Bulgogi is a popular Korean dish usually consisting of marinated beef that is thinly sliced and cooked over a grill. It translates to fire (bul) meat (gogi), referring the grilling of the meat over an open flame, however it is common to see this dish being pan-cooked as well. There are different variations of the marinade, but they are all usually slightly sweet, making it especially appealing to those that don’t like spicy food. Soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, onions, pepper, ginger, and sugar are common ingredients for the marinade, and you’ll sometimes find fruits such as crushed pear added for sweetness (my favorite!). When bulgogi is pan-cooked, vegetables like mushrooms, carrots, green onions and bok choy are often added, resulting in more of a soupy dish rather than just the grilled meat. I still haven’t decided which way I prefer bulgogi to be prepared, but I have come to the conclusion that I like to eat pan-cooked bulgogi with rice and grilled bulgogi with lettuce or perilla leaves for wrapping. I can’t wait to get in the kitchen and try my own version!
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.
Koreans love their karaoke. Big time. A noraebang (노래방), which translates to singing room, can be found anywhere in Korea and are popular with both younger and older generations of Koreans (and usually foreigners, too). Whether you’re in a big city or small town, you are likely to find one on nearly every block. They even have them on buses and trains! More often than not, plenty of soju is involved and it is often looked at as a bonding experience among co-workers. So, as an English teacher in Korea, the noraebang experience is unavoidable.
Unlike western style karaoke where you usually sing in front of a crowd of strangers in a bar, you get your very own private room complete with a disco ball, strobe lights and a giant remote to enter song numbers which are picked from a giant song book. Typically, you pay at the front desk for a certain amount of time, order snacks and drinks, and then are lead to a private room. I am not particularly fond of singing in front of groups of people, but I’ve learned to deal with the fact that once you step foot inside of a noraebang, you probably won’t get out without singing.
I have yet to visit a noraebang with a large group of Koreans, however I just found out I will have that chance this weekend. I am going on an overnight trip with all of the staff members at my school (only one of which speaks English) and was told I better have a song prepared. Eeek! If I don’t, I hear they will just pick one at random for me…I better start practicing!
Kimbap, also known as gimbap, is the ultimate picnic food of Korea. It’s cheap, easy to make (or purchase) ahead of time and easily eaten on-the-go. The two main ingredients are dried seaweed (kim or gim) and white rice (bap). Various veggies and meats accompany the rice which is wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed. It looks very similar to sushi, however raw fish is not used in kimbap, and the rice is seasoned with sesame oil and sesame seeds rather than rice vinegar. The most common ingredients in basic kimbap are cucumber, carrot, fried egg, radish, imitation crab and spam (yes, spam is everywhere in Korea). You’ll also see canned tuna (chamchi kimbap), cheese (chijeu kimbap), beef (soegogi kimbap) and of course kimchi as ingredients as well.
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.