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?
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.