teaching abroad

The Only Way Out is Through: Or How I Ended Up Playing Twister with a Celebrity

I arrived back in Hong Kong late on January 1st after a lovely Christmas holiday in the US. The next morning, I had to be back at work, so, still exhausted from 36 hours of travel and trying to adjust to the 13 hour time difference, I went in to teach.

At some point in the afternoon my manager mentioned to me offhand. “Tomorrow, there is a celebrity coming. You can just do like 30 minutes of trial class. Some games. And the assessment.”She then looked at me appraisingly. “You should wear something nice and do your makeup.” Um. Ouch.

After many, many questions, none of which was very thoroughly answered, (Who was coming? Why? What was my role in this? How old was this celebrity? Oh, they’re bringing their kid? How old was their kid? Isn’t that too old for our program? Are we not trying to get them interested in the program? Ok, so this is just pretend?) I deduced that we were paying this “celebrity” a lot of money to come to our center and pretend she and her son were interested in/endorsing our program while a photographer and videographer took promotional shots. Because this is Asia.

I was not pleased, especially since I was still insanely tired and jetlagged, but I’ve had my fair share of weird experiences like this in Korea, so I played along. How bad could it be? The next day I wore a nice skirt and a new sweater. I ran a straightener through my hair. I was told the celebrity would arrive at 3:30.

At 2:30, approximately 12 people showed up in my office. For someone with anxiety, everything about this was terrible. A “celebrity” who I had never heard of was here with her entourage. Lots of strangers were speaking in Cantonese, which I don’t understand, while I stood there smiling awkwardly. Then, it turned out, her kid was around 10 and spoke English, not only like a native speaker, but like a native speaker who has his own show on the Disney Channel. Also, surprise! Since they came an hour earlier than expected, I did not have time to apply my emergency I-have-the-anxiety-sweats clinical strength deodorant and there were now pit stains on my new white sweater.

One of my coworkers stepped forward. “I will introduce us,” he said to me. Then proceeded to rattle off a lot of things in Cantonese. I still have no idea what “the celebrity’s” name was. My questions the day before had only yielded that she “used to be a singer.” My coworker turned to me. “Now, talk to them about the program.” Mmmm, ok, sure. I rambled somewhat incoherently about the program that they were neither sincerely interested in nor suited to.

“Now we will go into this classroom and your son can play a game with Teacher Lily,” my coworker announced. The entire entourage filed into the classroom. I had naively assumed that “play a game” meant one of the phonics-based games we routinely played in my classes. But no. A board game I’d never seen before was on the table. “Here. Play the game!” they cheered.

“Ah yes, this game!” I laughed merrily. “We shall play it indeed.” And, on the spot, I made up some rules (which I now know are not in any way close to the actual rules).

After several agonizing minutes of pretending I knew what we were doing, I declared the celebrity’s son the winner. He dabbed in response.

Then my manager rolled out a Twister mat. “Now, we can play Twister!”* she announced brightly. I froze. First off, we are a literacy center, not a playgroup. We don’t play board games in general, and we do NOT play Twister. Ever. Secondly, I was already uncomfortable being in a bunch of promo photos given that I am not feeling very body- confident at the moment. I certainly did not sign up to have a professional photographer take photos of me playing Twister for promotional use. But. There was no way out. The room was full of people looking expectantly at me.

Slowly….oh so slowly…I crouched down beside the Twister mat in defeat. The celebrity held the spinner as her son and I battled it out. I did an admirable job all things considered before I decided to throw myself on my sword and bow out gracefully. After losing the game, I thought I had made it through the worst part. But then, the little fiend** had an epiphany.

“Mommy!” he cried. “You play. I want to be the spinner!” And that is how I ended up with my butt in the air playing Twister with the celebrity while the celebrity’s son (I imagine) cackled to himself, “Dance, my puppets! Dance!”***


*It was actually Blindfold Twister, but thankfully they decided against using the blindfolds.
**He was actually a pretty good kid and very smart, just also very active.
*** The celebrity was both beautiful and kind. Having no idea what level of celebrity she is, I can’t say whether or not I was surprised at how “down to earth” she was, but it was like playing Twister with any other extremely beautiful, doting mother who may or may not have been the Christina Aguilera of Hong Kong once upon a time.


Good Morning From Hong Kong…Some Life Updates

Well, friends, it’s been a while, and some things have changed. For starters, I’m writing this sitting in the window of my 6th floor apartment in Hong Kong. Where I live now. As of Wednesday night. (Check out the “sea view.” Really, it’s there! I swear!)

Jonathan graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing at the beginning of May after completing and defending a brilliant novel that served as his Master’s thesis. He started a job search that included local options as well as international ones. At the end of May, we both accepted jobs with the Hong Kong office of a company called I Can Read.

To get some of the FAQ’s out of the way…

When did all of this happen?

It has been a whirlwind, which is why I didn’t do any writing about the process. We applied to the jobs we’re now working at the end of April. We found out we had an official offer at the end of May. I resigned from my job (which only entailed not signing a new contract), and we took a previously scheduled vacation to Ireland and Amsterdam (amazing, btw, but not the point).


Casual Cliffs of Moher Pic

We came back to Columbia for one day, then Jonathan flew to Kansas City to grade AP Literature exams for a week, and I flew to Phoenix to visit my sister.


We did goat yoga in Arizona. Like you do.

My sister and I drove together to Los Angeles to see my youngest sister graduate from fashion school. Then Jonathan and I both flew home, and four days later, he moved to Hong Kong.

I stayed behind for five weeks, wrapping up our lives in Columbia and running a couple of ESL camps at my school. Meanwhile, Jonathan went through training, started working, found an apartment for us, and did a million other things all on his own. Being apart for five weeks was not fun, and it gave me such respect and sympathy for people who regularly have to be away from their spouses.

Last weekend my parents, my sister, and my nephew flew up to Columbia to help me finish up packing and moving my things to a storage unit in town.


Best Family in World. End of Story.

On Tuesday morning, they dropped me off at the airport in Charlotte, NC, and on Wednesday night Jonathan (and some people from ICR) picked me up in Hong Kong. I start job training today.

What exactly are you doing there?

We’ve been hired by a company called I Can Read that runs literacy centers throughout Southern Asia. We are both working as literacy teachers. This is not a regular school – the best thing I can liken it to is something like a Sylvan Learning Center or other specialized tutoring center. The classes are held in the afternoon and evenings and on Saturdays. The entire focus is teaching kids to read in English using the phonemic awareness program I Can Read has created. We teach reading lessons to small groups of students ages 3-12, or sometimes just to individual students.

The company was started in Singapore by some Australians and has now expanded into Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. They have only been in Hong Kong for about two years, but they are growing rapidly. Jonathan and I work at two different centers in different locations in Hong Kong, but we are doing more or less the same thing.

Why did you move abroad again?

There is no simple answer to this question, and in fact, I think it warrants its own blog post. The short version is that Jonathan had finished his program, and it was a natural time of transition since he was looking for a job anyway. We have been interested in living abroad again ever since we returned from Korea, so when an opportunity came up for us in Hong Kong, we took a leap.

But what about your mental health?


Need I say more?

Are you going to write about it?

Umm…heck yes. I am actually setting up a new website/instagram/twitter and possible youtube channel for all the living abroad and travel goodness. I will keep lilyellyn.com for writing about things like mental health, reading, and faith wrestling. I will post a big announcement here when the new site goes live, so be on the lookout!

For now, my goals are to get over jet lag, stay awake through training, and start devising a plan for how to make friends with the old ladies who do Tai Chi in the courtyard every morning. More to come!


Year in Review: Daring Deeds and Amazing Adventures

For the past few weeks every time I’ve logged onto Facebook I’ve gotten a message urging me to share my Year in Review with my friends. When I scrolled through the timeline the Facebook elves had strung together I found that while I did some photo-worthy things in January, I apparently did nothing at all between then and April. Actually, according to Facebook, there is only evidence of my living at all during 5 of the 12 months of this past year.

At first I was kind of indignant, “Hey, Facebook. I DO things. I’m pretty sure I did things in March and in July and October. I’m almost positive.” But then I realized that real life could never be summed up in a Facebook album. Real life is both grittier and more beautiful.

Normally at the end of each month I do a What I’m Into post to summarize what I’ve been reading, watching, eating, and doing over the previous month. For these last few days of December I’ve decided to do a few year-in-review posts about 2014 before writing about goals and dreams for the coming year.

This post is about the adventures we lived this year. Not every adventure was fun and exciting. Some were difficult and scary. And of course, some were just plain boring. Everyday life is full of mundane moments, but my hope in reflecting on this year is that I will see these moments as part of the story too instead of only remembering the highlights.


2014 was an epic travel year for the Dunns. Including Korea, we went to 7 countries this year – blowing our previous record (1 country) out of the water. 😉 Since our winter vacation from school comes in January we started the year with the trip of a lifetime – 18 days spent in China, New Zealand, and Australia. Jonathan and I agree that that trip (particularly New Zealand) was probably the greatest traveling experience we’ve had or will ever have. We were (and are) profoundly grateful for this opportunity and remind ourselves of it often when we have moments of frustration and homesickness because we never could have taken that trip if we hadn’t chosen to come to Korea. You can read about our trip and see more photos here and here and here.


Wanaka, New Zealand


Sydney, Australia

Sydney, Australia

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

February and March were hard. They were long and cold and dark and especially after leaving the summer weather in Australia and New Zealand I struggled. I struggled with depression and with feeling like I didn’t belong. I struggled with my body and with my relationship with food. And I clung to my family and celebrated the beautiful friends whom I love so dearly.

In the spring, we did a bit of traveling around Korea to see the green tea fields and attend a cherry blossom festival. In May my parents came to visit us in Korea and we were able to do a little bit of in-country travel with them. Since the entire country of South Korea is about the size of the state of Indiana, it’s pretty easy to cover a lot of ground in a short time. We explored Seoul, Busan, and Gyeongju as well as our city, Daegu.

Green tea fields in Boseung

Green tea fields in Boseong

Mom and Dad visit

Hiking at Palgongsan with my parents


In the spring, I also joined a Bible study with one of the most delightfully diverse group of women I could imagine. There was both more eating and more cursing than any Bible study I’ve ever been a part of, but there was also more courage, more honesty, and more desire as well. The girls in this group have changed a bit from when we first started, but we are still meeting and it’s still one of the best things that happened to me this year.

In June I had an article published that went viral (in fact, I recently learned that it was Relevant’s most-read story of the year). To say I was unprepared for this is the understatement of the year. But I’ve learned so much through this experience and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I received as a result and am still amazed and humbled that something I wrote could have been seen by so many people.

In June we celebrated our 4th anniversary with a trip to the Busan Aquarium where I reminded Jonathan of how lucky he is to married to a girl who can do this with her face.


I can’t believe I ever got someone to marry me.


But in June my best friend’s dad was diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer and all I could do was sit on skype with her and cry.

July was the worst. It was hot and so, so wet and humid and gray all the time. The semester crawled by and after nearly a year in Korea we were feeling desperate for a change. We were tired and sad and not altogether excited about the fact that we had just signed a contract to stay in Korea for another year. And all summer long I prayed bold prayers that seemed to go unheard.

In August our best friends here in Korea had a perfect baby girl. It was a privilege to walk beside them through the entire pregnancy, to meet Genevieve hours after she was born, and to watch her grow over the past 4 months. As a bonus, both of the grandmas were able to come to Korea to meet their granddaughter and they were able to stay with us (because we have a bigger apartment) so we had moms with us for most of September and October which was nearly as good as having our own moms here.

Josh, Laura, and Genevieve Louise Rhoads

Josh, Laura, and Genevieve Louise Rhoads

In August we also went home to America for 10 days to see our families and to stuff ourselves with enough of our favorite American foods to make it another year away from them. We spent 5 days in Louisiana with my family and 5 days in Ohio with my in-laws, but we didn’t make it to North Carolina where a lot of our friends and our cats are. Since we were already flying back to Asia, we stopped for a few days in Bali before getting back to Korea. The monkey forest was easily the highlight of that trip.

Family Photo, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Family Photo, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

In September we took a long weekend trip to Osaka and Kyoto in Japan where I had an unfortunate stomach incident and where we got to see some real live geisha headed to work. (Geisha is the plural of geisha – fun fact for you).


AA IMG_6033

The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto


In October I read like it was my job. I read to avoid writing and maybe other parts of my life and instead I sat back and let some friends do the writing for me. I ran a guest series on various aspects of sex and the church and was inspired and encouraged by the brave words of my friends.

In November I ran the Dalgubeol Marathon (it’s only a half marathon so the name is misleading) here in Daegu and set a new PR at 1:57:06 beating my previous time by 7 1/2 minutes! I was so excited to break the 2-hour barrier, but I confess that I haven’t run a single time since then, haha. Maybe it’s time to set a new goal…

I also had a blog post that was Freshly Pressed in November leading to some lovely new blogging friends.

I celebrated my birthday at the beginning of the month with a visit to the coolest wine bar where we sat on cushions on the floor of this little alcove covered in thick carpets and sipped sparkly drinks and almost fell asleep because it was so warm and cozy and the only lights were from dozens of candles and it smelled like sweet spices from all the hookah (which, for the record, I did not smoke). I also dyed my hair brown and got these bangs that all the Korean girls have but that frankly feel way too cool for me.

To bang or not to bang...?

To bang or not to bang…?

Most recently, Julie, a friend of mine from high school, came all the way out to Korea for a visit. We braved the cold in Seoul and made it to some of the big touristy spots and made an entertaining stop at the Trick Eye Museum.


Possibly my all-time favorite picture of Jonathan

Possibly my all-time favorite picture of Jonathan


I even got to bring her to school with me for our winter festival and my coteacher made us pose with this tiny tree.

All the little Christmas icons are also courtesy of my coteacher.

All the little Christmas icons are also courtesy of my coteacher. Also, I messed up the timeline a little since clearly the bangs came after this.

We had a quiet Christmas alone together in our little apartment. Jonathan woke up with a fever on Christmas morning so we skyped with our families and exchanged presents and then we canceled our dinner plans and he got back in bed. It wasn’t romantic and it wasn’t a good story, but it was real and we were together.


Novelty socks are all the rage here so we did manage to find each other some pretty excellent footwear as Christmas gifts.


Reflecting like this fills me with gratitude for opportunities that are frankly undeserved and that sing of grace in my life. Thanks to the many of you who have been a part of that.

Watch for my next post about the best books of 2014.

Start Spreading the News!

Hear ye, hear ye. The Dunns have some exciting news. I know where a lot of your minds just jumped. No. It’s not that. Didn’t you read my last post? My uterus is still Baby-Free since 1987. (Though that would be just like God…tell him what you don’t want and SURPRISE! While He chuckles on his heavenly throne. “Hey Gabriel, check this out. Lily thought she was just gonna decide not to have kids. But look what I just did there.”)

So no, we are not having a baby (that I know of). Nor are we buying a house (no money), getting a dog (too much work), traveling to Europe (again, no money), joining the circus (no skills), becoming professional ballroom dancers (no rhythm), or taking up archery (although that would be cool.) What we are doing is moving…

…to South Korea. Mid-August. To teach English in a public school. Aaaahhhhhh!

How This Came About

First off, those of you who know me know that teaching abroad/living abroad is something I have been interested in for forever. So the interest is not new. We considered teaching abroad right after we got married, but ended up getting jobs in Illinois and decided it would be best spend our first year of marriage in a bit more familiar surroundings. Additionally, most of the places we were really interested in teaching (Europe/South America) were the types of schools where we would either have to get teacher certification/advanced degrees or would have to raise support like missionaries, neither of which we wanted to do. So that idea was put on the shelf.

Fast forward to this past fall. We were having dinner with our friends, Aaron and Caitlan Small, and they were telling us about some Christian schools they had visited on a recent trip to Indonesia that were looking to hire American teachers and provided housing as well as a salary. When Jonathan and I got home from that dinner, we immediately started researching those schools. Unfortunately, it turned out that we needed degrees in education to apply at these particular schools, but the fire had been lit. We decided to re-visit the idea of teaching abroad being more open to different areas of the world than we had looked at before. We felt that the timing was really good for us to be able to do something like this, and while we didn’t have a clear sense of direction yet, we decided to start exploring and see if God opened or closed doors.

Of course, Asia has the highest demand for English teachers of any area in the world right now, so we started exploring programs and countries there. Essentially what we found is that there were three categories of Asian countries:

  1. Countries where you need no qualifications to teach except for a high school diploma and the ability to speak English, but where you get paid about $300 USD/month, which is enough to live on, but not much more. (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia)
  2. Countries that paid teachers well and covered housing and airfare, but were also much more selective and preferred teachers with certification, years of experience, degrees in education and/or Master’s degrees. (China, Japan)
  3. Country that paid teachers well, covers housing and airfare, and only require that you have a degree in English or TEFL certification. (South Korea)

We decided to apply with recruiters who work in South Korea. We applied to the public school program (called EPIK) where you essentially apply to the program, have to be accepted and then public schools will fill openings from the pool of accepted teachers. We also applied to be considered for private school jobs (which are special language schools that kids attend after regular school) but those are on a case-by-case basis rather than a formal program.

After many months of working on applications and acquiring documents, we found out two weeks ago that we had been accepted into the EPIK program. We FedEx-ed our paperwork to South Korea yesterday.

What We Know

  1. We have been accepted to the program, but do not have contracts yet. We have been told that it is 95% certain that we will be placed and have contracts within the next 2 months. (Only extremely rarely does something happen to mess this up, usually the applicant having been dishonest about something or withdrawing themselves).
  2. We will arrive mid-August, complete 9 days of training, and then head to our schools and new home to start teaching.
  3. We will not know where we will teach until the job offer comes in. We have requested the metropolitan are of Daegu, which is in the southern part of the country and is the 4th largest city in South Korea (about 2 million). We were told that Seoul and Busan would be much more selective and would probably choose teachers with prior experience so we chose the next biggest city we could find although we don’t know that much about it. We are not guaranteed to be placed in Daegu although they will get our applications first.
  4. We will be provided with a small, furnished apartment free-of-charge. We will also receive a relocation allowance that should nearly cover our airfare. We will have health insurance and will each be paid a salary equivalent to somewhere between $1700 – $2000 USD/month. Our only expenses will be utilities, food, and transportation, though we plan to do as much traveling as possible while we are there. The money we save will help to pay off my student loans from Wheaton and my current grad school tuition.
  5. I will plan to continue my grad school classes distance from South Korea.
  6. We will be eating a lot of rice, sweet potatoes, and kimchi.

How We Feel About It







Ok, mostly we feel like this, but it is also a little bittersweet and scary. We really love Raleigh and could see ourselves back in North Carolina when we are ready to settle down. This has felt like home to us and we will miss it, especially our friends.

One More Cool Story

My biggest concern with all of this was having to tell the family I work for that I was quitting and moving across the world, especially since the kids really rely on the stability that I (and their old nanny before) provide since their parents are so busy and all over the place. I was also hesitant to say anything before we were sure this was happening. After we got accepted to the program, I decided to go ahead and tell them we would probably be moving at the end of the summer so that they would have plenty of time to find a new nanny.

The day I was going to talk to them, the mom came out of her office (while I’m sweating and my pulse is racing) and says, “I just want to update you on our situation. We are moving to Shanghai on July 13th. We don’t want you to quit before them, but wanted you to have time to find another job.”

Which made it so much easier for me to say, “Actually I think I have a new job and it is teaching English in South Korea starting in August.”

Perfect timing or what?! AND now I will be able to visit them in Shanghai where they will have an incredible 4 bedroom apartment overlooking the river. Amazing.

So, sorry for the long update, but so excited to share this with all of you!

And also, we desperately need a home for our darling kitties for 1 year. We want them back when we return! If any of you would seriously consider taking 2 wonderful cats and loving them for a year, please let me know!