NaNoWriMo in Korea

Guess what?

I’m a winner!

No, really, here’s the certificate to prove it:

Nano Winner

What is that, you ask? It’s to celebrate completing Nanowrimo!

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. I vaguely remember hearing about it before, and thought it sounded cool, but I never really looked into it. But this year, some fellow ETAs were pretty excited and open about doing Nano (ahem, Dawn, Shannon), and well, the excitement caught up to me too.

My first thought was, is this really the time to try Nano? While I’m in Korea? Then I remembered someone incredulously telling me that the former ETA at their school had written a novel during their grant year. Ah, I see. So it’s been done.

Next came the excuses. I was in the middle of studying for the GRE! How could I write a novel at the same time? And November just happened to be the busiest month at school – all of my coworkers and even my students were telling me so. There were tons of school events being held, including the English Speech Contest, which I would help judge. Eventually though, my desire to try Nano won over the excuses, legitimate as they were. And, I thought, if I’m being realistic, I will always have plenty of perfectly legitimate excuses each November, whether I’m in Korea or not.

So I went forth.

I decided to build off of a short story I’d written for a Historical Fiction course in college. It was set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, focused on 1910 to 1919. When I was writing the short story, it was difficult to find many sources in English, but now that I was in Korea, it seemed ideal to continue this story as I’d have more access to relevant resources.

I won’t describe for you my laborious writing process, though it was ameliorated by support from fellow ETAs, Wrimos (slang for people working on Nanowrimo), the Busan write-ins, and resources provided through the Nanowrimo organization itself. Instead of more writing, here is my month with Nano in pictures. We’ll start by taking a tour of the many cute cafes I frequented, the obligatory food and drink pictures (I’ve become a master of this while in Korea), and maybe even get to some selfies.


lemon tea

Lemon tea at Bricks Coffee, currently my favorite coffee shop in Busan. The owner even recognizes me now. Because I’ve stayed there for hours at a time. But also more likely because I’m a foreigner.


cafe claire

Orange cranberry bread and an Americano at Cafe Claire. Which also happens to be a part of the Somin Art Center! The first day I went was also the last day of an amazing art exhibit in their gallery upstairs. Overall it’s a very nice space, with a patio, two galleries and stage for performances.

cafe claire front close

cafe claire interior

They also had their Christmas decorations up already.

Cafe Claire Christmas


cafe pascucci

Americano at Cafe Pascucci, a chain coffee shop. This was on a random Tuesday I had off in the middle of the week. It was so peaceful and for most of the time I was there, I had the entire second floor to myself.


cafe promise

Citron tea at Cafe Promise, a small family-run coffee shop near my school on Yeongdo.


In addition to coffees, I have to pay tribute to my best friend during this month: my lovely laptop. She was with me wherever I went…

laptop and me

…working long hours…


…even on the KTX with me.

laptop ktx

We shared meals…

laptop lasagna

…and enjoyed coffee + panini breaks.

bricks coffee

This experience has truly brought us closer together.


And of course, how could I write 50,000 words in a month without some interesting detours and sources of inspiration? Before I settled in for a writing session or after a good (not not so good) day’s work, I explored more of Busan.

by busan tower


This is Bosu Book Alley, which is a beautiful place to explore.

Bosu book alley

bosu book alley traditional


bosu book alley cat

I even found some books in English for research!

bosu book alley research


bosu book alley research 2

These are some lucky finds in the English section of Kyobo Bookstore in Nampo. “When My Name Was Keoko” had a lot of similarities to what I was writing, which was both unfortunate, but also a sign that I was on the right track.


Of course there was art involved:

BMA craft recipe exhibit

bma photo

And I visited the Busan Design Expo with another Wrimo!

busan design expo duck busan design expo hug

busan design expo

busan design expo speakers

But my favorite art exhibit during the month was the artist being shown at Somin Art Center. The artist 허휘, or Hur Whie, as spelled on his business card, owns Mokwon Art Studio near Gukje Market. He has a couple blogs, but nothing compared to seeing his work in person. I bought two copies of his art book.
mokwon art book

I think his work resonated with me so much because it’s the exactly the kind of artwork I’ve wanted to do of Busan. And after having visited most of the places he’s painted, the work is all the more meaningful. I’m sure it’s even more meaningful and nostalgic for long time residents of Busan. I especially liked how he captured Gamcheon cultural village and I wish I’d gotten more than this crooked image of it:

mokwon gallery gamcheon

And that’s the end of my art tangent.


Although I completed Nanowrimo, I didn’t finish my novel (the story itself) and I don’t know if I will for a long while. No one will ever see this draft. There’s still tons of research I need to do to correct the tons of inevitable inaccuracies I’ve written. But in doing Nanowrimo, I got to exercise a part of my brain that has long felt dormant. I got to feel excited about something new. I got to feel a little sense of accomplishment every time I met my daily word count, and a much bigger sense of accomplishment when I finally completed Nanowrimo, sitting among other writers in Cafe Claire.

And it’s something I’d absolutely love to do again.

Until next year, Nanowrimo.

While students work…

If I could just write half-blog-posts or first paragraphs of posts, I’d blog a lot more often. There’s a lot that I’ve skipped over, like hiking Mount Jiri with my host family and two women with cognitive disabilities, going on a school trip to the Busan Global village, and visiting Seoul for Support Network training. While I might do a catch-up post later on, right now I just want to feel chronologically caught up. So this week’s topic is midterms, aka the week that sucks for students, aka party time for teachers.

While the weeks leading up to and after exams are extremely stressful for the teachers at my school, exam week itself is almost relaxing. The previous week everyone in the office was busy creating questions for the exam. Occasionally someone would ask me to check over their English, and a couple times we tried to brainstorm alternatives together. Let’s just say writing exams seems miserable, especially with all the standards Korean high school teachers need to meet, not to mention constant pressure from parents, who aren’t shy about speaking out if their children think the test is too hard or too easy. You’d think the kids would keep quiet if the test was easy. Next week (the week after the exam) everyone will be busy grading, and thankfully I’ll have no part in that.

But the past week, this was my experience:

It’s been maybe 15 minutes since the exam has started, and out of a class of 34, only 4 students are working. The rest are soundly asleep, most with their heads down, some awkwardly leaning out of their chairs, and yet others look at first glance as if they are working, slightly slumped, pencil in hand…but their eyes are firmly shut, mouths agape. A technique undoubtedly developed to throw off the principal, who makes frequent rounds, peering into classrooms to catch sleeping students. What happened to the image of the hard-working, meticulous, studying-until-2am Korean high school student that I’ve heard so much about?

While some students finish early and sleep, others don’t even try. The first class in which I witnessed this was a third grade class (third year of high school, or 12th grade) – even more surprising, considering their college entrance exam is looming ever closer. These students, only three in this class, were asleep immediately, far too quickly to have completed the exam. Upon asking the teacher proctoring with me, another English teacher in this case, she explained that many universities don’t require grades from the second semester of senior year.

But sleeping students aren’t unique to third grade classes. When I proctored my toughest class of second-year boys, guess what, the majority of students were asleep within 15 minutes. On the multiple choice scantron, most of the boys have written their names, the date, and marked answers at random. On the writing section, empty spaces were filled with 모름, 모름, 모름. Translation: Don’t know. Don’t know. Don’t know.

How do you motivate students like this?

Fortunately, I did more than watch students sleep in stuffy classrooms this week. Everyday school got out at lunchtime, so Tuesday, a group of English teachers went out to eat at The Party, a fancy buffet restaurant. This group only included teachers who taught extracurricular classes (though there was no mention of our classes during lunch). But Wednesday, a larger group of English teachers went on a trip to Gyeongju!

Gyeongju is a city known for its historical sites, and is about 1.5 hours away from Gimhae. One of the teachers told me that the residents of Gyeongju cannot freely build houses or structures; they need permission from the city. This is because there’s a good chance of them uncovering historical artifacts if they do so. Incredible! We drove by a park with a ton of mound tombs – I would love to go back and see those as well. Our upcoming Fulbright fall conference in Gyeongju though, so I’ll be back soon enough.

I didn’t get a picture of the tombs, but here’s one from Wikipedia:


During the trip we visited Bulguksa Temple (where I found postcards! At last!), a famous coffee shop called Schumann and Clara, and Anapji, an artificial pond that was part of a Silla dynasty palace complex. Anapji was where royalty gathered for entertainment. The view at night was especially beautiful. And the coffee was delicious. In an earlier post I said Korean instant coffee was pretty good; I won’t change my opinion, but I do miss real coffee.

I’ll just leave you now with photos.

Bulguksa Temple
I don’t know why we’re holding up ones in the photo – I just did what they told me.

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Coffee at Schumann and Clara’s
We tried a bread made with charcoal powder – not bad, despite its appearance!

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The nightview at Anapji

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