Korea

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New(ish) Ink for My Year of Wholehearted Living

Last January I decided that instead of making resolutions I would just choose one word to focus on for the year. A single word that summed up how I wanted to grow during 2015. I chose the word “wholehearted.” I wrote that:

Wholeheartedness is about sincerity and commitment. For me this means authenticity in my life and my writing. It means commitment to continue my faith-wrestling and to asking sincere questions. Being Wholehearted is also a commitment to courage, compassion, and connection. It is the courage to be vulnerable despite the risk, the compassion to love other people well and to extend grace quickly, both to myself and to others, and the choice to develop genuine connections with others. Wholeheartedness means committing to being fully present, to showing up for every day of my life instead of checking out when things are hard or boring. It means engaging with Today and believing that every day is a gift. And Wholehearted means believing that I am worthy of love and belonging – not because there is anything especially great and deserving about me, but because we are all worthy of love and belonging and because we can’t fully accept love and belonging unless we believe we are worthy of it.

My journey with wholeheartedness isn’t over, but I can honestly say that I think I can see where I’ve grown in these areas. I have taken more risks in trying to connect with people and I have learned to be kinder to myself. I have also failed in some of these areas, and that’s OK too. Choosing one word for the year was never about mastering a particular virtue. It was simply about setting my intentions.

Just before we left Korea in August, I got a new tattoo. It wasn’t something I posted to Instagram or Facebook and I didn’t tell many people about it at the time. It wasn’t meant to be a secret, but it also wasn’t something I wanted to hear a lot of conflicting opinions on or make a big deal about. I wasn’t getting it because tattoos are trendy or because I wanted other people to think I was cooler than I really am. I wanted a symbol of my time in Korea and my journey towards wholeheartedness that would stay with me forever.

I know that tattoos are not everyone’s cup of tea and if you don’t like them, that’s totally fine. There are certainly plenty of people who get tattoos that they later regret. But for me, my tattoos are physical marks of my own story. They remind me of where I’ve been and of the places in my life where God has broken through. I like the permanence of them – the sense that in a world where everything is always changing, these things will always be true and constant.

This tattoo is a compass inside of a mandala. The mandala is a traditional Hindu or Buddhist pattern symbolizing wholeness and unity in the universe. The intricate dot-work shading and the symmetry in the pattern are meant to point to the order in the universe and to our smallness in relation to the greater pattern. I had the compass placed into the middle as a reminder of this time spent living abroad and also that my life has direction. And while these really are meanings I thought about before having this piece done, I also chose it because I think it’s beautiful and I believe that’s a worthwhile reason in itself.

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This was when it was freshly done.

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And this is what it looks like now that it’s healed.

I chose the placement on my leg partly because it was a big enough area to handle a larger piece like this and partly because it’s relatively easy to cover. It shows when I wear shorts or a swimsuit, but it naturally covered by pants or dress clothes so its no hassle for a more formal setting. I was hesitant about putting it on my thigh which has long been my least favorite part of my body. I wasn’t sure I wanted to call attention to the part of me that I am most self-conscious about. But then I thought, “Why not put something beautiful on this part of you that you don’t think is beautiful?” And the cool thing is, since getting my tattoo it’s become one of my favorite parts of myself. I feel so much more confident and beautiful even if the rest of my legs still jiggle like Jell-O.

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This was also the day I got it. I had my shorts rolled up so they wouldn’t irritate it, but normally my shorts fall right to the middle of the tattoo.

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This is the only picture I can find where you can sort of see where it falls with my regular shorts on. It’s just barely showing here.

2015 is drawing to a close, but my journey towards wholeheartedness will continue into next year and on through the rest of my life.

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My tattoo is a beautiful, one of a kind piece that was designed for me by an artist in Busan, South Korea. In other words, don’t go get my exact tattoo somewhere on you! Most artists are happy to design something unique for you – they don’t want to just copy other people’s work either.

Feature Image Credit: The Blue Mug
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Call Me Maybe: A Guest Post About Embarrassment, Failure, and Karaoke

I am so excited today to be featured over on Lindsey Smallwood’s fantastic blog, Songbird & a Nerd. Lindsey asked me to write about a time when I experienced something out of the ordinary – a time when novelty causes us to notice. I could almost have picked any day of my two years in Korea at random and found material for this, but I chose to write about a less-than-glorious moment and what it taught me about Failure, Shame, and letting Life shout the loudest.

“Perhaps the only thing Koreans love as much as kimchi and soju is singing karaoke, or norebang as it is called in Korean. Singing is such a deeply embedded part of Korean culture that it’s virtually unthinkable to be Korean and not sing (sort of like being Korean and not drinking, but that’s a different story for a different time). Much like golf in America, singing karaoke is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do as part of a business meeting or work event.  

When we’d first arrived at the restaurant I’d scouted the room for the telltale sign of the cart with the microphones, speaker, and video screen and had been comforted when I didn’t immediately see one. I should have known there was always one in reserve.”

Read the rest of this post here and be sure to check out other stories on Lindsey’s blog!

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My Country Tis of Thee: On Living in the Land of Giants

We landed in Dallas after a 12-hour flight from Tokyo and stepped foot onto American soil for the first time in a year. I was overwhelmed by how familiar and foreign everything felt at the same time.

In the first gas station we stopped at, Jonathan and I ran up and down the aisles like children, yelling our finds to each other over the shelves. “Did you know that there are Peanut Butter Snickers now?!” “You can get a 32 oz CAN of something! Who ever heard of a 32 oz CAN?! It’s HUGE!”

Driving through my hometown, I was bombarded with new storefronts and neighborhoods that seem to have sprung up like mushrooms over night. Several fast-food chains whose logos have dotted the American landscape for decades have gotten facelifts while we were away and several entirely new chains have sprung up, our ignorance just one more sign of how long we’ve been gone and how far away we’ve been.

Adjusting is not like I expected it would be. In some ways, I’ve assimilated quickly, falling back into comfortable rhythms and familiar interactions I’ve known all my life. But on some subconscious level I also find myself viewing America as an outsider. For the first time, I identify with those who stereotype America as a land of crime and excess where everyone is fat and spoiled. (True story: When I first met one of my Korean coworkers she said to me, ‘When I heard you were American, I thought you would be fat.’)

I find myself shocked by the sheer size of everything. The size of portions and the size of people and the size of my cat who looks like a puffy version of his former self. After years of craving space, now everything feels too big and too loud. I also find that I am more worried about safety here, in my “home,” than I was in Korea. Here I lock my doors and avoid dark parking lots and my eyes are always peeled for suspicious people. Last week I started to panic after standing in line at the bank for 10 minutes, suddenly recalling every bank hostage story I’d ever heard, stealing sideways glances at the other customers, tension rising in my shoulders.  In Korea, I ran after dark down city streets and took cabs across town after midnight and never felt uncomfortable.

Then there are things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten, like the way we Americans chat with strangers while they go about their day – maybe this is friendliness or maybe it’s just an inability to handle silence. Last weekend a girl taking my order told me I looked exactly like someone who worked with her husband. She asked me my name and when I told her, “Lily,” she told me all about how she was going to name her daughter that but her best friend had a daughter first and stole her name. She named her daughter Chloe instead.

After two years of minimal interaction with people around me, I find the sheer volume of words required for daily life exhausting. In the evening, when Jonathan comes home from school, I am quiet, having spent my words on cashiers and neighbors in the parking lot and the librarian with the horn-rimmed glasses. He asks if anything is wrong and I say, “No,” only that I’m tired.

I don’t know how to say that I am dazzled by this life we’ve fallen into. Awed by the strangers who have welcomed us in and called us friends, amazed by how beautiful ordinary life can be, and yet constantly, persistently uncomfortable with this life that is so hauntingly familiar and so utterly strange. How do I explain that I spent my day going through the motions of an ordinary American life like an actress playing a role she’s memorized so well it comes to her as easily as breathing?

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Settled: Chronic Homesickness and Moving Back After Two Years Abroad

It’s been three weeks since we arrived in America and it feels more like 3 months because of all we’ve crammed into those 21 days.

“Are you all settled in?” people ask.

Am I settled? I’ve unpacked. I’ve decorated. I’ve figured out where the bank is and the grocery store and the closest Chinese takeout place. Is that settled?

“You must be so glad to be home!” they say.

Glad. Yes, I suppose I am. I was glad to see my family and my in-laws. Glad to reconnect with old friends. Glad to have a car and the ability to drive where I want whenever I want to. I’m glad to have more space and glad for an apartment with central air conditioning. I’m glad to be surrounded with our old things and glad to have our cats back in our home. Glad to start making new friends and building a new community. But glad to be Home? I don’t even know what that means.

I crave Home like water. Like air. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head it fades like smoke in the night, leaving only a shadowy outline where it may have been. I’m unsure of its shape, much less its substance.

In Korea I was homesick for my family and for America. In America, I’m homesick for my family and for Korea. I’m comfortable here, and yet, I’m homesick. And who says I can’t be both?

I miss the river and the mountains and the park by our house. I miss life in a city and the energy of downtown and the ease of the subway and how completely safe I always felt in spite of all the people. I miss my friends and I miss the luxury of two full-time incomes and how little we had to worry about paying for groceries or going out to dinner. It takes my breath away, how much I miss it. While in Korea I thought of America as Home and yet I’m realizing that on a subconscious, maybe even visceral level, Korea is Home as well.

Last week I went to Publix, a local grocery chain I’d never been to before. I walked along the aisles of produce and marveled at the abundance, the novelty of such easy access to foods both familiar and foreign. I stopped in front of a cold case of artichokes, green beans, and asparagus. I picked up a bundle of asparagus, felt the weight of it in my hand – succulent green stalks with their knobby purplish heads that I can never look at without thinking of Junior the Asparagus from Veggie Tales. It wasn’t until the man stocking produce asked if I was OK that I realized I was crying.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m OK.” Embarrassed, I put the asparagus back and wandered down another aisle where I was assaulted by an overwhelming 10 varieties of Oreos. I left without buying anything.

Science tells us that adaptation is crucial to survival. We bend and change and mold ourselves into new shapes, learn to breathe the air and drink the water of a new environment. But I can only bend so far and sometimes I think I’ll never quite fit this mold again, although it once fit me like a glove. I feel stretched thin, spread across cities and continents, straddling an ever widening gap between the world I’ve loved for the past few years and the world I’m trying to love now.

I don’t know if Home is here or there or if I will ever stop feeling homesick for some other unnamable place, but I do know this: Who I am and Where I am are not the same thing, but they are connected. Who I am is a work-in-progress. Who I am has been shaped by Louisiana and Chicago and Raleigh and Korea, and now it’s being shaped by Columbia.

Maybe I’ll never truly feel settled, but I will always know where I’ve been and who I am because of those places. Here’s to the next stage of becoming.

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52 Weeks of Adventure #33: So Long, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Unbelievably, it came. It came the way Christmas came despite the Grinch’s best efforts at keeping it away. It came like the downward plunge part of the roller coaster, where the build-up seems to last forever as tick-tick-tick your way to the top and then suddenly you are plunging downhill and the whole thing is over in a matter of seconds.

So long

Friday was both our final day in Korea and (because of the time difference) our first day in America. We somehow made it through our long trip back to America with our 4 suitcases full of everything we’ve collected over these years. But before we left, we said good-bye to some of our favorite places and some of our favorite people.

We went to Busan, our favorite Korean city, and said good-bye to the water, and the skyline, and the beach, covered in fully-clothed Koreans hiding under umbrellas.

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We ate our last bingsu and our last bulgogi and mandu and (mercifully) our last kimchi.

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We went to the noraebang (like a private karaoke room) for the last time and I bellowed out a painful rendition of Colors of the Wind while my friend Josh performed an interpretive dance.

We sold, donated, or threw out all of our things. And we said goodbye to the friends we’ve made who will now be scattered all over the wide world, to Canada and India and South Africa, and good old Kansas, USA.

We said good-bye to our steaming hot apartment, our twin-sized bed, and our wallpaper with silvery butterflies.

We said goodbye to the cutest children and the pushiest elderly people in the world.

We said good-bye to city living, to daily cultural misunderstandings, to the background noise of screeching buses and old people spitting in the street and unintelligible Korean chatter.

We said goodbye to our home.

And then.

We said Hello.

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My amazing family!!!!

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With my grandparents at their regular breakfast joint.

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can also click this button to read other bloggers’ adventures. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few. If you missed last week’s adventure about my final days of teaching and my English summer camp, you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.

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Top 10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea ( and Taking a Break)

Yesterday I wrote about the Top 10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea. That post made me a little sad because it made me remember all of the things I love that are soon to be gone. Today I decided to do a companion post that might help me feel a little better about leaving. Here are the Top 10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea.

  1. Spitting. The man who lives upstairs from us spends a solid 30 seconds – 1 minute every single morning making horrible retching noises followed by enormous spits. It’s the soundtrack of my morning. Of course, different cultures have different standards for what is polite or rude. Some of the biggest differences between Korean culture and American culture (and generally Western Culture, I think) are these standards for politeness. Koreans, young and old, dainty and gnarly, spit with abandon anywhere and everywhere they want to. First they will hock up a huge loogie, by making retching and gagging noises in the back of their throats and then they will spit phlegm wherever they please and should that be where you are standing, they will not even look sorry.
  2. Shoving. It is very rare for Koreans to wait in line. When a bus or subway arrives, rather than waiting for the crowd of people exiting, they will all stampede the door, pushing, shoving, and throwing elbows to get themselves inside before anyone else. The elderly people are especially good at this and will intentionally elbow you or shove you out of the way if they think you are going to take their seat. I’ve literally seen old ladies throw an elbow, run to a seat, and then cackle in your face when they get there before you.
  3. Trash and Trash Smell. The residential streets smell like trash and rotting food all the time because there aren’t dumpsters or trash cans. Instead people set out bags of garbage or small pots with food waste (because all food waste gets composted). These are picked up seemingly at random, so you may put out a bag of trash that doesn’t get picked up for several days. Imagine a whole street with pots full of decomposing food sitting in 100 degree heat for several days and you can imagine the smell I’m talking about.

    Can you imagine this on every city street in America?

    Can you imagine this on every city street in America?

  4. Korean Work Culture/Emphasis on Appearance. Emphasis on appearances isn’t unique to Korea, but the importance of things looking good over actually being good is more pronounced in the Korean work environment than anywhere else I’ve seen it. To give one example – teachers in Korea often have to do open classes where the principal, parents, and other teachers can observe. These open classes are nothing like ordinary classes. They are scripted out, sometimes even practiced with the students beforehand. One of my friends said her Korean Coteacher actually drew out blocking for them during the class showing where she had to stand when. Much of Korean work culture is about elaborate performances to make sure things look good with very little emphasis placed on real results. In addition, seniority is valued above all else. If the principal decides to do something, no one can question them or make an alternate suggestion, even if it’s a bad idea. You always do what the authority says. This leads to a lot of abuse of power and also to really bad teachers (cough, my CoT, cough, cough) being virtually un-fireable after they reach a certain level of seniority because nobody under them can complain about them. Appearances also matter tremendously in hiring. For most jobs you have to submit a picture of yourself with your application. It is standard practice for these photos to be so heavily edited that they don’t resemble the applicant at all.And of course, there is the prevalence of plastic surgery here which is so commonplace that the #1 high school graduation gift for teenage girls to receive from their parents is double eyelid surgery.
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  5. Stereotyping/Racism. I’m not even the slightest bit going to suggest that Korea has a larger problem with race than America does. America has serious racism problems. The thing that is more unique to Korea is the cultivated ignorance of the outside world, the fundamental teachings of “us” vs. “them” and the acceptance of speaking negatively about other people’s race or ethnicity. Korea’s population is 98% Korean. Anyone who is not Korean is simply referred to as “waygook” or “foreigner.” I constantly hear teachers and other adults tell children things like, “Foreigners are picky.” and “Foreigners don’t like spicy food.” When I show pictures of black people in lessons, students either say, “Oh, Obama!” regardless of who it is, or they say something along the lines of, ‘Teacher, he’s like monkey!” No, I’m not kidding. There are no real enforced laws against discrimination. A few months ago Korea made international news when a school refused to hire anIMG_20141011_175749 Irish woman because she was Irish. They sent her a letter that said, “We cannot hire you do to the alcoholic nature of your kind.” Which is shocking on its own, but is ten times more ridiculous if you know anything about Korean drinking culture in which it is standard for businessmen to be passed out drunk together on weeknights. During last year’s ebola outbreak, a bar in Seoul put up a sign that said, “Due to ebola, no Africans are allowed here.” As though you could contract ebola just from being African. All of these things can be frustrating and disheartening as I have seen them being passed onto the next generation.
  6. Lack of Air Conditioning/Heating. This probably makes me sound like a brat, but it baffles me that Korean schools get away with not using the heat and air conditioning when the school is full of children. The purpose of this is to conserve energy, but it is wickedly hot here and this seems like cruel and unusual punishment for all of us. My school didn’t start using the air conditioning until the end of July, even though temps had been in the 80s and 90s for two months. Nothing better than super sweaty 6th graders in a stuffy room with no air circulation. The same goes for the winter when I wore my coat, scarf, and gloves all day long.
  7. Being Stared at ALL THE TIME. I know, I know, you’ve never seen anyone with such a “tall nose” and you think my eye color has to be contact lenses. But it’s weird when we are making direct eye contact and you are still staring unabashedly.
  8. Being Fat Even When You’re Not. I am an average – small sized woman in America. I am 5’3” tall and I wear an American size 4 (when it’s not holiday season). In Korea, I am an XL. Sometimes the salesperson will just look at me, shake her head and say, “Too big. No fit,” and not even let me try it on. This is mostly because Asian people are generally very petite with slim hips and straight legs, so although I’m not that big, I’m built very differently to most Koreans. Even knowing the reasons behind it, I’m still a woman and it’s still disheartening when I can’t squeeze myself into XL pants
  9. Street Cats. Dogs are popular pets in Korea, but cats not so much. There are feral street cats everywhere. As a cat owner, it breaks my heart to see these nasty, mangy cats all over the place, but the worst is the kittens. Just Sunday on our way home from Busan a little black kitten that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old came out from under a car and rubbed against my ankles and tried to climb up my leg. It was starved for food and attention and so, so tiny. We brought it a little bit of food but unfortunately there wasn’t much we could do for it besides hope that it found its mother or someone took it in.
  10. Korean “Modesty.” So this one sounds worse than it is. It’s not that I have a burning passion to wear scandalous clothes. The issue is that what’s considered modest in Korea vs. the West is very different and sometimes very inconvenient. Basically, chests are immodest. Never ever should anything below a woman’s collar bone show. Arms are also pretty sketchy, so sleeveless tops and dresses (even if they come up to the collar bone) are frowned upon. It’s OK if you wear a mini skirt to work or if your shorts are so short that your butt hangs out a little. Just keep your chest covered. Probably best to just wear turtlenecks always. This doesn’t matter much in the winter, but when it’s 100 degrees and there’s no air conditioning and you have to wear sleeves and something up to your neck, things can get a bit toasty.

    Cartoon by Luke Martin

    Cartoon by Luke Martin

After making this list I’m feeling slightly better about leaving in two days. I’ll be taking a blogging break while we move and transition to our new life. I will still be trying to upload my weekly adventures since I’ve already made it this far, but otherwise you probably won’t hear from me until September. Thanks so much for all of your encouragement and well wishes. Can’t wait to share life as an ex-expat (just a pat? a re-pat?) with all of you!

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Top 10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea

Well, friends, we are down to just three days left in Korea. Three. Days. In honor of our time here I thought I’d make a Top 10 list of things I’ll miss about Korea. Of course, I’ll miss more than this – I’ll miss my cute students and random people telling me I’m beautiful all the time, and maybe even (occasionally) CoT, but this is my top 10 list of things I really enjoy about Korea.

  1. Mountains everywhere you look. I grew up in Louisiana which is so flat that parts of it are actually below sea level. Then I spent 5 years in the Chicago area – also completely flat. When we moved to Raleigh in 2011 I was delighted by the slight roll the land, but it’s nothing compared with the legitimate mountains that surround Daegu completely and are present anywhere you go in Korea. They’re not Rocky Mountains or Himalayas, but they are still little bits of beauty poking over the city rooftops and I love them.
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  2. Excellent Public Transportation. While I sometimes miss the directness of hopping in my car and going exactly where I want to go, I have to admit that buses and subways in Korea are cheap, easy to use, and go anywhere you want if you can stick with it through the lurching, sometimes crowded bus rides. Taxis are also abundant and very cheap making life without a car completely doable. It takes longer to get where you’re going without a car, but I enjoy not having to deal with traffic or pay for car insurance and maintenance.

  3. Skincare and Makeup. Korea is famous for their advanced skin care and makeup products. I’ve become something of a makeup junkie in the last year and have enjoyed trying out lots of Korean products which are generally very affordable. Additionally, my skin is probably the best it has been in my entire life over the past few months so I’m really trying to squeeze backups of my favorite skin care products into our suitcase to take back with me!
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  4. Cheap Healthcare. I’ve had mixed experiences with the quality of healthcare in Korea, mainly just the running of unnecessary tests and tendency to over-medicate, but I can’t complain about how incredibly cheap it is (Average doctor’s visit is $3 – $4. Average prescription $4 – $5). I went to the dentist for a cleaning – $14. I went back to have a small cavity filled and while the price for this was comparable to what it would be in the states, it was 15 minutes between the time I walked in and the time I left. Of course, Korea is quite bad about things like basic hygiene which is why I was forced to share an ear thermometer with all the teachers at my school during the MERS outbreak when we had to record our temperature every day. As I predicted to my CoTeacher, this resulted in me getting an ear infection. But, again, the good news is that even though I had to go to the dr every day for a week to have it cleaned out, it only cost me about $15 or $20 total.
  5. Mandu, Bulgogi, Galbi, Tofu Jigae. These are some of my favorite Korean foods. While I don’t like all Korean foods, the ones I like, I REALLY like and I know I’ll miss them. It may take a while, but I will miss them eventually.
  6. Norebang.The word “norebang” is Korean for “song room” and these are basically like private karaoke rooms. These are wildly popular as an activity to do with your friends or with your business colleagues after a night of hard drinking (also popular). I sing constantly, but I have no talent for it. Nevertheless, I love those dark rooms with the disco lights and that mike in my hands.
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  7. Couples Outfits. Sadly, I never got Jonathan to join in this popular trend of Korean couples dressing in matching clothing. I did manage to get us a set of couples underwear last Christmas and while I can’t get Jonathan to wear them, it makes me happy that we have them!

  8. Feeling Safe Always. Korea is a very safe country with very low rates of violent crime. I have never once felt threatened to walk home late at night in our dimly lit streets or even to go running alone after dark. While I get a lot of attention here for my blond hair and blue eyes, and the staring can be annoying, I’ve never felt threatened by it in the way that I have often felt threatened by (particularly male) attention in America. I’ve never worried about locking anything here or leaving my laptop on the table in the coffee shop while I go pick up my order. During my years in Korea the safety in my own country has decreased dramatically and I am not looking forward to going back to that constant awareness of myself and who is around me and whether my car door is locked and whether that package looks suspicious.
  9. Service! Service is basically when a store or restaurant gives you free things to thank you for coming. It’s the best and it’s very, very common. Free drinks or desserts at restaurants (or occasionally an appetizer), free samples at beauty stores (and not like one or two foil packets, like whole free bottles of things, sheet masks, makeup samples, etc), or even super random things like socks or instant coffee.

    All the free stuff!

    All the free stuff!

  10. Friends, Korean and Foreign. We’ve made some good friends during our time here, both Koreans and other native teachers like us. It’s strange to leave somewhere and really not know for sure if or when you’ll see these people again. We are so thankful for the friendships we’ve made here and I really do hope to stay in touch with many of the friends we’ve made and to see some of them again someday, in America, in Korea, or somewhere else in the world.