Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea
Browsing Korean Language


I’m sorry for the lack of updates.

I just… it’s hard for me to write when I feel like my heart is being torn into multiple pieces everyday. I came to the astonishing realization last week that some of my students don’t realize that I’m leaving. I’ve told them so often that I’m leaving – for vacation, I normally hasten to add, that they don’t realize that when I say that I’m going to America I mean that I’m not coming back. Furthermore, the Korean school year starts in the fall, so I’m leaving halfway through the year, why on earth wouldn’t I come back?

Last week I made it very clear that I was leaving. I told one of my second grade girls’ classes the number of weeks that I had left at our school and was surprised to find the class captain crying.

I got a phone call from my host mother on Saturday. She doesn’t speak any English so while I would’ve been scared talk with her on the phone my first year, it’s a mark of my improvement that without hesitation I picked up the phone and we had a short conversation. She wants me to visit before I leave.

Our program’s final dinner is this weekend and I can’t bring myself to be excited about it. I love F*lbright, but I can’t shake off the feeling that by spending a weekend elsewhere, I’m missing stuff here.

In addition I’ve been trying to make time to meet and see everyone I’ve grown to know over the past two/three years, make time for a new special person, teach special Friday classes, prepare for YDAC (we got 3rd place!) keep up my Korean studying, host visitors, hike mountains, plan for Camp F*lbright, pack up my belongings to mail to the US (check!), apply for jobs (I hate my resume. I hate my resume. I hate my resume), cry over my failing TOPIK result (partially joking), and keep myself together. It’s exhausting.

I found this letter in one of my club class students’ notebooks.



Yes, yes I am sad, and pensive, and happy, and nervous, and frustrated, and overwhelmed, and surprisingly numb. She’s a very perceptive student, but I don’t think she’ll ever realize how much it means to me that she used the word “our.”

On the TOPIK and Being Okay with Failure


I failed the Intermediate Topik again.

I took the test in April, and have been anxiously awaiting the results ever since. The results came out yesterday at 3 and I ran up to my co-teacher’s office to use her computer because mine was too slow. The score finally came up, right as the bell signifying the next period rang. 불합격. I had failed. The tightness in my chest I had felt while waiting for the test results further constricted, and surprisingly I found myself struggling to hold back tears. My co-teacher looked at me, concerned, and I left to go teach.

I have spent the last three years “studying” Korean, but to be honest with myself I have spent only the last year and a half intensively studying Korean. I’ve done classes, private lessons, and studied on my own. My focus ever since I submitted my graduate school applications has been the TOPIK, and I’ve given up a lot of other extracurricular activities to further focus on studying for this test. However, according to the Korean government I’m not good enough at Korean to be considered an intermediate speaker – I’m just a beginner.

This is obviously just me feeling sorry for myself, as I’m not a beginner by any stretch of the imagination, but I spent most of yesterday down in the dumps. You see – I didn’t expect a failing grade, I actually thought I would pass.

In order to pass the Intermediate TOPIK with a score of 3 you have to get a 50% on all 4 sections, the grammar/vocabulary, writing, reading, and listening. In order to receive a score of 4, you have to get a 70% on all of the sections. A 50% is pretty low, so even if you feel like you failed the test, there’s a chance you passed it. I had taken the TOPIK once before and had failed it then, so when I left the building this time around I felt much better, and it turns out I should have. I got a 70% on grammar/vocab (enough to qualify me for a 4 in that section), and a surprising 66 on the reading – which last time around was my worst section. I felt a little nervous about my listening score, but as listening is normally my best section I assumed that I had passed it and I did with a score of 59%. Writing is what killed me, with a score of 35%. 35%. One percent worse than I did last time. Where I improved by leaps and bounds, almost doubling my listening and grammar/vocab scores, my writing score actually got worse and I was so frustrated that I probably would’ve burst into tears if I hadn’t had class.

Today I finished teaching my content matter a little early, so I let students relax for the last five minutes of class. A student called me over and asked if she could talk to me about something. She ended up telling me about her English grades, and how her teacher had told her that her English was getting worse because her test scores were dropping. She was really upset because she thought that her English was pretty good, but both her score and her teacher were telling her that she wasn’t.

I sat down and told her that I couldn’t say that scores don’t matter, because unfortunately they do, but we both know that she has a high English level. Of course she wants to improve her score, and she should try, but a lower test score doesn’t mean that her English is bad. I then told her that I had just failed a Korean test. Her eyes got wide, and she exclaimed “but you’re good at Korean!” and I replied “I know. But sometimes we get bad scores.” It took talking to this student for me to remember that scores aren’t the end all be all. We tell our students everyday that the score less important than your actual ability, but I had to tell a student this in order to apply it to myself. Yes, I failed this proficiency test – but I’m still good at Korean. And I will pass this test the next time around.

Pictures from the May Concert




Some pictures of the events taken by the lovely Waygook Photography.



I had a really cool experience yesterday.

I know that at this point I mostly use this blog to blather on about my school, so most a lot of people don’t know what I do from day to day. Mostly I just teach or lesson plan, however I also study Korean and volunteer with various organizations. One organization where I both volunteer and study Korean at is the GIC, the Gwangju International Center. The GIC is a nonprofit organization that provides services to international residents in Gwangju or the surrounding areas and promotes cultural exchange between local and international residents.

The GIC is currently in the process of relocating, and fundraising to cover the relocation effort. Every May, the GIC hosts a May Concert that showcases local and international talent, and this year the proceeds of the May Concert were going to the GIC. They needed two people, a Korean person and a foreign person, to host the event, so they asked me to co-host the event with a very nice Korean English teacher.

I’ve actually never hosted anything before, so it was a very new experience for me. I received my script on Monday and spent all week frantically studying it, then on Sunday as the concert started I walked up on stage with my co-host, smiled at the audience that I couldn’t see because of the blinding stage lights, and said

“여러분, 안녕하십니까.”

A ripple of surprised laughter rang through the audience, which quieted down as I continued to give our introductory remarks in Korean. After I finished, my co-host took the microphone and smoothly introduced the concert in English. You see, as I said earlier one of the GIC’s  core tenants is promoting cultural exchange between local and international residents, and thus the GIC had asked me to host the event in Korean, and my co-host to host it in English. We continued on this way, alternating between English and Korean, with little trip-ups, and slightly unnatural cadences, for the rest of the concert.

TOPIK Update


Most of my energy outside of school has been put into figuring out my future (finding promising looking jobs to apply for, updating my resume, cleaning my apartment) or studying Korean. I have my proficiency test this Sunday, and I’m hoping to pass the intermediate level test. The intermediate level is much more difficult than the beginner, so while I’m miles above the beginner there is a fair chance I wont’ pass the intermediate. This would be unfortunate because then the only level documentation I have (other than my certificates of completion for various Korean classes) would state that I was at a beginning level.

Furthermore, this test is only offered once every three months, and the next time it’s offered in Korea will be after my contract ends and I will probably have already left the country. I CAN take it in America, but it’d be much better if I could just pass the intermediate this time around.

Wish me luck!


Positive – I now have over a thousand “flowers” (words) on Memrise.

Dashboard   Memrise

Negative – this is what happens if you don’t study for a few days.

Words Words Words


Sorry for the lack of updates, I’ve been busy preparing for my trip to Japan, my time in Seoul, and the TOPIK exam (the Test of Proficiency in Korean). The most difficult thing about the TOPIK is the sheer amount of vocabulary I’m expected to know. The listening section is alright, and I actually do okay with the grammar, but many times I’ll read a sentence and understand it, only to be told that I should substitute in a synonym for an underlined word and realize that I don’t know what any of the options mean! At that point the only thing I can do is guess.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language. In July I’ll be heading back to America (for good?) and I’m scared that I’ll lose all the Korean that I’ve gained. Though I’ve been studying for over two years, sometimes it feels like I’m getting nowhere. I’ve been reading a lot about language acquisition, and I’ve been observing my students struggle with English, and part of me wonders if I’ll ever get to “fluency,” however you define that. I read an interesting article written by Antonio Graceffo about fluency, and how many words it takes to read a newspaper, and started thinking about my own vocab level. How many words do I know?

I wasn’t always, but these days I try to be methodical when studying vocabulary. It’s too easy to “think” that you’re actually learning and retaining a word, and then realize that you can only recognize it, and not produce it. Halfway through last year I started using an awesome website called Memrise to study vocabulary, and my rate of retention skyrocketed. It’s the only program I know of where in order to get the flashcard “right” you have to actually type out the word, which is great because then I’m being tested on spelling and there’s no cheating. If I can remember the spelling, then I’ll know how to pronounce it correctly.  When you get a word right the “plant” associated with each word is “watered.” With every successful watering, you have to water that plant less, so words I get wrong are frequently shown to me, whereas very simple and easy vocabulary is brought up once every few months or so in order to refresh my memory. I highly suggest Memrise to anyone who struggles with vocabulary (be my mempal – Memrise friend- I’m AnnPotski!).

Anyway, in the article Graceffo takes eight different articles from the New York Times online and through what seemed to be a painstakingly painful process counted all of the unique words (counting conjugated forms as separate words, so word would be counted once, and words would be counted separately). Apparently to read the New York Times you should have a vocabulary of approximately 4,000 words. Holy mackerel. After reading that, I headed over to Memrise to see how I was doing.



Considering that not all of the words I know are actually on Memrise, I have a vocab of at least 1,000, probably closer to 2,000. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there. Time to go water some plants.


Remember how Solomon gave me a literary collection that contained three of his pieces? I’m still only halfway through the first one. He’s a good writer, but goodness this is difficult.

This is his essay about Typhoon Bolaven.

You see the three post-it notes full of vocabulary? I’m only 3 1/2 paragraphs into translating his essay.

End of the Year Newspaper Article


Students asked me to write an article for the newspaper. I asked when it was due, how long it should be, and what it should be about, and they answered “whenever, about a page, something funny.” Thanks guys. I set the limit of Friday at lunch to try to finish it in time, but I just finished it about a half hour ago. For those of you that read my final address to the SGHS students parts of this may seem familiar, and that’s because I took direct inspiration from that address. I feel like something I can’t tell students enough is that when they come talk to me they’re not a burden to me, even if they are not very good at English, I still really enjoy talking to them.

Most likely I won’t update this blog until after I come back from traveling (January 15th), so I’ll leave you with my nice long newspaper article. Happy holidays!


“It seems like it was just yesterday that I was worried about what to write for this newspaper, and now I am worrying about what to write again. In my last article I introduced myself and said hello to all of the students, and now inevitably I have to say goodbye, not only to the third graders who are graduating and starting a new chapter in their lives, but to the second graders who I will no longer teach. Thank you all for making my first semester at CPHS memorable.

As a native English teacher in Korea, who is studying Korean in her free time, my life is overwhelmed by language. The longer I stay in Korea the more the lines between English and Korean blur and while it is very fun, sometimes by the end of the day I cannot speak any language, let alone Korean or English. I’m sure you know what that’s like.

I think learning a foreign language is one of the most difficult things a person can do. It is very frustrating when you can communicate perfectly well in your native language, but can’t think of the simplest words in another. Not only that, but it is so easy to make very basic mistakes. The first few weeks I was in Korea every time I went to a coffee shop I ordered a 코피 [kopi – nose bleed] instead of a 커피 [keopi – coffee]. I’m sure that sometimes I still do. It is also easy to make vocabulary mistakes. In English we have two distinct words, “head” and “hair” whereas in Korea there is only the word [meori] 머리, so sometimes I make mistakes when listening to people talk about their hair or head. Therefore though it is easy for you to know what someone means when they say “머리를 자르고 싶다” [meorilul jareugo shipda – want to cut hair/head], I become very worried until I realize that they probably just want a hair cut.

However, the most difficult part of learning to speak a foreign language is not grammar or vocabulary, but self-confidence. The purpose of learning a foreign language is to communicate. In order to speak a foreign language you must feel two things. One – that you can do it. You know the vocabulary, grammar, etc. Two – that you are worth listening to, that you have interesting and important things to say. It is important to know vocabulary and grammar, however the most important thing when speaking a foreign language is your feeling of self-worth, and not being afraid to make mistakes. No matter how good your English is, if you feel that you are not worth listening to, it will hurt you more than bad grammar.

In my opinion, the best English speakers at CPHS don’t always have the highest grades – they are the ones who are confident in themselves. Because I am the foreign teacher, I know it can be intimidating to talk to me. You have to think carefully about your words, and it can be very stressful and tiring. However, even though you didn’t have to talk to me outside of class, many of you did. Some of you talked to me on the street, or in the hallways of the school, or on the bus, and for that I thank you. Thank you for telling me all of the best places to eat in CPHS. Thank you for explaining to how the dormitory works, and telling me stories about your roommates. Thank you for showing me pictures of your family. Thank you for telling me about your morning EBS classes, and the nightly self-study system, and how vacation days work, and other seemingly small things that help me understand CPHS students better. Thank you for giving me high-fives in the hallways. Thank you for sharing with me pieces of your lives – even if you think they were small or insignificant, you taught me a lot.

Have a good holiday, study hard (but not too hard), and I will see you again next semester. I’m excited to meet you again, and hear more stories.”

복사 (복숭아)


I’m currently at work organizing my computer and I noticed something – in my experience with my American computer, when you make a new file on a computer it says “untitled” or something along those lines. On my Korean computer, all of the new files have various fruit names – 사과 (sagwa – apple), 귤 (kyul – tangerine), 자두 (jadu – plum), and 복숭아 (boksunga – peach). This may not seem like a big deal, but when I finally realized the commonality between the file names it finally clicked –  복숭아 (boksunga – peach) is very similar to 복사 (boksa – copy). IT’S A PUN. I UNDERSTOOD A KOREAN PUN.

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.