Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea
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Not to be super down in the dumps (I promise I AM having good times interspersed here and there), but I finally understand the expression “eyes leaking” as I can’t stop crying. Well, it’s not even crying, really, as it is just water leaving my eyes in a continuous slow stream. Half the time I’m not even sad and my eyes start dripping like a broken faucet.


Last week at school then onto Camp F*lbright madness. I’ve sent two big packages home, cleaned and sorted my apartment into different piles of give to friends, take home, donate, and trash, finished my Camp F*lbright lesson plans, and met with friends. I still have so much I need to do.


Freaking out. Freaking out. Freaking out.

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.



I have a student who has become a favorite of mine simply due to his ridiculous wave. He grins broadly, then yanks his arm back and forth so violently, that his elbow operating on a parallel plane, gets thrown in the other direction to the point where his arm is almost perpendicular to the ground.



These days it seems like I’m disciplining my students more frequently than not. It’s that time of year, more than halfway through the semester where the students can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and a part of them seems to give up. They’ll snap out of it, but it’s not a fun time for them or for me. I’ve lectured almost every single one of my second grade classes, confiscated mirrors, had private talks with co-teachers and individual students, and made students stand – all of which would be par for the course at SGHS but unusual for me at CPHS. Whenever I start to get a little too discipline-happy, though, I think back to first grade.

I mean actual first grade, like, when I was in elementary school.

At least, I think it was first grade. Time plays tricks on your brain. All I know is that I was old enough to feel guilt, and young enough to think that the dreadful pit that was forming in my stomach would never go away. I don’t even remember what I did, I just remember my teacher becoming upset and then asking a few of the students to come to the back of the class and talk to her individually. I was literally saved by the bell, and so she asked us to talk to her tomorrow. I then resolved with all the strength in my chubby first grade body that I would never go to school again. I was sure however, that my mom wouldn’t agree.

Mom, by the way, has never heard this story. Sorry Mom.

I somehow managed to fake sick for two weeks. She even took me to the hospital  which was a big deal as my parents tend to wait until we’re on the side of dying before admitting that perhaps we need professional help. The doctors could find nothing terribly wrong, but I still complained that I felt woozy, and my stomach hurt, and I couldn’t bear to go to school feeling like this. That much of my deception was true – two weeks in I was still convinced that my wonderful teacher hated me, and I couldn’t imagine what would happen to me when I arrived back at school.

I don’t remember how my mom and I decided it was time to go back to school. Perhaps she coerced me, perhaps I volunteered, all I know is that after two weeks of faking an illness to avoid a teacher’s wrath, I went back to school. I spent the whole day unable to focus, just waiting for my teacher to look me directly in the eye and call me to the back of the classroom; it never happened. She had forgotten that she had wanted to talk to me two weeks earlier. Against all odds, I had managed to escape.

I try keep this experience in mind when I discipline students. While it’s necessary to keep a firm hand, if one of my students disappeared for two weeks that wouldn’t help anyone.

Perks of Being a Wallflower


I saw Perks of Being a Wallflower yesterday at the Gwangju Theater. The Gwangju Theater is a really great indie movie theater that opened in 1934, making it one of the oldest movie theaters in Korea. They don’t normally show recent releases, rather they show a mix of older foreign and domestic movies. There is only one screen, and when you walk in it’s musty and dark with two floors and leveled seating, and it feels more like you’re going to see a live performance than a movie. When I went to see Gone with the Wind there last fall I felt like I had walked into a different time period – albeit one with great projector technology.

Perks of Being a Wallflower was painful to watch. I spent the entire movie with my coat up against my face wincing. It was so well done – a great mix of sadness, awkwardness, and laugh-out-loud hysteria. It was a return to the awkwardness and heartbreak of high school, and a reminder of how everything was exaggerated. Breakups were the end of the world, the embarrassment from trivial incidents never fully went away, days passed by in neon colors and our friends were the ones who made or broke our experiences. Without giving too much away, the movie is about Charlie, a wallflower who had trouble interacting with others, and the friends (mostly Sam and Patrick) that welcome him into their fold. It made me hurt for an interesting reason – I didn’t identify with Charlie as a wallflower in that during high school I wasn’t popular but I had friends, but because I am a teacher now, and I’m sure I have students like Charlie. The scenes that hit me the hardest were the ones where Charlie interacted with his high school English teacher. Charlie is a student that is naturally bright at English, but a shy introvert who refused to raise his hand in class… if the teacher had been less attentive he might have missed Charlie completely. During their interactions, you could see the pain on both of their faces. Charlie thinking that no one noticed him, and the teacher worrying about Charlie.

Mr. Anderson: You know, they say if you make one friend on your first day, you’re doing okay.
Charlie: If my English teacher is the only friend I make today, that would be sorta depressing.

Charlie spends the first three quarters of the movie recounting his friends’ issues, and hanging around in the background helping them. By the end of the movie you finally realize all of the things that have happened to Charlie to make him the way he is, and how as a wallflower you would never realize this about him.

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

How many students do I have that fade into background? Inside every mind is a complete other world, shaped by experiences that are foreign to me. I teach my students once a week if I’m lucky, for fifty minutes. How many of my students are struggling wallflowers, getting by from day-to-day and like Charlie counting the days left until graduation. Am I giving up on my students, and students I haven’t met yet, by deciding to pursue another career path at the end of this year?



Spring means outdoor adventures!

and climbing trees!


Nell – Standing in the Rain


Can’t stop listening to this song:


Food for Dummies: 된장국 (Fermented Soybean Paste Soup)


Hi everyone! I’m going to post a recipe for 된장국 (dweinjangguk-fermented soybean paste soup). It’s one of my favorite Korean soups, and there are so many different accepted varieties of it that I don’t feel bad posting my own version. The following recipe is a combination of the process my friend showed me and my own alterations, so while it may not be completely traditional, it’s still pretty tasty!


Half a head of cabbage
1 heaping spoonful of 고추장 (Gochujang: Red pepper paste)
1 to 3 peppers (optional)
1 spoonful of anchovy powder
About 4 heaping spoonfuls of 된장 (Dweinjang: Fermented soybean paste)
300 grams of tofu
1 or 2 small onions
One squash


Warning: Your kitchen will smell really bad at first (anchovy powder). This is normal. Don’t worry, it will later smell amazing.


1. Take a large pot and fill it three quarters full of water and set it to boil. Take a smaller pot, also fill it three quarters full of water and set it to boil.

2. Roughly chop the cabbage head into medium-sized pieces and rinse them.

3. Put the cabbage into the small pot of boiling hot water. Let it cook for three minutes.

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4. When the water in the larger pot comes to a boil, put in the anchovy powder.

5. Take the soybean paste and place it in a fine-meshed sieve over the large pot. Use the sieve to evenly distribute the soybean paste and get rid of clumps. Do this one spoonful at a time. Also add in the red pepper paste.


6. Drain the water from the cabbage, and put the cabbage into the larger pot.

7. Chop up the onion and peppers into medium-sized pieces. Put them in the larger pot.

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8. Chop the squash into thin, half-circle slices.

9. Chop the tofu into medium-sized chunks.

10. Lower the temperature and place the tofu and squash into the pot.

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11. Place the lid on pot and leave the soup to simmer for ten or more minutes.

12. Serve hot with rice (rice recipe not included). Enjoy!


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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.