생일축아합니다! My Birthday in Korea

My roommate and across the hall neighbor make a fuss about my birthday the night before…

On August 3rd I go to bed around 11:30pm and my roommate is a little disappointed that she can’t wish me a happy birthday at midnight…

I receive a wonderful box of “real brownies,” a funny card with awkward English on the outside, and a message from someone who is becoming a dear friend on the inside…

I try to wait outside the lounge, but am awkwardly ushered in to a reception of chocolate cake, candles and Happy Birthday harmonizing…

…and of course, I am treated to all kinds of free food and drink.

This year was my first birthday away from home. I wasn’t nervous or upset by it, although it was strange not fending off the question “WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY?” from my little sisters with increasing intensity in the days leading up to my birthday. I didn’t expect to feel particularly sad, but I really didn’t expect to feel so touched by a group of people I’ve only known for 4 weeks.

My birthday was a busy day. We had Korean class at 9am, as usual, with breakfast available 8-9am. That day, the representatives from embassy were visiting, so everyone was dressed in business professional clothes. Additional Jungwon University requirements applied: absolutely no shoulder-baring and required pantyhose. I share a birthday with Dawn, another lovely ETA, and we looked forward to the embassy visiting in honor of our birthdays.

Korean class was only 2 hours instead of 4, and afterwards we were ushered into a different wing of Jungwon, all set up with fancy chairs.



Since it was my birthday, I was more inclined to do photos.



After a Q&A session with 4 embassy representatives, we had our usual Jungwon cafeteria lunch. But partway through I realized we were having seaweed soup. Not as in, “oh look, there’s seaweed soup on my tray,” but more like, “wait, seaweed soup is for birthdays!” In Korea, seaweed soup, or 미육국, is traditionally eaten on one’s birthday. That doesn’t mean it isn’t eaten other days of the year, and I’m 99% sure this was a coincidence, but the soup brightened up my day. It didn’t even have weird shrimp or fish in it.

After lunch my mind was blown.

But seriously. This was probably the best talk/workshop/whatever we’ve had at orientation. Thomas Santos from the Regional English Language Office (RELO) gave us a general teaching workshop. He covered a ton of ground, and gave us concrete practices and suggestions, but what made the biggest impression was seeing him actually teach. He chose six volunteers to participate in a beginning Czech class…which he held right there. We all gathered to watch in a fishbowl-like set up. Magic happened.

Okay, this is a little dramatic, but I won’t go into everything that was great about him here. It became clear that Thomas Santos is a master at teaching ELL. I was only watching, not participating, and I still remember how to say something along the lines of “Hello, I am Monica” as well as numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and maybe 9 in Czech. (I have no idea how to spell them though.) I’d love to learn from him. Fortunately, he is in Korea and may be attending one of the annual Fulbright Korea conferences or visiting us at our placements.

Moving back to birthday festivities… Later in the evening, after being studious, Dawn and I were surprised by a lovely chocolate cake from Tous les Jours. I was late to the surprise and got multiple Kakao talk messages (a free calling and texting app that is HUGE in Korea) and my roommate coming up to make sure I wasn’t asleep. When I came downstairs, the plan was to go out and get ice cream, so I waited outside the lounge, further thwarting the surprise-planners. Sorry friends.
When I finally entered, Dawn was already there, a beautiful chocolate cake was brought out, and Happy Birthday filled my ears for the third (or fourth?) time that day. I’m sure there are more pictures out there somewhere, but this one captures the chaos nicely. And you can see I’m very touched, with my eyes closed and everything.


Much love to Gabby, making a funny face in the background, who helped me catch a ladybug in my room so that we could free it outside. We used a peach bottle. And she did most of the work. 고마워 언니!

The cake was delicious. And gone in about two minutes. Afterwards, we went out with a smaller group.




Berry bingsu!  Still a favorite snack!


And in case you’re all alone. How…considerate?

It was a pretty low-key night and also a Monday, but it’s tough to explain just how good it feels to get out of Jungwon University. Some days, or weeks, I rarely see the sun or get fresh air. No joke.

To turn this post back to something positive, here’s a picture of Haley and I eating corn on a bus, me pretending to do Taekwondo, and Kelsey’s mad selfie skills. There’s so much going on!







Going to the beach! And getting back to work…


This past weekend we went on vacation! With everything going on this week, Donghae weekend seems well past us now, so this post will be more photo-heavy. The intent of this trip was to give us time to relax before Camp Fulbright begins, which I’ll get to later. Donghae/동해is a coastal city on the northeastern side of Korea.

While it was wonderful to get out of the marble mansion, it seems we didn’t get very far. Our hotel in Donghae is affiliated with Jungwon 대학교 and looked almost identical…but was fancier on the inside.

Donghae Grand Hotel

Donghae Grand Hotel

Jungwon University

Jungwon University





Upon arrival we had a very nice lunch (bibimbap) and then went straight to a Buddhism lecture. I felt absolutely awful for Cheon Mun스님 because I was nodding off the entire time. But afterwards we received wonderful refreshments (including cheese, which has been and will continue to be scarce). A lot of my high points seem to revolve around food.





We then visited Samhwasa/삼화사Temple, a Buddhist temple near our hotel. The 수님 never stopped us from taking pictures, and I took a lot, but avoided one section with the names of the deceased listed on the walls and on white lanterns. Amy came to mind.











That night, most of the ETAs hung out at the beach. There was a small concert there, with an energetic woman who could somehow run around in the sand, in heels, and two violinists.

At Donghae Grand Hotel, we had traditional Korean beds, which was a big surprise to my weekend roommates and I. I don’t know why it never even crossed my mind that we would be sleeping on mats on the floor. It wasn’t bad, and it seemed like most of us had fun trying something new.

Our room at Donghae

Our room at Donghae

Saturday I went hiking! It was a fairly easy trail, but I’m out of shape. The fresh air was wonderful, and it was actually much cooler on the mountain.


One area around the waterfall was labeled Dangerous – No Trespassing, but I didn’t take it seriously until a Korean man told me that three people had died there…so the ETAs swimming there should get out right away. Oops.




The rest of Saturday, we had lunch in town (bibimbap and pajeon), hung out at the beach, ate a nice dinner with Ms. Shim (삼겹살) :) and went back to the beach that night.




Sunday wasn’t exactly a break. After breakfast, we left Donghae, visited two historical sites on the way back, 오죽헌 (Ojukheon) and 성요장/Seongyojang, and hopped back on a bus for 4 more hours.









While I had a blast at Donghae, I definitely pushed myself to be out and around people the whole time. The introvert in me was exhausted.


Camp Fulbright Begins

Monday was the first day of Camp Fulbright, an intensive English summer camp for Korean kids. The purpose of the camp is two-fold: to provide an immersive English language environment for campers, and to provide us ETAs with a low stakes opportunity to practice teaching. Quite a few people this year have prior teaching experience (i.e. in other countries, Americorps, Peace Corps) but I have none.

This afternoon I teach my first class. The thought is daunting, but somehow still exciting. I am, after all, in Korea to teach. During the course of the 2-week camp, we’ll teach two classes and use original lesson plans in each. The theme of my first day is “I Dream,” and I ended up with a plan about nightmares and story-telling. At this point my biggest concerns are student energy/participation and timing. While I’m pretty sure I have too much material to cover in just 45 minutes, I’d rather have too much than too little.

Right now I’m blessed with a little free time, as Korean classes start late today. I’m trying not to stress and obsessively over-prepare. There’s always work to be doing and something to worry about here. Tonight our second lesson plan is due, and Wednesday we have to submit our placement preferences. Before I couldn’t wait to find out where I’ll be placed, but now I can’t believe it’s coming up already!

I’m finding that self-care is especially important right now, especially as recently I can feel myself slipping. Yesterday night I made it a point to get away from my lesson plan and go to our Bible study group, which was probably the smartest thing I’ve done in a while. We all agreed that there’s a lot of stress, anxiety and negativity going around, so today we’re trying to go one day (24 hours) without complaining. So far, so good!