Summary: year 1

Excerpts from journal entries written during my first year in Korea.

August 16th, 2014:

I am all packed. It is a miracle. 


September 1st, 2014:

This is my fifteenth day in Korea, and my seventh in Seoul. I was sick yesterday, and thankful it was Sunday. Culture shock is beginning to set in, but not in the way the name makes it sound. I’m becoming frustrated with how little I know, how useless I feel, and how insecure I feel to leave my apartment to complete [what used to be] very simple tasks.


September 19th, 2014:

This week was full. I had a breakdown momentarily in a bathroom stall at school on Wednesday, caused by the accumulation of everything along with a pressing, suffocating sense of incompetence (which is very, very hard on my pride). I pulled together, and after work my kind friend ______, a 5th grade homeroom teacher, took me out for sushi and then to Changgeonggung [an historic palace].


October 5th, 2014:

I need a change of heart in order to do my job well.


October 12th, 2014:

I came to this place grossly unprepared, and grossly unaware of how unprepared I was, and still am. Can the things I need to know be learned? Is it a lost cause? Can I bend without breaking? Can I learn to work well with others? Can I learn to like Korea? Can I find motivation to give it my best shot, day after day of bad, terribly bad, shots? Will the perpetual discomfort and wounded pride come to an end before my time here does? I don’t know. Life goes on, and takes me along with it.


November 2nd, 2014:

…my perspective has  been changed by the last few weeks of my life here in Seoul. The chaff is getting thrown out; I’m realizing what really matters. And so many things simply don’t.


November 27th, 2014:

Today is Thanksgiving. I had japchae for dinner.  A beautiful child smiled and waved at me before I got on the elevator in my apartment building this evening. His eyes were sparkling. I smiled and waved  back. Inhibition is learned, and we are lesser beings for it.


December 25th, 2014:

Christmas in Korea: the Romanian, the Ghanian, the Korean, the American, and the Hong Konger went for dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Oh, Korea, you don’t understand Christmas. But I’m thankful for friends.


January 24th, 2015:

One does not gain an indomitable spirit by strolling through the park.


January 27th, 2015:

Today I ate fruit salad with tomatoes in it, was told I have a beautiful head shape (which enables my short hairstyle to flatter me), heard one of the third grade students describe a paper doll as “ugly” because it had brown skin, and attended a KBS concert with four people of four different nationalities.


February 3rd, 2015:

I saw some rather astonishing pants on the subway this evening.


March 5th, 2015:

On the way home [from a concert], an old man sitting next to me asked, “Where are you from?” Unfortunately my single-sentence reply in Korean led him to believe that I’m fluent, and he subsequently poured out his soul on a variety of things, 99.879% of which I’ll never know.


April 20th, 2015:

Wednesday marks eight months in Korea. In four months, I will be somewhere else.


May 4th, 2015:

How things change…or rather, how we change.


August 17th, 2015:

If you made it one year, you can  make it one more year. Look how far you’ve come!

 

A personal narrative of unethical practice in ESL educational materials development, or, “Sorry, Brian!”

The day’s lesson included a worksheet. The worksheet featured pictures of flags from various countries and assorted snapshots of my “friends” to represent said countries and flags. The prior quotation marks on the word “friends” would hardly be required, but for the presence of Brian.

Brian is a decent chap whom I’ve met once in my life and will most likely (perhaps one might add, if all goes well?) never meet again. The summation of facts which I personally know about Brian are that 1) he is from England, and 2) his name is Brian. Conveniently enough for me (although perhaps unfortunate for him), these two facts were more than sufficient for my purposes. Brian’s nationality lined up perfectly with the textbook, since England is one of the six countries featured in the unit. This good fortune was coupled with the existence of a photo of Brian and yours truly, taken at a group event along with several other lovely people (who were cropped out — for the sake of developing educational materials, you understand).

Before I paint a picture of myself as a less-than-forthright individual regarding the use of photos containing people I hardly know, let me say, in my defense, so to speak, that the usage of Brian’s photo on the worksheet was one of the more honest ones, since the two known facts about him were preserved intact. Whereas, in some (all?) of the other cases, I found it necessary to slightly fictionalize certain details for the sake of conforming to the countries featured in the curriculum. For example, my friend Joy, originally and truthfully from the U.S., now finds herself reborn as a Canadian named Holly, and dear Kate has now had her origin of birth relocated to Australia. Amy, who indeed speaks Chinese and resided in that great nation for some time, has now been awarded permanent nationality in exchange for her original U.S. citizenship. Congratulations and condolences to all.

The main point in all this (if there is indeed a main point) is that each of the photos featured myself alongside the person from the nation of interest. As a direct result, an estimated fifty percent or more of my beloved fifth graders are now wholly convinced that their English teacher has a British boyfriend named Brian.

May God bless Brian. And may Brian forgive me for facilitating his unwitting contribution to education.

Of pigeons and plans

Yesterday I was waiting at the crosswalk. A pigeon was scampering by the curb, foraging for scraps and skittering back and forth from the outskirts of traffic. He found a bit of meat and picked at it. I noticed how small he was, in comparison to myself, and how tiny his head was in ratio to his body. His brain can’t be bigger than a pea, I thought to myself. Oblivious to my casual estimations of his cerebral powers, the bird found the bit of meat a bit too much for him, and opted to consume it by tearing off one small piece at a time. It’s really quite stupid, I mused (matter-of-factly, with no ill will towards the bird). After dragging the meat about and hopping around the way pigeons know best, tragedy struck. Mr. Pigeon’s lunch descended into the dark, inaccessible depths of a grate. His face didn’t register any expression that illuminated his feelings on the matter, if he had any. God even cares about this stupid bird who can’t even hold onto his lunch, I thought, failing to comprehend the idea. God truly has a sense of humor.

The crosswalk turned green, and the pigeon took flight to escape the onslaught of human feet. I smiled while crossing the street. What a sense of humor He has indeed. That pigeon has a brain the size of a small vegetable, and yet it can do something I’ll never be able to do. The episode felt comical, yet gave me pause. I can only wonder how the scene looked from our heavenly Father’s perspective.

The Gentle Power

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Today I have been musing over the incredible gift of kindness. It never ceases to amaze me much power is contained in the smallest of things: a laugh, a smile, a kind word. Here are two short stories to illustrate.

Today I got on the elevator in my apartment. There was a middle-aged Korean lady who boarded at the same time. She smiled at me and quietly said, “Hi.” I said, “Annyeonhaseyo.” She asked me how long I’ve been in Korea. I told her I’ve been here almost a year and that I work at a public school, and then she complimented me on my Korean pronunciation. The elevator reached my floor and we parted ways. Our entire interaction lasted around 30 seconds, but she made my day. Kindness is like nuclear density – small, yet powerful.

Yesterday was the last day of the semester at my school. I have developed a rapport with one of the subject teachers, who began working at the school this semester. She is around 60 years old, and doesn’t speak any English, so our interactions have been limited. Towards the end of the day, I was in my classroom, preparing for English camp. The phone rang, and I my initial thought was that it was one of my co-teachers, with a question or request. I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t take too long, because I was very busy. When I answered the phone, I was surprised to find that the person on the other end of the line wasn’t one of my co-teachers, but the aforementioned subject teacher. I only understood about 20-30% of her exact words, but I got the gist of it – she was calling to say goodbye for the semester, asked about English camp, and gave her best wishes for my health and happiness until we see each other again next semester. I was touched once I realized who it was and why she had called. It was only 15-20 seconds, but she made my day. I was beaming after that phone call. God bless her.

Don’t underestimate the power of kindness. It can transcend language barriers, cultural misunderstanding, and the general malaise of a day, a week, or a life.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” -Mother Teresa

“What is desirable in a man is his kindness, and it is better to be a poor man than a liar.” -Proverbs 19:22

My favorite places

A few of my favorite spots in Seoul, in no particular order:

  • Yangjae Flower Market, for sweet, clean air and beautiful flora
  • Jungnangcheon stream (중랑천), for the therapeutic power of running water
  • Seed Noir Coffee, for the ambience
  • Express Bus Terminal, for the necessary evil of shopping
  • Yeouido Park, for relaxing and people-watching
  • The subway, while crossing over the Han River (한강)
  • A tiny cafe called “Tempus”, because of the smiling lady who gives me free peach iced tea when I order a sandwich
  • My local mart, with its “Please sing” sign at the register when I pay with a debit card, and the friendly lady who says “Long time no see!” (in English or Korean) when I visit.

Hey Korea, I appreciate…

Thank You Green Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

…the lady at the convenience store where I buy bottled water, who always apologizes.

…the third grader in the hall who took a moment to stop and ask, in all sincerity, “Naomi teacher, how are you today?”

…the mini-conversation I had with two ladies at the dumpling stand this evening, during which I relayed (in broken Korean, almost completely devoid of grammar) the story of the three adjummas who flattered me by calling me pretty when I passed them on my way to school this morning.

It’s the little things that count – if we take the time to appreciate them.

12 things I’ve learned

My time here is nearing the three-month mark.  Below are a dozen lessons Korea has taught me during the past twelve weeks.

1. Korea is a “go with the flow” society.

But not like this…

More like this…

gowiththeflow

If change is the only constant in life, this was never truer than in Korea.

2. Korea smokes too much.

smoking

Holy smokes, Seoul!

Based on subjective olfactory experience, approximately 75% of males smoke in Seoul. One night in September, I had to sleep on my couch because smoke had permeated through the walls and into the sleeping loft of my apartment. Way to go, Korea. Please, for the sake of your lungs and my sanity, stop.

3. I am selfish.

selfishness1

It’s the darndest thing: I wake up each day, and Korea still hasn’t magically transformed into a dream world! Sheesh, what is WRONG with this place?!

The past few weeks have forced me to re-evaluate my motivation for many things, including why I moved here. I’m young. Growing up causes you to refine your goals and values. Some things get left behind or discarded. I’m learning to appreciate this sieving process, because I’ve realized that a lot of things I used to care about just don’t matter. Becoming aware of one’s selfish ignorance sure isn’t bliss, but I’ll take it any day over stagnation. And when grace comes into the picture, it changes everything.

 

4. Patience is re-defined when you live abroad.

patience

For an expat, a simple task that took 10 minutes back home could take weeks to complete, if it gets done at all. Seoul is one of the most populous cities in the world, and Korea is one of the most homogeneous societies on earth. These two factors alone provide plenty of opportunities for stretching an outsider’s patience.  Or going bald. For example, last night I had to [literally] fight my way out of the subway. There was no other way.  Koreans aren’t trying to be rude, but sometimes they are. There are too many people here, and they push and shove each other. Confusion arises all the time, and misunderstandings are the norm with my co-workers. I doubt my way of thinking makes any more sense to Koreans than theirs does to me. Life goes on, regardless of how loudly you kick and scream.

5. Korean culture is tough.

Iron-Man

Don’t move to Korea, Iron Man. You wouldn’t last a week on the job, and with over 10 million people living in Seoul, there’s no room for your Western ego here.

The Korean school system resembles the military, even in elementary schools. There are big societal problems here, as there are anywhere else in the world. It’s tough for everybody, Korean or expat. Horrible stuff is swept under the rug. There’s corruption. Harassment. Hierarchies. History. A “hurry up!” (“balli balli!”) mentality coupled with an addiction to competition, often resulting in disaster. Lots of things I’ll never understand, and many things I’ll never agree with.

 

6. Koreans naturally build vertical relationships.

hierarchical

Can you find me? Look down, waaaay down. 🙂

From an egalitarian Western perspective, this approach looks and feels unfair and uncomfortable. But it makes sense to Koreans. Even the language is structured on hierarchy, because you refer to people and end sentences according to a person’s respective ranking in comparison to you.

 

7. The obvious conclusion is probably the wrong one.

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I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.

For all the times I’ve kept my mouth shut in response to something that seems ridiculous, I haven’t once regretted it. Sometimes more information will surface later on that clears up the apparent absurdity, but usually not. In Korea, I daily resist the temptation to ask my favorite question: “Why?” It gets me nowhere, so I’ve stopped asking myself this question during confusing interactions, and my stress level is better for it.

8. Calm down.

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Sometimes I know of a better way to do things. It’s easy to get frustrated when I’m not able to share my opinions or methods because of language and cultural barriers. But it’s not worth getting angry over. I’m learning to smile and carry on, because at the end of the day, Korea is still Korea, and I’m still me.

 

9. Tourists don’t experience culture shock.

Culture shock is nasty, messy, and prolonged. It takes time to set in, and even  more time to overcome. One expat blogger in Japan described it this way:

“At every peak and crest of the culture shock wave you’re jostled about. The train conductor won’t refund your ticket and you can’t understand why, your coworkers give you mutually exclusive instructions on what to do (and then tell you to do both), you go to the grocery store and have no idea where to find a sponge and you assume that’s why you feel like crying beside the bath soap.”(http://thisjapaneselife.org/2013/05/22/7-ideas-for-staying-sane-as-an-expat-in-japan/)

While this depiction may seem funny, it’s also spot on. I look forward to crawling completely out of the hostility hole over the next few months. The sooner the better.

 

10. Relationships matter.

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I’m so grateful for my family and friends back home. Every time I receive a letter from one of them, it makes my day, and usually brings me to tears. I’m also incredibly thankful for the friends I’ve made here in Korea. Relationships are a lifeline. They’re a big part of what makes us human.

11. Don’t compare.

comparison-is-the-thief-of-joy

The moment I begin to compare my life in Korea to what it was in the U.S., it’s over. My contentment is shot to holes. So, by God’s grace, I’m learning to just say NO to this trap.

12. Enjoy each day. Or at least try to.

jimelliott

Jim Elliot speaks the truth.

No experience is wasted if you learn from it. Life in Korea isn’t easy, but it is life. And life is a gift. I’d appreciate your prayers for wisdom as I learn to take it one day at a time. Thanks so much for reading, and please keep in touch!

Much love,

Naomi

The day I ran out of cash and got eaten by the subway

Adventures await those who enter the wrong PIN three times consecutively. Even greater adventures await those who do so with their Korean debit card. Yours truly was that particular species of idiot this past Friday, after she ran out of won and attempted to withdraw cash from an ATM. One of the beautifully frustrating things about banking in Korea is that if you forget your PIN and enter the wrong one three times consecutively, your debit card will be suspended until you visit a local branch in person to reset the PIN. The other beautiful thing about banking here is that most branches are only open while I am at work. I was aware of both of these facts beforehand, but alas, there I was, and there the cash wasn’t.  I began calculating how long I could subsist on my remaining supply of yogurt and bagels. Visions of begging for won in the subway danced through my head. (Not seriously, but I thought about it for the entertainment value.) I needed a plan.

Friday night

Step 1: Do not panic. (Thanks to my former music theory professor Dr. L for this life lesson.)

Step 2: Download app and scan T Money card (pre-paid subway card) to see if enough money is left to get me to Korean class on Saturday, and church on Sunday. Barely enough remains.

Step 3: Research bank branches open on Sundays (there are two such KEB branches located in Seoul).

Saturday

Step 4: After Korean class, go to Myeongdong to convert $20 USD to won. I found this cash when I was unpacking in Seoul; someone gave it to me before I left (thank you, Kathleen, for this “airport food” money!) and it ended up separated from my wallet and didn’t get converted at the airport. I knew there were many places to convert cash in Myeongdong, and I also read that it is supposedly one of the best conversion rates in Seoul (although I wasn’t very concerned about that at the time).

Step 5: Use some of the cash to re-load the T Money card so I can get home from Myeongdong, and so that I can go to church on Sunday (I was asked to play for the service, so I needed to be there). Realize that my American debit card still works to cover transactions, although I can’t withdraw cash with it anymore (long story; my American bank account is being closed within the next couple of weeks because the bank doesn’t have the right licenses to do business with people in Korea).

BONUS: Get caught in the subway doors by trying to board right as they are closing. Shock the bystanders in said subway train and station via this action, then quickly pull out leg and arm before the train takes off along with them. Be thankful it didn’t hurt (there is rubber padding on the doors), tell myself that this will be very funny someday, wait for the next train, and carry on with life.

Sunday

Step 6: Go to church. Arrive early to practice with the guitarist, who will be leading worship for the service. After service, get accosted by a tiny elderly Korean lady who hands me some sheet music, grabs my arm (which is still attached to my body, praise be), tells me it’s very nice to meet me, and drags me back into the sanctuary to have me play the music. As I stumble through sight-reading the hymn, she begins to sing along with a rather astonishing opera voice. When we finish, she tells me she’s been attending this church since 1969, and she wants me to practice the song so that she can sing it next Sunday. She has no idea who is in charge of determining such a thing, and is ostensibly relying on me to work out all the logistics. I smile and nod, which is always the right answer when you are clueless in Korea.

Step 7: Have a nice lunch with some of the people from church, then head off for the KEB branch that is reputedly open on Sundays. Talk to Jesus on the way goes something like this: “Thank You for all of the character-building adventures this weekend has brought. I understand if You want me to have more adventures by experiencing even more banking nonsense and running out of cash again in a foreign country, but I would really appreciate it if this bank branch is actually open like the internet says it is, and if they would actually help me and not give me a vague, mysterious Korean reason why they can’t. Thank You.”

Step 8: Arrive at KEB location, smile because the door is literally propped open, and receive kind assistance from employees therein (I was offered iced coffee twice). Successfully reset PIN and withdraw cash from ATM. Bask in a grateful feeling of silly accomplishment, thank Jesus for the grace He gives me when expat life brings out the idiot in me, and realize that overcoming frustrating difficulties is sometimes the best way to make us realize how much we have to be thankful for.