Tag Archives: thoughts

To evacuate or not to evacuate?

Not even proofreading this. I know not all considerations are covered in here but I’m tired and this is just a quick vent.

It’s 1:30 AM on an early, fresh Friday. I can’t sleep. The state of affairs concerning my grant have completely changed within the last week.

Today we were notified that Fulbright is allowing a voluntary evacuation from Korea. Fulbright will be fully paying for our flights and, in a surprising move, will continue to give us our salary until June 30th regardless of whether we choose to stay or leave. If we return home, there’s the possibility, but not a guarantee, that we can return to teach in Korea if the current COVID-19 situation dies down. That is, if our schools don’t replace us in that time. All of us, on the record, will have a completed Fulbright Alumni status. They also informed us that a mandatory evacuation might be necessary in the near future. Voluntary ETAs would be evacuated in waves, the first wave being about 6 days from now.

I’ve been on the phone with different ETAs all day. We’re scared and stressed. At the beginning of the day, there was shock and confusion. How could we make such an important decision? We worked hard to get here and now our newfound livelihood could be ripped away from us so quickly. On the flip side, there were 500+ new cases JUST today within Korea. Many of us aren’t so worried about getting sick, but we’re worried about the effects that come with it. What if, God forbid, we acted as carriers to our students or other civilians with health problems, unbeknownst to us? Our host families are getting increasingly worried. Items in stores are disappearing or getting price gouged. Streets are emptying. Our schools are closed. A growing number of Asian countries are not allowing incoming flights from South Korea. What if the U.S. is next?

As a cohort, we’re sharing anecdotes. Passing on any valuable tidbit of information we can get our hands on. Who’s leaving? Who’s staying? Who’s on the fence? We’re reiterating the facts from the email we were sent- repeating them, memorizing them. We’re just trying to get comfortable forming the words on our lips- “evacuation”, “mandatory”, “voluntary”, “pandemic”. Asking things like “Well, are we truly safe anywhere in the world right now?”. We’re frantically looking for reassurance from someone- anyone- for our decision, whether it is to stay or leave. Guilt and doubt comes with either one we choose. We’re tip-toeing around our co-teachers and host families- parties who don’t even have the choice to leave. We are in a spot of privilege, but also a spot of pressure from everyone outside our cohort. It seems like many of us have turned inward, trying to fend away the reality that was foist upon us from the outside and protect our collective. We are the only ones that understand the pain of leaving this grant and this country that has grown so dear to us. Ultimately, we are the ones that are going to have to break the news to our younger host siblings and comfort them when they cry. We are the ones faced with the reality of never being able to say goodbye to our students or share last words with them. There will be some people in our cohort we might never see again.

I want to stay. I’m going to try to stay. But if a Daegu situation happens here in Cheongju, I will have to evacuate. If there’s a mandatory evacuation, I will have no choice. Tonight I took a walk outside after dinner and passed the landmarks leading up to the bus terminal near our apartment. I thought about the restaurants I liked and the ones where I planned on going, but might never be able to get to. I thought about how I was walking on the same roads my host brothers and I have walked and laughed on. I looked at the Mini Stop where I would often go with them to treat them to candy or ice cream. I thought of weaving through the backroads with Hyungyu, who would tell me about his day and point out what the different business on our street were. When I arrived at the bus terminal, I thought about how many times the Intercity bus had safely taken me home from all different cities in Korea. This is my home. What were my unknowing lasts here? Thinking about renewing was difficult enough for me. Coming to terms with the fact that I might not even get to stay for the second semester is totally jarring and overwhelming.

I keep experiencing such a wide range of emotions ranging from “this isn’t really happening” to “the situation is getting dire”. Even if I stay, when will I be able to teach? What if I’m just stuck in my room for a month? Then what purpose of my grant would I really be fulfilling? Knowing that I could be with friends and family at home and still get paid the same amount is tempting. But I don’t feel right abandoning the life I worked hard to forge here.

Two nights ago, my host brother asked me if I was really leaving in July. I told him I didn’t know yet. He then told me that he wants me to stay another year, and that he doesn’t want me to leave him.

Half a year update

It’s been a little over 6 months since I’ve arrived in Korea.

I have felt so many emotions. There were times I struggled, but I’ve conquered so much. I am, undoubtedly, thriving.

There are times I feel like I’ve lived here for an eternity. Times where I’ve almost completely forgotten my life before Korea.

The year leading up to before I left for Korea was a difficult time for me for a multitude of reasons. At times it was a struggle juggling a full course load at college, working, student teaching full time, and completing my EdTPA certification. There were times when my personal life wasn’t doing the best either. I remember getting all of my materials together to apply for this Fulbright grant. Despite 16+ hour days I found it in me stay up late and rewrite my essays over and over again to perfection. I had less than 2 months to prepare and submit my application, while some people have an entire year to get feedback from university faculty and recalibrate their efforts. I wanted this so. badly. When I would get tired or discouraged, I would take a moment to close my eyes and imagine myself walking through different Korean landscapes. And it would ignite something in me to keep pushing through those sleep deprived nights.

Nowadays, all of that seems like a distant memory from a past life. I am completely reaping what I’ve sewn and loving every minute in this country. However, with my brief trip to America coming up soon, all of this is flooding back to me. I’m remembering how hard I worked to be here, and when I do that, my time here seems so small. These 6 months have flown by and I know the next 6 months will do the same. Although I’ve really taken advantage of my time here, I’m not sure if I’ll be ready to leave yet when the time comes. I still feel like I have so much life to live here.

Cheongju, my city that I’m placed in, has really transformed into a sort of a 5th appendage of myself. It has become a home to me and I find myself wanting to protect it so dearly. It’s personal and precious to me, and I can’t help but even feel a little possessive over it. It watched me flourish and adjust to this new job, new family, and new culture. When I take the bus at night around town I feel at peace looking out the window and seeing the city. My city, it feels like. I can’t bear the thought of leaving and never seeing it again. I’m not sure if, at this point in time, my heart could handle it.

I’m halfway through. Right now, I’m on a long winter break from school. I’ll start teaching classes again in March with new co-teachers and a fresh set of first year high school students. And then in mid-July, I’ll be done. Finished. I’ll return home and it’ll be like this entire year didn’t even exist. People back home will ask how my year was, but they won’t really understand, even if I explain myself as articulately as possible. I’ll get a full-time teaching job and probably stay at the same district for 30 years. And I will never be able to experience another Korean autumn with beautiful golden rice fields again. Or wear hanbok while walking through cherry blossom trees in the spring.

And it hurts. It’s very painful to think about everything in such finite terms. But it’s the truth. I can always briefly visit Korea again in the future during the summer, but after I leave in July, I will never be able to live in Korea, to thrive in Korea again.

Here’s to another 6 months.

Settling in

There’s something so uniquely comforting about being on a bus, train, or plane to a new destination and looking out the window. These were taken on my 3 hour bus ride to Jinju.

I’ve been doing a lot of in-country traveling recently. The past two weekends I went to Seoul and this week, since Hangul day is a national holiday, I went to Jinju to see the fall lantern festival. I’ve had a lot of time to look out windows and see the Korean landscape pass before my eyes.

Last night, when I got home from Jinju, I started to realize that my homestay has really turned into a home for me. My host dad offered to drive me and my friend home from the bus terminal. While I was walking from the car to the apartment, my host father quipped how I looked like I skipped fall and began just dressing for winter. We were laughing and when I walked through the door, my host brothers greeted me and excitedly told me all about their day. I put my gift of assorted macaroons down on the kitchen table when my oldest host brother showed me about all the games they played. When I finally got to my room, I was so happy. And I think I was happy because my homestay is not a foreign place to me. I don’t have to be “on” all the time, and I don’t feel like I’m walking on eggshells. I’m well looked after here and I feel like a part of the family. I look forward coming home after a weekend excursion or trip because where I sleep has truly turned into a beacon of comfort and happiness.

Korean school environment

Disclaimer: This is written from my own perspective, and these opinions are my own. I’m comparing this to my own experience being a student and also a student teacher in a New Jersey public high school, but this could wildly differ given the upbringing of other Americans. The school I’m placed at is also probably not representative of all Korean schools, so take that with a grain of salt.

I’ve been compiling this post for the last 2 or 3 weeks! I’ve noticed a lot of differences between American high schools and Korean high schools, and I definitely will not be able to cover them all in one post. Which is why I’m only going to briefly cover a few aspects for now.


Ok, students truly “live” in their homerooms here. At my current school, students stay in their homerooms all day while teachers come in to teach their lessons. On average, high school students usually are in school from 8 am to 9 or 10 pm some nights. They spend their entire lives at school. As such, in their homerooms they have blankets, pillows, toothbrushes and other toiletries on hand. Most girls wear curlers in their hair while they’re in class. A small percentage of our students actually live on campus, which is not completely unusual in a Korean high school. Most, if not all students, have breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school almost every day.

The role of teachers

Since students essentially live at their school, teachers have taken the role as faux parents here. Teachers generally share similar hours as their students, and also have an arsenal of their toiletries at their desk. Students are extremely close with their teachers, and skin ship seems to be an important aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Physical affirmation, such as patting on the back, head scratching, and arms around the shoulders seems to be a positive form of communication that teachers show to let their students know that they care about them. This is especially common between male teachers and male students. Often times students will come into the teacher’s office and teachers will ruffle their hair, give them food, and even occasionally, briefly hold their hand. I’ve seen some male teacher to male student butt taps too. To my American teacher friends reading this, you’re probably shaking your head or quietly mouthing “what”. This type of behavior is something would be grounds for termination in any American school, so it’s been an adjustment to see this. I’ve even seen students call one of my co-teachers not by his name, but only by “아빠” (dad). In fact, the girl students only call him by this exclusively. Students will also freely tell their teachers how much they love them and give them numerous gifts. I’ve been readjusting my expectations of what’s appropriate conduct inside the classroom here in Korea, and I’m sure that when I eventually go back to teach in America I will definitely have to readjust back. Honestly, it’s really made me think that American teachers must appear to be ‘colder’ and more detached than teachers not only in Korea, but in other countries.

With teachers assuming the role as sort of a surrogate parent, that also comes with discipline. School may have only just started about 3 weeks ago here, but I have already seen a student get verbally reamed out in the teacher’s office at extreme levels that would never be seen as appropriate in America. I’ve heard similar stories from other ETAs as well. Other ETAs have told me that students have cried after being yelled at and run out of the teacher’s office. But ‘tough love’ is a pretty popular sentiment here. Many students understand that this is another way for teachers to show students how much they care for them and want them to succeed.

Students in relation to me

I’ll be real. The first time I walked into the school, it was on a Friday after the last bell had just rang and I felt like a total movie star. Students in the hallway crowded around me and either stared, whispered to their friends, or shouted out “Whoa! New pretty teacher!”. To be fair, I was also dressed in business professional because I had just been at the departure ceremony in Songdo. One of the first things I noticed was how much value is placed on looks. Of course, American high school students do the same thing. However it’s been elevated to a level that I find a bit unsettling. In my first 2 weeks, I asked students to write 3 sentences introducing themselves. The majority introduced themselves not by indicating physical traits- i.e. short, tall, has glasses- but instead said “pretty”, “cute”, “thin”, “fat”, and “ugly”. A few students introduced themselves by telling me that they were on a diet. A small group of students even wrote down their weight in their introduction. More students did this rather than writing down hobbies or personality traits, which would be well within their lexicon. It definitely took me off guard and has inspired me to write a self-love/body positivity lesson or unit somewhere throughout the year. Not one day goes by where students don’t comment on my looks or the looks of themselves in class. I wish they could know that I think they’re all beautiful on the inside, and have so much more to offer besides their appearance.

I have a very close relationship with my students here, but in a very different way than I did with my American students. Korean students are doting, caring, and extremely generous (but Korean gift giving culture is a whole other subject). My students love running up to the door of the teacher’s office and greeting me in English before giggling and running away. They also call me “Teacher” or “Christina Teacher” instead of Ms. Dwyer. I’m still struggling with the streams of “I love you”‘s I get from them because I’m not really used to hearing that from a student, let alone saying it back to them. My students even finger-sign hearts to me while I’m walking past them. Even with all the affection, there seems to be a little wall. I think that they put me on a pedestal and, in fear of disappointing or contradicting me, they’re reluctant to speak in class. At the same time, I sometimes feel like I’m an artifact at a museum. They “ooh” and “ahh” at me but sometimes I don’t feel like their teacher. I sometimes just feel like I’m a rare sculpture behind glass in their classroom for them to look at. I hope that with time this feeling will fade away. It could just be because they’re shy, and it’s probably because I’m older than them on the Korean hierarchy scale. But still, it’s a feeling that I’ve been finding a little hard to shake recently.


I have like 2 posts sitting in my drafts waiting to be published but…

It’s Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and I’m at Sokcho again. This time, there’s no typhoon.

I was sitting and watching the waves today. The water was really clear and you could see the bottom of the ocean through the water. It had such a pretty blue-ish green-ish tint to it. And today, the skies were super blue after an entire week of cloudiness and rain.

I just reflected on how grateful I am to be here. How proud I am that I’ve gotten to this point. How beautiful it is when every gear comes together to make such a graceful, functional, well-oiled machine. And how precious it is to take moments to yourself and bask in these little gifts of self-reflection.

I felt like I was finally sitting under the shade of my own vine and fig tree.

Makeshift guidelines and rules that I have been following

In honor of spending about 2 weeks with my new family, job, and coworkers, I’ve compiled a list of mental rules and guidelines that I have made for myself.

  1. Listen with all 5 senses.
  2. Ask what the food is after you eat it.
  3. If you and a superior are walking towards each other, bow when you are about 5-8 feet away from each other (usually)
  4. Eat rice with a spoon
  5. Bring a toothbrush to school everyday.
  6. ALWAYS have an extra pair of socks at your desk
  7. When in doubt, smile and nod
  8. Have emergency gift wrap on hand in your room
  9. Try to “yes, and” 90% of situations
  10. Name 5 beautiful things you saw at the end of every day

When one thing ends, something else begins

Orientation ended this past week.

It was all a whirlwind. Now that I’m in my homestay, I feel like I’m actually in Korea. We were all whisked away from each other so quickly at the placement ceremony, off to be scattered across the country. My co-teacher and head of the English department drove me to Cheongju. While I was sitting in the car, gazing at the rolling mountains, it happened- I knew that I was alone. And not necessarily in a bad way, but in an independent way. I was reminded that this journey I embarked on was something I needed to accomplish by myself. Of course I have a support system that will keep me grounded throughout the year, but the majority of that support system will not be in close physical proximity to me. I have to find it within myself to conquer the majority of the hurdles I will experience this year. This is something that I alone am capable of.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been alone. The last time I can remember was back in 2014 when I lived in Austria for the summer. It was me and one other woman who ran the English native camp, a camp for Austrian kids to be completely immersed in English. It’s pretty similar to the FEP camp here at Fulbright, except the one in Austria was a little less rigorous and more focused on traditional camp activities. At the time, I was only 18 and living with distant relatives that I had never met before. I was alone then, and I thrived. I know that if I could do it then, I could do it now. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve been, or truly felt “alone”. It’s also got me wondering what the true meaning of home is.

Is home a feeling, is it fluid? Is it a solidified place? Is there a finite limit on how many homes one can feel akin with? To me, I always thought home was a fixed point. Maybe home could be one fond memory that plays on a loop. Or home could be found in a person, or multiple people. I think that home could be considered a hasty collage at times. Can home end? Is home irreplaceable? Maybe one home can’t replace another, but can serve as a companion. But maybe I look for home in the wrong places. Home doesn’t have to be a physical place. It doesn’t have to be found in a memory or someone else. I carry home inside of me, and where I go, I make my home. Knowing this, I can begin to feel a sense of security and belonging, even if only to myself in this new and unfamiliar place.