Monthly Archives: April 2009

My Classroom


Unlike most public school teachers, I have my own classroom.  It is an English lab of sorts, with a bank of computers in the back and a small collection of English books and dvds and an encyclopedia set.  I’m still trying to figure out how to make full use of all of the resources that I have available to me.  This is definitely nicer and more high-tech than any public school classroom than I have ever seen in the US.



I absolutely do not understand the thinking that went behind the images and text on the blinds in this classroom.  One says “Organic Fruit” while another says McDonald’s Drive-Thru”.  On the other side of the room we have “Irish farmer with his donkey and dog”.


Most of my students are really camera-shy.  The best I can usually manage are candid shots.


The view from my classroom window.  The white building in the middle is my apartment building.

Korean Age

When I first arrived in Korea, I started hearing people mention in passing the difference between their American age and their Korean age.  I got the vague impression that I was older in Korean years, but exactly how much older continued to baffle me – I heard both 1 and 2 years added to my age.  A few days ago a team of 3 native Koreans were finally able to straighten me out.

I was born in November of 1983.  In the United States, this makes me 25 years old.  In Korea, I am 27.  Here’s why:

Fact 1:  Here, when you are born you are already one year old.  From what I was told this is their way of counting the period from conception to birth – they round up the 9 months to a full year.

Fact 2:  No matter when in the year you are born, your age goes up a year on January 1 of the following year.  So when I was born in late 1983, I turned two about 40 days later on January 1 of 1984.  This means that in Korea, I am exactly the same age as everyone who was born in 1983, and right now that age is 27.

Confusing?  It certainly was for me – the three Koreans who explained it to me were the third group of people to try, and the only ones to succeed.   Now I just have to get used to the idea of being 27 two years early.

Music in the Park

These were taken while I was on a walk around a pond near my house earlier this week.  There are speakers spaced every 20 feet or so, meaning that you can always hear the music.  This afternoon’s highlights include N’Sync and Queen.

There is something really surreal about walking in pseudo-nature with power-walkers wearing surgical masks while Bohemian Rhapsody is cranking over loudspeakers.

My students are awesome

Some of my 3rd period 7th graders started spontaneously dancing and chanting my name when they walked into class today.

I think he is saying “Sarah!  Sarah! Sarah!  Woah!  It’s Sarah!  Yeah!”

The Expat Thing

Ulsan is a city of about 1.1 million people.  In Korea, this makes it one of the smaller cities.  I’ve been asking all of the expats here that I’ve met how many foreigners they think live in Ulsan – the answer is always somewhere in the hundreds.  In a city of 1.1 million, this seems incredibly low to me.  I think that a good number of them must live in my neighborhood, however, because whenever I go out walking I run into an average of one foreigner/group of foreigners per hour.  Most of the time when we cross each other on the street we nod and smile, maybe saying “hey” as a brief acknowledgement that we speak the same language.  I kind of like this ritual, this fleeting recognition of the fact that as foreigners in an extremely  homogeneous country we automatically have a long list of shared experiences.

Yesterday I was walking down the street and I saw a group of 3 white guys, sitting at a table outside a bar.  They saw me coming and called out “hello, how are you!”  Now, the street was just busy enough, and they were sitting just far enough away from me that this greeting was  shouted through a crowd of a dozen or so Koreans.  It didn’t have the subtlety of the passing “hey” that I’d gotten used to exchanging with foreigners, and I found that this really annoyed me.  I could tell that they wanted me to come over and chat.  In a split second, I decided not to engage.  I yelled out a “hello” in return, and kept on walking.  As I got further and further away, I tried to figure out why I’d brushed them off.  I normally love talking to strangers.  Back in Chicago I made more friends while riding the train than anyone I know.  So what made this situation different?

I think that a part of the answer lies in my general dislike of feeling like a tourist or outsider when I travel.  I don’t enjoy sight-seeing, and if I ever need to look at a map I find a private place, memorize what I can, and hide it away before continuing on my way.  In Korea, I am a perpetual outsider.  My light hair and green eyes immediately peg me as a foreigner, and strangers (especially children) say “hello” to me on the street all the time.  This is unavoidable, and I kind of appreciate it as a welcoming gesture.  But when other foreigners try to talk to me (beyond the passing greeting), the only obvious reason being that they are also foreign, it seems as if they think that we belong to some exclusive club of non-Koreans.  And this grosses me out a little.

But then I realize – if I was walking down the street in Chicago or Minneapolis, and a group of guys sitting outside a bar yelled out to me, there is actually no way that I’d go talk to them.  I would immediately categorize them in my mind as people who will probably make me uncomfortable, pretend I didn’t hear them, avert my eyes, and keep walking.

Yes, it’s different here.  We all belong to a tiny expat community in a small city.  And knowing how my life works, I will probably meet these people again soon, in a more legitimate setting.  And ignoring the grossness of being singled out on the street due solely to the fact that I am non-Korean, the fact remains – moving to Korea is not going to change me into someone who talks to groups of older men who yell at her on the street from bars.

Things that you think only happen on TV

This story isn’t entirely mine – I was asleep or oblivious for most of it. The details are pieced together from accounts from other EPIK teachers who were on my flight from San Francisco to Seoul.

While waiting for the flight to board in SFO, I started chatting with a friendly guy named Paul who turned out to be heading to the same orientation in Seoul that I was going to. The plane was empty enough that we were able to sit in the same row. Because of the previously mentioned insanity that was my last 14 hours before leaving home, I was exhausted and slept for a good part of the flight. After one of my naps, Paul told me that there had been a medical emergency and they had even made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on the plane. At first I thought he was messing with me, but I looked back and about 10 rows behind us there was some minor commotion, with a few flight attendants standing around and what looked like someone lying down in the aisle. At about the same time, some other flight attendants brought out the food carts and started serving lunch, so we assumed that whatever was going on couldn’t be that big of a deal and I forgot about it until I met some of the other teachers on the flight who had had better views of the event.

A few hours before we arrived in Seoul, an elderly Indian woman who showed evidence of having been going through chemotherapy had a heart attack. The announcement was made asking for a doctor. She was brought to the open space in front of an exit row, where one of my new teacher friends was sitting. They spent some time trying to revive her (while continuing food and beverage service uninterrupted, stepping around her body) with no success. After about an hour they called it, put her in a body bag, and laid it across an empty row of seats in the back of the plane next to the bathrooms.

In which I epitomize the phrase “down to the wire”

I know that a lot of people were surpised to hear that I suddenly live in South Korea.  The short version of why very few people knew that I was leaving the States until after it had already happened is this:

I started the process of applying to English teaching jobs in Korea back in January.  I had a couple of job offers by the end of the month, and decided to go with EPIK (English Program In Korea) and work in the public schools.  Then the absurd process of getting together all of the necessary documents in order to secure my position and get my visa began, and took almost two months (too boring to share here, but I now have some insights on how to speed up this process, let me know if you want to hear them).  Even though I technically had a job offer, nothing would be certain until all of my papers had been mailed back and forth between a few different countries, stamped, approved, notarized, apostilled, etc.  The end goal of all of this was to secure a work visa – my recruiter advised me not to buy a plane ticket until I had it in hand.

EPIK had a teacher-training in Seoul that was supposed to start on March 27.  In order to get there on time (and catch one of their free shuttles from the Airport) I would have to leave Minneapolis on March 25th.  My visa arrived at 3:30 in the afternoon on March 24th. Within an hour, I had bought a plane ticket, for a flight leaving early the next morning.  I spent the next 12 hours packing, got in the car with my parents at 4:30 in the morning and headed to the airport.

And that is the story of how even I didn’t know that I was moving to Korea until 13 hours before I left.