Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!

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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The No-Travel Blog?

I feel like I’ve been absent from writing for months. I set up a schedule of publication in anticipation of having more new things to write by now and it simply hasn’t manifested. What happens to a travel blogger when they aren’t traveling? No one but the independently wealthy and the corporately sponsored can maintain a year-round travel lifestyle, so chances are, all your favorite travel bloggers have downtime, too. In an effort to keep my story alive, I’m here to look at this question and hopefully figure out how to fill time and pages until the next time I get on a plane.


In 2015 when I headed back to Seattle for 5 months, I tried to write about my life there, but it was so much “go to work, look for work, hang out with friends” that I couldn’t think of anything to say for 3 of those 5 months. Winter makes it even harder since the local adventures that one could otherwise undertake to find writing inspiration are out of reach (especially if you don’t ski).

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2017 presented similar adventure writing challenges. My whole summer holiday was spent amid friends and family, mostly in their homes. I did take photos when we went on outings, but to be honest, I was much more focused on catching up with them than in the scenery. I suppose it’s just possible that the blogosphere would enjoy such personal details, but I doubt my friends and family would appreciate being aired in public. Plus, inside jokes are really hard to narrate. Thus, the summer trip got exactly one blog post, while a typical holiday may have 10-20 stories!

I did take a trip in the fall which is the main new content I’ve been able to publish, but I had no winter holiday at all, just a brief weekend trip. Leaving me to reach back into archives and scramble for even small details to bring to the page.

It’s not just the writing either. Traveling is my hobby and my greatest source of joy. The thrill of planning a trip, reading other blogs on my destination and looking for the best hidden gems while designing the most efficient color-coded itinerary (ok yes that makes me a little weird, but I love it). Then going on the trip and seeing all the things I looked forward to plus finding things I didn’t even know about. Then coming back and sorting through my memories and photos and researching all the things I saw but didn’t know about (still a nerd). Then finally posting my story here. It’s a whole process that keeps me engaged and productive and most of all happy.

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Finding Your Happy

Like a lot of people in the modern world, I struggle with happiness. I spent a long time not having it, and a long time learning how to change that. There’s all kinds of stuff out there about positivity and manifesting, most of which is quite frankly bunk, but it does have a root in real science.

Surely you’ve noticed that when you’re in a good mood, everything seems wonderful. Conversely, when you’re feeling low, even really great things can barely make a dent in the depression. Happy brains focus on the positive without effort. Unhappy brains focus on the negative, often way more than we want them to. Cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology are ways to help train your brain to focus on good things more often. As with any other form of training, it takes hours and hours of practice and effort and as soon as you stop, you lose ground.

Like playing the piano or working out, happiness requires daily practice. For me, the anticipation, experience and reflection cycle of travel is my happiness workout routine. 2017 was like a broken ankle in my happiness marathon training. I knew it was a legitimate (non-imaginary) problem, and I tried hard to take it easy and give myself time to deal with the things that were presenting as obstacles, knowing that one day soon it would get better again. Well, now it’s April of 2018 and I’m stretching out those “muscles” for the first time in months and boy are they rusty.

No, It’s Not Out There

When the stress of the job hunt was finally over and spring was on the horizon, I thought, “ok, this is where it gets awesome again!”

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Wrong. Instead of sunny 17 degree weather, I got sleet and ice. Instead of 2 weeks of beautiful blooms and festivals, I got one day of getting lost trying to find a few trees that hadn’t quite gotten there yet, followed by enough rain to destroy them all. 

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Instead of going to see a traditional Korean bullfight (no animals harmed!) and persimmon wine tasting, I’m going back to the dentist because the festival was canceled due to concerns of, I’m not kidding, foot in mouth disease… which I guess is a cow thing. Every external goal that I pinned my happiness on fell through and my emotional resilience took hit after hit as I faded into a potato chip munching Netflix binge-watching funk.

I was relying on the spring warm weather, the cherry blossoms, and the resumption of the Korean festival bonanza to lift me back into mental shape and that was a critical mistake. Happiness doesn’t come from outside. Of course, mindfulness and gratitude practices are easy when the world outside is giving you a lot of beauty to be mindful of and grateful for, but relying on the external for that boost can only last so long.

All The Small Things

Thus sitting in my small room, staring at the gloomy gray skies and listening to the rain that was ruining everything and huddling with my heating pad to fight off the winter that wouldn’t leave, I found myself asking the question, “How can I even write a travel blog if I’m not DOING ANYTHING?”

Which, a few days later I realized is a tremendously silly way of looking at this. I’m doing a helluva lot. I moved to a new city (in Korea), rented a foreign apartment all by myself for the first time, started teaching in a totally new educational environment, started exploring my new neighborhood and meeting new people. Ok, so I haven’t had any “big” adventures, but I’m not in a coma.I didn’t get cherry blossoms, but I tried every cherry blossom themed food I could find. I may not have any sweeping vistas of the mountains without smog or rain, but I’ve been focusing on the small flowers and building a bigger photo journal on Instagram. Sometimes small stuff is where we have to look for joy. The point is, never stop looking. Join me as I reflect on the tiny adventures of daily life in Gyeongju, South Korea. 

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Don’t worry. This isn’t going to permanently turn into a daily life blog. I have a trip planned to Japan in May and I’m going to Europe for the summer holidays so there will be plenty of travel stories coming soon. Until then, try to enjoy this “slice of life” time, and check out the Instagram for my spring flower collection. Thanks for hanging in there with me. ❤

Professor Gallivantrix 2: The Winter Applicant

It’s been both hectic and great getting used to this new job. Learning the ins and outs of my office, my classes, my students, and my new town has taken up a lot of my time, but I’m hoping to have more writing time soon. I’m also hoping to have more adventures to write about now that spring is springing and nature is more welcoming. For the moment, content yourselves with continuing the harrowing tale of my months long hunt and eventual capture of the elusive Korean University Teaching Job. 


Related imageInterviews

It wasn’t until November 17th I got my first positive response, and it was still a soul-crushing nightmare. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Korean universities all want to do face to face interviews… for the first round of shortlisted candidates… during school hours.

This school wanted me to travel 4+ hours to have a 15-minute interview and then travel back. I would miss an entire day of work, including class time, which is just not possible with EPIK. I could arrange to use my PTO to leave the building early (after classes but before “end of work”) or on a desk warming day when there are no classes, but the only reason to miss out on time in front of the students is being in the hospital. Yes, ok, I could possibly fake being sick and head to an interview, but this was the initial round of the application process not a final formality and there was no guarantee that I’d be offered this position, or accept it. How many more interviews would I have to attend during this process? I couldn’t burn my school out either because I still needed the CT and principal to be good references.

I had to turn down the interview. My first “real” interview was a week later when I managed to schedule a phone interview with another school.

12 December 2017

What is with the schools who want me to get on a bus for 4 hours to have an interview on a work day? If your foreign candidate is living in your country, they are probably here on a work visa, which means they’re working… probably as a teacher… which you are hiring for… would you let your teachers take off a day to go interview at another school? no? then WHY do you think we can come to you?

Midway through December, I had to turn down another face to face interview because of scheduling and travel. I had the flu, and even though the university was willing to work with me to change the time so that I could come on a Friday evening (leaving Busan after my last class at 12:30 to get there in time), I felt that pushing through the school day, and a 4 hour bus ride, with a flu that had me barely able to talk and totally unable to stop sipping tea and blowing my nose every 3 minutes was not going to make me a good candidate at the interview.

I managed another phone interview and one more skype interview a few days before Christmas. I was briefly feeling confident that I’d be able to make this happen without having to take time off work or spend tons of time and money bussing across the country.

Christmas Eve Blacklist

Going more than a little crazy, I made myself this promissory list on Facebook to help me through the holidays.

24 December 2017
Plans:

  • Get a good uni job in Korea
  • Get a spring start job elsewhere
  • Leave this apartment by Feb 25th no matter what
  • Move to Penang and keep applying for a uni job with a fall start
  • If no uni job presents itself, take any decent job and get into PhD program earlier than planned
  • online teaching
  • vietnam short term contracts
  • If this whole mess falls apart like crazy, go back to Seattle for a few months and then get into the PhD program
  • Do not falter.
  • Do not accept a job that will make you miserable (at least not until you’re down to airfaire money)
  • Do not give up.
  • Do not go crazy.

I was actually offered a job that day. I thought I’d succeeded in only applying for positions I would actually accept. I mean, there’s no point in applying for a job that obviously doesn’t work for you. I had already limited my search to universities. I rejected ads that had too many teaching hours or questionable lists of extra duties. And I rejected places that were too far out in the boonies because I know that about myself. So when I got this offer, it was like, “Merry Christmas to ME!”

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Then I looked at the contract, and it was not even close to what the ad had said or what was said in the interview. The work hours were all over the map. A teacher could be expected to have a class anywhere from 8am to 9:30pm. The 16 hours “average” was based on a semester total, and overtime was only paid by the semester, so it was possible to work 27 hours in one week and 8 in another but still not get OT. Moreover, I don’t do split schedules anymore. Some people might like that, I do not.  I really don’t trust someone who says, “but in reality, it works this way” when the contract goes on to specify how I’ll be getting screwed in hours and pay.

 

My suspicions firmly aroused, I looked up the school on teacher review websites and found that it was one of two universities in Korea to be on the blacklist… with two negative reviews from the most recent school year about exactly the things I was concerned about. It was disappointing, but my experience taught me that it’s better to say no than end up in a job that would make me miserable. I had my back up plans and I had to stick to my guns, so I turned them down.

The New Year

Somewhere in early January, I started getting more into schools in China. I was feeling very hopeless about Korea and discovered that several cities in China have boosted their air quality back to a level I feel comfortable living with, so I expanded my horizons. I’m not going into a lot of detail because this is a post about a job in Korea, but it is still part of the picture that I was hurling resumes out left right and sideways and scheduling phone or skype interviews as often as possible.

During this time, I also caved in and started going to interviews in person. It helped that one finally offered a Saturday option so I didn’t have to miss work, even though I did spend 12 hours traveling for 20 minutes worth of interview. And no, I didn’t get that job either, although they were very kind and reassured me that I was on a very short list of candidates invited to interview and was encouraged to try again in the future…

6 January · Gwangju ·

Trying not to be nervous. Arrived 1 hr 15 min early. Spent 30 min waiting for a taxi. I really don’t want to ruin this cross country journey by being 5 min late because of taxis.

Then a weird thing happened. A school I’d applied for and not even heard a peep from back in November put up another hiring ad. I emailed to be sure it was real and not some scheduled ad they’d paid for and forgotten about and was told yes, the school was doing another round of hiring after all. So I submitted my credentials again. A couple days later I get an email asking me to call them and after verifying I am the person matching the paperwork. Yes, I’m really me.

They politely tell me how sorry they are but the Dean will not approve an interview because they don’t accept “private academy experience”. “I’ve never worked at an academy. What are you talking about?”

After some misunderstandings, we realized the name of the company that hired me to teach in Saudi looks too much like a private English Academy and they disregarded the part where it said the name of the University I worked in over there. If the kind gentleman who received my email asking if the ad was real hadn’t felt bad and wanted to personally apologize, they would never have thought twice and I would never have known why.

I have since updated my resume to showcase the UNIVERSITY part first and the name of the employment company second, but all this stems from the fact that I got hired by a private company to work at a university which has been a thorn in my resume ever since. Getting experience to translate from country standard to country standard is not easy.

All this clarification happened the night before the interviews were scheduled, but it was in a town only one hour away, so I was barely able to squeak in getting to leave early from work to catch the intercity bus and the very last interview of the afternoon. To highlight how ridiculous this permission thing is: my classes finished at 12:20, I asked if I could leave at 12:30, I was told, no you have to wait until 12:40. I have no idea why, but this kind of insane scheduling nonsense was just one more stressful addition to my plight to attend interviews.

Plus, they wanted yet something else for the interview, because everyone wants to make their candidates create unique original content just for them. So I had to make a whole new Powerpoint presentation about my educational style and lesson plans with handouts. The only advantage of having to make slightly different versions of application and interview materials is that over time it does get easier to assemble the custom build from parts you’ve already made before.

Choices! 

While all this was going on, I was offered another position. It wasn’t as blatantly awful as the first but it was less than ideal. It was a few more hours and a less than great schedule, in a large city that I happen to know is too hot, but no clear deal breakers. I could be okay there. Not happy, not miserable, just okay. Which isn’t bad when you’re on a path to level up your career. The hard part was, they needed an answer while I was being invited to this interview at a school I really liked, and one other that was at least close to Busan (allowing me to keep my social life here). Do I take the mediocre and totally palatable bird in the hand or do I let it go and risk losing everything in pursuit of a much better bird?

I turned them down too and went to more interviews instead.

Winter Not-Vacation

The next week was my winter vacation. I didn’t go anywhere at all. Not only because it was a shorter holiday than I usually take, but because not knowing if the end of February would find me hopping off to Penang, moving to my new job in Korea, or moving to my new job in China, I couldn’t justify spending the money on a holiday if I was going to have to spend it on living without a job for 5 months or relocating to my new job site. Instead, I went to more interviews.

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I went to another near Busan, less than an hour away. I discovered there were 8 people interviewing and only 2 open positions. I wondered how common this was. I wondered how many times I would be invited to round one, beating out 100+ paper applications to make it to the top 10 or 8, then not be good enough to be the top 2. I got a rejection text later that same day.

15 January · Busan ·

I hate job hunting. I hate the fact that everyone wants something different but you never know what and are treated like an idiot for asking. I hate investing hours and hours and getting my hopes up only to be told I came in second place, really great candidate but there was just one person better. I hate the emotional rollercoaster of hope and rejection.

Too Much Winning

Then suddenly it happened. I got an email from THE JOB, the one I really wanted, the one I applied for twice, the one that almost didn’t interview me because they misread or I miswrote my CV. It seemed provisional, they said they were recommending me to be hired and had to wait for permission. I was almost sure it was a formality but it seemed so strange. I had one more interview scheduled for the next afternoon and I almost didn’t go, I was so thrilled to be leaving the emotional nightmare of job hunting behind me.

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Instead, I got on the bus and headed up to the next big city down the road. I found the campus easily enough and I had the best interview I think I’ve ever had. I was so relaxed and apparently the hiring committee had had some terrible interviews before me so they were relieved to hear that I had reasonable answers to their questions. We cracked jokes and laughed at each other’s silly comments and they told me about the job and it sounded magical. Like, everything I ever wanted magical. Low teaching hours, no crazy staff meetings, no office hours, no writing classes, huge paid holidays, and it seemed like I really got on with these people.

I went from feeling worthless in despair to having 2 great jobs in front of me. They emailed me the very next day to offer me the position. My emotional switches were all over the map. I couldn’t make up my mind which was better. There were no clear advantages to either place and nothing even close to a deal breaker. It was like I’d arrived at the next level of career and had no idea what to do now that I was there.

*Oh, yeah, and one of those Universities in China offered me a position as well. But with two great options in Korea, moving just didn’t seem appealing. No matter how great a story teaching Political Science courses in Communist China might be.

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In the end, my choice was almost entirely emotional. I spent as long as I could putting off committing to one university and I feel bad that I had to withdraw from one of them because I truly believe I could have been happy at either place. In the end, one of the new hires at the school I chose withdrew at the last minute too. I’m told it happens with regularity because basically everyone is doing what I did: interviewing everywhere and then going with the best offer rather than the first. When I showed up for orientation, I was the only new person at the university I chose because everyone else they had hired had backed out at the last minute.

What did I learn?

Image result for apply to all the jobs memeApply like mad, but weigh your investment. There is something to the idea of applying for jobs even if you don’t meet all the requirements, but in the case of jobs abroad make sure you do meet the visa requirements (set by the government) and there can be some flexibility of the school’s requirements (set by the Dean). However, when employing the scattershot application tactic, be sure to draw the line at applying for jobs that will waste time and energy for too little potential return.

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Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Of course, if you get your dream job on the first try, like my friend who applied to one university in Japan, interviewed and was hired (what is the word when you’re happy and jealous at the same time?), if that happens, there’s no need to say anything but “yes”. In my case though, I got offers that weren’t great and if I had accepted them, I would have missed out.

Practice. Practice. Practice the paperwork and the interviews. The more versions of your cover letter you write, the easier it gets. The more variations of lesson plan you compose, the easier it becomes. The more interviews you do, the more you get used to answering the questions that will be asked. I won’t say it’s never a waste of time, but a lot of these failed applications and interviews helped me get better.

Image result for never give up memeDon’t give up. Cry, eat too much chocolate, put that Will Smith inspirational video about failure on a loop, call your mom in the middle of the night. Do whatever you need to do to push through the horrible feelings of failure. I wrote a 3-page essay on my feelings of failure and posted to Facebook thinking “oh, no one is going to read this” and I got a massive amount of support from people who either do or have felt exactly the same way.

Being in 7th place is ok when there are more than 7 prizes. Okay, 7 is arbitrary, but I have this theory that the reason I got only crappy responses in December and way better offers in January is that all the people who were more qualified or better at interviews got those good jobs in December and were off the market by January, giving those top spots up to me. I feel no shame. My elementary school Korean coworkers were all jealous as hell of my new job, so I know I did good.

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There is no “ultimate guide” to getting a university job in Korea. I read dozens of articles and blogs and listicles and they all have things that can help guide you, but nothing is really definitive. You don’t have to have an MA. You don’t have to be published. You don’t have to know someone who already works there. You probably don’t even really have to be in Korea. I had two offers from places I did phone/skype interviews with. All you have to do is qualify for the visa, apply like mad, and play the game of chicken: keep applying and going to interviews as long as possible because this country is still made of last-minute actions.


I’ve been at my new job for a month now, and so far I’m really happy with it. I know there will be things about this and every job I have in my life that I do not like or that I will complain about. I don’t expect it to be perfect. But I think it’s going to be a good step upward in my quality of life as well as in building my future. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I get to explore a new part of Korea (Gyeongju) and I get to have students who are forming adult thoughts, plus some generous vacation time this summer for more international adventures. Year of the Dog, here I come!

Run Corgi Run GIF by McIdea

©2013-2018 McIdea

 

 

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.

Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Fishing Festival

This winter holiday, I stayed in Korea for … reasons. But amid all my boring yet stressful classwork and job hunting, I managed to squeeze in a trip to the frozen north (not the country) to frolic on a frozen river and try my hand at catching the delicious and famous river trout through the ice. Leave it to Korea to make an ice fishing festival the event of the snowy season.


World’s Largest Indoor Ice Sculptures

It took about an hour to get to the festival from our hotel, but we still arrived early in the day. I had read the pamphlet ahead of time and knew my priorities for the day. First things first, I had to find the ice sculptures. Maybe it’s a holdover from my brief stay in Texas, maybe it’s my American-ness showing through, or maybe they’re just frickin’ awesome, but I love going to see “The World’s Largest”s. Combine something as beautiful as ice carvings with “World’s Largest” and it’s a magnet.

According to the map, I had to leave the river and head in to the city. It seemed like walking distance, but there’s no scale to these festival maps, so I really had no idea. I headed in what seemed like the right direction and soon became disoriented. Lucky for me, I found a helpful parking lot attendant I could ask, and she spoke wonderful English. I don’t expect it. I ask in Korean now because I can, but I think people like practicing their English on me and will often respond in English if they’re able.

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It was a bit farther than I thought it would be, but it was not at all hard to find since the main street of the town had been completely decked out in paper mache fish and I only had to follow the decorations straight to the exhibition hall.

My tour group had purchased special “foreigner” passes for us which included free entrance to many activities around the festival, so I simply had to show my pass at the door and I was waved inside. A few twisting hallways and some airlock flaps later, I was standing in a room roughly the size of a small airplane hangar surrounded by towering ice constructions.

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Lights had been frozen into the ice so that it glowed from within. Some ice had been colored before freezing to make opaque blocks for flowers and animals. Nearly everything was inviting us to touch and climb on it, with only a few special items having “don’t touch” signs. Children and adults alike wasted no time exploring, climbing, and posing for photos.

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Soon I headed into the ice tunnel under the main structure and found myself in the next chamber surrounded by castles, turrets, and SLIDES! Two long slides came down on either side of the structure I had just come through, landing riders into ball pits for fun and safety.

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I watched for a while, then mounted the stairs. I was pleased to see the ice stairs were cut with treads for grip to keep us from slipping while climbing up or down. From the top, the view was even more spectacular and I started to realize how big the World’s Biggest actually is.

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The most successful sliders had been able to stay on their feet, crouching on the way down without letting their pants touch the ice slide. I tried this technique, but my left foot went out from under me almost immediately and I landed on my bum. Fortunately, I was already crouched down, so it wasn’t far. I tried to slide down the rest of the way on my bottom, but my jeans refused to slide! I had to get back up on my feet about three more times to get to the ball pit, but it was worth it.

As I moved through the display, marveling at the sheer size of these ice buildings, I noticed some signs that indicated each one was a replica of a famous work of architecture from around the world.

St. Vladimir Cathedral (Russia)

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The Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada)

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The Church of Gran Madre de Dio (Italy)

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The Storting (Norway)

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Zenko-ji Temple (Japan)

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The Temple of Heaven (China)

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Utah State Capitol Building (USA)

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I spent far too long exploring the beautiful towers of light and ice, admiring the shifting colors, the grand towering replicas that defied me to resort to panorama mode in order to capture their full form, the tiny air bubbles and crystalline formations inside the blocks that caught and played with the light, and the sheer exuberance of everyone in attendance as they ran from place to place trying to take it all in and touch everything with brief pauses for photos in between.

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I don’t know why the world’s largest indoor ice sculptures are here in this small town in Korea rather than in someplace like Dubai (which loves indoor snow) or Toronto which has a ready supply of cold, or really anyplace with an international airport. But here it is. And it is marvelous.

*You can see more pictures on the Facebook Album.

Ice Fishing

The next activity on my list was ice fishing. I’ve never done it before and where better to try for the first time than an ice fishing festival. For those of you picturing a lone fisher next to a single hole out on a frozen lake, or even a portable cabin that can be moved from ice hole to ice hole, banish these vast landscape of wilderness images from your minds. In Hwacheon, hundreds of holes were cut in the thick ice of the river at regular intervals where visitors could go to try their hand at catching a trout.20180114_113732.jpg

As I came back up the main road and approached the river, I could see where the flowing water and frozen surface met downstream of the festival proper. I headed upstream and was soon in the midst of crowds of ice fishers. The Koreans all seemed to have their own equipment, and I had been told my equipment rental was included in my entrance pass, but I had no idea where to go to get it. I stopped at one of the entrance gates to inquire, and showed my pass, but was told that this area was not for foreigners, I had to keep going about 10 minutes.

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Odd, segregated fishing, but I suppose it might help them to provide better services to the foreigners if we’re all in one place? I walked and walked and walked. I saw many more fishing areas, but none for foreigners. It didn’t help that the brochure map we had been given had simply been translated into English rather than being marked for foreign visitors, so there was no marker for the foreigner fishing area on my map. Finally I was sure I’d gone too far, and so I asked again and was told this time to go back the way I’d come about 10 minutes…

You can imagine I was less than pleased. I explained I’d come from that direction and had not seen it at all. The poor young man was flummoxed because while he understood me well enough, he didn’t quite know a) how to express himself and b) where exactly it was. So we went to the information tent and he called someone and they showed me on the map in the tent where to go. It was the area marked as Children’s Fishing which was also not labeled on my map. I only remembered passing it because it had a huge sign at the entrance.

I said as much and after some linguistic confusion in which both of us forgot the word for children in each other’s languages (vocabulary always abandons you when you need it most), some further rapid Korean with the woman on the phone, and handing the phone to me for far less rapid English, it was determined that the Children’s area and the Foreigner’s area were the same.

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I thanked him for his help and headed back towards the kids area. I was starting to have a rough time with the crowd. I sometimes feel like there’s some hidden crowd language in Korea I’m just not getting, but it seems like no matter which way I’m going or which side of the path I’m on, it’s wrong, and people will bash into me and give me dirty looks. It’s not actually something that happens every day (or at least I don’t notice it every day if it does), but it tends to happen more at events and festivals.

I know every culture has it’s own unwritten rules for sharing space, but I can’t seem to figure these out. And on that day, I was getting shoulder checked pretty regularly by people coming toward me. The hard part is, I don’t even know if it’s passive aggressive or if they are really just so different that this bumping doesn’t seem rude to them. But I had been walking a long time with no break. Breakfast was a long time ago. I just wanted to catch a fish for lunch and was struggling to find the one spot I was allowed to fish in of the hundreds of fishing holes around me, and I was getting run into… a lot.

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The kids area turned me away, too. Politely. And they did finally manage to tell me that I needed to cross the river to get to the foreigners’ side, which was the first time anyone had done so. However, even though the foreigners’ fishing area was simply on the opposite bank, and the river was frozen solid, there was no way across there.

I looked around debating between trying to find a place on the ice where foot traffic was allowed all the way across or going back up to one of the bridges above. The reason the ice was not passable was that every bit of it was covered in some kind of festival activity. Fishing holes took about half the space (not all in one area), but there was a bobsled, an inner-tube sled, a zip-line, ice skating, hand pushed sledding, curling, ice soccer, and some kind of area with large robots children could ride in and enact mecha-battles, as well as the oh so very famous bare handed trout catching. That river was covered in fun.

I spotted stairs down the far bank and decided the bridge was a better option, so I hoofed it back over to a staircase, across the long suspension bridge, and over to the concrete stairs I’d seen only to find that they were blocked off at the top!

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I think I still would have gotten lost even if I hadn’t gone to see the ice sculptures first because our bus parked quite near those blocked steps, and also near the suspension bridge. So near, in fact, that most of us crossed that bridge first thing. Even though all the services for foreigners were practically right under it. I should have just gotten a snack when I started feeling stressed. I should have gotten food and sat down, but I kept thinking I was just a few more minutes away from my goal. I could make it a few more minutes… until I couldn’t. It’s important to me to remember this even though it wasn’t fun because I need to remember to rest, to eat, to give myself space when I start to feel frustrated instead of pushing on.

20180114_143753.jpgWith only one more wrong turn (I foolishly went into the building labeled Foreigner’s Fishing thinking I might pick up my rental rod there, but nope) I at last had my tiny blue fishing rod and my own hole in the ice. As I stood there working out the fishing technique by watching others, I began to relax and look around. I might have a small clue why people enjoy fishing other than eating fish. I was dubious of how this would work because our hooks had no bait, only a lure. It didn’t take long before the first person near me caught a fish and hauled it flopping out of the freezing water and onto the ice.

It’s not fair that fish aren’t cute. I don’t know if I could watch someone catch a chicken or a small mammal and be ok, but fish just don’t phase me. In fact, I felt better about the old men who walloped their fish unconscious or dead quickly than the more squeamish younger people who let them suffocate in the provided plastic bags.

I worked on my technique a little. Trick is to let the lure hit bottom (it’s not far), then reel it in about 5-10 cm as your low point. Jerking the line up toward the surface quickly simulates the darting motion of a real tiny fish which attracts the trout. I tried it a few different ways with no luck as more and more fishers around me caught their own lunches. I knew I didn’t have to catch one to eat one, my foreigner pass entitled me to one free cooked trout whether I caught it myself or not, but I still wanted to try. I gave myself 30 minutes because I did still want to do a couple other things at the festival.

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I never even got a nibble. But I did feel better. Even though I was cold and standing on the ice, there was something soothing about the repetitive motion of casting and reeling the line while watching the festival go on around me. I packed it in with only a little regret and went to find the food tent. Like so much at the festival, the foreigners had our very own (there was one for Koreans on the other side of the river, I’m still not sure how I feel about the segregation). Fish that people had caught were dropped off at the window of a field kitchen to be cleaned and wrapped in foil before being cooked.

The cooking method was a huge iron contraption with dozens of drawers that could be pulled out, have a foil wrapped fish inserted, and closed again to seal the fish inside the charcoal heated interior. I found some of my tour-mates inside the restaurant and cashed in my free fish coupon. I received possibly the ugliest presentation of the most delicious fish ever. I was very hungry and cold, but also happy. Maybe my hunger contributed to my perception of the flavor, but it was a damn fine fish. Fresh ice water trout caught only moments before it was cooked and served to me. It also made me feel better about not catching one, since the fish cook rotation meant that no one actually got served the same fish they turned in.

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I have been living in Korea long enough now that dissecting the fish with chopsticks didn’t phase me in the slightest and I even managed to pull out the skeleton whole when I was halfway through. I ate that entire fish and thanked it profusely for giving it’s life to me. Despite this fact, my stomach wasn’t quite full from what turned out to be a very late lunch.  I went back to the “restaurant” to see what other ways the trout was being prepared. There were fried cutlets and spicy sauces, but it was the sushi that caught my eye. Fresh trout sushi!? Um, yes please. And everything was so cheap because they were using the fish caught only a few meters away.

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After lunch, I ducked into a heated resting area to warm up a bit and met a man who had brought his entire family up from the Philippines just so his kids could see snow. He told me about the places in America he had visited, and I told him about my joys in Bohol. It was amazing to me that tourists were coming from so far to this ice fishing festival. I guess it’s a bigger deal than I knew.

When I could feel my toes again, I headed off to the last free ticket item on my list: the snow slide. This giant built up slide of ice and snow dominated the riverside. It’s top was at the street level and it’s bottom met the frozen river. Riders carried up inflated rings to toboggan downward and see how far out on the ice they could get the momentum to take them. I didn’t have much time left before our bus was leaving, but I figured I could make it at least once.

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This time, I crossed the river on the icy surface instead of taking the bridge because I could see that although the slide started at the top, the line started at the bottom. My foreigner pass pinned to my jacket (yeah, they said we had to wear them like that, class field trip style), I was ushered past the ticket line and given a sticker for 3 free slides! I got in the line to collect my inner-tube and watched as the kids ahead were fitted out with helmets. Adults were allowed to take the risk of going bare headed.

We trudged dutifully up the covered ramp. Most of the small children were lugging sleds as big as themselves but managing. One poor girl, maybe 3-4 years old had been sent on by her parents (who I guess were planning to take video from the bottom?) and the inner-tube was actually bigger than she was. Had I been closer in line, I would have carried it for her, but eventually between the bigger kids in line and the staff at the top, she managed to get there.

The slide was wide, 10 or more spaces across with sturdy metal handles for riders to grip as we tried to sit down on the tubes without slipping on the ice. With 3 layers of clothes plus jacket, I wasn’t bending too well, but I made it in time, and when the whistle blew I launched my sled forward and down. The slope was much smoother than the one at Nami Island and I picked up speed immediately, but also never caught any air time.

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I don’t know why we scream and holler in roller coasters and fast rides. I don’t know if it’s American, or Western or what. I know that a long time ago, I was scared of roller coasters and when I finally got over that fear, I was taught by my family about the joys of a good loud yell in the thrill of the moment.

I do know that I was the only person trailing a triumphant “WOOOOO HOOO HOOO HOOO!” on the way down the slope. I am not ashamed.

Finally it was time to head back. I barely managed to cross the bridge, find a bathroom and buy some hot cocoa for the road in time. Even still, I was somehow the last person back on the bus, and no matter how much the tour leader assured me that I wasn’t late, it felt weird to be the oldest person there and the last one out having fun. I’m still not ashamed.

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival: overall opinion?

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As much as I enjoyed the trip to a land of ice and snow and all the fun experiences new and renewed that I was able to have there, I am so ready for winter to end! We’ve had several weeks of below freezing temperatures (-10 C!) with dangerously low humidity (10%). Somewhere, a Canadian is reading this blog and scoffing, but the heater in my classrooms either doesn’t work or barely works and it takes me hours to warm up after sitting in this ice cold building all day. The Ice Festival was actually warmer than Busan is now. The inside of my refrigerator is probably warmer than the inside of my school. Hurry up, Spring!

Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

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It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

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The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

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The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

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The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

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While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

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I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

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I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

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Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

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Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

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Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

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Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

Queer Up! Pride 2017

This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!


Late For a Very Important Date

20170715_134128I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass.

During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.

Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.

Examine Your Feelings

Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.

Demarcation

20170715_152825We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.

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Booths For Everyone!

Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.

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The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).

The Issues

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In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)

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This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.

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Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.

Literal Translation:

  • Education Hope (news.eduhope.net)
  • juvenile sex minority exclusion
  • “school sex education” finally discarded!
  • binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls

The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.

Come to Jesus

20170715_133630(1)The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.

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Whypipo

Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.

Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk

20170715_134723There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.

One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.

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More On Stage

20170715_141013Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.

Get Your March On

Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.

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We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.

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Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.

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Military Entrapment

It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.

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Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.

Wrap Up

With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.

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Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.  

“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)

I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.

Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.

This year’s slogan?

There is no later. We demand change now.