2018: The Year the Road Diverged

At the end of 2017, I wrote a reflection post after looking back on the whole year in an attempt to sum up the year into one neat, damaged, package. For the conclusion of 2018, I will attempt to do the same thing. 

2018 has been quite the year. I started the year in Clinton, NJ, celebrating the new year with my close friend Katie and her quirky family. We ate dinner at nearly 11 p.m. and watched the ball drop. In the morning, we ate Jersey bagels and I headed back to NEPA. That New Year’s Eve had been so different from any other I experienced, and looking back it was a sign of all the new and wonderful experiences that were to come.

The new year also meant studying hard for the GRE. I spent hours every day studying. I had a study plan that I followed diligently, using the various expensive study materials I had splurged on in order to really nail the $300 pre-graduate school test. By May, I felt ready to take the test. Sadly, or maybe not so sadly, I received similar scores to the first time I took the test, only showing significant improvement in the one section I did not study for. These test results were crushing. Nearly every school I was looking at to pursue my PhD had high score requirements and acceptance rates under 10%. 

It was there that the path diverged. I had a choice: I could continue to live unhappily in Northeast Pennsylvania or I could make a drastic change. I loved working as an admissions counselor. Traveling was amazing and I got travel to so many places I had never been before. I even reconnected with someone from high school when I was in Arlington. We still talk to this day. 

But as much as I loved my job, I hated my life when I left work. I was lonely. My friends had graduated and moved on. The area didn’t really have much to offer me in the way of things I find fulfilling and enjoyable. I wanted to live in a city, but I didn’t know how to make that dream a reality.

So after talking with my friend about the challenges I was facing, she encouraged me to look into teaching English abroad. I had considered teaching abroad as a back-up plan if I didn’t get into graduate school, but this was the first time I had considered it as a precursor to graduate school. Even today, I could tell you exactly which table I was sitting at in the Wilkes-Barre Starbucks when I submitted my applications to recruiters to get a job in Korea.

With taking a new job also came saying goodbye to my old job. And my old life. I spent nearly two months having one last lunch, one last drink, and one last trivia night with friends across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most of the time, it didn’t even feel real. And when it did, it’s because the tears streaming down my face were a reminder that everything was going to change.

Between the New Year and the GRE, I also made a major change in my life. I left my job with Kay Jewelers after four years of seasonal and full-time employment. The stresses of working for a company whose values did not align with my own were too draining, and I dreaded going into work to the point that I avoided the mall even when I wasn’t working. Despite the fact that the income I earned at Kay was helpful to me, the toxicity of the job was wearing me down in detrimental ways. So I left Kay and found other ways to make ends meet.

Finally, 2018 was the year I traveled. In 2018 alone, I visited three new states: Georgia, Michigan, and Vermont. I also went back to Boston and visited Ithaca for the first time. I spent time in New York City when I was getting my Visa and saw parts of the city I hadn’t seen before. I even went to Canada on a spontaneous road trip with my best friend. All of that happened before I got to Korea, where I traveled even more. And I’ll be ending my year the same way I started it: with travel. 

Overall, 2018 is the year I truly came into my own. I started to live a life that reflected the things I love and the things I value. I took a giant leap of faith, and haven’t looked back. And I’ll continue looking forward to all the amazing things to come in 2019.

Life in Jinju: Lights, Lights, Lights

The start of October brought me much more this year than the chilly weather I desire so badly after a hot and humid summer. In Jinju, October also means the beginning of a two week celebration: the Lantern Festival. The festival is held along the Nam River and at the Fortress, which I am lucky enough to be able to walk to in about five minutes. Lanterns depicting scenes from the Japanese Invasion of 1592, fairy tales, and popular culture are put on display throughout the grounds of the fortress and on the water. The bridges connecting the banks of the river are lined with lights, creating a dreamy, fairy tale-like experience as one walks from one side of the festival to the other. All along the sidewalks, lanterns hang overhead, lighting the way.

Along with the intricate lanterns scattered throughout the festival, festival-goers also had the opportunity to send their own lantern, along with their wishes, onto the water. These small lanterns attracted crowds of people who all filed into a tent to write out their hopes, dreams, and wishes for the upcoming year, which they afix to the lantern before taking it out to the river to watch it float down. Hannah and I got our lanterns, wrote out our wishes, and sent out lanterns down the river, side by side.

Of course, no festival would be complete without food. Venders set up along the riverbanks, selling everything from buckets of chicken and potatoes on a stick to cotton candy and watermelon juice served right in the rind. Of course, my favorite were the potatoes on a stick with chili pepper seasoning.

The festival is also a great opportunity to see some fireworks. The opening night, fireworks were sent off into the sky around 8 p.m., a perfect time considering the festival started on a Monday and Tuesday was a work day. While most fireworks are pretty universal, there were some fireworks I had not seen before back in the States. October 3 was a holiday, so in true celebratory fashion, there were more fireworks. While I did not venture out to see these ones, I was able to see them from my window. Before the festival wraps up, there will be one more night of fireworks.

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Life in Jinju will be a series of posts about living in Jinju, South Korea. Posts from my travels within South Korea and other Asian countries will not be apart of the Life in Jinju collection. 

 

Traveling Korea: Haeinsa 해인사

Despite living in another country without a car and with little working knowledge of the language, I have found that it’s quite easy to venture outside of my city and explore Korea. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Haeinsa (해인사), a temple founded in the year 802 and one of the three jewel temples in South Korea. Various national treasures are enshrined inside the temple. Perhaps the most notable is the Tripitaka Koreana, which are woodcarved blocks that make up the entirety of the Buddhist texts. There are over 81,000 blocks which took 16 years to complete. The temple has housed these texts since 1398. Despite this temple holding so many precious items, it is still an active temple.

해인사 sits atop a mountain in the Gayasan National Park (가야산) about 45 minutes outside of the town of Hapcheon (합천). Getting to the temple involved taking two buses, one from Jinju to Hapcheon and one from Hapcheon to Haeinsa. Hannah and I had about three hours after arriving in Hapcheon until the next bus to Haeinsa, so we decided to explore Hapcheon, only to stumble upon a smaller temple where an active service was taking place. This temple was also on a small mountain along the river that runs through Habcheon. Sitting along the river and listening to the Buddhist chants was calming and peaceful, despite my inability to understand what was being said.

Following this short walk, we decided it would be best to get some lunch and head to the bus terminal. Hapcheon is by far the smallest place I’ve gone in Korea so far, and the options for food were limited, so we settled on instant ramen in a convenience store. Then, we were off to Haeinsa. Our bus to Haeinsa took us through winding roads and even deeper into the mountains, reminding me of various scenes from the film Okja. When we made it to our stop, the bus driver was kind enough to tell us to get off the bus with a simple English phrase “Haeinsa, get off here.” We exited the bus only to find that the temperature in the mountains was noticably cooler, which I found to be a relief after a warm walk in the sun earlier.

Walking around the temple was an experience unlike any I had before. Throughout the property, there was different sculptures and buildings, all with their own purpose and function. Many of the smaller buildings housed statues of Buddha and it seemed that people could go into the buildings to spend some time in meditation and reflection. Walking throughout these buildings, I was overwhelmed with the sense of peace that often comes with visiting somewhere so sacred.

Despite the various obstacles that Hannah and I faced in getting to Haeinsa and the bus we almost missed to get home, our trip to Haeinsa was beyond worth it. Along with deepening my understanding of the new country I call home, this trip really sparked my interest in Buddhist teachings and philosophies. It only seems fitting that I find some books on Buddhism and make plans to visit the other two jewel temples hiding in the mountains of Korea.

 

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Traveling Korea is a series of posts about my various trips outside of Jinju. All posts on these travels can be found under the tag #travelingkorea.

Traveling Korea: Suncheon 순천

Chuseok is a Korean holiday that most western websites describe as “Korean Thanksgiving,” as it is a celebration of the Harvest and a time when the younger generations leave their homes in the city to visit their families in the countryside. This extended holiday meant that I got a five-day weekend, which presented itself as the perfect opportunity for me to venture outside of Jinju and explore more of Korea.

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I had planned on camping over Chuseok, but ended up getting a sinus infection just a few days before the trip, so instead, I turned to Google to find some day trips near where I live. After quite a bit of searching and multiple suggestions from other people, I settled on going to Suncheon ‎(순천). I was drawn to Suncheon’s Wetland Reserve area. The photos of the reed fields captivated me, and I wanted to see it for itself. I think in a way, it reminded me of the landscape where I grew up: natural beauty just beyond the edge of a city. After doing more research, I pinned down some prices and found out that along with getting into the Reserve, my ticket for the hike would also include a trip over to the National Garden. Between the hike and the garden, I had a full day planned.

So I scoured bus time tables and packed up my backpack, ready to hop on the bus at 9:20 the following morning. Looking at my map, the bus station looked closer than it was, but something pushed me out the door at 8:00 that morning, and I made it with time to spare. That time to spare was used jumping from window to window to buy my ticket because I wasn’t pronouncing the name of the city perfectly, but in the end I did get my ticket because I had written down where I was going in Hangul that morning and was able to show it to the woman at the bus station.

After I arrived in Suncheon, I spent the next hour waiting for another bus. It wouldn’t have been so long had I not questioned if I was at the right bus stop and walked to another one, only to miss the bus I was supposed to be on. But when the bus finally came back through, I was on my way to the Wetland Reserves.

The Reserves were even more beautiful that the photos. The walk through the reed field was peaceful, the sound of wind rustling through the tall reeds while crabs scurried around on the ground below the walkway. The journey through the reeds was a few kilometers, leading to a winding path up a mountain. From each overlook, you could see the reed fields, rice paddies, and wetlands. I even got to talk to some people along the way. A nice older woman asked me where I was from and if I was traveling alone. When I told her I was a teacher in Jinju, she got incredibly excited. Throughout the day, people would continue to ask me where I was from and share a friendly smile.

After making my way through the Wetland Reserves and sucking down an iced Americano while I charged my nearly dead phone, I boarded another bus to the National Gardens. Although a lot of the flowers were no longer blooming and boasted only their deep green leaves, it was still something to behold. Each section of the garden was dedicated to specific plants–some by type, others by the kind of garden you would find them in, and some by the region of the world where they came from. The gardens spread out in all directions, and after a long day of walking on my blistered feet, I did not get to venture through the whole garden, but I am determined to go back in late spring.

While I was nervous to venture outside of Jinju on my own, I’m glad I found my way to such a beautiful part of the country. It won’t be long now before I hop on another bus and journey somewhere else.

 

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Traveling Korea is a series of posts about my various trips outside of Jinju. All posts on these travels can be found under the tag #travelingkorea.

Korean Doctors, Elementary Night Owls, and Culture Shock

I’m sure you’re expecting that me to say that when I arrived in Korea I was overwhelmed with culture shock. That these last few weeks have been an endless series of events that shocked and unnerved me, or even just caught me off-guard. While for many people, culture shock is common when visiting or moving to a new place, I have to admit my experiences with culture shock have been minimal.

I can chalk up my lack of culture shock to the insane amount of prep work I did before I got here. In the months leading up to my move, I spent countless hours reading blog posts and watching YouTube videos from other expats who have been living in Korea.

That being said, I have still had some moments of culture shock.

Since I’ve gotten here, it seems like all of my culture shock has revolved around medical care in Korea. When I arrived, I had to get a health and wellness check done. Back in the States, this type of exam would involved height, weight, blood pressure, breathing in and out, and making sure that your spine isn’t all wonky. In Korea, it’s so much more than that. While I did start with blood pressure, height, and weight, it wasn’t long before I was getting an eye exam, a dental exam, a chest x-ray, echocardiogram, a urine test, and a blood test. What was the most shocking was the lightening speed that I went through this entire proceedure. Back home, I would have needed to dedicate multiple afternoons to all these exams, but in Korea it only took about an hour. An hour. And there were three of us. Crazy, right? And when I had to go back for a second round of blood work it took about 10 minutes and cost $7 without insurance. That’s right. $7 without insurance. 

I’ve had more exposure to the Korean healthcare system since my medical exam, because I came down with a sinus infection. Once my insurance kicked in, I was off to the doctor’s office. My appointment took 10 minutes and I saw the doctor immediately. No messing around with height, weight, blood pressure, just straight to the reason I was there. As if that wasn’t shocking enough, the next thing that happened was shocking and uncomfortable. You know the device that dentists use to suck all the saliva out of your mouth? Now imagine something like that going up your nose into your sinuses. Not the most pleasant thirty seconds of my life, but it sure was nice to be able to breath again. When I was all wrapped up with the doctor, I went out to pay for my appointment. My supervisor told me “forty-five hundred Won.” I tried reaching for a 50,000 Won bill, not realizing my appointment had cost less than $5. When I went to the pharmacy, I was just as surprised when my four different medications and nasal spray came to a whomping $7.

Outside of my experiences in healthcare, my other moments of culture shock include when I learned that my elementary school children go to bed later than I do. Perhaps I’m just not good at late nights, and maybe they’re not good at mornings. I don’t really know, but I was pretty surprised when some of them told me they regularly go to bed at 11:30 p.m.

I’m sure as time passes and I expose myself to more of Korean culture I will experience more culture shock, but for now, I am adjusting just find to living in a new place on the other side of the world.

 

Life in Jinju: Into the Woods

When I was moving to Korea, one of the things I was incredibly excited for was the hiking. Growing up along the Appalachian Trail, it was hard for me to stay away from the outdoors after discovering a love of hiking at seventeen. After being in Korea for a little over two weeks, I have finally made it out to the mountains that have been hiding in my backyard.

Approximately 70% of Korea is covered in mountains–that’s a lot of green peaks lining this beautiful country. My city, Jinju, is nestled in a river valley between mountains. Saturday when I was out with the various new expat friends I made, one was talking about going for a hike Sunday morning. Loving a good hike, I asked if I could tag along. I hadn’t realized that about 15 minutes from my apartment there was a trailhead.

Here is Korea, the trails are incredibly well-kept with bathrooms, gazebos, and even outdoor gyms along that paths. What was even more amazing to me was the view I was able to get of my new city along most of the trail. To one side, I saw endless countryside, and to the other, a view of Jinju like none I have seen before.

Although I was eager to hike, I hadn’t taken into consideration that the temperatures are rising again after a cloudy, rainy week. While I wake up every morning hoping Autumn has finally arrived, I am disappointed day after day as the thermostat climbs. This morning it was nearing 80 degrees Fahrenheit and was quite humid by the time we got the mountain, but I was able to push through the steeper inclines and made it out with only a tiny bit of sunburn on my face.

While today’s hike was only a couple of hours, it was great way for me to gear up for my backpacking trip next weekend over Chuseok, a Korean holiday celebrating the Harvest. Chuseok will also be my first venture outside of Jinju since I’ve arrived, and I am beyond excited to be spending it in the mountains surrounded by my new friends here in Korea.

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Life in Jinju will be a series of posts about living in Jinju, South Korea. Posts from my travels within South Korea and other Asian countries will not be apart of the Life in Jinju collection. 

Annyeonghaseyo, that’s all I know

I do this funny thing in my head whenever I imagine someone speaking to me in another language. In my mind, they are speaking German, because I know German, but it’s still a foreign langauge to me. So whenever I imagined scenerios that could play out in Korea, the person was always speaking to me in German, and I understood them. Reality is far different than these made up scenes I play out in my head because in Korea, the people actually don’t speak German, but Korean. Shocking, I know.

What I have found so far living in a country where I cannot speak the language outside of a few phrases is that it is not as hard as I thought it would be. That being said, I have had a few run-ins where my lack of knowledge and technology has failed me.

Perhaps the hardest thing for me to do without knowing Korean is go grocery shopping. This is an activity I prefer to do solo simply because I can’t just pick and choose anything and hope for the best. There is a LOT of meat in Korea. And sometimes it’s just thrown into things for fun, so I go through every single item I pick up and translate the lable using the photo option on the Google translate app. Of course this generally only applies to pre-packaged foods. Although I have also learned it would be a good idea to translate the lables of paper products so I don’t accidentally buy scented toilet paper again.

Going out to eat can also be difficult as a person who doesn’t eat meat. I have learned how to say “tofu” in Korean, which is a start, and in my wallet I carry a slip of paper that reads “I am a vegetarian, no meat or fish please.” Having this slip of paper has been a lifesaver, especially when I went out for dumplings and the two options that looked meat-free ended up having small bits mixed in.

Outside of food, the language barrier between myself and others hasn’t been too bad. I’ve only had two run-ins where I felt utterly overwhelmed by my inability to speak Korean. The first was going to Mass that was entirely in Korean. I know, what was I thinking? I was thinking I should be familiar enough with the Order of Mass to follow along. I was wrong. The other was just walking around downtown one day on my own. I really wanted facemasks from Daiso, and on my way home, I passed by some sort of protest. I was led to a table and asked to sign a petition. I did, even though I have no idea what it was for, but couldn’t explain to the person that I don’t have a Korean phone number and that I actually don’t know my address. After flailing my hands around a bit, I was handed one of those tiny Korean smoothies that Lara Jean’s little sister drinks in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and went on my way.

I hope that with time, I can learn enough Korean to get by, that these instances of confusion and inability to communicate lesson, and that the language barrier diminishes, even just a tiny bit.

Life in Jinju: Week One

I can’t believe an entire week has passed since I touched down at Incheon Airport in South Korea. Getting here was enough to make me avoid getting on another airplane for a long time, but I am happy to report that I have settled into my new home quite nicely.

 

After arriving in Incheon, I had some downtime before I boarded a bus to Jinju, the city where I would be living. I knew little beyond the fact that I had an apartment to myself somewhere within walking distance of the school where I would be working. After getting off of the bus in Jinju, I was taken to my apartment where I dropped off my belongings before going to dinner. I was exhausted and quite honestly was in desperate need to a hot shower, but it was nice to get to know my new coworkers and supervisor.

Once I got home, I took in my new living space–an apartment similar to a studio with a small kitchen, bathroom, living space, and laundry area, which may be my favorite space in my whole apartment. While my new apartment is definitely smaller than the one I had back in Wilkes Barre, my new space is cozy, bright, and the perfect size for the more simplistic life I am working to embrace. I am fortunate that the former teacher left behind a good deal of furnishings and supplies in the apartment, so when I ventured out to emart and Daiso, I was able to spend less on necessities and pick up a few things to make my space feel like home.

I spent my first weekend exploring Jinju. Saturday I was able to take in a lot of sights as well as experience the traditional market downtown. Sunday I spent the day trying out different churches in the city, including a Catholic mass that was completely in Korean. Between church services, my coworkers and I had some of the best pancakes I have ever had at a cute coffee shop. That night, I experienced a traditional Korean BBQ–almost. While my coworkers ate pork, I was able to get tofu and mushrooms to grill up. The side dishes were also veggie-friendly. While it’s harder to find veggie-friendly options here than it was back in the States, it’s definitely doable.

This past Monday I started work–the real reason I am here in Korea–and I couldn’t be more excited for classes to start on Monday. Each morning I walk about 15 minutes to work, rain or shine. I love that each day I have no choice but to move around and be active on my walk to and from work. Yesterday and today I got to meet some of my students through level testing. The rest of the time I spent developing lesson plans, coming up with games and activities to play to help the students learn English, and finding worksheets online to reinforce grammar points. While I’m nervous to find out if my lessons were planned well, I’m also excited to just get into the classroom and get to know my students.

Even though it has only been a week, I feel incredibly at home in Jinju. I can’t to see what else my time here has in store for me and all the amazing places I will get to see while I’m here.

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Life in Jinju will be a series of posts about living in Jinju, South Korea. Posts from my travels within South Korea and other Asian countries will not be apart of the Life in Jinju collection. 

A Day in Jinju

Although I arrived in Korea about three days ago, today was the first day I really had a chance to get out and explore–not for lack of time, but lack of energy. My travel was mostly sleepless, and my first night here was the same. I spent the first night unpacking my bags in the wee hours of the morning because I was poorly adjusted to the time change. Yesterday, I fell asleep at 4:00 p.m. and slept soundly until 3:30 a.m. after waking up only once. I guess you could say adjusting to a 13 hour time difference is pretty difficult.

Since today was the day my contract officially started, today was busy, busy, busy. The morning started with an early morning visit to the doctor for a physical with my supervisor, Sam, and Mikaela, my two new coworkers who also just arrived in Korea. Mind you, this was no American-style physical. It involved the normal things like height, weight, and blood pressure, but also included a chest x-ray, echo-cardiogram, dental check, vision test, drug test, and blood work. The most surprising part of the whole experience was how quickly it went. Never before had I had such a speedy doctors appointment.

After the doctor, my supervisor took myself, Sam, and Mikaela for some breakfast and coffee, which we enjoyed at a park in Jinju. Next came our trip to Daiso, probably one of the greatest stores I have ever been to. Imagine a dollar store but with really cute, quality products. I could have spent all day wandering through Daiso, spending too much money. While I was able to pick up some things I forgot to get at emart the previous day, I did make some impulse buys.

I arrived back to my apartment early in the afternoon and cooked myself some lunch, discovering that even “sweet” sauces are quite spicy. So following another spicy meal, I decided to would be fun to go explore Jinju a little bit. Walking through the streets of Jinju felt so natural. For years, I have wanted to live in a city–a city where I could walk to everything I needed and use public transportation for those things just a bit further away, and I was finally doing just that.

While wandering around, I came across so many cool places in Jinju. The downtown area was bustling with shoppers zipping in and out of shops. I stopped into a few myself, looking for some make-up products and just browsing around. All the shop employees were so friendly and patient, even though we couldn’t speak the same language. I also found myself in the middle of a traditional market, full of fresh produce, fish, and baked goods. The market was just as hectic and chaotic as those you experience in America or see in the movies. Just walking through was exhilarating. After exploring the market, I decided that it was time to venture back to my apartment. I had been walking for quite some time, and I took in a lot of downtown Jinju. I was even able to find the youth center where I would be working come Monday!

Moving to a new city can be both scary and exciting. Fortunately for me, I came to Jinju with a pre-existing support system. The two teachers who were already here have been so kind and helpful, and my two new fellow teachers have been open to explore, spend time together, and take it all in. I am so excited to see where this year takes me.

Love on the Emerald Isle

After going to Germany as apart of the GAPP program, I knew I had been bit by the travel bug, and hard. From that moment I knew I wanted to see more places, after all, there was so much of the world out there left for me to explore. Being young and in high school made it difficult to travel, and it wasn’t until 2016 that I was able to venture outside of the United States again, this time on a solo trip to Ireland.

I traveled to Ireland through EF College Break, a travel agency that specifically works with young adults to help them make their travel dreams come true. When I first learned about EF, I couldn’t stop looking at their website. The very first time I went on and read about the different trips, I knew I was done for. I started working extra hours at my job to save money, and after eight months I booked my trip to Ireland. EF made my trip possible only because they allow their travelers to make monthly payments rather than pay everything up front. These monthly payments meant I could keep working and paying off my trip while I was in school, and even though making payments each month came with a lot of added stress, each time I logged in I felt a sense of joy knowing I would soon be traveling again.

Ireland was a beautiful country and I met so many amazing people. My experiences in Ireland were vastly different than my experiences in Germany: in Ireland I felt like a tourist. I was staying in hostels, traveling with a group of young Americans, some of who became great friends, and took a giant tour bus from city to city. Even though I felt like a tourist, I was so grateful for the things I got to see and do. To this day, the Cliffs of Moher are one of the most breathtaking sites I have ever seen.

The people of Ireland were also incredible. Everywhere we went, people were kind and welcoming. They taught us Irish dances and one particularly kind group of people sang us a going away song the day before our flights back to the States.  That memory stays with me, as do the many memories I made in pubs, on hikes, and in sharing a room with five other girls. Travel changes you. It helps you to grow and stretches your worldview far wider than you ever thought possible. It makes you feel incredible, yet so infinitely small at the same time. It makes you realize that no matter where you come from, or what language you speak, we are all one people, and when we stop focusing on the differences, we have far more in common than you could ever imagine.