Archives for posts with tag: EPIK

Bibimbap was one of the first traditional dishes I had after arriving in Korea (I even had an airplane version on the way over,  and though it was quite tasty for airplane food, it didn’t compare to the real deal).  It basically translates to mixed rice and traditionally consists of warm rice topped with seasoned vegetables, an egg and a modest amount of thinly sliced beef.  Bibimbap is famous in the city of Jeonju where it was first found in a cookbook—Siuijeonseo from the 19th century—and is believed to have been a royal dish/snack from the Joseon Dynasty.  (I was lucky enough to enjoy a large bowl of traditional Jeonju bibimbap during my EPIK orientation, but unfortunately didn’t get a picture of it.)

Usually, bibimbap is served either cold with a fried egg on top or in a sizzling hot stone pot with a raw egg which cooks when you mix everything together.  The latter, called dolsot bibimbap, is my favorite. The stone pot is lightly coated with sesame oil and because it’s so hot, the bottom layer of rice gets slightly crispy.  Gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) is typically served right on top in the bowl alongside the vegetables and the egg.  Once mixed together thoroughly, you’re in for spoonfuls of deliciousness (yes, Koreans eat bibimbap with a spoon, not chopsticks).

Dolsot bibimbap is served in a sizzling hot stone pot. The raw egg starts to cook when you mix everything together.

Dolsot bibimbap is served in a sizzling hot stone pot. The raw egg starts to cook when you mix everything together.

Before eating bibimbap you must thoroughly mix everything together.

Before eating bibimbap you must thoroughly mix everything together.

David's first time enjoying bibimbap, which was of course accompanied by an array of side dishes (banchan), as well as beer (maekju) and soju.

David’s first time enjoying bibimbap, which was of course accompanied by an array of side dishes (banchan), as well as beer (maekju) and soju.

The air has become hot and heavy, rainstorms are frequent and monster mosquitoes seem to be everywhere I go.  That  means the first semester has ended and two weeks of vacation are just around the corner.  As I look back on the past five months, I can’t decide if my first semester teaching in Korea flew by or dragged on at a snail’s pace.  There are times when it feels like only yesterday I stepped off that incredibly long flight on that bitterly cold day in Incheon, not having any idea what I was getting myself into.  Then there are times when it feels like I’ve been here forever.  Either way, I’ve learned a lot since arriving in February, both about myself and Korea.  Here are a few brief and random thoughts on the experience so far:

Living and working in Korea has been much more challenging than I’d anticipated.  So much so that I’ll admit there have been days I’ve wondered how I’ll make it through a year here.

This whole experience has been nothing like I imagined it would be.  It seems that all EFL teachers’ experiences here greatly differ depending on where they’ve been placed (big city versus rural town) and how they are treated by their school and co–teacher.  I have to remind myself not to compare my situation to those of others.  I’m where I am for a reason, and that reason may not have shown its face yet.

My co–teacher thinks I’m strange for not eating rice at least once per day, every single day.  However, I am suddenly finding that I miss it if I go several days without it.

I will never get used to having cockroaches as roommates.

My students get very excited when they see me outside of school (well, most of them anyway), and that makes me happy.

When I hear a Korean say maybe I now know that means yes.

I still need to work on not being a perfectionist.  I find myself not posting on this blog as often as I’d like because I’m worried about making each post perfect, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy for that after a long day at school.  Clearly, they’re not perfect anyway.  Nothing is so why worry about it?

The homesickness that I thought would go away after a month of arriving is still lingering, heavily.  I feel that has something to do with living in a small town, which can be quite isolating at times.  That being said, I still can’t say I would rather have been placed in a large city.

Learning foreign languages is not my forte. I try to study at least a little Korean everyday, and it’s just not sticking (the speaking part, at least).  It’s amazing how much you can still manage to communicate with someone even if you don’t speak the same language, however.

I really do love kimchi.  I think I need to learn how to make it for when I return to the States.

That’s all for now.  This week and next I am busy teaching summer camp, which tends to be more relaxed than regular classes (more games and less grammar), and then I have a full two weeks off.  I am very excited, as David will be visiting from Denver and we’ll be exploring the eastern coast of South Korea, as well as Jeju Island.

The day started out like any other Monday in Korea. I taught three classes before lunch, then prepared for three more in the afternoon. On the way back to my classroom from the cafeteria, my co-teacher and I are stopped by another teacher and they have a five minute conversation in Korean. I hear my name a few times so I smile and nod, pretending I vaguely know what they are talking about even though I have no idea. It’s then relayed to me, very simply, that I have to take a “business trip” to Cheongju.  Today.  I look at my watch, it’s 12:55.  Cheongju is an hour away by bus which runs infrequently in the afternoons.

Ok, so I assume my afternoon classes will be cancelled?


What is the business trip for?

A cultural class.

Oh, ok. When does it start?

At 3 maybe.

At 3, maybe?

Yes maybe.

Uh, ok.

We then go speak to the vice principal, who doesn’t seem very happy about this business trip. The two teachers and the vice principal carry on a 20 minute conversation that feels quite fierce. There seems to be some confusion with paperwork.  Again, I stand there smiling and nodding, trying not to look like I am so confused about what is going on right now (all I could think was how intense this seemed for a last minute cultural class and why am I just now hearing about this).  My co-teacher decides to go with me to Cheongju to show me where the business meeting is since I have no idea how to get there. Turns out neither does she. After taking a bus to Cheongju, asking a few people for directions at the bus terminal, hopping on a local bus for a few kilometers, getting off the bus, getting in a taxi, getting out of the taxi only to discover a few minutes later we are at the wrong place on the opposite side of the city, getting in another taxi, then wandering around two huge buildings, we finally arrive at 3:45 (I hate being late!) when the meeting started at 3, maybe. My co-teacher leaves me to attend the business meeting or what I understand to be a Korean cultural class.  More like Korean surprise! This is not in fact a class to learn about Korean culture. This is a meeting to discuss the guidelines of the class I am teaching about American culture to middle school students in various schools throughout the county. Oh, I see, I volunteered to teach cultural classes. Maybe? Yes maybe.

Aside from the language barrier, I think the most challenging part of living in Korea has been learning how to deal with varying degrees of Korean surprises.  Things tend to change or happen last minute and there are quite a few aspects of Korea that don’t seem to make sense logistically.  There have been times when I’ve quickly become faced with awkward, frustrating situations that have pulled me completely out of my comfort zone.  I can certainly be flexible, but I will say I’ve always been a pretty organized planner.  So when I was suddenly told I had a business trip in another city, immediately, and that’s all the information I got (I still have no idea what went on between the teachers that day, or why I had no knowledge about volunteering to teach extra cultural classes) my initial reaction was to freak out and demand to know why I was just receiving this information.  But I’ve encountered quite a few circumstances similar to this in the past three months that have required me to pause, take a deep breath and trust that everything will be just fine in order to avoid a meltdown, as that won’t get me anywhere in Korea.

Sometimes it’s frustrating tidbits of everyday life, like the bank requiring you to have a local phone number to set up and account and the phone company requiring you to have a local bank account to activate a phone. Huh?  Or walking into the teacher’s lounge first thing in the morning and finding out it’s hiking day as you look down at the dress and tights you’re wearing. Or being told on Tuesday you don’t have to teach classes on Wednesday so you don’t prepare anything, only to hear on Wednesday morning you will actually be teaching and class started five minutes ago.  I have definitely had my moments of hair-pulling, cursing and crying (mostly in private), but I am getting better at recognizing the things I can’t control and just taking a breath, putting a smile on my face, and giving thanks for having the opportunity to live and work abroad so I can enjoy my pocketful of delicious kimchi.  If that doesn’t work, I attempt to laugh without smiling.  It works every time (thanks, David).


What do you do when your fermented cabbage becomes a little too fermented?  Make a soup!  At least that’s what Koreans do and it’s delicious.  Kimchi jjigae is one of my favorite Korean dishes so far.  Right now I’d say I could eat it everyday and not get tired of it (ask me again when summer comes).

Kimchi jjigae, accompanied by more kimchi, pickled radish, and white rice.

Kimchi jjigae, accompanied by more kimchi, pickled radish, and white rice.

Jjigae, meaning soup or stew, is a regularly consumed dish in Korea and there are many different varieties, although kimchi jjigae is the only type I’ve tried so far.  The more fermented the kimchi the better, as it creates a fuller flavor.  Tofu, green onions, and pork are often included and it’s seasoned with garlic and dongjang (bean paste) or gochujang (red pepper paste).  As you can imagine, it’s quite spicy.  You also might think it would taste quite sour (you are eating aged kimchi), however I don’t find it to be at all.  In fact, I forget that I’m even eating kimchi by the spoonful.  The combination of the pork, veggies, gochujang and kimchi boiling in one pot creates an awesome flavor.

Kimchi jjigae is served bubbling hot in a stone dish and usually comes with rice (helps with the heat).

Kimchi jjigae is served bubbling hot in a stone dish and usually comes with rice (helps with the heat).

Sometimes I eat more than a pocketful of kimchi in one day.

Sometimes I eat more than a pocketful of kimchi in one day.

Aside from my experience during a four week TEFL course in Thailand–Samui TEFL, a program I highly recommend–I had never taught before coming to Korea.  Surprisingly, teaching experience is not a requirement to teach for the English Program in Korea, you just have to hold a four year degree in, well, anything.  I was a bit nervous during the first week or two of teaching here, however I’ve settled into the daily routine and am finally getting the hang of it…I think.  Midterms are next week, we’ll see how their English scores are (yes, elementary students in Korea take midterms).

I teach at two different schools which first sounded quite overwhelming to me, but it actually adds some variety to my week and let’s me experience both a small school and a really small school.  I have one co-teacher at each school that aids in teaching and interpreting.  My main school, Namshin Elementary, is just a five minute walk from my apartment making my commute a breeze.  I teach there on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  My day starts at 8:30 am and wraps up at 4:30, however my hours spent teaching in the classroom vary each day.  This semester at Namshin I’m teaching grades 4 – 6 and have about 24 – 29 students per class.  On my busiest day I teach 6 classes, on my quietest day I teach just 3.

My second school is Daejang Elementary which is about a fifteen minute car ride north of Eumgseong.  The 6th grade homeroom teacher lives in my apartment complex so she kindly gives me a ride when I teach there on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Daejang only has 43 students in the entire school, so my class sizes for grades 3 – 6 range from 5-8 students which I really enjoy.  I’ve actually been able to learn all their Korean names.

When I’m not teaching my day is spent lesson planning, desk warming (code for look busy when you don’t have anything to do) and playing volleyball with the other teachers and principal.  And by volleyball I mean the kind where it’s totally cool to kick the ball over the net and score a point.  Lunchtime, which I thoroughly look forward to everyday and do in fact miss on the weekends, starts promptly at 12:10 each day.  Even though I don’t know what I’m eating sometimes, I will say the meals are delicious and healthy (more on that later).  Just the other day I was told by my vice principal that I have excellent chopstick skills.  Now I just need to work on my Korean language skills, as I never would’ve understood the compliment had it not been translated by my co-teacher.

One of two English classrooms at Namshin.

school yard

View of the schoolyard with my apartment building in the background.


Namshin Elementary School


“Emily Teacher” by my artistic students at Daejang.


My afternoon “cup” of coffee…instant coffee, a Korean favorite. Mmmmm.


Grade 5 at Namshin, watching an informative video.


Grade 4 girls, working on their English name tags.


Grade 4, working on their English name tags.


Grade 5, busy with an activity.


The stairs leading to the English Center at Namshin, complete with English idioms.


The “Book Cafe” in the English room at Daejang.


The office I share with my co-teacher at Namshin. It has windows!

Gamjatang, a traditional Korean comfort food, is a spicy pork bone soup usually made with mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes, onions and perilla leaves.  It gets it’s hearty flavor by boiling pork spine and seasoning it with plenty of chili paste and garlic.  Gamja means potato and tang is a type of soup, so the name is a bit misleading as potatoes are not the main ingredient and sometimes nonexistent in the dish all together.  I prefer gamjatang with potatoes but it’s delicious either way.  So far this has been one of my favorite dishes.

While it’s commonly referred to as hangover soup, gamjatang is also believed to prevent snoring.  I don’t snore–I don’t think–so I can not vouch for it’s ability to cure snoring but I can say it is indeed even tastier after an evening of consuming a few too many beers and sips of soju (don’t worry, Mom, that only happens occasionally).


Gamjatang accompanied by traditional sides: kimchi, pickled radish, peppers and onions.

Korea's hangover soup.

Korea’s hangover soup.

Gamjatang sometimes contains tteok (rice cake) and is usually served with a bowl of rice.

Gamjatang sometimes contains tteok (rice cake) and is usually served with a bowl of rice.


Eumseong-eup, Korea

I was placed in Eumseong, a small town located in Eumseong County in Chungbuk Province.  Chungbuk (also known as Chungcheongbuk-do) is in the middle of Korea and is the only landlocked province.  There are about 19,000 residents in my town and approximately 96,000 within the entire county (for some perspective, South Korea has 50 million people living in roughly 38,000 square miles–that’s close to the size of Indiana).  Eumseong county, along with most of Chungbuk Province, attracts very few tourists and does not see many foreigners.  As a result I get stared at, a lot.  Not in a critical way, just a very curious way.  Koreans tend to be very friendly and I find it helps to just smile a lot.


Early morning in Eumseong’s main park near the river.

I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I found out I was placed in a rural area, but there are actually quite a few positive aspects to living in Eumseong.  Firstly, I never have to worry about getting lost as I can walk anywhere I need to go.  Secondly, it’s easy to find cheap, authentic food (I just have to play a guessing game when ordering).  Thirdly, a small town means small schools which also means my class sizes are small.  Anytime I feel the need to seek out city life (night life in particular) or want to explore another part of the country, I can easily hop on a bus or a train.  Plus I get to experience living like a local Korean, or at least more so than in a big city.


The small river and jogging path that run through the middle of town.


Spring has finally arrived in Eumseong!


The best fried chicken at the local street market. And that hair! It matches his purple shirt!


The local street market.


View from my apartment building in Eumseong.


My main school, Namshin Elementary.


I decided to quit my job of nearly seven years at the Seattle Art Museum, sell just about everything I own and move to the other side of the world to teach English to children in Korea.

Do you speak Korean?


Have you ever been to Korea?


Have you ever taught before?


South Korea, right?

Um, yes.

Oh, cool. Good for you!

I had a good job in a great city, but for numerous reasons I won’t bore you with, I needed a change.  I applied for new jobs here and there thinking perhaps an office with carpet that wasn’t three decades old or a new cubicle with a fancy ergonomic chair would suffice but ultimately came to the conclusion that I’d eventually wind up back in the same place.  After doing quite a bit of research and more daydreaming than necessary, I decided teaching abroad in Korea sounded like a pretty stellar plan.  I love to travel and experience new cultures and the teaching part, well, I figured it would be hard to be the worst teacher in the world.  Regardless of my teaching capabilities, I decided it would be an experience that I’d learn from, grow from and assuredly not regret.

So here I am, in Korea, teaching English to kids (belated start to this blog but better late than never, right?) while enjoying a pocketful of kimchi everyday.