How Tall Are You? (on being a tall woman in South Korea)

She pushed her way onto the bus and fought for a spot near the exit door, grabbing a handle just before it pulled away from the stop. She felt a pair of eyes on her and glanced down to see a four-foot-ten ahjumma (old woman) craning her neck to get a good look. She looked back up, unperturbed, but after looking around the bus she noticed that everyone on board today seemed to be particularly short. Even all of the men were under 5’6″. On all forms of public transportation she enjoyed being tall. She could grab handles and poles easier, reach over other passengers, and easily push her way through crowds. Her height, however, in crowded places like this was always a reminder that she didn’t belong.

Carly’s struggled with insecurities about her height since puberty, when she became tall…”for a girl”. As a middle schooler she hated being the tallest among her friends, especially the boys that hadn’t caught up yet (read: all of them). By mid-high school she’d become relatively comfortable with it and by college, even though she still had the occasional toxic thought, she had more or less come to embrace it. Most of the time she enjoyed being different.

(–> I guess this is where I tell you that Carly is ~5’10”, or 176cm)

Unfortunately, moving to Korea erased a lot of the progress that Carly had made in regards to confidence about her height. Many of the men that she sees here are her height or taller, but most of the women seem to hover around 5’5″, and she can’t help but notice that this is the height that the men seem to desire. Of course there’s a little variance among female height, but only VERY RARELY (as in, once) has Carly seen a Korean female that met her 5’10”, and only a handful of times has seen women above 5’8″. (Since having an obsession/complex about height from a very young age, Carly is very good at judging it).

So, of course, because it’s so rare to see a tall woman here, she understands why people stare at her. When Carly witnessed the aforementioned 5’10” Korean woman on the metro she stared like hell! It’s just unfortunate that there is now so much attention given to the insecurity that she has (just recently) learned to accept and, at times, embrace.

The worst part is when people ask. Sometimes people in the United States would ask how tall she was. Carly doesn’t by any means consider it a rude question, it’s just something that people don’t seem to care as much about back home. People can see with their eyeballs that she’s tall and don’t need factual confirmation. In South Korea, however, it’s one of the first questions that people (especially men) ask her. Here’s a little example:

*standing up from a meal, the man realizes Carly is tall*

Man: Wow, how tall are you?

Carly: 176cm

Man: Oh, wow, good! I’m 178. Good.

So maybe you can see here that it’s not as much the question itself that bothers Carly (again, it’s not a rude question), but rather the follow-up exclamations. “Oh, good! I’m 178.” Oh, good! Are you able to continue this friendship now that you feel like enough of a man? She’s also had several disappointed remarks. “Oh, I’m only 172.”. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. You can tell she’s taller than you, did you think that asking her was going to make her shrink 6 centimeters so you could properly take care of her? Like wgaf?! You have more of a complex about your height than she does!

Clothing shopping is also particularly frustrating. Dresses turn into shirts. Pants turn into (awkward as HELL) capris. Sleeves are too short, shoulders too narrow. Even in stores that carry actual sizes (not just one-size-fits-all like many of the stores here) she has yet to find a pair of pants that fits. So she’s been embracing a measuring tape and online shopping.

With her foreign friends she feels (relatively) normal. Everyone is a different height and body type. Nobody cares. Around her Korean friends, especially coworkers, however, she feels out of place. Like a giant. And the comments are never-ending. Even her students gasp when she reaches to turn on the projector without a step-stool and muttered “와, 키가 진짜 크다!…wow, she’s so tall!”‘s can be heard throughout the room.

What bothers her the most is the idea (not unique to Korea) that a woman should be short and small to be feminine. That she should be shorter than a man. That being cute is better than being strong. A large percentage of Carly’s friends (she knows…she’s asked) have said that they’d “NEVER date a guy shorter than me! Ew.” Why EW?! WHY?! omg Why do people care so much? About a genetic quality that no one can control? Is a height difference between a couple really so important for both parties? Just because (read: THE ONLY REASON) it’s the norm? Much of the time Carly has spent in Korea has, unfortunately, become a regression to middle school, a struggle to once again overcome the insecurity about her height, about the constant reminder that she is different.

 

Meeting the Co-Teacher

As they pulled into Daejeon, it was raining.

Head pressed against the glass of the moving bus, Carly thought it had to be a bad omen.

There hadn’t been a drop of water the entire week of orientation, but suddenly, on the most important day in South Korea so far, the rain had come to un-ravel her hair, give her a wet dog smell, and further complicate the process of getting her (too full) bags to her apartment.

They pulled into the DMOE (Daejeon Metropolitan Office of Education) around 10:30am for the welcoming ceremony. In her skirt and blouse, with her hair in what were once perfectly adorable milkmaid braids, and with a frown on her face, Carly grabbed her bags from under the bus and moved as quickly as possible to the awning at the front of the building. She and the rest of the EPIK-Daejeon teachers were ushered inside and led to a storage room at the back of the lobby. After ditching her bags, she raced to the bathroom to check the state of her appearance — this was no time to worry about inner beauty. She had one chance to make a first impression and the humidity was not doing her any favors. She touched up her makeup and did her best to mend her hair, finally deciding to embrace the “messy look” because,  hey, maybe it made her look more approacchable anyway? Whilst giving herself a last once-over in the mirror and practicing her best so-happy-to-meet-you-but-not-creepy smile, she heard the DMOE supervisor making an announcement and rushed out to joint the others. They were split into two lines — one more primary school teachers and one for secondary school teachers– and were marched upstairs to the auditorium for the ceremony. After waiting outside the doors in a nervous huddle, they were finally ushered inside into a…..very underwhelming audience.

It’s not that she had been expecting a large amount of people to show up in order to witness the relatively normal situation of accepting a job, but the absurdity of the situation was hard to ignore and almost made Carly laugh out loud. Inside the auditorium, a venue that could easily hold 500 people, sat (maybe) 50 people — a co-teacher for each GET (Guest English Teacher), and a couple of guests. Furthermore, they were all sat awkwardly apart (in assigned seats!) in order to allow room for the GET’s upon “acceptance”. In single file, Carly and the rest of the new EPIK teachers waiting on the edge of the auditorium while groups of teachers, ten at a time, were called to stand on stage and meet their co-teachers. She watched as her friends stepped forward and awkwardly bowed, shook hands, or, in some cases, hugged their new co-teachers. Carly breathed deeply and closed her eyes, nervous about how she should greet her new co-worker and hoped, for the hundredth time that day, that she would be a woman.

You see, the day before, along with the information about her new school, Carly had received the name of her co-teacher. Not very familiar with common Korean names, her co-teacher’s name seemed rather ambiguous  in terms of gender and had been the cause of great anxiety for the past 24 hours. Of course she would be able to get along with and perform well with a male co-teacher, but she was looking forward to the relationship she would be able to have with another female. After all, the main co-teacher’s role in her life would extend far outside of school life and would most likely include inquiries about trips to the doctor, the dentist, and other personal matters with which she thought a woman would be more familiar.

And so, when Carly finally stepped forward as her name and new middle school were read aloud, she let out an enormous sigh of relief at the site of her tiny, female co-teacher walking toward her. She shook hands whilst doing an awkward bow and was lead to her seat in the middle of the auditorium to watch the rest of the introductions.

From the DMOE, Carly and her co-teacher drove toward her new middle school in awkward silence. They made casual conversation about family and friends. Carly tried her best to be friendly and enthusiastic, but felt that her eagerness was rejected by her co-teachers stern disposition. She reminded herself to stay positive — first impressions can be wrong and first introductions are always awkward.

They arrived at the school around 11am. Immediately after stepping off of the elevator Carly was hit with a wave of male voices screaming “HELLO, TEACHER!”. Confused and starteld, Carly turned to the sound of the voices and saw that, below her in the courtyard, a group of students were playing soccer in P.E. class and had spotted her from the window. They waved up at her, smiling and jumping over each other, putting their game on pause. Carly waved back and turned to her co-teacher, beaming. “They’re excited to meet you,” she said, leading her down the hall to the third grade teacher’s workroom.

Inside, she showed Carly to her desk and instructed her to drop off her things. Much to Carly’s liking, the workroom was empty, and so no introductions had to be made. She was feeling more nervous by the second and could only handle so many new faces in one day. Her co-teacher suggested lunch, and Carly eagerly agreed, feeling a slight headache come on from her ~hearty~ breakfast of coffee and rice cake. They walked downstairs but, instead of heading off campus to grab a bite to eat, Carly’s co-teacher, who we’ll now refer to as Jinsoo, led her to the school cafeteria. Carly tried her best to push down her expectations and keep an open mind, but part of her was a little disappointed that her first Korean meal outside of orientation was to be in a school lunchroom.

But they got their lunch and ate in silence, sitting on the same side of the table and watching the elementary children gobble and grumble. On the way back to the workroom, Jinsoo took Carly to the administration office to meet the head English teacher, Minji, and pick up her computer. Carly accepted a vitamin drink from the head English teacher (the first of many) and exchanged pleasantries about life back in the states and adjusting to living in Korea. After heading back to the workroom and grabbing her things, Jinsoo suggested that they head to Carly’s apartment and finish up the tour on Monday. Carly acquiesced, for she had no reason not to, but was a little confused by the sudden change in plans and the short amount of time they had spent in the new school.

On the way to Jinsoo’s car in the parking garage, they ran into the Vice Principal in his car. Jinsoo waved him over immediately and he stopped his car to get out and greet Carly. Caught off-guard by the sudden high-profile introduction (the Principal and VP are two very important figures in a Korean school), Carly stumbled over her Korean and shook the VP’s hand with an awkward bow. “Welcome!” he screamed in English, beaming up at Carly from his 5’4 stature. Carly smiled back and felt a pang of relief as Jinsoo led her away from the Vice Principal, explaining in Korean that they had many errands to run.

After the immigration office to apply for her ARC, they headed to the bank, where Carly showed Jinsoo a script she had written with a friend during Korean class at orientation. In the class, Carly and her friend had been given the relationship of “boyfriend-girlfriend” and instructed to write a short dialogue. The script was short and cute and Carly thought that showing it to Jinsoo would be a nice way to pass the time and a good icebreaker.

“Wow,” Jinsoo said, after reading the script. “So, you really want a Korean boyfriend, right?”

“No!” Carly said, a little too loudly, drawing the attention of other waiting customers. She could feel her face turning red. “It was just an assignment for the class. We wanted to write something funny.”

Jinsoo nodded, her face expression-less and incredibly hard to read. Carly put the script back into her bag and waited in agony for the bank teller to call her number.

After the bank was her apartment, a decently-sized studio with a door separating the kitchen from the living area and, best of all, a shower detached from the sink with a half wall of separation! Carly thanked the apartment gods and proceeded to look through the items that the previous tennants (the EPIK teacher before her and his wife) had left behind, making a list of what she’d need to purchase for her new home. Then they were off to Homeplus, a target-like superstore a mere four minute drive from her home (and directly in front of her school). While instead, Carly and Jinsoo ran into two tall, young (and, uh, really cute) Korean men pushing a cart full of choco pies. They stopped and conversed with Jinsoo in Korean and Carly heard them ask if she was the new English teacher and when she had arrived in Daejeon. They finished talking and gave Carly a once-over, then left without even introducing themselves. Confused by the interaction, Carly followed Jinsoo into the produce section and focused on the task at hand. There would be time for cute Korean guys later. (Carly later learned the two men are working at the school for their military service. More on this to come.)

They shopped for forty minutes or so, Carly feeling guilty and rushed every step of the way because of her co-teacher. Jinsoo wasn’t hostile, but she wasn’t exactly happy…or helpful. Carly was unsure about normal prices for household items in Korea and was also having trouble reading packaging, but every question she asked felt like a burden to Jinsoo and a waste of her time. So Carly finished her shopping as soon as possible, forgetting several key items and paying more than she should have.

“Should we have dinner?” Jinsoo suggested, after steering clear of the check-out line with Carly’s enormous cart of home goods. Starving from the little that she ate at lunch, Carly smiled and nodded, excited to have a meal at an actual restaurant. Her face fell, however, as her co-teacher guided the cart toward the food court.

THE FOOD COURT?!

Carly tried her best to hide her disappointment and shovel away her expectations, but she didn’t think it was asking for a lot to expect something more than 2,000 won food court ddeokbokki on her first *real* day in Korea (outside the transplanted foreigner world that was orientation). Hell, she’d even pay!

But Carly definitely wasn’t going to suggest anything different — she was at the mercy of her co-teacher and tried to be grateful for everything she had done so far, both behind the scenes and in front of her face. So she ate the ddeokbokki and fish cake with a (fake) smile on her face, making small conversation only to be met with one-word replies. (Note: Homeplus food court food is actually pretty bomb, but Carly was expecting a dinner with JUST a bit more sustenance and/or nutritional value for her first dinner in Daejeon).

And then something wonderful happened.

In the middle of their meal, Carly heard a gasp from her right side and jumped in her chair. She turned and saw a middle school girl, still wearing her uniform, standing stiff as a board and covering her mouth with her hand. Her eyes were wide and she stared straight at Carly. Jinsoo spoke in Korean, explaining that this (Carly) was the new foreign english teacher. Carly smiled at the girl, waved, and said “hi”. The girl’s eyes grew wider, something Carly didn’t think possible, and she let out the smallest, meekest “hi” from behind her hand. Carly laughed gently and asked for the girl’s name.

“Subin,” said the girl, still from behind her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you, Subin,” Carly replied.

“Oh mo!” the girl said, fanning herself with her other hand. “Oh mo!” she said again, and Carly saw tears (yes, tears) start to form at the corners of her eyes.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” the girl finally squeaked.

Jinsoo spoke to Subin swiftly in Korean, and Subin nodded and turned to go.

“See you on Monday,” Carly said as she was leaving. Subin turned around and bowed at Carly, one hand still on her mouth and eyes still full of tears.

Jinsoo went back to their meal (rather, their snacks) without a word about the strange introduction while Carly was shocked, confused, and flattered. What would her first classes on Monday be like?

This interaction stayed with Carly for the rest of the night, as Jinsoo drove her home and helped her unload her things, as Jinsoo gave an awkward good-bye and hurried out the door an hour and a half before she said she was obligated to stay, and as Carly drifted to sleep that first night alone in her new apartment. She replayed each moment and each first greeting over and over in her mind, wondering what kind of impression she had made, but this interaction with Subin made her feel that, no matter what, her life in Korea was sure to be interesting.

*name has been changed

 

Little moments of conformity

“Teacher!”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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. 

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

 

Get it together, PEK

The flight itself was doable. It started with an awkward exchange with her Chinese-speaking seatmates as she climbed over them, already settled with pillows and blankets, to get to her window seat. She usually reads before going to bed, so, hoping her brain was conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, she opened a book with the possibility it may have lulled her to sleep. After reading through 40%, however, she knew she was in for another sleepless flight (her body never let her sleep on airplanes) and switched to a movie to help pass the time. Thirteen hours and three crappy airline meals later, she landed in Beijing, ecstatic at being half a day closer to Korea. It was eight in the evening, and all she could see out of her tiny airplane window was the garish glow of orange lights on the landing strips and along the roof of the airport itself.

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Exiting the plane was fine, and even as she approached the line for immigration, stretching back one hundred or so foreigners, she felt sure that she would pass through quickly and make it to her gate for a hearty Chinese dinner (breakfast for her). As she moved through the line and got closer to the security officer, however, she heard the problems of those before her and started to sweat. The officers were asking for the itineraries of each traveler passing through security, a pretty standard procedure (she guessed). But Carly stupidly didn’t print her itinerary as she assumed she would receive all three boarding passes from her initial check-in desk in Baltimore. Since her flights to Chicago and Beijing were on a different airline than of that to Busan, her attendant in Baltimore had told her to get the boarding pass from the Korean Air desk once arriving in Beijing. The only problem? The check-in desks at the Beijing airport were located outside of immigration. She desperately tried to get on the airport wifi in order to bring up her online itinerary, only to find that the network required a confirmation VIA TEXT MESSAGE in order to log on. Cursing the stupidity of whoever came up with that idea, she waited the rest of her turn in line, hoping one of the officers could look up her itinerary on her computer or else send her somewhere she could access the internet. That was not, however, the case. After explaining her situation, she was sent to another, “special”, line to have her itinerary confirmed. Upon making it through this line, she was told she “couldn’t be helped” and was sent to an American Airlines desk across from immigration in order to print her boarding pass.

Sighing again and situating her luggage so it didn’t fall on the floor for the hundredth time, she made her way to the AA desk, where she was (thankfully) given a verification code for the wifi. She was unable to log onto expedia, however (be it because of the slow internet or because of China’s massive firewall, she never figured out) and asked the women at the desk, with tears in her eyes, to please look up her itinerary using their computer. They told her there was no way they could (but, like, they could’ve let her borrow one of their phones, right? Come on, people!), and so Carly thought to call her Mother for the information while she still had access to wifi. She re-coiled in horror as she saw her face in the self-camera of her phone. Blotchy, sweaty, and inhumanly puffy, she hoped the face on her mother’s end of the camera was blurry enough to disguise what resembled Him from The Power Puff Girls. Her mother answered soon enough and sent her the screen shots of her itinerary that were necessary.

With tears of frustration streaming down her face, she marched past the AA desk (hoping they felt bad for not letting her use the computer, despite what corporate rules were set in place) and hopped in line again at immigration. After waiting in line for another fifteen minutes and being sent to another “special” line, she finally felt she was in the right place and was ready to pass legally into the land of China. A security officer roaming along her line told her she would not be able to pass through because of the lack of date on her itinerary, and told her to hop out of line until she could find a screenshot with a date. Not wanting to lose her place or waste another moment on Kakao, she coyly slipped past the security officer and made eye contact with woman approving immigration stamps. She stepped up to the woman, who smiled, checked her screenshot of the itinerary, and promptly stamped her passport, ushering her to the other side of immigration. Victory bells went off in her head, and it took every bit of restraint to keep from jumping into the air or doing some sort of Irish step dance. She wasn’t sure if the woman at immigration decided to overlook the missing date from her itinerary or didn’t think it was an important matter, but either way she felt thankful and proceeded with her head held high.

Her confidence, however, was short-lived. Upon making it to the baggage claim area, she found that, after two hours, the luggage from her flight from Chicago was no longer on the carousel. Depressed by yet another setback and desperate for a sponge bath, she shuffled to the help desk to communicate with another unfriendly member of the staff. She explained her situation and was sent to another office in baggage claim, and then told that her bags would be available for pickup in Busan, contrary to what she was originally told upon leaving Baltimore. She triple-checked this information with every member of the office, but remained highly skeptical due to the language barrier. But, exhausted and fed up, she proceeded to customs, figuring that, if lost, her luggage could be found, but her sanity could not.

After putting her carry-on through the x-ray machine, she was told that the international terminal was only accessible by airport shuttle, which she would have to catch outside of her current terminal. She ignored the fact that she had, indeed, just come in on an international flight, and decided that the staff knew best. Waiting for the elevator down to the first floor, she was pushed and shoved from behind by other waiting travelers and, once the doors finally opened, she was nearly stampeded as the others rushed into the elevator, putting its capacity to the limit and preventing her from boarding. She gave each passenger a death stare as the doors closed, hoping they would remember her angry, exhausted, jet-lagged face for eternity.

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Once (finally) making it outside, every sliver of confidence she ever had about being a good traveler evaporated into the smog of Beijing. Buses and people were everywhere. It was very early morning, maybe 1:30am. The glare of the lights – traffic lights, bus lights, and airport lights – reflected off her glasses and nearly blinded her. Using her hand as a visor, she made her way through the crowd to a nearby ticket desk and desperately asked the vendor if she spoke English. She immediately shook her head  and look to the person behind Carly in line, waving them up so she could accept their money. Carly moved into the vendor’s line of sight and asked, despite the language barrier, “International terminal?”, her voice breaking on the last syllable. The customer behind her pressed himself against Carly’s back, and she took that as her cue to leave. She made her way to a map explaining the local buses, but even the English writing was confusing. She thought she remembered one of the customs officers telling her to take bus number five, so she stumbled to a marked post and waited. The bus arrived a few minutes later, and as she was just about to board, she croaked “International terminal?” to the  airport official monitoring the buses. He looked at her, puzzled. “English?” she asked, the tears finally overflowing and beginning to pour down her face. He looked shocked, and rightfully so, considering this strange, tall, smelly, white girl was sobbing in front of him for no reason, and ushered over a female co-worker. “International terminal?” Carly said again, about ready to give up and climb onto any bus, as long as it took her away from this damned airport. The woman smiled shyly at her and pulled her away from Bus number five, leading her away from the crowd of people. She pointed to a smaller, trolley-sized bus down the line, which had the words “Airport Shuttle” written on the side. Resisting the urge to hug the woman, Carly bowed her head (unsure if they even bow in China, but give the girl a break!) and nearly ran to the shuttle.

She sat down and, relishing the emptiness of the vehicle, gave her face and appendages a bath with wet wipes and tissues. Surprisingly, she made it to the right terminal (although she had to triple check with the staff upon arriving) and managed to find some fellow EPIK-ers waiting in line at the Korean Air counter. Relieved that she now had other people to share the stress, she made it through security (the most thorough and inefficient she had ever experienced, by the way) with relative ease, and by the grace of God made it to the correct gate.

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It was very tempting to flip the bird to the smelly* Beijing airport as her plane took off, but she exercised some restraint in front of her new acquaintances. She fell asleep instantly, amazed that her seat on this smaller airline had more leg room than that of her premium seat on the boeing 787, and dreamed sweet dreams of Korea.

*Author’s note: Guys, the Beijing airport was really smelly. I’m not trying to be rude, but it was real stinky. Like really bad.

 

 

 

EPIK timeline – Fall 2016 (first person)

Hello all! Popping in for a quick first person post so I can be informative to all you potential EPIK-ers out there! Or for those who are just curious about the EPIK application process! It’s a doozey.

Here is a timeline of all the major application milestones so far (all dates are 2016, duh!):

Jan 4: applied for CRC

Jan 5: asked for letters of recommendation via e-mail

Jan 7: started online TEFL course (this is the course I took)

Jan 30: finished online TEFL course

Jan 31: submitted application via e-mail (I had a timed e-mail ready to go out at 10am January 31st EST/12am February 1st KST)

Feb 8: EPIK says they are missing a letter of recommendation; frantically e-mail other professor asking what went wrong

epik missing LOR

Feb 9: Professor sends out letter (I’ve had multiple panic attacks during this 24-hour period)

Feb 10: receive EPIK email telling me to chill out until March

epik chill out

Mar 29: receive interview invitation! Interview set for April 5.

EPIK interview

April 4(5) 9pm my time, 10am theirs: my interview!

April 7: receive interview pass confirmation (e-mail snippets below)

“You have successfully passed the interview and we would like to recommend you to our Offices of Education as soon as you submitall the necessary documents. Remember, it is on a first-come first-served basis!

The final hiring decision is made by the Office of Education. If you are successfully placed, a contract and notice of appointment will be sent via FedEx to your mailing address.  Please keep in mind that we will only begin sending out contracts and notices of appointment starting sometime in mid to late-June at the earliest.”

April 12: request letter of expected graduation and transcripts from university (in my senior year of College at this time)

April 13: CRC arrives at my family home; pick up letter of expected graduation and transcripts from office of the registrar

April 18: NoVA transcripts arrive at my family home (from summer classes that went toward my degree)

April 19: Dad walks CRC into DC for apostille

April 25: Dad picks up CRC

April 26: Mom overnights CRC and NoVA transcripts to me at school

April 27: CRC arrives to me at school; post documents to Korea via FedEX; said to arrive Tuesday, May 5

May 2: documents arrive at EPIK office

May 15: Graduation!

May 16: get copies of diploma notarized, send them to office in Richmond for apostilles; order updated transcripts from university

May 23: apostilled diplomas arrive

May 24: updated transcripts arrive

May 29: coordinator says documents have been received and processed (mass e-mail); he says wait until mid to late June for placement [note here that my final documents were still yet to be sent]

epik docs received

May 30: send final documents (diploma and transcripts) to EPIK via FedEx

June 14: receive successful placement for Daejeon! (I requested Seoul) Told to wait until mid-July for more information regarding visas and contracts.

epik congrats

July 18th: contract and NOA arrive! My mom and I head into DC to apply for my visa. Receive information for online pre-orientation course.

NOA

July 21st: I book my ticket online via Expedia (you shouldn’t book your ticket until you’ve received your visa, but Expedia gives a 24-hour cancellation period — the flight was such a good deal that I knew I had to book it right away!)

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July 22nd: my Mom and I pick up my visa in DC [note: the consulate assured me that E2 visa holders are required to have a single-entry visa upon first entering Korea. Once one receives the ARC (alien registration card) after settling in, the visa status can be updated to multiple entries.)

July 30th: Begin online pre-orientation

August 6th(ish): Finish online pre-orientation

August 16th: Leave for Korea!

August 18th: Arrive in Busan!

August 18th-26th: Orientation at Busan University of International Studies

August 26th: Arrive in Daejeon

August 29th: First day of teaching 🙂

 

Good-bye, farewell, or whatever you call it

The packing was the hardest part, and that’s what started to scare her.

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She made the packing list weeks ago — a color-coded excel spreadsheet listing every single item she could possibly need in her move abroad. Separated by category, and with columns to certify bought and packed statuses, her list was, to say the least, comprehensive. The five days leading up to departure were filled with last-minute trips to buy extra toothpaste, tampons, and deodorant, and the nights were filled with Tetris-style packing as she tried her hardest to fit her life into three (too-small) suitcases whilst blasting K-pop in a last-ditch attempt to “condition” her brain for the Korean language (she can now proudly say she can understand ~7% of songs, although the words “time”, “love”, “now”, and “little” don’t add up to much of a story-line). She got to bed at a (semi) reasonable hour last night, amazing considering the amount of times she un-packed and re-packed her bags to eliminate extraneous items and arrange the contents in a semi-organized manner. The ride to the airport was mostly filled with anxiety about her bags being over the weight limit, and once that worry was lifted (one bag missed the 50 lb. mark by one pound — nice!), she felt instantly lighter. Hugging her mother good-bye at security was difficult, of course. She felt herself beginning to cry and so clung harder to her mom, not letting the embrace end until she felt her tears dry and her quivering lip be still. Although she would’ve loved his company, she was glad her father hadn’t been able to come to the airport as well, for sure knew that the two of them bidding her for well would have surely sent her over the edge into a catastrophe of tears and snot bubbles. No, separate good-byes were best. The good-bye to her beloved friend Lauren (who you might remember from a past blog post), a quick hug and the passing of some inside joke. The good-bye to her oldest brother, a phone call and quick “I love you”. The good-bye to her middle brother, another brief hug and a smirk. The good-bye to her father, multiple hugs throughout the morning and one final one before getting into the car, with a casual wave whilst backing out the driveway, the last she would see of him for a while. And of course, the good-bye with her mother, a too-short embrace (which, in reality, was at least 45 seconds long, but which felt a quarter of the length), a reminder about being safe, and a teary last wave as she made her way through the maze of security. Just imagining have to say good-bye to all of her closest people at once created a lump in her throat and brought tears to her eyes (in fact, she keeps taking breaks from writing this post to collect her emotions). She had no regrets about who she had parted with. She felt content with where she had left her relationships and how she was going to keep in touch. She felt objectively prepared for the emotional hardship that was to come.

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travel shirt, ’cause I always be stylin

After getting through security, however, (another obstacle inflating her anxiety — she was worried her carry-on would be too big or her camera equipment would be confiscated, two fears she noted as irrational as she was an experienced traveler and had never had issues in the past) she realized how stunningly easy all of her good-byes had been. An easy crier, she almost always had trouble holding back tears once she felt they were ready to flow. She had embarrassed herself countless times when she was younger, crying to teachers and supervisors and friends by accident out of pure frustration or confusion. She had learned to remove herself from emotional situations before the got the best of her (she even refused to watch certain movies or listen to certain music with friends, as she knew they would cause the floodgates to open). So she was surprised she didn’t spill a single tear during her goodbyes, emotional situations which she could simply not avoid. She wasn’t hungry, but grabbed a small sandwich anyway because she knew she needed to fill her empty stomach before the first leg of her journey. As she took bite after tiny bite of her chicken-and-cheese flatbread, the anxiety of packing and paying extra baggage fees out of the way, she started to miss her family and friends more and more. She began to wonder if, perhaps, her goodbyes had been so easy initially because they were going to become more difficult later on. She wondered if, once settled into her new home in Daejeon, a wave of homesickness, bigger than she had ever experienced whilst away at school or studying in Spain, would hit her and throw her into a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.

But, taking the last sip of water from her over-priced Cyrstal Geyser, she decided she wasn’t going to worry about that right now. She was, of course, dreading the 26-hour trip ahead of her (2.5 hour flight to Chicago, 1.5 hour layover, 13.5 hour flight to Beijing, 6 hour layover, 2.5 hour flight to Busan), but she was excited for orientation and for meeting new people and for tasting new food and for experiencing new culture and for, of course, simply being in the country that she had been interested in for so long. So, she threw her bottle away (why aren’t here more recycling bins around here?, she wondered), started one of the 15 new podcasts on her phone, looked out the window at the taxiing planes, and smiled into her new life for the next 365 days.

 

How much does it cost to apply to EPIK? (first person)

For those that are thinking about applying, are in the application process, or for those who are simply curious, the following is a list of what I’ve spent in order to move to South Korea to teach for the EPIK program:

Online TEFL course: $360 (I used this course)

CRC (federal-level background check): $18 (information can be found here)

CRC apostille: $8 (information can be found here)

Diploma notarization: $5/each; $15 total (I got two — one for EPIK, one for the private school jobs I was applying for, and one extra; my bank was a pain, so I went to UPS and my main man hooked me up)

Diploma apostilles: $15 (I got two as I was in the process of applying for private school jobs as well; information for Virginia residents can be found here)

Passport photos: $20 (I printed quite a few at Wal-mart — for applications, visa, ARC card, and potential uses in Korea)

Documents over-nighted to Korea round 1: $98

Documents over-nighted to Korea round 2: $50

E-2 visa: $45

Flight (Washington DC to Busan, one-way): $549.70

TOTAL: $1,178.70

I feel very, VERY lucky that my parents have paid for pretty much all of my expenses regarding South Korea so far, and I’m well aware that many people don’t have that luxury. Also be aware that this list does not include all the toiletries, clothes, shoes, and luggage that I’ve purchased in preparation for my year (or more) abroad. All that included, and the total would be pushing $2,000. PLUS, EPIK recommends that you bring at least $1,000 (USD) for your first couple of months in Korea before receiving your first paycheck. Whoo! That’s a lot of green. I’m sure those of you who have been working for several years prior to applying will have an easier time (as compared to the recent college grad writing this that was a bit frivolous in spending her money during undergrad), but three grand is a lot of money for anyone.

I’m still very excited for my big move and I’m very appreciative of the EPIK program. I know I’ll make all  the money back (and more) after several months of teaching (with some left over to pay off my school loans!), but shelling out all this money (er…I mean, my parents shelling out all this money) up front makes my little heart hurt.

 

Longing to be alone

“Hey! So I know I said that we would hang out this weekend but I actually picked up a couple of extra shifts so I don’t think I’m gonna be able to… ah god I know, I suck, I really want to see you! But I really need to work and if we hang out after I get off then I’m just gonna be so tired and I won’t be able to drink, so… but I definitely want to see you before I go!”

As Carly sent the message, she wondered if she made a mistake. It took her five minutes to draft up the two-sentence statement, and another thirty minutes to actually send it after a pacing session in her room. The days before Korea were slowly decreasing (24, but who’s counting?), and the chores to be done and items to be bought and paperwork to be filled out before leaving were piling up by the hour. Making time to spend quality time with friends before leaving felt like a hassle — a distraction from the truly pressing matters that needed to be taken care of. Friends could wait — a visa application could not.

 Of course her friends were important to her — and to be honest, she knew she’d be regretting avoiding them in a few months after settling into life in Korea and the homesickness began to set in — but secretly she was relieved every time an excuse like work or paperwork came up so that she could dodge their invitations and requests guilt-free. She’d always been an introvert, and the summer lifestyle  was a certain type of  bliss for her — no lectures in which to make small talk with classmates, no socially-mandated events at which to make half-hearted appearances, and, best of all, a room to herself — which she tried each year to cherish before the Autumn, and all it’s people-schmoozing glory, returned.

She threw her phone to the end of her bed and lay down on her back, staring at the ceiling fan with a missing bulb and the dangling basketball pull-chain leftover from her “I want to be a basketball player!” days. As she closed her eyes to escape the dizzying flicker of light from the blades of the fan, a giant brown mass appeared in her mind’s eye. It swirled and swayed, amoeba-like in its movements, and as it moved faster and faster, fragments began to break off. These fragments also swirled and swayed and spun, and after each fragment had made itself into a seemingly-infinite spiral, the colors grew brighter, and each fragment transformed itself into a face of one of her closest friends. She opened her eyes so she could roll them — could her brain be any more dramatic? She cared about her friends, and she knew that they cared about her, but the love that she felt for friends and loved ones was not a love that needed to be nourished by constant face-to-face contact. Of course she understood the importance of this type of contact, but she was perfectly capable of having very little contact with a friend for months – years, even – and still feel the same love she had always felt for them. She didn’t know if this ability was matched by her friends, however, and so, for not the first time that night, had second thoughts about blowing off her plans.

She wasn’t a hermit. She did enjoy spending time with her friends. A lot of times it was the preparation that was the hardest part — the getting dressed, the putting on makeup, the doing of the hair. More so, the commute to the meeting spot and the money she knew she’d have to spend on food and drinks and other miscellaneous 22-year-old goodies. Usually once she arrived and saw the familiar faces, she felt at (relatively) at ease and happy to be around those she cared about. There were times, however, that did not flow so easily and that served as examples (and excuses) for her “I don’t want to hang out with anyone” attitude.

You see her head was a very busy place. Impossible to turn off, impossible to escape. She had too much floating around in the ol’ noggin, and found it incredibly difficult to collect her thoughts and project them into one clear stream of consciousness. She’d learned to deal with this difficulty by having conversations and playing out realities in her head — her mind had become a television, broadcasting interviews, soap operas, talks shows, and sitcoms, all made of up characters from her everyday life and fake situations she pretended to control. But when she was around someone else, this person interrupted her mind shows and scrambled her thoughts again. The conversation didn’t flow like the ones in her head. She didn’t have as much time to think about her responses and the other person didn’t always respond the way she imagined they would. She being around people became anxiety-inducing and embarrassing. She criticized every moment of the interaction, even those interactions with her closest friends. She second-guessed every word and cringed at every reaction. The self-scrutiny became too exhausting for her, and she yearned to be alone again.

But she knew she would miss the company once she moved abroad. The hands she could hold, the laughs she could hear, the advice she could receive, the music she could share. She would miss the familiarity — the names she knew and the faces she loved. She had never lived alone (at least, not TRULY alone — she didn’t count her single dorm room during freshman year as she was surrounded by 30 other 18-year-olds within 50 yards) and she had never been abroad alone. She’d never been on vacation alone. She was known to see a movie alone and dine at a restaurant without company from time to time, but just hours later she would arrive home, to a house full of family or a college residence hall full of classmates. Throughout her senior year of college, the year leading up to the big move, she longed for the single studio apartment waiting for her in South Korea — the apartment without roommates or guests where she could spend hours alone doing whatever she pleased without being judged as a social pariah or accused of being minorly agoraphobic. She had, after too many parties and too many awkward interactions, convinced herself she was ready to be alone, but as each day passed she felt more afraid that she wouldn’t like it.

CYLMAC