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10 Questions About Korea, One Year Later

Yesterday marks exactly one year since I first landed in Korea.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Same Interview, One Year Apart interview with Billie Eilish, but that’s what originally inspired me to write this blog last year when I moved to SK – purely so I could have a personal record of how I felt then vs. how I felt a year after the fact.

Let’s jump in!

1. Why South Korea? 

I feel like my original answer was something light and fun like “why not South Korea?” Well, standing on the other side of my year here and having committed to another year in the Land of the Morning Calm, I can answer with perhaps more clarity. I love Korea.  I don’t consider it a utopia, however⁠—the country is far from perfect, with narrow “traditional” ideals, rampant classism, damaging beauty standards, and so on. Still, I am immensely grateful I have the opportunity to live in this country and experience life as an ex-pat in Korea.

@ the view from Jinju Lotte Mall Sky Park, July 2020

South Korea is not only full of beautiful natural landscapes to explore, it is also home to some of the kindest and most generous humans on this planet. Of course, I have battled the stressors that come with being a foreigner, but no one in Korea has ever made me feel anything less than welcome. 

2. What are you most excited and/or nervous about? 

Like I mentioned above, I’ve signed on for another year in Korea. Starting in late August, I’ll be teaching in Busan. Though it is the second-largest city in Korea, every time I’ve visited Busan I have been surprised by the seemingly relaxed atmosphere. Seoul can feel incredibly rushed and busy at times. (This is coming from the person who lived just outside of Atlanta for about five years and pretty much only ventured there for concerts, so take this opinion as you want.)

@ Haeundae Beach in Busan, December 2019

Either way, I’ve always felt so energized and refreshed from my outings there. I’m aware that living somewhere is different from just visiting, but looking forward to the changes that will come with moving to a bigger city. Plus, I’ll be closer to the beach!

3. What’s the one thing you packed that you couldn’t have lived without? 

In 2019, I started to truly invest in a hair routine that worked for my curls, so I’d say my Not Your Mother’s Curl Talk conditioner and microfiber hair wrap. Just curly girl things.

4. What about the one thing you definitely didn’t need?  

The first aid kit I purchased specifically to bring with me to Korea, including the 5,000 band-aids inside. I’m not *that* clumsy.  

5. What was the best food you tried? The weirdest?  Any food from home you can’t wait to eat? 

As far as sweets go, there are a ton of desserts I’ve tried and loved in the course of this year. One of the first things I ever had was a melon-flavored convenience store ice cream, it’s still one of my favorites though I’ve since realized that it’s more popular with ajummas. Another favorite of mine is ssiat hotteok, a popular street food. As for savory, some of my top fave dishes are jjimdak (braised chicken stew) and Korean fried chicken with fries and fried tteok.

When I first landed I was determined to be adventurous with food, but I’m still a recovering picky eater. So while it’s not entirely weird, for me, trying Korean fish cakes was pretty outside my comfort zone! In terms of what Americans might find “weird,” one of my favorite traditional snacks is a sticky rice cake with red bean paste.

Right now, the food from back home that I miss most is good Mexican food. Favorite daughter answer: my mom’s cooking, like her brisket and twice-baked potatoes, for example.

6. What is the most touristy thing you did? 

I think it’s safe to say that wearing hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) while touring Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most touristy thing I did. Renting hanbok for the day is a common occurrence in Korea and, done respectfully, it is a special way to appreciate the richness of Korean cultural heritage.

7. What was the hardest adjustment? 

Adjusting my expectations. I had a picture in my head of what things would be like for me and of course, it wasn’t like that at all. Plus, it was a major adjustment to go from living with a roommate to having to figure out living alone in a foreign country.

8. What’s the first thing you’re excited to do when you go back?

See my family! With COVID-19, it’s hard to say when my first trip back home will take place, but I’m looking forward to that reunion whenever it can safely happen!

9. What’s one piece of advice you would give?

Step outside your bubble. You can always find a new perspective and get out of your comfort zone, whether you teach abroad or not. Speaking from experience, it is so much easier to stick with whatever is comfortable. But “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” You can’t know what’s out there for you until you take those first uncertain steps away from your safety net. Question everything and don’t be afraid to fail. Okay, that’s more than one piece of advice, but you get the idea.

10. Use five words to describe your current state of mind.  

Grateful, self-assured, hopeful, contemplative, and contented.

That’s it for now! As always, thanks for reading 🙂

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6 Solo Activities for Distancing in Daily Life in Korea

Earlier this month (May 2020 for those keeping score), Korea shifted from a social distancing system to distancing in daily life. With the slowdown of new infections (even amid a recent outbreak in Seoul) in mind, the goal is to remain vigilant as businesses reopen.

That said, I’ve been practicing many ‘daily life distancing’ habits as a byproduct of living on my own here in Korea for the past eight months. Without knowing when things will return to “normal,” I thought it would be useful to share the different solo activities* you can enjoy in Korea that aren’t strictly related to traveling.

I think this is a great point of reference for any newbie ex-pats in Korea or even those dreaming of visiting the country on a budget one day. Let’s jump in!

6 Types of Solo Activities to Try While in Korea:

1. Korean Karaoke / Noraebang

The Cost: ₩6,000 can get you around an hour – or more, when you “earn” free songs! – for your solo jam session.

The Activity: What’s not to love about a private singing room? Noraebang (노래방) is a blast with friends, but going alone is also a fun time. The experience reminds me of what it’s like to sing in the car, and I’ve heard it referred to as a form of stress relief. If you aren’t a big fan of singing on your own, I think this is a low-pressure way to have fun with it without worrying about what others might think. I personally enjoy Disney and Showtunes for karaoke, but it’s not always a crowd-pleaser. I like going on solo coin karaoke trips just to sing all the musical numbers I want.

Distancing Deets: Noraebang hasn’t been an approved activity for the past few months, but they’ve recently opened back up in certain regions. As with most businesses, you can find sanitizing options readily available. You can use protective covers for the mics, too. Most establishments also have sign up sheets, where they will notify you directly if an infected patient visited.

2. Cafe Hopping

The Cost: ₩4~6,000 for an iced latte or Americano; flavored lattes are usually ₩6,000+ if you’re at a standard shop; themed cafes will understandably charge more.

The Activity: You know the joke about finding a Starbucks on every corner in Major U.S. cities? Well in Korea, it seems there’s a cute cafe on almost every corner no matter what city you’re in. When I visit a cafe, I like to chill and enjoy the atmosphere for a few hours. My friends in Korea aren’t big coffee drinkers, so I end up taking myself on cafe dates at least once a week. I think hopping around a cafe or two is the perfect solo activity; you can journal, eat cake, maybe even play Pokemon GO! all while sipping on your drink of choice. I live in a smaller city and I still haven’t been able to try all the cafes on my block. So if you wanted to make a day of it, I think you could easily spend a few hours enjoying one spot and head to another to try out the fruity ade.

Distancing Deets: Aside from the standard sanitizer options, most cafes also encourage patrons to sit at least six feet apart from other customers, and it’s good practice to keep your distance from others even while in public!

3. The Movies

The Cost: ₩10,000~ish for a general ticket; snacks are incredibly affordable in comparison to American movie theater snacks.

The Activity: Going to the movies alone is a universal activity that anyone can try out, but in my opinion the Korean theater experience is one-of-a-kind. Megabox, CGV, and Lotte Cinema are popular movie theaters around Korea offering comforts you can usually only find in the most bourgeois theaters (read: Movie Tavern) in the States. You can fully recline your seat and even take off your shoes if you like! There are usually 1-3 English movies with Korean subtitles to select from and the snack options are highly addictive (ode to caramel popcorn). I saw Birds of Prey (2020) alone and got fully immersed in the story. I consider this activity the best type of post-dinner dessert you can enjoy– caramel popcorn included, of course.

Distancing Deets: As far as I know, when you purchase a single ticket, it blocks off the two seats surrounding you. So you can maintain a safe distance from others while watching the silver screen! It’s worth noting that most new movies aren’t being released at the moment, so theaters are playing old reels instead. Popular choices seem to be Harry Potter and MCU movies, but I’ve also seen a few indie movies getting play, too.

4. Scenic Walk / Bike Ride

The Cost: Walking is free 😉 plus, if you have an ARC you can rent a city bike for free!

The Activity: There’s no harm in imagining yourself Lizzy Bennet and taking a solitary pastoral stroll. Depending on where you are in Korea, some spaces – such as local attractions – might still be closed due to COVID-19. However, as long as you practice common sense, there’s no reason you can’t trek to a nearby park or green space to explore the nature around you. As I stated earlier, you can rent city bikes for free with an ARC and appreciate your surroundings in a new way. Korea is an unmistakably beautiful country, and there are tons of pocket parks and natural landscapes to experience.

Distancing Deets: You know the drill, when you’re in a public place, try to maintain a healthy distance from others that may be around! Even with distancing in daily life, wearing a mask is still encouraged at this time. If you want to avoid others altogether, try to mix up the timing for your stroll/bike ride. Early morning hours like sunrise and unconventional lunch times like 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. are a good bet.

5. Rooftop Picnic

The Cost: ₩15,000+ if you order delivery, of course you can always make your own meal for a more affordable alternative!

The Activity: If you live in an apartment in Korea, chances are you have rooftop access. Treat yourself to a change of scenery and have a picnic on the roof! If you time it right, you can watch the sunset as you dine on your meal of choice. I’ve had pizza/snacks/dessert on my roof on a few separate occasions and it is always sublime. Pop in some headphones and jam to your favorite playlist, or if you have good enough wifi, you could even watch TV while you eat! It’s okay if you don’t have outdoor furniture – you can make it a true picnic and sit on the floor – Daiso sells cheap picnic mats if you want extra cushion. To create an even cozier atmosphere, you might grab some twinkle lights or a throw blanket. (This may or may not be inspired by a rooftop movie night on Terrace House: Tokyo 2019-2020.)

Distancing Deets: Since this involves your home, it’s pretty easy to limit your public interactions. If you do opt for delivery, the drivers wear masks and often hand over your order from an arm’s length distance. As a reminder, your building’s rooftop is a shared space, so your neighbors have every right to the space, too.

6. Snail Mail

The Cost: ₩1~3,000 for postage, though usually, a letter home won’t even amount to ₩1,000. Keep in mind the cost relates to letter weight.

The Activity: Like movie-going, letter writing is by no means a Korea-specific activity. However, you can always pick up cute Korean stationery or souvenirs to share with your loved ones back home to make the pastime extra special. Whether you’re abroad or not, getting mail is usually a treat, unless it’s a bill – and surprise mail is even better! Think of some people in your life you’re grateful for, and write up a short thank you note. Even if it’s just a few lines, written words of gratitude can be very meaningful.

Distancing Deets: Of all the pursuits I’ve listed, this is by far the most solo activity. However, because it’s international mail, you will have to make a trip to the post office. If this is your first mail experience, check out the English website for Korea Post for guidance.

There you have it, six cheap or free activities you can enjoy whether you’re living in Korea or just passing through!

*Please note that we are living in a global pandemic. Information changes daily, and what might be a completely safe activity now may not be safe tomorrow. Either way, I hope these solo suggestions inspire you to try something new in a healthy, cautious manner. No matter what comes our way, we can be compassionate and considerate together, so let’s do our best!

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Glad to be here

I’ve been teaching in Korea for nearly seven months now. Considering my last update was in November, it’s fair to say an update is well overdue.

I was discussing my feelings towards Korea with a friend recently, how I feel so welcome and at home despite being an obvious outsider. Coming from the South, a stereotypically ‘hospitable’ place, it was something of a culture shock for me to experience the constant, genuine hospitality that Korea has to offer. My friend remarked that what I’m feeling might have to do with Korean culture and the values of generosity and sharing that are woven into it. My situation may be unique, but I don’t think it is.

Living and working here has been a wildly enriching experience for me. I’m learning how to be a better teacher every day. I’m learning more about myself, too. I feel lucky to be here, in spite and also thanks to COVID-19. Let me explain.

The first detected coronavirus case in the States was detected on the same day as the first case in Korea. Since America’s national emergency declaration in mid-March, I’ve had friends and family back home sending more messages than usual. I appreciate the concern, but it feels misplaced.

In late February, my school shut down for a week because two cases were identified in our region. There were plenty of question marks during this time, but I never worried about:

  • Whether or not necessities like food or toilet paper would be available for purchase. The only panic-buying I witnessed was a brief period of masks being sold out, and a system was soon devised where people can only purchase masks on assigned days to avoid future shortages.
  • What would happen if I thought I might be sick and possibly a danger to others. I knew I had reliable coverage through my job. I also knew that drive-through screenings were free and I could access testing easily if I felt I needed it.
  • Whether or not the outbreak was being addressed seriously. Aside from seeing my school weigh the decision of closing its doors, I understood the government was enacting unified effort to curb the outbreak and keep people safe. Everywhere I did manage to go during the height of infection in Korea (there was no quarantine mandate in my area), there was an energy of cautious calm. Hand sanitizer was installed in every public bus and still remains. It’s also a staple at pretty much every cash point in restaurants and stores.

This isn’t to say I felt no concern whatsoever. I had a lot of questions, and when the outbreak jumped from less than a hundred known cases to 200+ in less than 24 hours, I was definitely worried. However, knowing the above made it easy to conclude that panic would not benefit me in this situation.

As I stated before, I feel very fortunate to be in Korea in general, but especially during this time. It is an unsettling and scary time to be alive, yet I feel like I’m living in one of the safest places on the planet. Frankly speaking, I am terrified for everyday Americans (including loved ones) who need and have every right to basic care, but cannot access to it due to limited supplies and a flawed healthcare system. I could write more on this, but Benjamin Davis’ ‘I’d Rather Be Here’: An Expat Perspective From South Korea sums up my opinion perfectly.

It doesn’t feel entirely right to pivot from such a serious topic to my latest escapades. So instead of segueing with “Global pandemic aside, here’s everything I’ve been doing,” I’m going to end this post here.

If you’d like to know about what I’ve been up to while in Korea, keep your eyes peeled. I’ll be posting another update soon. Thanks for reading. Stay safe and if you can, stay home!

x

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What I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Korea

I’ve been in Korea for almost six months now, and reflecting on these past few months, there are a handful of things I wish I knew before my big move.

I’m sharing them here to help make the process smoother for anyone moving to Korea for a year (or more).

7 Things to Know Before Moving to South Korea

Optional: Read with 7 Things by Miley Cyrus playing as background music.

1. You don’t need to pack multiple jackets.

While Korea may have four distinct seasons, if you live further south, chances are the “fall” weather won’t feel very crisp. Where I come from, fall isn’t really a thing. Sure, the leaves change and pumpkin-flavored everything is for sale, but the weather is still pretty hot. So, admittedly I don’t have much to compare it to, but the idea of wearing a coat when its 70 degrees outside is a bit much. That is to say, hold off on bringing a bunch of lightweight jackets. Unless you’re planning to layer them in the winter, one should be plenty. I opted not to pack a winter coat because a) it would have taken up valuable luggage space and b) I didn’t have one in the first place. If you’re coming over in the warmer months like I did, I recommend this. I honestly wish I’d saved myself more space by not packing any winter accessories at all – there are tons of affordable options for heat tech, hats, gloves and such.

2. You can’t learn Hangul in a day.

You’re probably thinking “…duh,” but I heard this secondhand through an acquaintance who also taught in Korea and foolishly took it as fact. Just like it’s tough for my students to learn English without practice, learning Korean – even just the alphabet – takes time. I recommend learning what you can before you arrive. Knowing Hangul helps a ton with reading signs and menus! LingoDeer is a great app to practice Korean, but I’ve heard Drops is an excellent app for learning Hangul in particular.

3. You can still use Spotify in Korea.

Unless you’re planning to set your phone’s details from your home country to Korea*, there is no reason why Spotify won’t work. I came over using Spotify Free (I’d downgraded because I thought it wouldn’t work internationally) but the free subscription only works for 14 days overseas. Note: Even if you buy a new phone here, you should still be able to set the country of the phone to the US, UK, etc. instead of the default Korea setting. *Note: One benefit to changing your phone’s country to Korea is access to certain apps like the Korea Starbucks app (rip my US rewards account), but I’d rather keep my Spotify over earning stars.

4. If you are allergy-sensitive at all, the fine dust will likely affect you.

I noticed it more when I was closer to Seoul, but when the air quality is bad, it can give you a persistent dry cough. AirVisual is a useful app to track the air quality and see if you need to wear a mask that day. A humidifier and/or air purifier is also a good investment if you’re located near Seoul.

5. Google Maps will not help you when you’re lost.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. However, in my experience, default apps aren’t necessarily the best option in Korea. Here are a few everyday transportation apps I wish I’d had on my phone when I first arrived:

  • KakaoMetro – If you’re lucky enough to be in a city with a metro system, KakaoMetro is extremely intuitive and great for when you’re still getting used to the train routes.
  • KakaoT – Instead of Lyft or Uber, there’s KakaoT. As long as you have the right address, it’s great. I like it best because you can opt to pay the driver in person vs. through the app, so you can pay by cash or card.
  • KakaoMap – The maps app isn’t perfect, but I’ve never encountered a GPS app without quirks. KakaoMap does the job and the “favorites” option is very helpful for navigating unfamiliar areas. One of the first things I did when I moved was set my home address in the app, so I can always get back to it without much trouble. Speaking of which, there is a bus app, but if you pull up the address in Maps, you can navigate using the bus without much trouble.

6. Snacks err on the sweet side.

There’s a reason honey butter chips sold out when they first released. Spicy and sweet flavors reign in Korea, so salty and savory snacks aren’t very popular here, unless you count seaweed. If you have friends or family sending care packages, make sure they throw in your favorite savory treats. I’d love to be proven wrong about this, so if you know if any salty Korean snacks I should check out, let me know!

7. Visa Runs are not “mini-vacations”.

Anyone who tells you this is either supremely optimistic or maybe just delusional. I recommend talking to any contacts you have in Korea (be it a friend or recruiter) to learn more about what a Visa run involves and if you will need one. When I was going through this process, I threw dozens of questions at my TravelBud contact and they always responded promptly. And Reddit is always a great resource for any questions you have about moving to Korea – this thread was my go-to for questions. Ultimately, I’d suggest doing everything you can to secure your Visa before you leave your home country, if only to avoid the headache and extra cost when you first arrive. Then you can save for a real vacation.

There you have it! Aside from the above little tidbits, I did manage to gather some useful information before arriving here, thanks to many other amazing blogs. To close this out, I’m linking my favorite resources for those gearing up to move to South Korea:

  • Moving to Korea: The Ultimate Packing List – This is a good starting point for anyone overwhelmed by narrowing down what to pack. However, I would ignore the advice to bring a power strip unless you’re not moving into your accommodation right away.
  • How to Pack for a Year in Korea – Informative and honest, with great advice not to “bring your whole life with you” when you move to Korea.
  • 43 Tips for Preparing to Move to Korea – A start-to-finish guide that covers everything from vaccinations to finance. The sections on visa documents, packing, and departure are particularly helpful.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any unanswered questions about moving and/or teaching abroad, throw them my way. I’m happy to help!

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Outside looking in

Half of the time I don’t know what they’re talking about; their jokes seem to relate to a past that everyone but me has shared. I’m a foreigner in the world and I don’t understand the language.

Jean Webster

It’s been roughly two weeks since I moved to South Korea.

In that short time I’ve tried many different Korean dishes, from 김밥 (kimbap) to 떡볶이 (tteok-bokki) and of course Korean fried chicken (the only KFC I will recognize from now on), earned 100/100 on a grammar test despite the fact that I cannot describe a single grammar rule to anyone, worn traditional 한복 (hanbok) clothing inspired by the Joseon dynasty while touring the beautiful Gyeongbokgung palace, presented two different lesson plans that I pulled together overnight, and so much more.

Here are a few snapshots of my first week in Korea…

I’m in Korea to teach English as a second language, so my natural first step is to learn more about teaching ESL learners. For the next few weeks, I’ll be gaining practical experience to use in my classroom this year. After the course, I will be a certified TESOL instructor, qualified to teach second-language speakers around the world. So far, the course is very reminiscent of a mini-mester, where a lot of information is crammed into a very short period. It’s stressful, but I am enjoying soaking in all the information and advice I can before I embark as a first-time teacher abroad.

Studying in Starbucks

Looking ahead at the two weeks left in this course, I hope to continue learning, whether that’s during actual class time or just through daily interactions as I navigate life here. Though it’s only been a few weeks, I am continually impressed and grateful for the open and accommodating attitude that most Koreans exude as I stumble through ordering a coffee or trying to find a bathroom. Being a foreigner in a homogeneous country is intimidating because it’s easy to stick out and feel self-conscious. But the people of South Korea have been nothing short of lovely and welcoming. Sometimes shop owners or cashiers even switch to speaking English, which is incredibly nice and not necessary at all. I can’t wait to learn more Korean so I can communicate better with the people around me!

Still, being a Westerner in SK, it isn’t hard to remember that I am a visitor in this country and I don’t know all the norms and customs. I’m doing my best to keep that in mind as I walk the streets of Yeongjong Island. A few weeks before I left for South Korea, my dad sent me an article by Jill Carattini, managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. In the article, aptly titled Foreign and Belonging, Carattini writes: “But even when communicated playfully, it can be both humbling and humiliating to always carry with you the sober thought: I am out of place.” That exact thought has crossed my mind at least once or twice in my time here, and I sincerely feel on the outside looking in every so often.

Though I’m currently very much an outsider in South Korea, I look forward to getting out of ‘tourist mode’ and living less like a stranger in a strange land as the months pass.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. It’s tough to keep a regular writing schedule when I don’t have a set routine, so I hope that once mid-August rolls around I’ll be able to start sharing more posts/get back to my regularly scheduled content (rip, #Popgirl). In the meantime, does a monthly newsletter recap of my life in Korea sound like something you’d be interested in? Drop a comment and let me know!

Thanks for reading 🙂