Little moments of conformity


Startled, Carly stopped mid-step and ripped out her headphones before almost running into one of her favorite students, standing in front of her and looking up with her precious 14-year-old face. Carly realized she must’ve walked at least two minutes behind Sooyeon* without realizing it was her. Feeling guilty, Carly patted Sooyeon on the head, turned her around, and marched with her the rest of the way to school. She didn’t have trouble telling faces apart. Sure, it was more difficult to recognize specific students among the crowd of Korean faces, a race that was not her own, as compared to recognizing Caucasian students among a crowd of Caucasian faces. But this ultimately was not an issue with her and was not the reason that she had failed to recognize Sooyeon.

You see, from behind, Sooyeon appeared almost identical to her female Korean peers of the same height (~5.2). Black hair, cropped just above the collarbone, black skirt, sky blue button-down, and navy blue vest. The appearances of her students are strictly controlled. All are required to sport the same hair-cut and uniform. No makeup, jewelry, nail polish, hair dye, or other hair embellishments allowed. (The boys also have restrictions regarding hair, jewelry, etc.,) This lack of diversity in style and details is what made it difficult to recognize Sooyeon that morning and become another addition to her reservoir of “Korean conformity” moments she was collecting.

So let’s backtrack a couple of weeks to share another with you, dear reader.

Her second week at school, whilst enjoying her lunch with her new coworkers, one of her co-teachers leaned over to her and said, in a whispery tone one would use when gently breaking the news that there was spinach in one’s teeth,

“In Korea, we put the bowl on the right.”

Looking down, Carly noticed that she had put her soup bowl in the left pocket of her tray, instead of the right. She did not know if she had been doing this from the beginning or she had switched up her bowl placement each lunch, but either way it made no difference. The placement of the bowl did not affect the taste or the quality of the food, and she was completely indifferent to its position. But, looking around the table, she saw that, yes, every single teacher, and student, around her placed their soup bowl in the right pocket of their metal trays. Her co-teacher laughed softly and murmured,

“Easier to eat the soup, I think.”

Carly gave a laugh and a friendly “Oh, I didn’t even realize”, but didn’t really understand what the big deal was.

Later, while talking with Sooyeon, as she did almost every day after lunch, she inquired about the incident.

“Huh,” Sooyeon said, crossing her arms, pursing her lips, and looking up in contemplation. “I guess I didn’t realize.”

“Is that something you learned when you were younger?” Carly asked, wanting to know the origin of the custom.

“No,” Sooyeon replied, shaking her head and letting her bangs fall into her eyes. “We didn’t learn it. It’s just what most people do. But it doesn’t really matter.”

Carly nodded. If it “didn’t really matter”, then why did her co-teacher tell her so secretly about her mistake, as if she were afraid to embarrass her? Carly was tempted to put the bowl on whichever side of her tray pleased her most that day, but was too desperate to fit in and to appear open to Korean customs. So, since then, Carly has put her bowl on the right (and correct) side of her little tray every single day. Because that’s what most people do.

Fast forward to today, and the incident that inspired this post.

Several minutes into lunch today, as Carly was slurping her soup from the bowl on the RIGHT side of her tray, her co-teacher (a different one from the last incident) leaned across the table, pointed to her tray, and informed her that she had placed the sauce on the wrong food item. Provided for the tofu, Carly had placed the brown sesame sauce on her fish. Her co-teacher shook her head lightly and laughed a “this silly foreigner!” laugh. Carly gave an “oops!” and laughed in such a way that implied that she also found herself silly and couldn’t believe she had made such a faux pas. She looked around the table and saw that, yes, everyone had placed the sauce on their tofu. Thinking about it, that seemed to make more sense, but Carly did not want sauce on her delicious, egg-covered tofu. So what if she put it on her fish? What if she had wanted it on her rice? Would that have been strange? What if she hadn’t gotten sauce at all? (This did happen one time and the lunch lady followed her to her table to inquire about the lack of sauce on her sausage.) Of course there were no bad intentions behind her co-teacher’s recognition of her mistake, and Carly didn’t (and doesn’t) resent the curiosity, it’s just interesting the way that conformity and sameness here affect matters that, to Carly, seem trivial. Perhaps she’s just used to the myriad of strange eating behaviors she observed during her school life, like putting strawberry milk on pizza and dipping chicken nuggets in butter, and how these behaviors were, in the individualistic society of the United States, seen as compliments to a child’s personality rather than characteristics that made them an outsider, as they may in an Eastern, collectivist society.

*name has been changed

–> Please take this post with a grain of salt. I’m not making assumptions about the entirety of the Korean population. This post is merely based on observations I’ve had during my life in Korea so far. 





EPIK Orientation Fall 2016

After making it through the easiest Customs process of her life, Carly stepped through the sliding glass doors into Gimhae International Airport, bangs sticking to her forehead, glasses sliding down her nose, with the biggest smile she had had in over 30 hours. She was finally in South Korea, land of kimchi and high-speed internet! Ignoring the stares and yelps from confused Koreans as she ran over their feet and bumped into their shins with her luggage trolley, she stumbled to the nearest set of open seats, unloaded her bags, and lay back in her chair to enjoy the Busan sun. It was 7am, and the fresh, clean air felt like an angel’s comforting hand compared to the stuffy Beijing airport. She kept an eye out for the other EPIK teachers she had met before boarding the final flight, but soon abandoned that task and audibly hooted with delight as she opened the settings on her phone and saw a message from God Himself: FREE WI-FI NETWORK AVAILABLE.

She opened Kakao and, without texting first, immediately called her Mom. Tears started to fall at the sound of Mother’s voice — she could finally say that she had arrived. As they drifted out of Customs one by one, she motioned to the other teachers she had met to join her, but she did not hang up the phone. She wasn’t sure when she’d have the chance to talk to her Mother during orientation and did not want to waste the precious (and fast!) gift of wi-fi she had just been given. Wanting to appreciate the first moments in a new country and/or not look like a typical millennial obsessed with the internet did not even occur to her. At that moment, the internet was, in its ability to connect her to what she needed most, life itself.

A phone call and several messages later, she started talking with the other teachers that had joined her. Many were going to different cities in Korea, but a few were placed in Daejeon like her, and she immediately began the first impression game, making predictions about who would take on which role in their orientation group and who she would remain friends with. The shuttles to take them to the orientation site wouldn’t arrive until 11am, so they had four hours to kill — un-showered and un-slept in their sweaty, smelly plane clothes.

But the four hours passed surprisingly quickly as more and more EPIK teachers began to fill the tiny airport. Soon, over 100 teachers had taken over half of the available lobby space. Carly mostly stayed in the seat she had first claimed, but occasionally wandered among the other teachers to introduce herself and exchange travel stories. She eventually made her way to the bathroom to sponge bathe, change, and put on a bearable amount of makeup, and was delighted when, after returning to her seat, she saw that an EPIK staff member had arrived while she was gone.

Soon enough she was boarding the bus to the orientation site and pulling into Busan University of Foreign Studies.


She sighed with relief when the staff announced that roommates would be assigned randomly by order of arrival. Of course this made the most sense, but the insecure middle schooler that still lived inside her was terrified of all the other female teachers pairing up before she had the chance to meet someone. She could picture herself having to raise an awkward hand to say, rather, announce, to the whole of orientation that she didn’t have a roommate. An irrational, and dramatic, fear, especially among other adults, yes. But FOMO was hard to avoid no matter what age or situation.



views from the dorm room

They were given EPIK goodie bags and sent up to their rooms to get settled. The room was surprisingly nice for a university.


Small, yes, but incredibly clean, modern, and well-kept. She had flashbacks of her University dorms and cringed at the memories of cockroaches, broken floor tiles, and life-threatening mold. (This is not a joke).

The first day was devoted to rest, and the next eight were jam-packed with lectures and activities meant to prepare the future (and current) teachers for life in their respective cities and life as an educator in South Korea.


a children’s choir sang as part of the opening ceremony on the first (full) day



List of lectures:

  • Lesson Planning (Parts I and II)
  • English Comprehension
  • After School Classes & Camps
  • Elementary English Curriculum
  • Secondary English Curriculum
  • Co-teaching
  • EPIK Duty and Regulation
  • Storytelling
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Teaching Students with Special Needs
  • Korean Language and Korea Today

As you may or may not know, the orientation also included a full day of lesson plan presentations. Each EPIK teacher was paired up and given a Korean ESL textbook excerpt with which they had to plan a 15-minute lesson. 



I’m sure these are the most interesting pictures for my fellow foodies (hi, Dad!). The food at orientation was pretty good — especially for a college campus! The above picture is an egg/chicken/rice cake soup which reminded me a lot of chicken & dumplings. 

The orientation included a “cultural experience” — a day of field trips that actually turned out to be incredibly fun and educational (and were also good break from the monotony of lectures) On the morning of the third day of orientation, they visited the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, which was beautiful, humbling, and heartbreaking. Carly did not feel comfortable taking pictures at a cemetery, so none are included here.



The only time we got to “explore” Busan was on field trip day. I’ll definitely have to make a trip back one day!

In the afternoon, they visited the Busan National Gugak Center for a traditional music and dance performance — absolutely incredible! The stage and costumes were unimaginably detailed, transporting one to the court of the Joseon dynasty. (I’d highly recommend going to the local Gugak Center in whichever Korean city you visit if you get a chance!)


While many of the lectures were helpful, both for easing the anxiety of teaching and of living in a new country, the orientation probably could’ve been condensed to five days. A lot of Carly’s time felt wasted by too-long and too-boring lectures. The experience itself was an amazing time to meet new friends and was a solid buffer in her transition from foreigner to permanent resident, but busy work and too much down time seemed like a bit of a waste.



the campus where orientation was held (Busan University of Foreign Studies)

On the final day of orientation, they were divided by city and introduced to representatives from their respective MOE’s (Metropolitan Office of Education), where each teacher placed in Daejeon was ushered into a classroom and given an envelope with the information about the school in which he/she had been placed. Carly completely disregarded the instructions from her city representative (also known as her …. boss) and immediately flipped through the envelope to find out the name, location, size, and details about her school. This is when Carly discovered that she would be teaching in a (drum roll, please!) middle school!

After signing several contracts and sitting through Daejeon-specific powerpoints about school life and expectations, Carly and her new friends enjoyed a final dinner together in the university’s dining hall before heading back to the dorm to pack, clean, and sleep in preparation for their early morning departure (6:30am).

The next morning, she exchanged a final hug and farewell with her roommate, commenting about how fast the week had went. They promised to keep in touch (her roommate was placed in Gwangju) and exchanged information, for they had someone failed to do so throughout the whirlwind of orientation. She (semi-successfully) maneuvered her three over-size bags down to the lobby to sign out and line up for the bus. Dressed in business-casual attire, she exchanged nervous smiles with her fellow Daejeon EPIK teachers and mentally prepared herself for what was next: the meeting of her co-teacher.