Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea
Browsing Cultural Differences

The Reds, Whites, and Blues of Being Abroad During Elections


Watching the election results roll in from my computer in the teacher’s office was difficult. This is most invested I’ve been in the outcome of any election, and the first I’ve had to watch alone. I sat in the office, simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that we were fourteen hours ahead of Washington DC, knowing that this one would likely drag on into the late hours of the night for most Americans, but we’d find out by two or three pm at the latest here, while I was still at school or just after getting home to sit alone in my countryside apartment. Some of the teachers knew about the election, but as the only American in my office I felt very solitary, refreshing my computer screen every few minutes and talking on gchat with people living stateside. Add to that the fact that I couldn’t pull up facebook, I held a silent, computer-lit vigil.

In addition, tomorrow is the 수능, the college entrance exam all high school third graders take. While the average Korean knows more about American politics than the average American knows about Korean politics (in my experience, at least), because of preparation for this massive test (both in getting our students ready and by getting our school ready to administer this test), most of the teachers weren’t too concerned about the election. However, due to me teaching the second grade student about politics for the last three weeks, I kept getting bombarded by students in the hallways and in the teacher’s office.

“Teacher, today is the day, yes? Election day? Do you know yet? Who has won?”

“We’re still waiting.”

“Ah. I am nervous. Let me know?”

“I’ll try my best.”

We only had two classes today, followed by longer than average cleaning period, lunch, and then we closed school early. During the cleaning period I tidied up my desk and sat, staring, at the screen. I was focused so hard on the red and blue appearing and disappearing on my screen I didn’t notice the  students behind me until they asked what I was looking at. I looked behind me to find a group of eight second grade boys, staring at my screen. I showed them the New York Times interactive map I had pulled up on my computer, and together we looked and marveled at the amount of red slowly creeping across America.

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I then explained the electoral college system.

“Ah, so it is an indirect system”

“Yes, it is very different from Korea’s system.”

” Ah, that doesn’t seem fair. And there is so much red on this map. You must be very nervous.”

“Yes, yes I am. However there is still time. America is so big, that we have multiple time zones. Over half of the states have not announced their results yet.”

Soon after the principal saw that the students were only pretending to clean and shooed them away. A few hours later I had the same conversation with some older male teachers in Korean. Explaining the electoral college system in English is hard – doing it in Korean is even harder.

At this point, my eyes were turning as red as Oklahoma from staring at the screen, so I went to Sloths with some of the teachers to go get coffee. I left my phone on and open to the New York Times’ elections predictions, and it was there, with two other teachers, that I stared at my cellphone’s minuscule screen, then threw my hands up in the air and yelled “OBAMA WON.”

Voting overseas is difficult, procedurally and emotionally. I’ve never forgotten that I’m American, but if you’re not reminded constantly, it’s not something you think about. Being surrounded by Korean people day in and day out I never felt Korean, but I never felt strongly American either. I’m not The American, I’m just Em(ily). There have been no campaign posters or ads, no friends to talk to about the election. I did remember to turn in my absentee ballot request form well ahead of schedule, but then Virginia never actually sent me my ballot, and I had to fill out an emergency form and express mail it in. As much as the Koreans around me do care about the outcome of this election, it doesn’t affect them in the same way that it affects me, and they haven’t reacted the same way I’ve reacted. I want to see other Americans. I wanted to have an election party and watch the news anxiously. I wanted to watch Obama’s victory speech and Romney’s rather nice concession speech together with friends after a long day instead of in the afternoon, alone, sitting on my the floor of my barely heated apartment. I’m glad I did my duty as an American citizen, and I’m glad that my vote, as a voter from a swing state, did end up counting, but I wish I had someone here to wholeheartedly share my excitement with.

Tomorrow is the test, and the next day we’re going back to school. I’ll continue to teach about politics and political parties, and slip back into my everyday life, at least until the Korean election in December.


Teacher’s Day


Today is Teacher’s Day, which means that unlike childrens’ day (where children don’t have to go to school) we go to school and do our thing as per usual. However, since I arrived this morning there have been random bursts of song coming from various classrooms, cakes produced out of thin air, and flowers arriving in the teacher’s office. Probably the cutest thing I’ve seen today was when a bunch of male third grade students came back into the second grade building to give their old homeroom teacher a present.

First period I taught 2.2, and they were very sad because they had bought their homeroom teacher a cake, but though he was very flattered he wanted them to eat and enjoy it and so wouldn’t touch any of it. They then asked me if I wanted some, and I tried to give them the same reasoning that their homeroom teacher gave them, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we finished class 10 minutes early and ate cake. Then fourth period I taught 2.4 who told me it was Teacher’s Day (but didn’t wish me a happy Teacher’s Day) and when I asked if they got something for their homeroom teacher they responded “no,” so it’s not all cuteness and cake over here.

Neither American nor  Korean education is perfect, but in my opinion if there’s one thing that Korea does unequivocally better it’s acknowledging and respecting teachers. From my experience this is shown internally (how students and teachers interact, how the administration deals with teachers) and on a broader scale (in terms of salary and prestige being a teacher is a highly sought-after job).

So, to all my fellow teachers out there, happy Teachers Day!

The Awkward Hallway


Yesterday after school I was exhausted, went on a youtubing spree, and ended up watching all of season one of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” which is absolutely hysterical, and the “Awkward Hallway” episode got me thinking about my own awkward hallway. Which is to say, all the hallways at my school where I might run into people.

When you meet people, even in passing you should 인사 (insa: greet) them and bow. Not like, a colonial-style hand-in-the-front-and-knees-bent-like-a-fop-type bow, nor is it a complete 90 degree plank (well, unless it’s a more formal occassion than a happenstance hallway meeting), but nodding your head and a little bit of movement at your waist is generally fine.

You see, what makes this so awkward is that I’m the youngest teacher at my school, which means that I should greet people first when I see them. Now, this isn’t always the case, and some teachers will preemptively greet me (probably out of pity), but for the rest it’s like an awkward game of bowing chicken. 

When do I bow?-Where do I put my eyes?-We’re the only people in this hallway, is it rude to not make eye contact?-Is it rude to MAKE eye contact?-Oh god it’s like I’m staring her down.-Look away LOOK AWAY.-Oh no, now that teacher probably thinks that I’m being rude and not acknowleding her presence.-Look back.-Smile.-What an idiot she can’t see you smile from here.-Stop smiling.-Oh wait, you can see her mouth so she can see yours, so she just saw you stop smiling and look awkward.-Okay okay okay I’m just going to do it.


I should’ve waited, we’ve still got like half this hallway to go.-When I pass her do I bow again?-What on earth is the etiquitte for hallway bowing?- Oop here we go, aaaaand we’re passing.


Why did I do that?-Why did I say anything?-That was so awkward.-THAT WAS SO AWKWARD.-Well, at least I’m done-Oh.-Here comes another teacher.

AND repeat.


I got another letter from MW today. That girl is just too cute. We had a short conversation as she was sweeping all of our desks while her friends looked on and giggled (not in a bad way, but more like a “wow she’s so brave” sort of way). Right at the end she tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear (Teacher! Have a good day!)

I can technically leave school at 3:30/4 but I tend to stay until 5 or so studying Korean unless I have something specific to do after school, because I’m just not productive in my apartment. However, I still haven’t finished (…or started) planning my lesson for second grade next week, and I’m meeting the English teachers for dinner at 6:30, so I think I’ll camp out here and lesson plan and study. I opened the 2nd grade English textbook to get some ideas and happen upon this gem:


Have you ever been hungry?
(당신은 배고파본 전이 있습니까?)
In my job I always get to eat delicious foods.
(저의 직업상 저는 항상 맛있는 것을 먹습니다.)
It gives me great pleasure.
(그것은 저에게 큰 즐거움을 줍니다.)
What is this job?
(이 직업은 무엇일까요?)

It’s a FOOD TASTER. (그것은 맛 감정사입니다)

Required: Big Mouth (자격 조건: 큰입)
Strong stomach (튼튼한 위장)
Patience to keep eating (계속 먹기 위한 인내심)
Not throwing up any food (어떤 음식이라도 토하지 말 것)

Wow. I mean just… wow.


Today I go to school to find THIS.




That’s right, if you look carefully you can see a forklift. What’s it doing at school you ask? Well, now that the suneung has passed the 3rd grade students don’t need to study anymore, so they’re running outside dumping their books on the ground where forklift is then is taking them all away to be recycled.

Suneung Woes


Yesterday was the test. Results were released this morning. Soon (if not already) they will release the test questions in the daily paper, and next Tuesday my 1st and 2nd grade students will all take a practice test… except it’s for a grade.

I was stopped outside of the teacher’s office by third grade students. I haven’t had very many chances to interact with the third graders because they’ve been so busy, but now that they’re done with their test they have much more free time. I try not to ask students how they’ve done on the test, as it can be a very sore point and a good score does not necessarially guarantee entrance into a good college, but these students brought it up without prodding.

“Teacher. Yesterday was test. Today I see score and” he lets out a sound of frustration “I am very angry. I am very upset.”
“Oh no! Why?”
“When I take it I thought ‘oh! Easy, easy, easy.’ But I get back my score…”
“Not good?”
“NO very not good. Very very bad.”
His friend expressed the same sentiment.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Will you take it again next year?”
The original speaker pauses, “I am thinking about it” while his friend violently shakes his head to say ‘no.’
“Well, now that you’re done with the test come talk to me, okay?”
“OKAY! Teacher I love you.”
“You don’t know me.”
“So you can’t love me.”
“… Okay Ms. Emily Teacher! I love you!”

Well, it’s good to know that 3rd grade boys are the same anywhere you go. In all seriousness though, talking to them made me very sad, because I don’t know how poorly they did. It could be them overreacting and not getting a perfect score, or it could be them scoring so badly that it’s possible that they won’t get into any of the colleges they applied for. I’m hoping it was the former, but I suspect the latter. There’s something terribly wrong with a system when kids as bright as these, ones that can come up to me and have a spur-of-the-moment conversation in English, feel depressed about their future at the age of 18.


Today was a holiday so I didn’t go to school. In fact, because of midterms I spent Thursday-Monday at the Andong Mask festival and the Jinju Lantern festival. They were awesome. Pictures coming soon.

Students were not so lucky – even though Monday is a holiday they have to study. In fact, a student I ran into on the bus told me students hate holidays (even Children’s Day) because they have to study all day. They would actually rather go to class than have a holiday.

Sam Morrow posted this video earlier, and I’m reposting it, because I think it pretty accurately depicts an average Korean student’s life. The only difference I can think of, is that in the video he wakes up way later than any of my students ever do.

Too Much of a Good Thing?


Time Magazine recently published an article entitled “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone” which dissects the problems in the Korean Education System.  It’s an interesting read, and with midterms at school coming up, the issues in this article are something I’ve wanted to address for awhile.

At CPHS the first class technically starts at 8:50 am, but every single student is at their desk at 7:30 doing a listening class through the Educational Broadcasting System, or EBS for short (한국교육방송공사) which is an educational television and radio network. This is not something that’s just limited to school – EBS has their own radio station which I’ve heard blasting in cabs and in teacher’s cars, and at any point in the day you can go to the EBS cable channels (that’s right, channels) and view educational material. While there’s nothing wrong with having educational cable channels, this is a good indicator of how important education is considered in modern Korean society.

After EBS classes, students have normal classes from 8:50 am until 3:20 pm, with a short break for lunch. They have twenty minutes for lunch, and the rest of that hour-long lunch period is self-study time. Afterwards there’s a thirty minute cleaning period, followed by more late-afternoon and evening classes, which I do not teach.  I’m honestly not sure how late students have class, but from my apartment I can hear the bell ringing until ten pm.

The majority of the 850 students at school live in the dormitories because some of them come from very far away to attend this school, but also because it gives them a chance to study. They live in eight-person dorm rooms, but rarely spend any time there because they study until at least midnight if not later in the classrooms or in self-study rooms located all around campus. Then they wake up and do this again.

My students don’t have weekends – there are classes on alternate Saturdays, and even on free days they stay at school and self-study. They can go home about once a month, but some students can’t because they live so far away, and therefore only go home on major holidays. They spend three years doing this, my poor teenagers, so that they can get into the top universities in Korea.

The article mentions that the government is putting restrictions on hagwons (private companies where students go after school and study some more either one-on-one with a tutor or in a small class) and stopping them from operating after 10 pm, however many student who attend boarding schools or schools in the countryside don’t go to hagwon so this restriction will not change anything. Though the government is taking a good first step in reducing those hours, ultimately it’s not going to stop students from studying, as is evidenced by my students. We have to change the mindset that 14 to 20 mindless hours of study a day is better than 8 hours of sleep, and we have to relieve some of the pressure that the students are under.

I have midterms this week. This puts me in a bit of a strange situation, as it’s a time of rest for me, because not only do I get to travel during this time period, but I’m giving students self-study time for half of the class, which means that I get chunks of 25 minutes where I’m sitting in class reading a book and observing the students either frantically study or pass out. Homeroom teachers and subject teachers are also stressed because they have to write the midterms, prepare the paperwork, and because how well the students does reflects on their abilities. I’m basically the only relaxed person in the entire school besides perhaps the cafeteria staff.

I just finished teaching one of my first grade (high school sophomore) advanced boys’ classes. Half of them fell asleep, and half of them started studying. One student started snoring which was the catalyst to start a conversation with the awake boys. We talked about midterms, their dormitory life, their studying and sleeping patterns, and how nervous they are for this test. At the end of class I wished them luck, and one student said “thanks for the self-study time. Please pray for us.”

It is no longer 1950. Korea in the past had such a short amount of time to industrialize, so every single person was valuable and had to do as much as they could. I remember an old-quote about Korea in the post-war period – “Most countries work 9 – 5, we work 5 – 9.” Korea is developed, while it is important to keep up the Korean work ethic that has come to define this country, we can’t put all that pressure on students. Something has to give.

English Mania


I was informed recently that I will be hosting a one-a-week teachers class. I’m actually really excited about this (though it does take away my 1st planning period on Fridays 🙁 ) because I get a chance to interact with the English faculty outside of my regular English classes or lunchtime. I won’t be teaching anything, just coming up with topics and facilitating discussions.

For my first class (which actually won’t happen for a few weeks because of the English competition and midterms) I’m thinking about showing this TED talk about English mania. It’s something that as an EFL teacher I’ve been torn about. On the one hand I love teaching English as a foreign language, and it’s my job – on the other hand there are times where I somewhat feel like a cultural imperialist.

I agree with many of his points, but I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion. The clips of the Chinese students yelling their goals in English were particularly shocking. I guess I don’t feel that I can agree with his conclusion because I’m inherently biased as a native English speaker who is already benefiting from the fact that English is the dominant language for global communication. Would I agree with his point if I had to learn Chinese in school starting in the third grade?

“Why English? In a single word: Opportunity. Opportunity for a better life, a job, to be able to pay for school, or put better food on the table. Imagine a student taking a giant test for three full days. Her score on this one test literally determines her future. She studies 12 hours a day for three years to prepare. 25 percent of her grade is based on English. It’s called the Gaokao. And 80 million high school Chinese students have already taken this grueling test. The intensity to learn English is almost unimaginable. Unless you witness it.

Teacher: Perfect!
Students: Perfect!
T: Perfect!
S: Perfect!

T: I want to speak perfect English.
S: I want to speak perfect English.

T: I want to speak —
S: I want to speak —
T: perfect English.
S: perfect English.

T: I want to change my life!
S: I want to change my life!”

My Korean students are in very similar positions to the Chinese students in this video -they have been learning English since elementary school, and they also have a test similar to the one mentioned in the video called the suneung (수능) that will greatly affect their future. If they don’t do well on the suneung, they probably won’t get into a good college, which in turn affects their ability to get a job after graduation, and regardless of what type of college they want to get into, a good portion of the suneung test is English ability. Is it any wonder that I have students who stress over English? It’ll be interesting to see what the English teachers, people who went through this education system and managed to still retain a love of English, think of this video.

Language Exchange and How it Leads to Acupuncture and a Career in Rapping


That may be the longest blog post title I have ever written, but it’s fairly accurate.

Let’s start with the acupuncture, shall we?

In Korea oriental medicine is fairly popular, especially in the countryside and among older people, but many people outside of that demographic use it. Everytime I get sick my host mother suggests I visit the 한의사 (의사 is doctor, and 한 comes from 한국 which means Korea… so basically the Korean, or oriental medicine, doctor) because she knows I dislike hospitals, and oriental medicine is a lot cheaper. I’ve never really felt the need to go because I am incredibly stubborn when it comes to disease in general and have always been of the mindset that rest and water cures everything, and also because I am fairly skeptical about the efficacy of oriental medicine. The main thing that would prompt me to go to an oriental medicine doctor would be curiosity.

During CLEA I had hurt my wrist and while it is much better (I can move it!) it is still not completely healed. I found this out the hard way while attempting to do push-ups at hapkido which, in hindsight, was rather stupid. It’s very frustrating that 2 1/2 months after I hurt my wrist it still isn’t completely healed, so when a fellow hapkido-goer (an adult who’s relatively new to the academy and loves to practice her English with me) exclaimed that she was a nurse and her husband was an oriental medicine doctor and they could look at my wrist for me, I said sure why not. I didn’t realize it’d be immediately after my 8 – 9 pm hapkido class.

So there I am, in a car with a woman I don’t know very well, about to go to an oriental medicine doctor. Also, what do oriental medicine doctors normally do to hurt body-parts? Stick them through with needles. That’s right, I had unexpected acupuncture.

Acupuncture in itself is surprisingly painless. The doctor explained to me (mind you it was in Korean, so I only got the basic gist) that the idea of acupuncture is that your “chi” (energy flow, life force, however you want to paraphrase it) is blocked, and so to release the pressure and to create a road for the chi to smoothly flow you strategically place needles both in the blockage and where you want the chi to go. He put four needles right where my wrist meets the base of my hand on the side opposite to my palm, and one in the crook of my elbow. The only painful part of acupuncture is that you have to sit still for ten or fifteen minutes, which means that every time you reflexively move (like when the doctor’s adorable 18 month-old daughter decides to throw a book at you), the needles move. Ouch.

I couldn’t help thinking as I sat in this strange apartment at 9:30 with needles in my arm that this wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t an English teacher with some knowledge of Korean. Life as a Native English Teacher can be very strange sometime. I’m apparently going again tonight and I’ll try to get pictures this time.

So I have tried to make my advanced students rap, and I have officially decided to call this lesson a failure. Hey it’s a learning experience for me too, right? I had taught my most advanced class how to rhyme, and taught them how to make couplets (my personal favorite: “there is a snake in this cake”) which they proclaimed was “teacher! easy!” so I decided that next week they could handle rapping, especially as we had successfully rapped with a pronunciation lesson last semester. So the next week (2 weeks ago) we listened to Eminem, practiced rapping, then I told them they were going to create their own raps, by writing four couplets in groups of four on a subject I assigned, and then battle. They freaked out. We worked all period on the raps (I let them use electronic dictionaries and an online rhyme dictionary) and then I told them they could have more time the next week.

The next week I wasn’t there because of the Jeju conference.

So the next next week, which would be today, they brought their raps and I told them that I would give them more time, however I had a surprise prepared for them that would hopefully raise morale. First, I reminded them of my class rules:
1) Respect the teacher and other students
2) Do not be afraid to make mistakes
3) Do your best
4) Have fun!

and stated that numbers 1 and 2 were the most important of the rules. I then told them that I knew last week’s lesson was difficult (cue groans of agreement) and keeping that in mind, I also wrote a rap following the same rhyme scheme I made them use. In Korean. I then told them that it was really bad and not to make fun of me… and here it goes:

저는 영어 선생님인데
한국 말 조금 밖에 못해
2 학년
1 반 공부를 잘하고
재미있는 학급이에요 요 요!
이 학생들 대박!
매일  반짝 반짝!

Well, I think that my rap got the point across that I wasn’t expecting them to be 2Pac. However, they really enjoyed it, and though “rapping in Korean” isn’t in my job description and was something I never even imagined I’d do… I think it showed them it was okay to be silly. We did some of the raps today, and will finish the rest next week.

No but really who am I kidding, I’m obviously meant to quit my job and pursue my dream of rapping. Sign me up with JYP as I am obviously a Korean rap legend-in-the-making.

Peace out homies,
Em Teach-izzle

Realizing that some of my readers can’t read Korean, I just plugged my rap into Google Translate (which would be my first instict upon seeing a foreign-language rap) and got a very… um… interesting translation, so I’ll provide the translation here so you can see how incredibly basic my rap is. I promise for those of you that can’t read hangul that in Korean it rhymes:

I am an English teacher
I can only speak a little Korean
Grade 2
Class 1 are good at studying and
They are a fun class yo yo [Note: 요 is a very common verb ending, and it actually sounds like “yo” so I had fun with that]
These students are awesome!
Everyday they are bling bling.

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안녕하세요! My name is Emily and when I started this blog I had received a 2010 – 2011 F*lbright grant to teach English in South Korea.  I then decided to apply to renew my grant, so I am now staying in Korea until July 2012. This blog is not an official F*lbright Program blog, and the views expressed are my own and not those of the F*lbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in Philosophy Pre-Law and Classical Civilizations, and found myself 3 months later teaching English at SGHS. The town that I taught in, SG, is a small town of 12,000 people, an “읍” (eup) rather than a “시” (shi – city), and though it was sometimes hard teaching in such a small town I really enjoyed the unique experience of being the first foreign teacher SGHS had ever had. I lived in the largest part of the county which is significantly bigger (40,000 people) than the town the school is situated in, but is also considered rural by Korean standards.

During my second grant period (2011-2012) I decided to change schools and I currently teach at CPHS which is located in an even smaller town than previously, in Jeollanamdo.

This blog is meant to serve as a reflection not only of being a Native English Speaking teacher in Korea, but also of living as a foreigner in rural Korea.