that if someone told me I would be in a minivan with a Korean guy I was paying in cash to move me and all my worldly possessions (pictured here) I would have at very least felt that was a sketchy situation, and yet, there I was, half listening to music in one earbud and half conversing with the mover in broken English. Totally normal.

He was a bit flustered that we had to stop off at the agent’s office first, but I had no access to the building yet. I had to make the final payment and get the door codes before we could unload the van. The agent was with another couple at the time we arrived so she offered us tea and we waited in the office while looking at a wall-sized map of the town and discussed the various historical parks. Finally we bustled over to the apartment where I had a rollicking rush of a time trying to get all the information about door codes, gas, electricity, heating, a/c, hot water, and other apartment amenities while trying to haul my boxes and suitcases from the main entryway and up the stairs to my new place. There was no one at all to help me translate that day, and while the driver did speak some English, he took off as soon as the van was empty.

Haphazards of Not Being Fluent

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I noticed at once that there didn’t seem to be any internet. As this was meant to be included in the price of rent, I was understandably concerned. Additionally, I could not seem to get the heater panel to work properly. It was decently warm that day, and I had a heating pad for the bed, but I knew I would need more than that. They tried to tell me that the phone jack was the internet port and I should simply plug my computer into it, and I’m like, no that’s the wrong kind of port. I know that ethernet cables and phone jacks look similar, but they are really not interchangeable. I had to show them an ethernet cable and the port on my computer before they got the point.

The agent wasn’t able to get the internet figured out, but I was told if I needed it urgently I could use the computer in the hair salon… which was… very… kind? But ultimately didn’t solve my desire to get online and stream shows. My phone kept me connected to email and social media, but a girl wants to unwind with some Netflix after a long stressful move. The agent did manage to get the heat on, but then we couldn’t seem to change the temperature at all. The apartment manager was busy and would be for several hours, so I was left on my own until then.

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A bit later, the manager (the owner’s wife I think) came by and tried to call her daughter to translate for us, but her daughter didn’t really speak English either, so things just got more confusing. Eventually, it came down to the fact that they had not installed a router prior to my arrival even though we had agreed on a move-in day, and that it was too late to do anything about it until Monday. I wondered idly if I would have been better off going a block up the road to the nearest mobile shop and buying a wifi egg, but I decided to try and stick it out. She fiddled some with the heater and it became obvious she had no idea how it worked either, and then she left.

I should be clear, I don’t expect the people here to speak English well (ok, maybe I expect my students to, but that’s my job). I know I live in a country where English is not the norm and I am ok with that. I was able to make my issues clear enough with my broken Korean and simply showing the agent and manager the problem. I don’t expect the world to cater to me in English, but I DO expect to have functional heating and other utilities included in my lease (and this one included internet). The language barrier just made that one step further into the absurd and frustrating.

The Internet of Life

Image result for when your internet comes backI did get internet on Monday, sort of. Some dudes showed up and plugged in a router. The whole internet thing works differently in the US than really anywhere else. In the US, cable guys show up and plug the router into a special cable port in the wall and then activate your internet through that, but the router is just a way to route info from the cable port to Ethernet or WiFi. In Saudi, it was literally just a box you plugged into the power outlet only. I could take the router from my office at school home on the weekends and use it to connect to the internet. In my apartment in Busan, it was wired directly into the wall in a very flimsy connection, but there was no port. Here, the router is apparently plugged into that phone jack they wanted me to plug my computer into in the first place. Maybe that’s why it’s crappy internet? I don’t really know.

I spent several hours fighting with it that Monday, however, trying to first set up the WiFi and a WiFi password since I did NOT want everyone in the building all up in my WiFi and the dudes who “installed” (took it out of the box and plugged it into the wall) also had no idea how to do that part. I was using my phone to look up expat blogs about the WiFi router to see if anyone could explain it in English. Finally, I found one, but I ended up having to go through the steps multiple times because the connection was so shabby and the websites kept timing out.

Again, it’s not so much that I expect my Korean router to come with English instructions as it is that I expect the two experts who came into my home to install it would know how to set up the wi-fi and password. That’s set-up guy stuff, right? Otherwise, why are there two of you in my house? I also read the Korean instructions and they did NOT contain the necessary information either. I suspect this is the cheapest company on the market.

Eventually, I got it set up and was all ready to go with my security and passwords and wifi, but then I realized it wasn’t strong enough to stream, which is about 90% of what I do with my computer at home. (I write at the office or in cafes). Thankfully, I purchased a loooong ethernet cable back in Japan when I was living in an apartment that only had wifi in the public rooms, but needed wires for the bedrooms. It’s a little awkward, but it works more often than not and I haven’t felt the need to throw the router out the window since that first day (at least, not more than once or twice).

The Mystery of Ondol Heating

The heater is still a bit of a mystery. I think there are some loose wires and that the reason we couldn’t move the temperature is simply that sometimes you have to push the button 10-20 times before it registers you’re trying to do something. I’ve thought about trying to take this up with the management to see if they’ll replace the panel, but I just haven’t had that much energy. I’m also working on understanding the mode which turns the hot water on without heating the whole room.

In Korea, apartments are heated by hot water in the floor (ondol). If you look that up, you get these great old images of fire heated homes. Related imageHowever, modern Korean homes do not rely on open flames for heating, and instead make the floor warm by means of pipes filled with hot water. The same hot water you use to bathe or wash dishes in. If you want a hot shower, you have to turn on the water heater, but if it’s not winter, you may not want to turn on the floor. Of course, all the buttons are done up in some kind of shorthand, so Translate is no help, and thus I’m back to exploring the wide world of longterm Korean expat blogs to see who was helpful enough to post the meanings.

Why am I not posting the meanings here, you ask? Because I’m less than 40% sure of my interpretation and I just can’t put out information that sketchy. Plus, every place has a different dang way of doing it. I left detailed instructions for the next person in my old apartment because I knew what all those buttons did after 2 years of living there. I still have no idea what the words next to the buttons were saying because of the whole shorthand issue, but at least I knew what they DID.

There are three lights on my new heating panel. I have so far figured out that one of them is everything is hot (floor, water, etc), and that one of them is hot water only, but I still have no idea what the third light is for. It seems to be an “away mode” that is designed to keep pipes from freezing in the winter if you’re gone, but I don’t know how that’s different from doing either of the other 2 modes and just setting the temp at something low. Hopefully, I’ll figure it out before I go on holiday next winter.

Home Sweet Home

However much I miss my floor to ceiling windows and two different places to sit in my last apartment, I am happy beyond reason to have a shower that is capable of both pressure and heat simultaneously and understands that there is a temperature range between scalding and freezing.

There isn’t a security guy downstairs 24/7, but the salon ladies are nice and there’s a code access to the stairwell and garage, so people can’t just wander in. I’ve had a few packages delivered and the postman has no trouble leaving them at my door, safe from the weather and the traffic.

In the meantime, I’ve visited Daiso to get a few extra doodads for the kitchen, I’ve moved the old tube style tv out to the balcony and converted the tv stand to a nightstand. It took a couple of weeks for me to make it all the way through the final boxes, but I have managed to decorate the room with all my little pretties so it feels more like “home” every day.

Have some more spring flowers from campus 🙂 And, as always, thanks for reading ❤

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Professor Gallivantrix: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get a University Job in Korea (Part 1)

The main reason I didn’t take a winter holiday this year is that I was clawing my way up the next rung of the career ladder. During the fall and winter, I read a bunch of articles and blog posts about it while I was aspiring, but it paid off.  The radio silence of the last month has been all about me moving to a new town in Korea and adjusting to my new job. Now that I’ve achieved my goal and had some time to settle in, it’s time to share my story. Like always, this is not a “how to” blog and I’m not going to make a listicle of “things you need to get the job”. I’m going to tell you my experiences and hope that it’s some combination of informative and entertaining that makes writing worthwhile.


Why University?

Twelve class hours a week and 4-5 months of paid holidays a year is a goal worth aspiring to, but it’s not as easy as it was 10-15 years ago. I was recently at an expat comedy club where an amateur funnyman showed off the “resume” he used to get his first uni job back in the day. It was a plain A4 paper with the words “tall” and “white” writ large in crayon. I don’t know if simply looking like an exotic foreigner was ever really enough, but it certainly isn’t now. I worked mainly university jobs before coming to EPIK where I was assigned as an elementary school teacher. However much I may value that experience, I have a lot of reasons for wanting to go back to university teaching, not the least is that primo schedule.

I also like being able to engage with my students about things a little more meaningful than ice cream, Marvel superheroes, and K-pop idols… or at least if we have to talk about those things can we get into the deeper cultural layers? How does it feel to be one of the only countries on earth not colonized by white people when you see Wakanda brought to life? Is there a difference between how you identify or don’t with white, black, Hispanic, Chinese characters since 99% of what’s made in Hollywood will not represent your culture? How do you feel the suicide of Jonghyun will impact idols and fans? Really, anything more than “who’s your favorite?”

Image result for university memeAnd finally, because there is no future in K-12 ESL teaching abroad. Unless you open your own school, there’s an age cap (usually 50-55) and no room for advancement or retirement plans. At university, the age cap is generally higher, and there’s the opportunity to get tenure. Sure, I’m not that old, and I won’t be for a while, but there’s no sense in letting the end of the road creep up on me. It’s not like I feel confident in my ability to fall back on Social Security in the US in my old age, so I better start building something long term out here.

BTW, If you’re looking for info on getting the E-2 visa or getting into EPIK, I wrote about that in a two-part blog called Bureaucrazy part 1 & part 2.

When To Apply

The school year in Korea is from March 1 to February 20 something-eth (varies from school to school). Japan starts in April, but nearly every other country starts in August or September. Most ESL positions start posting ads 3-4 months before they are hiring, and plenty post ads only 3-4 weeks before hiring, but almost none post a year in advance.

I wasn’t actually very sanguine about my odds of getting a uni job in Korea and had been thinking I’d have to switch to a fall start in another country. However, the ads for those jobs wouldn’t even be listed until after my job in Korea was over and done. I had visions of living in a hostel in Malaysia teaching ESL online for 6 months while I searched for a job in the fall semester. I wasn’t worried. I know Korea and Japan are the hardest places to get uni jobs but I had confidence I could find something in Taiwan or maybe even go back to the Middle East.

Then I got back from the Philippines and a friend sent me one ad for a university in Korea that I was qualified for and I was all, “well, it can’t hurt to apply”, and the next thing I knew, I’d purchased a subscription to profsabroad.com and was submitting 1-4 applications every day.

The Hunt and Fret

I decided a while ago that I would pay for profsabroad because I remember the extreme hassle of going to 5-7 different job sites every day and sorting through the million and a half ads for kindergarten teachers looking for that one gem of a university listing. I don’t know why Dave’s ESL and all the others can’t just create a search filter for schools by type and by age (private, public, kindie, uni, ect), but man it was worth 10$ a month to not have to scour the far corners of the internet for what I wanted.

Once I got all signed up and had my university only ad feed going,  I began to read the ads. This is depressing as hell. I’m not qualified for a lot of them and might never be. There was a lot of “I’m a fraud.”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’ve wasted my whole life not doing my professional development correctly.”, and “I’m going to die alone in a gutter.” during this process. I have very supportive friends who prevented me from drowning in despair.

Overcoming my personal anxiety of self-worth was a daily struggle that didn’t end until I got hired. But even the jobs I felt qualified for still had an amazing array of hurdles to jump through. One of the first things I realized I needed to do was make a USB with all possible application materials on it so that I could attach any document quickly to an application email.

7 November 2017 ·

I feel like every time I go on the job hunt, there is some new insane obstacle. This year, it appears to be that I must not only have 20 pieces of documentation to submit each time, but I must have them in multiple formats because SOME places only accept .doc, or .pdf, or .jpg because they don’t know how computers work. One place wanted me to combine all 12-15 pieces into a single PDF file. Excuse me while I spend the day making triplicate copies of everything in every major file format for you. HIRE ME!

Gathering The Materials

  • Cover Letter
  • CV/resume
  • professional photo
  • copies of all degrees
  • copies of transcripts from all degree-granting institutions
  • copies of my criminal background check
  • copies of proof of employment letters
  • copies of letters of recommendation
  • copy of my passport
  • copy of my alien registration card
  • copy of my TESOL certificate
  • sample lesson plan
  • statement of teaching philosophy

All of these in docx, jpg, and pdf format. And just because you spend hours perfecting all of these does not mean you are finished, only that you have a solid foundation from which to start.

Cover Letter

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I have a basic cover letter file that I edit for every job application to make it as personalized to the job as possible. Making sure to cover all the things they mention in the ad and maybe even something I know about their school or city as well to show I’m invested. No one likes form letters, but realistically I can’t start from scratch every time either. This is my compromise.

Resume/CV

I spent days crafting my CV. I keep it up to date and make sure the formatting is sharp. But it often feels like it doesn’t matter at all because even though they ask for your CV, they then ask you to download and fill out (or fill out online) an elaborate 14-page application. Okay, 14 might be a slight hyperbole, but not always. Usually you can’t copy/paste because you have to fill in one box at a time or worse use drop-down menus.

notawolf-e1521531831748.jpgIt can take several hours to complete one of these even if all you are doing is entering information from your existing documents. After a few dozen, it starts to feel like one of the labors of Hercules, or possibly one of those epic Greek punishments that people like Sisyphus are receiving. More than once I abandoned a job entirely because the application form was broken or because it simply wouldn’t allow me to enter real information, or because halfway through I discovered it required me to write a 5-page essay or upload a video of myself. I reassure myself by saying I probably wouldn’t have been happy working for an employer this demanding anyway… but it might be sour grapes.

6 November 2017 · Busan

NaNoWriMo? Try NaResSubMo: national resume submission month, I’m gonna reach my word count in information repeatedly entered into online forms because the schools won’t read a resume unless it’s been dissected and reentered into a million and one picky form boxes. Finally gave up on one after 45 minutes because they would only accept a copy of my transcript in jpg format.

Video Resume

I’m going to make a video one day… probably at this next job. A lot of employers love the idea of watching you teach on camera. They can see you at work! For real! Like that isn’t much more about your ability to stage a performance than your ability to teach… but, it looks good. I couldn’t make a video in Saudi Arabia because I could not film my female students. I couldn’t make a video here at my elementary school job because of protecting children from online exposure. So, hopefully, at some point in this new job, I can set a camera up and get some footage to use the next time I have to go through this ungodly process. Obviously, the lack of video didn’t stop me, but everyone is always looking for that edge up.

Professional Photo

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The photo is the other major factor in employment in Korea. Looks are oh so very important here. Can you get hired if you’re not pretty? Yes. I’ve seen plenty of people with great jobs who are not on the Korean scale of conventional beauty. Pretty sure I’m not on the scale of conventional Korean beauty. Oh, they love my skin, but I’m roughly the size of 2 Korean models (I mean, they are *really* skinny, but still). 

I have some previous professional experience as a portrait photographer, so I did my own, but it’s important to have a nice photo. I picked out a green shell top and gray cardigan. I did my hair, got that straight iron out, framed my face in a way that it never stays 4 seconds after I leave the house. I put on makeup in the Korean style, pinks for eyes and lips, eyeliner only on the outside emphasizing eye size, and of course BB cream. I stepped out on my balcony for natural lighting and used my silver blackout curtains as a backdrop. Then I took 1000 selfies.

When I finally got a few that didn’t suck, I took them into photoshop and made them glamour shots, removing all imperfections in the skin, correcting all the color tones (including that blue in my hair, who needs that?), and cropping and framing as appealingly as possible. How you clean up may not be how you’re expected to show up for work every day, but it seems to be an important hallmark of professionalism here.

Even after spending most of a day dressing up and posing and editing my one perfect application photo, it still wasn’t enough. One place demanded the photo be “full body”, which I guess was to weed out fat people? I was too tired to go through the process again and ended up sending a photo of me at some famous Korean landmark. I never did hear back from that school.

Letters of Recommendation

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These are fairly standard in the US, although for some reason no one told me as a young adult to always get one every single time I ever left a job or a school. It was a scramble to get letters when I was applying for EPIK and I was pondering the process of asking my supervisor here for a letter when the decision was made for me, and one of the jobs I wanted (like actually wanted not just would apply for anyway) required a letter of recommendation from my current Korean employer.

Just one problem: Koreans don’t use the letter of recommendation format ever. They have another thing called an Employment Verification Letter. So I had to explain to my co-teacher/supervisor what it was and why I needed it and she nearly had a panic attack because she’d never heard of anything like it ever before. After a few days of calling everyone in the chain of command, it was finally determined that it was not illegal for her to write me a letter (yes, she thought it actually might be) and that *shock* she didn’t actually have to write it herself (for those of you unfamiliar with this charade, usually the person asking for a letter will actually write it and the person doing the recommendation will look it over and sign it, so authentic! What a great system!).

I was given strict parameters that the letter could only contain “objective facts”, no opinions (so, they still didn’t really understand what a letter of recommendation is for?) but I managed to overcome and got my letter signed by my co-teacher and also stamped with the official red stamp of the school (which is a pretty big deal). It turns out the job I took doesn’t need this, but at least I have it in my ever growing pile of official job hunting documents.

Letters of Employment Verification are the standard here (and possibly a growing standard for other countries). The horror about it in Korea is that every job wants an ORIGINAL letter, meaning they somehow expect you to go back to an employer from years ago and ask for this letter again and again? I know in Korea, there’s a standard form, so yes you can just submit a form request to your former employer here and get that, but my former employers are in China and Saudi Arabia… it’s not that easy. I managed to get one letter from the school in China back in 2015 when I was applying for EPIK, but now they have the original and I’m never getting that back. I only have a digital copy. Meanwhile, the school in Saudi refused to send anything but a digital copy.

Fortunately, it seems like the universities are a shade more flexible about getting copies from non-Korean sources. I was told by the one who hired me that while they “would prefer” an original, they will take a digital copy if that’s all I have.

Plus, I went to file for one of these from my current Korean employer and it was made out from the date of hire to the date of letter request, so it’s useless… and I had to wait until my contract was OVER to ask again so that it has the right dates. Which was thrilling because my new contract started only a few days after my old one ended and there was plenty of overlap in the new job wanting me to provide paperwork before my start date. In the end, it’s still not a deal breaker because at least I’m dealing with two Korean institutions and they expect things to be done in the Korean way.

Answering Ads

Most of the ads I read, I didn’t qualify for. The craziest of these was the school who wanted a teacher with a Ph.D. AND 10+ years of experience teaching university AND not be over 40 years old. As far as I can tell, that means someone who graduated from high school knowing they wanted to be a university teacher in Japan and going immediately into TESOL courses with no time off or time spent exploring any other career or even time spent working at any other educational institution than another university. That is some kind of unicorn.

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Of the ads I qualified for, I still couldn’t apply to all of them because some just had hoops that were too absurd for me. It is technically free to apply, and I know all the adages about trying and what do you have to lose, but there is legit a point where what you have to lose is 5 hours of your life and 5% of your sanity for a 0.0005% chance of a job and it’s just not worth it.

Fortunately, there were plenty of ads I did qualify for and was willing to jump the hoops of. I sent hundreds of applications. I spent an average of 10 hours a week on this, possibly more, from mid-October till after Christmas. It consumed my free time. It consumed my thoughts. It was the all-singing, all-dancing stress of the universe.

A few places had the decency to send emails that they received my application, most of them just vanished into the void.

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To avoid overwhelming you with a novel-sized blog post, I’ve decided to insert a non-commercial break. Stay tuned for the second installment where our heroine finally receives signs of interest from potential employers, must make hard choices about job offers, and finally reveals her hard-earned life lessons to you, the faithful reader.

EPIK in Review

At some point I realized that my EPIK Orientation post is one of the top 5 on this site and I thought, now that I’m leaving, it might be useful to some people to see what I learned about EPIK in the last 2 years. Like everything I write here, it is my experience and my story, not some definitive article, but it is my hope that my perspective can help a few of the hundreds of new EPIK recruits who enter Korea every February. It may seem a bit negative, but this isn’t a rag on EPIK post, it’s a look back: Things I experienced. Things I learned. Things I wish someone had told me. Things there were no way to know until they happened.

I’m not writing every good experience here because I’m trying to focus on things that I learned the hard way, that were not good surprises, or that could have made my life easier if I’d known sooner. And also because I wrote a lot of my good experiences as blog posts or Facebook updates or even Instagram photos while they were happening.

I chose to stay a second year. I think EPIK is a great opportunity. It’s generally agreed that with few exceptions the quality of job here in Korea for ESL teaching is 1) University, 2) EPIK, 3) Hagwon. EPIK offers reasonable working and teaching hours. It offers paid holiday leave on top of the national holidays that is 2-3x what hagwon teachers get (if they get any), and it offers paid sick leave which most hagwons also don’t offer. There’s far more of a support structure for newly arrived teachers as well. 4 stars: would recommend.


Public School in Korea

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Schools are graded: A-D, the A schools are the richest and best performing schools while the D are the poorest and lowest performing. The “good” news is that the Korean government seems to be interested in putting extra money into the lower grade schools, but there’s only so much the money can do.

Teachers don’t work for a school, they work for an office of education: Here in Busan, that’s BMOE. My contract is with them, and they get to decide what school(s) I work at in their district. But even Korean teachers are at the whim of the Office of Education within a structure. Korean teachers go to special teaching universities and pass rigorous exams to become teachers. Once they are placed with a district, they will stay there unless there is some extenuating reason to move and they apply for transfer. Korean teachers stay at a school for 3 years and then move to a new school in the district. Preference is given to teachers on a points system. Years of experience count toward their points, but they also get more points for a class D school than class A, so even younger teachers have a chance at getting a “good school” after they serve 3 years at a “bad school”.

No one bids to go to a class D school, which means working here I’ve been mostly surrounded by teachers who do not want to be here and are just biding their time until their 3 years are up and they can go back to a decent school. This is insanely discouraging for me, and I can only imagine how much more so for the students who have no choice. At best, I have a co-teacher who doesn’t want to be here, but out of a sense of duty will do her best while she is here. At worst, I have a co-teacher who complains about the students every day, who cancels class or ends early at any excuse, and who goes to her doctor to try and get medical leave for “stress” because the students are “just so awful”… spoilers, they’re not actually that bad.

In elementary (I can’t speak for middle and high, sorry) the students spend most of their time in “homeroom” where they learn most subjects from a single teacher. The homeroom teacher is almost exclusively responsible for discipline and is the only point of contact with parents. English teachers are “subject teachers” which means even the Korean English teachers are second class teachers, looked way down on by homeroom teachers, and generally given crap. Somehow, homeroom teachers don’t think subject teachers actually DO anything. Which is by and large a load of hooey, since subject teachers often have to do more lesson planning on a tighter schedule and are often assigned additional administrative tasks for the school.

The Principal Principle

main-qimg-84ba5eb5ec8a91c7ec0873bb8a036012-c-e1517966951546.jpgNot only are the schools massively different depending on if it’s A-D, elementary, middle, or high, all the schools have drastically different policies that come from the principal. Many of them will push to see how much extra work they can get you to do. You could try to force the letter of the contract (although it’s best to do that only as a very last resort because people will resent it), but it’s wiser to find culturally sensitive ways to stand up for yourself at work. Politeness will go a long way to smoothing the trail, but how you’re treated is going to be wildly different from everyone else in your intake because the principals make 70% of the rules, and the CTs make another 10-20%.

Your contract is very vague on school responsibilities. I personally found that I was expected to operate a “morning greeting” program 6 months of the year where I would stand at the school gates with some of the older students and make every student arriving read one English sentence form a signboard before proceeding to their homeroom. Other teachers have to run reading clubs. Some are required to participate in teacher volleyball, while I’ve never even been invited. This is all based on the principal and the CTs.

It depends on how your CT and principal get on with each other too! My first year CT had a great relationship with the principal. I’m fairly sure he thought she could do no wrong. She got away with all KINDS of stuff. But my principal does not like my second year head CT. He yells at her, embarrasses her in front of other staff, belittles her, and generally doesn’t trust her. Because of this, she’s far less willing to ask for things on my behalf (not because she doesn’t care about me, but because she doesn’t want to get yelled at by him), and he’s far more likely to jump down her throat if something isn’t done perfectly.

That first year head CT lost most of my intake paperwork. We still don’t know where my checklist for the apartment move in is. We had to redo several things. She filed my Korean tax exemption a year late… just, NOT good at paperwork. But now that I’m leaving, the principal is mad at the current head CT for not having these things, and is making her chase down the first year head CT to get her to sign new versions of 2 year old paperwork. That’s how much he likes one and hates the other. And it definitely impacts my experience at the school.

By the way, keep copies of everything for yourself, just in case.

Your Role as the Guest English Teacher

For myself and the other EPIK teachers I talk with regularly, the sense I got was “you’re not a real teacher”. Because all the Korean teachers went to a special university and are constantly undergoing training updates to be public school teachers, they are certified in a way you are not. Your basic job is to be an English speaker. A living recording. I felt far more like a department resource similar to a computer lab or library than I felt like a teacher. Eventually, my CTs came to realize I had actual skills and we did more collaborating, but I was lucky and it still took time and effort.

It all depends on your principal and your CT (co-teacher). English subject classes are run by a Korean teacher who may or may not actually speak English. They teach the English class alone when you aren’t there. They might plan all the lessons, or they might only plan lessons they teach without you. They might teach with you, or they might disappear on days you’re in their classroom (even though they legally aren’t allowed to do that for student safety reasons). I’ve personally had one CT who mostly liked to plan her own stuff, but close to half the time when she’d talk with me about it, she was open to changes I suggested. I had a CT who did all the planning and told me exactly what she wanted me to do. I’ve had a CT who wanted to plan and run the “lesson” portion but have me plan and run the “game” portions. And I’ve had a CT who didn’t seem to understand what lesson planning was at all, so I eventually just started telling her what I was going to do and letting her work around me.

I have friends who only speak as a kind of classroom demonstration and never run lessons themselves. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the second half of a lesson without attending the first half. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the entire lesson without the aid of their CT.

They cannot prepare you for this at orientation. They try, but it’s not going to really sink in until you’re doing it.

Remember, you are not their equal. You will never be treated as such. If you are temporarily made to feel like you are, there will come a time when you run into the wall of foreignerness and there will be times when, for better or worse, you know your role in this school system is purely for show.

Speaking of things being for show… a lot of what you, your CT, your students, and your school do are all for show. Most of orientation is for show, so that the schools can say their foreign teachers completed so many hours of training. Any activities you do beyond class are strictly for impressing parents or the school board.  You will have “open classes” where parents and the admin staff can attend, but those will be carefully orchestrated performances that bear little resemblance to a daily classroom experience. I had people from the school board come to my class twice during winter camp this year… to… see…. I’m still not sure.

That morning greeting thing I had to do? Solely so that parents would see my very white face smiling at their little ones every morning. We tried our best to make the sentences relevant to something they were doing in class, but I actually had to argue with the Vice-principal because she thought it would be better if I personally said “good morning” to every single student instead, and I couldn’t get her to understand how useless that would be because her focus was on how great it would look to see the foreigner talking with kids where their parents could see them rather than on the learning benefit to the students.

The Chain of Command

Respect flows in order from job title to age to nationality. You are pretty much at the bottom of this. (you’re lower down than the Koreans who are younger than you… ) You shouldn’t object, or say no, or in any way be direct about any negative feedback.  You get a little latitude because most of them know you don’t know the Korean WAY, but it’s easy to step on a cultural landmine or simply be confused as to why things are done this way.

Interruptions are going to be a way of life. In the authority structure of Korean work environments, when the boss says jump, you say how high from the air. They will not ask you to come see them when you finish what you’re doing, they will just expect you to stop whatever it is and attend. They will interrupt your conversations with other teachers, maybe for 20-30 minutes. Trying to talk about your lesson tomorrow? Well, if the Vice-principal calls your co-teacher, she’ll answer and pretend you don’t exist until the VP says goodbye, not even so much as a, “this could be a moment, sorry, I’ll let you know when I’m done.

I managed to have a conversation about this with my CT and while she can’t do much about the people above her, she has at least been willing to work with me so that if she calls me to talk about our next lesson and I’m working on something else, I can ask for a few minutes to get to a stopping point. But before we had this cultural heart to heart, we both felt disrespected. Her because as my supervisor, she expected Korean style obedience. Me because I feel like the only reason to not let an employee get to a natural stopping point while working on something is because they’re in deep trouble.

And yes, I did just say I argued with the Vice-principal. There is often a workaround for the foreign teachers, but I only talked with my CT’s bosses after talking to her and having her ask me to go to the Principal or Vice-principal myself. She did this in part because of the problems I mentioned earlier of her getting yelled at, and in part because she knew I could be more direct and get away with it. But please, don’t go around your CT or behind their back, as that is a recipe for disaster.

Your Co-Teacher and You

20170526_085942.jpgYour CT is the most important person to have a good relationship with at your school, and possibly in Korea. This is the difference between a good work life and a shitty one.

My first year here, I had an amazing head CT (except for paperwork, she was terrible at paperwork). She spoke excellent English, we loved the same books and TV shows, she was energetic and happy most of the time and she liked her classroom to be fun. She also liked to read books or do yoga in the afternoons, and generally did minimal lesson planning so she’d have more free time. She had been teaching English for ages, so that worked for her because she knew what she wanted to do already 80% of the time.

We chatted regularly, shared cookies and coffee in the afternoons, gossiped about K-pop stars or scandals in the news. And I had a lot of free time, too. Which was great. I taught 21 hours a week, and spent about 5 hours doing other class related work at my desk, and the other 14 hours a week in the office, I could work on personal stuff.

That first year, I didn’t always get on with my second CT. She was new, nervous, and very strict. But by the end of the first year we had worked most of that out and were doing ok.

I decided to stay a second year. I knew my primary CT was changing schools, but that secondary CT would become my handler and we already had a good working relationship. I knew the second year wouldn’t be the same, but I had no idea how much it would change.

Cue dramatic music.

Not only did I lose the fun CT, but I gained a second school. We’re office of education employees after all, and we have to go where they send us. In this case, they decided to split me between 2 schools, giving me a horrible schedule, increasing the number of students I spent time with, and decreasing the amount of time I spent with any given student. I need a job where I can have rapport with my students. Jobs where I can’t connect with my students are soul crushing to me… so this was a major disappointment. I’ve done my best to connect with the more than 300 students I see this year, but I don’t know most of their names, and I really only have any idea of the ability of the outliers (best and worst). It makes me feel like I can’t be an effective teacher, and then I remember that’s not really my job at EPIK.

Other than sheer overwhelming schedule nonsense, the second school was fine. The CT was new but she was young and energetic and very glad to have me because she knew I had experience teaching English and she did not.

Meanwhile, at my primary school, the new head CT was losing her shit because suddenly she was “in charge” and our entire co-worker dynamic was changing. Everything I thought we’d worked out and gotten comfortable with was suddenly quicksand because all that happened when she wasn’t my “boss”. I know I just laid out the hierarchy, but to me, she’s still not my boss… technically our CT is above us in rank, but I’m also older than her with more English teaching experience, and while I was happy to do as she was asking in most cases, I wasn’t down with the jumping part of the boss-worker relationship. So we had to go through a whole new series of fairly stressful bouts to find our work dynamic again. Which, by the way, is good now… it just sucked having to do it twice with the same person.

Remember when I said no one wants to work at a class D school? Well, that means all the new teaching staff we got in my second year didn’t want to be here. It was a penance because they were too low on the totem pole to get any of their top 10 choices. On top of that, when it came time for the staff to divvy up the jobs between homeroom and subject teachers, no one wanted to be the new English teacher either! One woman heard that subject teaching was easier than homeroom (remember that dirty rumor?) so she volunteered, and even though she could barely say 3 words of English, they gave her the job.

Also remember how I said all the teachers go to special universities with rigorus testing? Well, it hasn’t always been that way. It turns out that while nowadays teaching universities only accept the very best, back in the day they took the dregs. So depending on the age of your CT, they might have come from an era where academic proficiency was not required to become a teacher.

I went from a year of singing the lego theme song (everything is awesome!) to a year of crying at my desk at least one day a week. Because my CTs changed and I could not make it work. (Although, the nearly year long ordeal of two intractable root canal procedures that required dozens of trips to a variety of dentists and endodontic specialists could not have helped things)

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It took me about 9 months to finally get a plan for really dealing with her and it was “don’t deal with her”. Now I just make my materials and tell her what I’m going to do while I’m in her room. She doesn’t get a vote anymore. I’m not suggesting you handle a difficult CT this way. I think my case was extreme. At some point my head CT actually suggested that I simply not do anything for this problem teacher unless I was directly asked. I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I just cared about the kids too much. Because my head CT saw how hard I worked on finding a mutual solution, she eventually backed my decision to do it my way and appealed to the Vice-principal to select a different English teacher next year.

I’ve worked with 6 Korean co-teachers in the past 2 years and 5 of them were great. No it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but the other 5 I could at least communicate with and they cared about the students and classes and me, so we could hash it out when things got rough.

You are stuck with your CTs. They are not going away until the school board sends one of you to another school, which only happens in March. 5/6 we cover for each other when one is sick (I mean, it’s Korea, so we still come to work, but the well one will pick up the slack so the sick one can do less). 5/6 I can ask for help with things outside of school (advice, translating, calling stores or doctors offices that don’t speak English, stuff they don’t have to do). 5/6 have my back with the students and the admin staff.

6 isn’t a lot either. I’ve never had more than 3 at a time, but I have friends who have had as many as 11 co-teachers at once. When I think about how different all my CTs are in teaching style and in what they want from me, I get a little dizzy at the idea of trying to do that across 11 people. But it happens.

Plus, you’re the only native speaker at your job, so you don’t get to have foreigner friends lunchtime like the hagwon teachers do, if you don’t enjoy your CTs company, it gets very lonely.

The experiences of myself and my friends at BMOE is not universal, though. Ask 2 EPIK teachers about their CTs and you’ll get 5 different descriptions.

I found this article written by a teacher in Korea who finds himself constantly abandoned by CTs and left alone in the classroom. I want to point out that is a) illegal because you as a foreigner are not certified to handle safety and discipline issues.  I asked my Office of Education about it, and while it’s ok for us to be alone with kids during camp time (and for the occasional few moments a CT might need to step out to deal with pressing issues), the children are required to be overseen by someone with the right certifications and that’s not us. b) the Koreans who are assigned English classes are being paid for the English classes, so if they ditch you, goof off on their phone, etc. they’re basically not working when they should be. It’s up to you if you want to complain or not, but at least now you know the rules.

Last Minute Everything

The schedule is never what it says it will be. Ever. You will be told about events when they happen, or if you’re lucky, the day before.

I joined the monthly dinner club my first year (teachers pay into a fund and then go to a nice restaurant as a group once a month). Most of the time I found out when that one day was the day before or morning of.

Classes can be moved or cancelled or rearranged with zero notice. I will sometimes walk into an empty classroom only to be told by the CT that class was moved to another time. There’s a school wide phone system, they could call, but they don’t. I was told today that the class I just finished was actually the last time I would see my 3rd graders because she decided not to have class next week after all. Now I don’t even get to say goodbye…

Planning your holidays can be rough. You can easily look up the federal holidays and I recommend you book any trips you want for things like Chuseok as soon as possible because all the Koreans booked that 3 years ago. But your school holidays are dependent on camp, and often the principal won’t decide when camp is going to be until a week or two before the end of the semester. You can ask them to, but there’s no way to force them. And if you buy plane tickets before your time off is set, you could be very disappointed.

Speaking of camp. You won’t know how many or what level students you get until about a week before go time. But you need a lesson plan and materials list way before that.

Desk Warming and Other Kiddie BS

20170303_082606There is an expectation in Korean culture about your body being at work = you are working. Public schools are actually better than private companies because most of the time the Korean staff can actually show up and leave at designated times instead of trying to beat the boss in and wait until the boss leaves to go. As the foreigner teacher, you have a strict time in and time out and if they ask you to do more they have to agree to OT. Don’t agree to stay late until you get that OT approved, because they WILL try to get you to “volunteer”, and according to your contract, if you volunteer, they don’t have to pay you more.

I have a friend who has been teaching more than her maximum 22 hours for 2 years because when she showed up, the Korean teachers told her “the last foreign teacher did it” and she didn’t stand up for herself. Public schools are infinitely better than hagwons about your hours and time, but it’s still important not to get taken advantage of. But also, don’t be totally stingy about a few extra minutes on occasion when you’re trying to finish some work for the next morning.

However, while you’re busy watching them to make sure you’re not overworked, they’re watching you to make sure you’re body is in that school every second they paid for. I know they mentioned desk warming in orientation, but it still drives us all crazy. It’s not just that I have to sit around when my work is done. Or that I have to come to school when there are no students. It’s that I have to sit around when there’s no heat or a/c AND no students… It’s that I’m not allowed to decide which of my two schools I’d like to be working at so when the internet is down during desk warming, I can’t go to the other place. Or if I have work to do at school A but I’m scheduled to desk warm at school B, I can’t change that to get my work done at school A…. it’s obstructive.

I also had to sign in and out during winter camp this year because my new VP thought I couldn’t be trusted to show up if a Korean teacher wasn’t there to see it… I know there are newbies out there who might try to take advantage and skive off, but after 2 years of being at the same school, it was insulting to be suddenly treated as untrustworthy.

Paid Time Off

20170126_081916Your holidays and sick leave aren’t exactly what you think they are. EPIK teachers get 11 sick days, and it says in your contract that for more than 3 days you need a doctor’s note. BUT. That actually means any non-consecutive 24 hours.

Unless your CT and principal don’t care… because that CT who was bad at paperwork my first year? Yeah, I only brought a sick note for my 5 day quarantine, and I was never asked for another one the rest of the year.

My second year with the more rules focused CT, I had a million dentist appointments for which I often left school only 1 hour early, but those added up and soon I was having to bring a note for every visit. Which also costs 3,000 won at the doctors office. On the other hand, one day I was actually too sick to get out of bed, I was told I could not use my sick time because I didn’t get a doctors note despite the fact that I had food poisoning and could barely drag myself to the bathroom, forget the hospital.

I explained later to my CT why I wasn’t able to go (no car, no family/friends to drive me, no ability to even call a taxi, and unwilling to call an ambulance for non-emergency illness because while the ER costs are low if they deem it necessary, if they think you’re wasting time, you get a bigger bill). She sympathized with me, and could tell how awful I still felt the day I returned to school, but there was nothing anyone could do, and I had to use a vacation day instead of a sick day.

Those doctor notes are only good for the day they are issued. Unless you have something like a surgery or a highly contagious flu, they can’t issue a multi-day note. So if you want to miss more than one day, be prepare to schlep back to the hospital every single day, or else not get paid time off. More than one teacher has gone to a doctor thinking that note will cover the duration of an illness and returned to work only to find they’re burning vacation days or not getting paid for the missed days.

The holidays are also restricted to use for summer and winter break, so unless your principal feels benevolent, there is no way you can make them give you time off during other studentless days. I originally wanted to use my winter vacation days to end early this February. There are no English classes in the last week of the school year and desk warming at the end of my contract when I had so many things to do to get ready to move my life seemed silly. I asked before winter break if I could be allowed to do this and was told flatly “no” because it wasn’t official holiday time. Even though I also was told I had to use a paid holiday for my sick day… outside of official holiday time. They said I could use the paid leave to have short days, but not full days off. Yet, it turns out, I’m actually taking the last two days of my final week completely off anyway. As circumstances changed, I have an appointment on that Thursday morning, and I think my principals finally decided it was a reasonable request to just have the last two days off rather than to try and juggle half days all week.

School Computers

The school computers are all awful. Get a VPN. I can only erratically access my Google Drive from school because of the network’s security features. Sometimes, I can’t even copy images off the internet which is bad when you’re trying to make a PowerPoint and need that clip art. Sometimes one program will only work with the VPN and another will only work without it, so I have to keep turning it off and on. One day Drive needs the VPN, but the next day it won’t work with the VPN on. Some days, I have to turn the VPN off and on again every few minutes because the school’s network keeps blocking me… I swear I’m not trying to watch porn, I’m usually just trying to get to a picture of a cat eating a hamburger.

They are also sloooooooowwww. Like dial up modem slow. Like, are you sure there’s not malware on this machine slow. It’s because they have so many redundant security programs running that it eats the processor speed to nothing. And they also never clean them out. The IT person is only at your school for one day a week, so it’s best if you can manage a minimum of your own tech support… change that windows desktop into English for a start. Basically, try not to run anything too demanding and be patient.

Everyone hates the messenger program. That penguin is a thing you will come to hate. You can turn it off, but then you miss messages from your CTs. Most of the time, I leave it on with the sound disabled (god it was hell before I got that fixed). Sometimes when I’m working on a thing where the pop-ups get in my way I turn it all the way off. I’ve also asked my CTs to verbally tell me if they send a message on this thing because I get a notification for every single all-staff message. I’ve gotten 3 while writing this paragraph. I ignore them. All of them are in Korean and most of them do not apply to you. Some teachers say we should try to copy and paste every message into translate because sometimes there is relevant information. That’s… true-ish. Information about school events that might include or affect you are there, and your CT might not think to tell you about them, but I think if you just talk with them and let them know the situation, you can work something out.

Culture Clash

20170422_204235There will be a lot of cultural misunderstandings. And just because one Korean person explains Korean culture a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s that way for every Korean. I mean, does everyone in your culture represent it the same way? If you feel confused or upset, try to find the specific reason for those feelings, and after you’re calm, ask to talk with your CT about it. Ask about the Korean perspective, and let them know your cultural perspective, not to try to get them to change, but so you can understand each other better and find something that works. One CT does not think a teacher should ever have their hands in their pockets in class. Another CT might have her hands in her pockets regularly. Is that Korean culture? No, but they might tell you it is.

Pick your battles. To me, hands in the pockets was just not that important, but being able to come to a natural stopping point in my work before shifting to another task was.

Remember it’s not about you. This seems obvious, but I have met some people who had a rough time with this idea. Yes, they brought you over from another country to expose their children to native English speaking and a little bit of cultural exchange, but it’s not a “teach your class about your country” kind of experience. Some of the kids I’ve been teaching for 2 years still can’t remember what country I’m from. It’s not personal, I know they love me, but it’s just not a priority for them at this point in their lives. It’s great if you get the chance to share things about your homeland, but it’s not why you’re here.

Not only are you expected to teach things in English that are familiar to your students (not to you), your CTs might not be interested either. Regardless of the innate interest of your students and CTs, the best thing you can do is be curious about Korea. Let them teach you about their language, culture and food. Show appreciation for it. My students love correcting my Korean and it makes them feel better about their English mistakes. They go wild when I use a K-pop star or popular Korean cartoon character in a PowerPoint. And my CTs are far more willing to listen to my cultural concerns if I demonstrate that I respect theirs first.

The Good Stuff

I’ve said a lot of scary stuff, but none of it was a deal breaker for me. In the past I’ve worked at places that were so much worse. Every hagwon teacher I’ve met here has a harder job than me with less vacation time and no sick time. But more than “it could be worse” there are a lot of things to like about working with EPIK.

22 teaching hours: At this point in my career, it’s pretty much my maximum because I believe we should have at least 1 hour of paid working time per hour of paid class time for things like lesson planning, materials prep, and student assessments. More if you’re looking to do career development, too. However, since most private academies ask teachers to do 30-35 teaching hours in a week, I appreciate how great that 22 hour limit really is. Also, it’s not 22 full hours. It’s 22 class hours. I have 4 class hours from 9am to 12:10pm… teacher math.

The good side of desk warming: even though we are forced to sit at these desks for hours of non-productive time, the good news is you’re never given “busy work”. If you’re done with your class prep/homework grading then the time is yours. You can take a nap (some schools have nap rooms for staff), Skype your friends, do yoga, go for a run on the school’s track (it’s generally ok to wander around the school, but best to tell your CT if you’re going somewhere other than the bathroom or your office), shop online, watch Netflix, play video-games, or like me, work on a blog.

Support structure: You are an employee of the Korean government. You are protected by the same workers rights laws as all other government employees here. That is AMAZING. You have at least one (probably more) co-teachers. They can be challenging sometimes, but they are also your best allies. I lost count of how many times I had to ask for fairly simple things, help with finding goods or services, help scheduling repairs for broken technology, help dealing with hospitals and companies that don’t speak English. Advice about Korea. Although the CTs are only required to help us with the things that directly apply to the job, most are willing to do more if you have a good relationship and show your appreciation for their extra effort. I see hagwon people on the Facebook page all the time asking for help because they can’t ask a Korean at their office. We can.

Cultural immersion: Hagwons tend to hire lots of foreigners together, so hagwon teachers see foreigners every day and can hang out between classes or at lunch or after work quite easily. EPIK teachers are the only foreigner at one or more schools. We spend all day entirely surrounded by Koreans. I found that I had to take an interest in Korean things just to have something to talk about at lunch. And yes, sometimes we sit at lunch and they talk rapid Korean and I get lost and tune out, but more than half of the time, I am included in the conversation. Plus, I can just go to my CT and chat. We can talk about classes, and students and lesson plans of course, but we can also talk about our lives and what’s going on in the world around us. It’s a much more involved job opportunity because you really have to work NOT to be exposed to the culture around you.

Paid leave: It’s really good. I mean, university is still better, but EPIK is better than any job in the US. EPIK teachers start with 18 paid holidays and get more if they stay longer than a year. I managed to have a 10 day trip to New Zealand and a 12 day trip to the Malay Peninsula my first year (weekends). Tell me another job you can afford to take two international holidays a year? Plus, there’s a lot of national holidays that give you long weekends when the tour groups run extra trips because they know all the expats are free.

Enforced savings: You pay into the pension plan every month and that’s employer matched. Most countries have an agreement with Korea that allows foreigners to cash in that pension fund when they leave Korea. Plus, severance pay is national law here now, so for every 1 year of work you do, you are entitled to a month’s pay in severance when you leave that company. So even when I do a bad job of saving from my paycheck (no one’s perfect) I’m still getting a little nest egg for every year I’m here. It’s not enough to build a retirement plan on, but it’s nice.

Healthcare: The only people who complain here are Canadians because they are spoiled people who pay nothing to see a doctor. The rest of us are blown away by the high quality and low cost of healthcare. As government employees, we’re on the national plan. But even services that aren’t covered are often far more reasonably priced than in our home countries. I’ve been able to get LASIK and take care of some normally costly dental work here, and I’ve got a list of other minor things I want to take care of next year because I can afford it here but not in the US.

Tiny Koreans: no, it’s not an Asian height joke, I’m talking about the kids. The only thing that can reliably cut through any amount of frustration or culture shock depression any day is the genuine enthusiasm of my students when they see me. I know that I’m extra lucky because I have friends who work at schools and academies that cater to spoiled rich kids and I hear the horror stories. But my kiddos are kind to me. They smile when they see me in the halls or on the streets near the school. They wave. They want hi fives. They are curious and want to share. And their joy is just contagious. I can be having the worst day, but I still smile when I see them smile. They can make me feel like a rock star, and I hope I can do the same for them.

Korea in General

korea-travel-landmarks-vector-illustration-57253225Most of this is EPIK specific, but that “K” does stand for Korea, so…

Shopping: Get into that online delivery as fast as you can. G-market, yogiyo, iherb. Love them. On the ground, basic needs shops are Home Plus, E-mart, and Daiso. Buy things from people on the street. For the love of god, the produce and (at least here in Busan) fresh seafood is much cheaper from the street vendors than any store. Even my Korean coworkers are amazed by the deals I get on fresh seasonal fruit because I am willing to buy it out of the back of a truck.

Pharmacies are only for direct health needs. Not everything needs a prescription, but you will have to ask the pharmacist for what you need because it’s not out on the shelves. From cold medicine to band-aids to hand sanitizer. It’s at the pharmacy. If you don’t know the Korean, ask your CT, use a translating app, or just show a picture of what you need to the pharmacist on your phone.

You can get most of what you need here. Most common medicines (check your prescriptions, and don’t assume they have your favorite birth control options, I had to go to Thailand for mine), hair and skin care, cosmetics, shaving and styling. Easy to find many options. What’s hard to find?

  • There is no toothpaste with fluoride. I don’t know why, the Koreans are obsessed with dental care but don’t use fluoride. You can get it on iherb.
  • They also don’t use deodorant. I did read a study that says they don’t as an ethnic group have as smelly sweat as other ethnic groups… this is mostly true, although I do still run into the occasional case of BO in the hot weather. Beauty shops are the places to find the few brands that exist here, but most expats just bring in a case when they go on holiday or buy it from iherb.
  • Tampons are… just, hard to find. Mostly at Costco, Home Plus, or E-Mart. Pads are easy and in most neighborhood shops.
  • Plus size clothing (both genders, worse for women) and large shoes. I sometimes buy men’s shoes because I’m the largest size ladies shoes are made here. A few places carry larger sizes in store, but online options are easier, and a lot of cities have clothing swaps among the expats to refresh a wardrobe. I have found that bras, underwear, and jeans are the most challenging (read, have never successfully bought in Korea) but everything else is workable.

Socializing: Join the Facebook group for your city. Go to events. Go on tour groups (I like Enjoy Korea best). Go places on your own, the intercity train and bus system is great and cheap. Go to all the festivals. Talk to Koreans. Do not be one of those people who only works and drinks. I mean, if that’s all you want out of life, I can’t stop you, but Korea is amazing and I really feel bad for the people who come here and never experience anything but their school and local expat bar.

Bank/Phone: KEB Hana bank. No really. As my FB admin says, “the least worst option”. Banking here is hard. Make sure your debit card is set for international use (sooooo many people ask every month, “why can’t I use my Korean bank card on my vacation in Bali?”), just ask for the international option when you open the account. You can also get your debit card to act as a bus/subway pass if you ask for it.

You can read more about my experiences with KEB/Hana here.

Make sure your phone can do international SIM cards AND Korean SIM cards… I don’t know if I just had a bad translation, but I think I almost ended up with a phone that would do only one of those things and I had to explain a few times that I live in Korea and vacation abroad,so I need both to work. They got it eventually.

Learn some Korean. Learn to READ at least. You don’t need to be fluent but this will make your life easier. Talk to Me in Korean and Duolingo are my favs that are free.

Google then ask. Foreigners have been moving here in droves every year for a while. It’s an annual migration and they all have the same problems, questions and concerns. Chances are, someone, somewhere has asked before you and had the question answered. As much as experienced expats do like helping the newly arrived, we hate answering the same 5 questions over and over. You will be mocked if you ask a question with an easily Google-able answer. Older expats are not a service you are entitled to, they are helping because they want to, so put in a little effort to show you’re trying and not just lazily hoping someone on Facebook will do it all for you. That said, if you can’t find the answer, DO ASK because someone here knows. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the Busan expat community is very connected and helpful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Hell yes.

20170526_100631.jpgI know I wrote some discouraging words, but trust me I’ve written far more about my wonderful experiences here. Korea, like every country on earth, is not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, and EPIK public school teaching is a great way to get to experience it all. I hope those of you reading this looking for advice or in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Korea will learn from my experiences, good and bad, and make your own great adventures in the upcoming school years.

If you’re feeling apprehensive about your EPIK experience, just go take a look at all of the wonderful things I’ve shared in the last two years in this remarkable little country.

First Week at EPIK

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 & 2017

Holi Hai, Sailing, first Norebang, Canola Flower Festival

Best desserts & Samgwangsa Lanterns

Taean Tulip Festival

Sand Sculpture Festival 2016 & 2017

PRIDE: Seoul 2016, Seoul 2017, Busan 2017

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, UN Memorial, Dadaepo Fountain, Sulbing, Beomeosa Temple, Jinju Lantern Festival

Jeju Island

DMZ & Seoraksan

Boseong Tea Fields (winter), NYE at Yongdusan Park

Daegu Flying Lanterns

Boseong Tea Fields (spring) & Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Gamcheon Culture Village

Gaya Theme Park

Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm (winter)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival


I hope this gives some insight into the nitty gritty of being an EPIK teacher. Of all the things I learned while writing this, the biggest one is that no two EPIK teachers have the same experience. I advise you to read as many blogs and watch as many Youtube videos about this as you can if this is something you are planning to do because one perspective, no matter how detailed, is incapable of covering all the possibilities. Above all, when you come to Korea, keep an open heart and an open mind. You will face challenges, but if you persevere, you will have wild and joyful adventures as well.

Letters From China (Second Semester 2008)

The winter breaks are long in China and I managed to get back to visit folks in Seattle from January 10 to February 20th. Returning to China after that visit home was one of the hardest things I ever did, and it was a hard road to emotional recovery in the bitter cold afterwards. In the last few years abroad, my sense of “home” has changed a lot. I love my friends and family in the US, but now when I visit, it’s more like a vacation, and getting back to my host country is “going home”. I’ll never stop loving them, but looking back on these letters, I am glad that this level of homesickness and culture shock depression is a rarity in my life today. But don’t worry, next time there will be flowers.


Feb 23, 2008 at 12:28pm

It’s Saturday morning here and I’m about halfway unpacked. I’m getting some laundry done and I’ve managed a trip to the store for the basic essentials, food for me and the bunny and new dvds.

I have my class schedule and my books (though I haven’t looked at the new books yet). The students I handed out as pen pals will be my students again this semester, along with some new ones as well. Classes start on Monday, so I’m going to spend a chunk of time this weekend looking over the books and filing out paperwork (yay bureaucracy!).

535240_10150779820031646_1213254039_nThe bunny is well, however we’re going to the vet soon anyway because I got a really enthusiastic greeting when I got home and I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is indeed a boy bunny.

The sofa is not as bad as I’d feared. The hole seems to be underneath the sofa, so the bunny crawls up inside it and vanishes.

It’s kind of wierd being back. Everything is familiar yet strange. The smells especially, not all bad ones, just unique to China and to my apartment here. The weather is ok, its sunny and cold (not quite as cold as when I left, I think we’re above freezing now) its even pleasant if you stand in the sun and the wind isn’t blowing.

Alot of the anxiety I felt over returning is gone (leaving again was the hard part, now that I’m here I guess its easier). Its strange that this place somehow feels more stable than Seattle. I loved seeing everyone, but the whole time I felt out of place, and not sure what to expect from anyone or anything. I think that would change if I had a job and an apartment of my own, but still, its strange.

It was really awesome to be home for a while, although I have to try not to think about it too hard right now. I hope you’ll all continue to visit the board and chat on IM. It sounds cheesy beyond belief, but I can’t stress enough how much it helps me to have you all as my friends and my support structure while I’m way out here.

Love and Hugs

Feb 24, 2008 at 6:43pm

Day 3, and I’m already going insane…

The weather is still evilly cold, especially when the wind blows, so its hard to make myself go outside for anything non-essential.

The party Friday and game Saturday have led to a really slow g-talk for the last couple days, so try to check in soon.

526743_10150779819126646_1550786657_n

The bunny had a little conniption fit and knocked over his litter boxes (not for the first time), so I finally went out and bought a full size covered cat box. The lid is off while he gets adjusted, but the sides are quite high, and it is (I hope) too heavy for bunny to overturn. I’ve left the lid on the floor to see what he thinks of it, I’m still not sure if I’ll use it on the box, or just keep it as a bunny hideout elsewhere in the room.

Classes start tomorrow at 8am. I’ve written my syllabi and now there’s nothing but the waiting.

I checked around a few websites for job listings, I may try to get something as a proofreader/editor to fill in the extra time and earn a bit more.

I’m going to try to figure out my new camera this week, too so I can upload some pics of the sofa damage everyone keeps asking about, and of course of the bunny, which has grown more into his ears now.

And I think I’m out of things to report just now. ttfn.

Feb 29, 2008 at 5:33pm

The first week is over. I just got back from my last class on Friday afternoon.

All in all, it’s going well. I didn’t venture into the city this week, mostly allowing myself time to get adjusted and to get a feel for what my free time is like during the week.

I’ve decided that since I have classes that end before noon on Tuesday and Wednesday that I’m going to attempt to install myself at a cafe with free wi-fi in Beijing on those afternoons so I can maybe have a strong enough connection to upload pics and maybe even *gasp* watch Youtube!

I’ve joined Facebook, many of you have noticed.

I’ve found a neat website called thebeijinger, which has lots of classifieds for jobs and events so I’m looking there for something interesting to do in my spare time/weekends. So far I’ve put out feelers for a position as a blues singer at a club and for a Saturday afternoons meeting “culture club” that features hands on activities of Korean and Chinese culture and language. More on those as it progresses.

Classes were uneventful. My schedule this semester is a little strange though. I have my favorite classes again (the ones I put up pics of), 3 groups that each meet 1x a week, I also have the same group for advanced conversation that meets 2x per week, and a new group for “American Newspapers and Magazines” reading course that meets 1x a week. For all of these classes our first day was just catching up from the break, or in the case of the new class, getting acquainted, and we won’t really get into lessons till the next meeting.

The wierd part is that I am a “guest teacher” for another set of classes. There’s 8 classes of about 80 students each that are all taking the same course (at different times of course). Now, I have one week with each of these 8 groups of students, at 3x a week. There are, however, 20 weeks in a semester, so for 8 of those weeks I have 3 more classes than the other 12…. oh, and since its 8 groups all learning the same thing, I have to teach the same 3 chapters from the same book 8x… joy.

In other news, I’m learning how incredibly hard writing a good professional CV actually is… anyone who has some experience in this that wants to help, I’d love it. I can’t believe I’ve made it to my age and never really had to write one, but as it turns out I’ve always either been trying for really low level jobs that wanted applications instead of resumes, or got hired by recommendation from within and only had to hand over a resume for “the files” rather than actual competitive job seeking.

Stay tuned for updates on the extra curricular life and of course the bunny… I hope to make it to a cafe this weekend, but if not, it’ll be Tuesday (your Monday) before I finally get some pics up.

TTFN!

Mar 4, 2008 at 6:45pm

IMG_0150.jpgI wasn’t online all day today because I decided to try to go to the wi-fi cafe I mentioned earlier. It turned out to be REALLY hard to find, and I spent almost an hour wandering around the part of town its in before I was able to get comprehensible directions from someone. This was in part because no one knew where the place I was trying to find was, and in part because those who knew were far enough away and I was unfamiliar with the streets and landmarks that anything past “go that way a while” was more than I could follow. But I found it, and the weather was nice and sunny today, so it wasn’t too bad to be walking outside.

Its cute, and though it was after the lunch rush when I found it, it didn’t seem crowded, only a couple other people. Unfortunately, the plugs were all 2 prong or Chinese standard 3 prong, so I couldn’t plug my computer in.

Being tired from my journey, I decided to sit and check out the menu anyway. I got a banana/ginger/orange smoothie, which was nummy, and I had a chance to peruse their menu and prices, which are both highly western and reasonably priced. Sure its more expensive than eating at the cheapo diners or the street vendors, but the average seems to be about 50 Kuai for a meal and drink, and there were lots of specials that were less. (remember that 50 kuai is still only about 7$ US), and the menu had several things that looked tasty and Kaine friendly.

I only stayed about an hour, then on my way back I decided to try to catch the bus at a different station, since several people had told me the lines were shorter. The line may have been shorter, but the walk from the subway was much longer and the wait between buses was also longer, so I doubt I’ll be using that again.

The upshot is that I spent about 4 hrs in transit and 1 hr at the cafe today, and I’m beat. However, now I know where it is, and that I need to bring a converter, so I’ll be better prepared when I go back, which will hopefully be tomorrow, as I’d like to try to go Tuesday and Wednesday most weeks.

I think the upscale environment and regular access to affordable western food will do me some good, and assuming the wi-fi works, I’ll be able to get more photos uploaded while there, including, of course, photos of the neighborhood its in…. if it weren’t for the writing I wouldn’t have taken it for part of China. It’s so CLEAN, people were even washing the trashcans on the sidewalks!

Ok, that’s my ramble, catch up to you all soon!

Mar 11, 2008 at 8:29pm

Long, Long Day

It started with me waking up at 5am, restless, because I actually caught up on sleep last weekend, and wasn’t exhausted, then tossing and turning for 2 hrs in and out of sleep and the weirdest dream that i was fighting Lord Voldemort… but it turned out to really be Raif, and the whole thing was a movie set… yeah

Then, in my early morning bleary haze, as I chow down my oatmeal and try to remember what I’m teaching today, there is a pounding on my door… notice I do not say knocking… which continues virtually nonstop till I open it, only to find an out of breath Chinese woman I’ve never seen before who explains in broken English that she has now come to my apartment 4 times looking for me because she needs an English teacher for her school on Saturday mornings. “No thank you, I really don’t have time”, some how takes more than 5 minutes of me and my oatmeal getting cold as I stand there with the door open at 7:30 in the morning. She leaves, I go back to checking my email. 2 seconds later, more pounding. She is back to ask me if I can ask my friends if they are interested in teaching. I try to tell her, because I know for a fact, that none of the other teachers have time or want more work. I finally even resorted to loudly explaining this in Chinese, in case she wasn’t getting it in English. she asks, what about my other friends, and I say they’re all in America. And I can’t get her to leave me alone until I agree to take her phone number anyway! worse than Jehovah’s witnesses, I swear.

So, now I’m late, because this woman… grr… anyway, I’m rushing off to my 8 am class, trying not to glower at the morning gray smogginess, when all of a sudden, a bright patch of yellow catches my eye, and I see FLOWERS! beautiful tiny yellow flowers on a bush that kind of looks like someone pulled a willow tree down till only its branches were above ground. I’m told they’re called spring greeting flowers here. So, better.

Class, yay, class, more class, ok they aren’t really that exciting, though they are better than last semester.

Then a quick lunch and off to the bank.

 

Abbey agreed to go with me today, to help out, but she fobbed me off on Wang Meng, a very sweet, but totally backwater Chinese man, with much less English than Abbey has. (and since I wanted Abbey for difficult translations that occur in international banking issues, you can imagine my frustration). Wang Meng is also from a small town, and this is his first job, and he just started last fall, about 2 weeks before I did. I was actually guiding HIM through Beijing to get to where we needed to be.

Leave the apt at 1pm, miss the close bus, so we walk to the far stop and end up waiting till the next bus that would have picked us up at the close stop shows up. Traffic jam.

Finally get to Beijing, and I have to go first to change the money to USD, since this process at the bank can be somewhere between difficult and impossible, and usually expensive.  Then go BACK to the place we got off the bus, get to the bank, only to discover that they apparently have their entire English speaking staff working today, and Wang Meng has nearly nothing to do, other than to write the address in Chinese for me.

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

I have no idea why bank lines in China last so long… got my form all filled out holding on to my number…

Wait

Wait

Wait

Almost 5pm, my number pops up. The actual process with the teller is short and easy, and hopefully in a few days, I’ll have money in my US account to pay bills with.

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I part ways with Wang Meng, and wander into Walmart to get a bunny carrier and maybe something tasty, like cheese. The bunny carrier is actually a doggie carrier, those little things that look like oversize handbags that women carry their little dogs around in, and its BRIGHT lime green and cost about 25 usd… *sigh, but not only do I need it to take the bunny in to the vet, as the weather gets nicer, I have plans to take the bunny to parks as well, so it’ll get used.

Then to Starbucks. I made the mistake of getting a soy latte instead of just coffee, never again. I don’t know if they used real milk or if the soy milk they use is just weird, but it had THE strangest after taste, almost like someone had melted butter into my coffee… I didn’t drink most of it.

Loooong bus ride home, and here I am at 7:30pm, finishing up my day online with sore feet and a considerably lighter wallet.

Oh, AND I found out that the culture club I wanted to go to on Saturdays is CLEAR on the northwest side of the city, (I‘m on the south east) and probably 2-3 hrs ride including bus, 3 subway lines and a taxi… so, no. sad. I’ll just have to keep looking.

Mar 12, 2008 at 8:02pm

I finally made it here (Zoe’s Bistro) with a proper adapter for the computer and got online. I have pics from the bus ride to show what a transition it is from Yanjiao to here, but Photobucket is being temperamental.

The cafe is nice, clean, quiet. I had a niciose salad which was actually canned tuna, but nice greens and an excellent dressing. Got some coffee, and a fruit smoothie for dessert. Its more expensive than my normal day, but I’ve been here 5 hrs, and had a good non-Chinese feeling day, even all the writing in here is in English, so I figure I can afford to do this once a week or so, as long as I don’t go crazy.

It may also be a week between photo postings, because my internet at home doesn’t make it easy to upload, but I’ll eventually catch up.

TTFN


The internet at my apartment was enough for email and chat messengers, but it was terrible for uploading photos or streaming video. Lucky me there was a bootleg DVD shop operating out of a disused post office across the street and he kept a steady supply of English language shows and movies in stock just for us teachers, so I was not short of things to watch.

Zoe’s Bistro turned into my weekly haven of sanity during a time of negative culture shock, and I went there regularly to get good internet and feel “Western” for a few hours at a go. Nowadays I have great internet at home, and I’m not sure if it’s because Busan is a large city (where Yanjiao was tiny) or if Korean culture is easier on me than Chinese, or if I’ve just gotten used to some quintessentially Asian things that used to make me uncomfortable, but I haven’t felt the need to sit in a western style cafe since I’ve been here, and I only go to Starbucks to sample the unique seasonal drinks that aren’t on offer in other countries. It doesn’t hurt that Korea has a coffee culture that keeps me in lattes and americanos on every street corner. Good coffee always tastes like home. 😉

Hello Bohol: My Own Two Wheels

One of the best things about travel is getting to learn new things, and on this trip I got to aquire a brand new skill I hope will serve me well in my future adventures. Despite the dangeous sounding urban ledgends and my own father’s brush with severe injury at the hands (wheels?) of this contraption, I decided it was time to learn to ride. Not only was learning far easier than I imagined, the freedom it brought to my holiday was irreplacable. Suddenly moving from place to place was not a chore or lost time, but an opportunity to connect with the natural wonders around me. 


Why a Motorbike?

Regular readers may remember, and anyone who’s been to SE Asia will know, transit in these countries is primarily done via motorbike (moped, scooter). Those who have not been, let me briefly clarify. I am not talking about a full on motorcycle Harley Davidson style, and I think sometimes westerners (especially Americans) are confused about the differences. Many countries have laws defining the these and what kind of license you need for each, and in every case the motorcycle is more demanding, difficult to drive and dangerous. I don’t think the Philippines has or at least doesn’t enforce any such laws, as I saw vehicles that looked like both on the road all the time. The best part about the scooter for me was automatic transmission, and a floorboard, so you are able to sit more naturally.

After my very frustrating experiences with Thai public transit and private tours, I really wanted to give the whole bike thing a try, and Bohol with it’s slow farm life and tiny barrios seemed like a perfect chance. If you can drive and ride a bicycle, learning an automatic motorbike (scooter) is a breeze. Plus, then I could free myself from haggling with tuk tuk drivers or being chained to tour group schedules.

I had read online that most hotels/hostels will help you rent a motorbike and had verified that with Becca at Imagine Bohol before my trip. Once I was settled in my room, I asked her if we could get the motorbikes that evening. She called Lloyd and James to bring us the bikes and give us a quick lesson in scooter driving and Philippine road safety.

Driver’s Ed.

First they taught us how to turn the bikes on and off, where the break and gas were, how to control the kickstand, the bike lock, and all the things you do while sitting still. Then they had us hop on behind, one each, so they could show us the controls in motion. James walked me through a step by step of every control and dial and button on the bike, then we pulled over and it was my turn to drive. Not realizing we we’re going to be out on the road, I’d left my sandals in the room, and James lent me his flip flops so that my bare feet would not be scraped on the asphalt, and off we went. At first I was a little nervous, but mostly I was excited. The roads we practiced on were nearly empty, and soon I learned to keep the bike on the far right, and how to make turns, how to control my speed and how to park. We drove around Alona and passed by Alona beach to see where the main parking lot was.

By the time we finished practicing it was nearly dark, but I felt much more confident on the bike. We made sure we both had helmets to use, and went over the bike condition before paying for the rentals and taking their numbers just in case of problems. I had read that the average rental rate in Bohol was 400-600php/day. James and Lloyd charged us a mere 350. We felt like it was a great deal, and it turned out that we had no problems with the bikes, or with returning them (I read stories of renters accusing riders of extra damage to get more money, not an issue we had with these gentlemen).

GPS via Headset

The longest drive I had was to the Chocolate Hills. Our hotel was on the southernmost end of Panglao, and it was about a 30 minute drive just to get to the bridge that connected us to Bohol, plus another 2 hours after that to get to the hills in the center of the larger island. I think in a car it may have been a little faster, but we were content to drive 40-50km/hr on our bikes and that added some time to the trip estimate. I also had to stop sometimes to check the map. Even with Google Maps playing through my headphones, I couldn’t SEE the app while riding the bike, so if I needed to check something, I had to pull off the road and fish the phone out of my pocket to have a look. Of course, I also just stopped sometimes to look at things.

The Unsheltered Drive

Even though the weather was hot hot hot and oh so humid, riding the bike was very comfortable. At 40 kph you get a very nice breeze that feels cool and refreshing and you get a great view of the countryside as you ride through. Of course I had a few issues getting adjusted. I got smacked in the forehead by a large insect that then flew behind my sunglasses. If you think having a spider or a bee in your car is freaktown, let me assure you that having an unknown buzzing bug next to your eye inside your glasses is much worse. Luckily I didn’t crash, and the bug flew from one eye to the other before escaping the lenses and being whisked away by the wind.

The reason such an insect encounter was possible was because my helmet had no visor. This wasn’t an issue most of the time, but if I was planning to do more driving at night or in the rain, I would invest in a visor or some kind of driving goggles. For sunshiney day time, my sunglasses protected my eyes from everything other than that one very confused bug. Most of the natives don’t wear helmets or eye protection and it just mystifies me. I did forget to put my helmet on once when I was very tired and just focused on getting back to the room, but any other time I thought about it, all I could imagine was my mother flipping out if I splattered my brains on the highway.

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Aside from the insects, other living creatures that hindered my driving by meandering onto the road, blocking my parking, or jumping out in front of me include: chickens, dogs, cows, goats, water buffalo, and tourists. Dogs were easily the most common, but they did a very good job of watching traffic, watching humans, and responding to beeps. The closest thing to an accident I had was one very confused dog who zigged into traffic instead of out. While stopping in a hurry, I put my feet out for balance, and my big toe got mildly scraped on the street.

Goats were usually not in the road. Cows and water buffalo were large enough that they expected to have right of way. The only near incident was having a calf come over to see if I had any food while I was trying to get out of a tight parking spot. The chickens, somewhat unexpectedly, never crossed the road.

Except for the dogs who roamed free, the animals were usually tethered with some kind of long string so that their owners could leave them to graze a reasonably large area without being in fear of having them wander off while no one was looking.

There is little to no traffic on Panglao except the 1-2km stretch next to Alona where all the bars, international restaurants, and tourist traps are situated. Every evening when we came back to the hotel, we had to drive through this and I dreaded it every time. However insane the other drivers were, the locals were generally safe drivers and my helmet tagged me as a foreigner to watch out for. Some had installed strobe lights or other party lights which made driving behind them a pain, but the worst by far were the tourists on foot. Whether drunk, lost, or simply staring at their phones, these people did very little watching of the traffic around them, and on at least one occasion a young man stepped out into the street right in front of my bike!

Passing and Turning

I drove up some intense twisting mountain roads. On the straighter roads, cars, bikes,  trucks and buses just passed whenever they felt like it. Often they drove on the wrong side of the road to get around one another and generally everyone is ok with this. However, in the mountains, the narrow roads and tight turns made this impossible. Combined with the fact that I just didn’t feel safe driving fast on hairpin turns on a scooter I’d learned to drive two days previously, I soon wound up with a line of traffic behind me. Doubly unfortunate, for long stretches the shoulder was nonexistent, the road dropping off sharply into drainage ditches or mountainside. I pulled over when I could, but it was more than a little nerve-wracking. I recalled similar drives in NZ with my rental car on the narrow winding roads while the locals and shipping trucks drove in silent annoyance behind me and reminded myself that it was better to be safe than to drive too fast and crash. Then again, I may be putting too much American in it. Road rage is a major thing in the US, and honking is a real sign of aggression. In the Philippines it seemed that a little ‘bip’ on the horn was more often just a friendly, “hey, I’m here” for awareness and safety and not a “get out of the way!” honk.

Women Drivers

Many Filipinos were surprised to see us on bikes at all, partially because we were foreign, but mostly because we were women. I saw only a small number of women driving motor bikes the whole time I was there. Mostly they were passengers riding behind a man. Sometimes whole families would pile on a single scooter. One taxi driver told us that not too many women drive there, although there isn’t any kind of legal restriction like in KSA. Our hotel hostess told us she had tried to learn before but had been too scared. Independence of transportation is so important for women’s equality, I hope that the younger generation will buck the trend. This is not to say that Filipina women are trapped at home, there were plenty of jeepneys and tricycles for hire, but there’s no substitute for independence.

Road Signs on a Long Drive

It was a nearly excruciating drive from the Chocolate Hills back to Panglao. As much as I adore the wondrous sensation of riding through the lush green countryside with the wind on my face, after so many hours my butt on that seat began to express a level of misery I think only marathon cyclists can relate to. As dusk approached, the drive became a contest between a desire to get back to the smaller island before dark and a need to stop every 20 minutes to move our legs. I tried to distract myself with reading the signs on the side of the road. The best was “Caution: vertical curve ahead”… put your best guess in the comments.

Although I didn’t get a shot of the first amusing sign, on my last day while I was pausing to check my GPS, I spotted this sign to Albuquerque, and all I could think “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn…”

The Sunset Burn

Around sunset, a whole new peril was added to the joyful dangers of scooter driving. At dusk, the Filipinos burn everything. Seriously, I have no idea. It smelled wonderful, like campfire wood-smoke, so I don’t think it was garbage burning (an actual recourse for the very poor in Manila. read here and here). Some might have been cooking, but it also seemed like some people just made brush-fires on the side of the road. I guess farming has more leftover plant matter than they know what to do with? The upshot was that the road was not merely pleasantly reminiscent of summer campgrounds, but actually choked with smoke and ash, making it hard to see and hard to breathe. An hour or two later it was gone, and it happened every night that I was out on a road at dusk.

If I return to do that again I’ll invest in a cloth mask for breathing and some kind of goggles since my sunglasses were more a hazard at dusk than the smoke for my vision. If we weren’t so nervous about driving in the dark, I think we might have been better off stopping for dinner and driving again after the burning time passed.

Photo Ops

I rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry. I had no confidence at all to try to take photos while driving (although I saw Filipinos on their phones while driving motorbikes, I’m still convinced that’s a really bad idea) so there aren’t many photos of this part of the trip. On later drives through Bohol, I did stop a couple times and take pictures, but I always feel a little strange taking pictures of people just living their lives, like kind of super-white-national-geographic-exploitive. I don’t know how to get across that I want to share their lives, not make them out to be exotic zoo creatures, so I just don’t take photos more often than not. I mean, how would you feel if a tourist drove through your neighborhood and took pictures of you mowing your lawn or hanging your laundry?

Friday (day 6) was chosen for the second long drive day onto the big(ger) island of Bohol to catch the other Tarsier Sanctuary and a lunch cruise along the Loboc river. The drive wasn’t far, but I passed through yet more of the iconic Bohol scenery and finally succumbed to stopping for photos when I saw another car stopped on the side of the road and a white man taking pictures of workers harvesting the rice fields. I still felt awkward, but at least I was blending in to other tourists being weird? Oh, who am I kidding, I’m a lone white woman on a motorbike in the middle of farm country, there’s no blending in.

Stick in the Mud

My last full day, I went on back roads in search of hidden waterfalls, which I found and enjoyed and will share in another post. However, since it had rained heavily the night before, I found these unpaved rural streets to be made mostly of mud. On the worst of these roads, I had the only other near accident experience of the trip. While driving in, once or twice I hit a mud puddle and slid around a bit, but I was going slow and making progress … until I wasn’t. I managed to drive right into a deep and long patch of mud that claimed the bikes tires and stopped me flat. Putting my feet down, I sank in the mud past my ankles, and I worked hard to get the bike unstuck. I wasn’t able to move it on my own and decided to give it just a little gas to get the wheel moving, but this resulted in the rear wheel going sideways out from under me, and dropping me and the front end into the bushes on the side of the road. Since I wasn’t moving at the time, the only damage I sustained was some minor bruising where the bike fell on my leg.

On the way back out, I decided to simply turn off the bike and walk around the mud patches. This was a great plan until I got to one that was bigger than the road. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d thought driving through it on the way in was a clever idea. I only managed to get back out because some very kind young people walked ahead of me and found the most solid ground through the morass that would take the bike’s weight without sinking. The result of this mudtastic adventure is that when I returned the bike to Jesse the next morning it looked like this, but Jesse wasn’t upset.

In Conclusion

Despite a few minor inconveniences, I still think renting motorbikes was the single best decision I made regarding this holiday. Not only did I get to see so much more of the countryside that I would from a tour bus, but I had the freedom to set my own schedule and persue my own adventures, which became more and more adventurous as I became a more confident driver. Although I have only a few photos of the road, my memories of driving through the stunning scenery with the wind caressing my skin and the fresh air filling my lungs are some of my favorite of the whole trip.


Today is American Thanksgiving. It’s a little strange to realize you have a holiday that’s only celebrated in one country on earth. Last year I went over to the Naval Base with some friends for a traditional meal, but this year I sadly had a dentist appointment. Aside from that, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Thanksgiving is a holiday with questionable origins. The Korean kids liken it to Chuseok, which is a holiday for honoring family and ancestors, but American kids are taught a fairytale about the Pilgrims and Indians. In an attempt to find balance and gratitude, this year I’m going to have a traditional Korean feast with a friend and think about what I’m thankful for, including the fact that we can learn to treat each other better than our ancestors did.

Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.

Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from. Although I didn’t write anything about them at the time, I threw in some memories this time around.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Second Semester 2008: After returning from the long break in Seattle, my life became about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style. I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And then there were cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my Instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤