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Starting Year 2 in Korea

One year in Korea has gone by surprisingly fast.

Flash back to me, one year ago, at EPIK orientation:


Look at that naive little girl in her wrinkled hanbok (which she is way too tall for), erroneously wearing her (regrettably short) hair down. She had no idea what was ahead.

In honor of my one year anniversary of moving to Korea, here’s a bit of self-reflection:

Mistakes I will not be making this year:

  1. Giving my students candy on any day except for Halloween. I did this last fall in a last-ditch effort to motivate my apathetic 6th graders. It worked really well, except that every time they saw me from then on, they shouted: “TEACHER. GIVE ME CANDY!”

  2. Spending days inside when the weather is nice. When it is hot here, it is unbearable. Like, I can’t even walk the two minutes from my apartment to the subway without getting covered in sweat. When it’s cold, it’s so cold you want to die. This year I will not squander the brief weeks of good weather.

  3. Eating my weight in choco-pies. Korean snacks are so good but I need to stop doing this for reasons that I think are obvious.

  4. Excessively studying Korean. This may sound like a weird resolution, but hear me out. I spent a lot of time last year doing work for my Korean lessons. My Korean is better than the average foreigner, so I can easily do things like order food, ask for directions, and get the gist of many conversations that I overhear. But, aside from the vocabulary I’ve learned to do these things, all the extra words I’ve learned honestly don’t help me that much. Don’t get me wrong, if I were fluent in Korean, it would help me A LOT. But being low-intermediate level in Korean is rarely worth it. Example:

~The following conversation took place in a pharmacy, entirely in Korean~

Me: Do you have (medication name redacted)?

Pharmacist: Yes. That’s 7,000 won.

Me: (hands her my card)

Pharmacist: (something I don’t understand) this medication?

Me: Sorry? (blinks a lot)

Pharmacist: (speaking slowly) first time?

Me: (suddenly understanding) Ah, yes. First time (assuming she’s asking if I’ve ever taken this medication before)

Pharmacist: By any chance, (something I don’t understand)?

Me: (blinks)

Pharmacist: (rephrasing, but I still don’t understand)?

Me: Uh…. (internal panic, nervous sweating) no?

Pharmacist: (blinks. “no” was apparently not an acceptable answer)… Ah, you don’t speak Korean well. Okay! (smiles and hands me my card back)

Me: (leaves the pharmacy, traumatized)

…As you can see, knowing the low-intermediate phrases like “first” and “by any chance” really weren’t that helpful to me when I didn’t understand the rest of what was said. I’m reminded of something I said a lot while learning Chinese: “You would be surprised how unhelpful it is to understand two words out of every ten you hear.”

Of course, if I were planning on staying in Korea for the rest of my life, it would really benefit me to buckle down and study Korean to make more Korean friends. But as of now, I think this will be my last year here. As such, I think I have enough to get by and I don’t think the jump from low-intermediate to intermediate Korean (understanding 3 words out of every 10 I hear instead of just 2) would really benefit me enough to justify the time spent studying. I spent a lot of time last year indoors, studying words like “introverted” and “migrate” at the expense of doing things with my friends, and I don’t think it’s served me that well.

Things I want to do this year:

  1. Join a community. There are a million groups on a website called Meetup that I get emails for but never actually go to. There’s language exchanges, crafting groups, yoga groups, groups that go to concerts together… lots of cool stuff that I’ve regrettably never tried.

  2. Finish off my Korea Bucket List. Items on this list include visiting Yongma Land (an abandoned theme park) and seeing a Sungha Jung concert.

  3. Throw the sickest Halloween party ever for my students. I love to force my love for Halloween on my students, and they’re happy to take a break from learning English and just play games for a day. Last year I made a lot of games like digging laminated bones out of huge “graves” of recycled paper and assembling skeletons (side note: children are really bad at differentiating arm bones from leg bones and knowing when rib cages are upside-down). I want to do it again this year, but better. It’s a bit hard, because the traditional Halloween games (bobbing for apples, eating donuts off of strings) are impractical for 300 students. I would have to buy so many donuts and the mess would be out of this world. Imagine all the water over the floor, not to mention hygiene issues, from 300 elementary school kids sticking their faces in a bucket of apples and water.

At least, these are my intentions. I’m a lazy introvert so I could very easily lose my motivation within a month. But I’m doing my best to keep my enthusiasm strong by being grateful, seeing my job as a challenge rather than a constant source of nerves that occasionally drains my soul, and remembering that this is probably my last year here, so I need to make it count.

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