Traveling Korea: Gyeongju (경주)

What I Saw

Before diving into winter camp, I knew I’d want to do something when it was all over to celebrate. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go visit a friend of mine in another city, but after some consideration, we decided to all take a trip to Gyeongju instead.

Located about two and a half hours northeast of Jinju, Gyeongju is a city overflowing with history. The city was the location where the Silla dynasty ruled for thousands of years, leaving behind historic sites and relics. The first site I saw in Gyeongju was Cheomseongdae, an old observatory dating back to 632 AD. This historic treasure was easily seen from the road, and I passed it many, many times throughout my time in Gyeongju. At night, the little tower was lit up with colored light, giving it a nice glow. Moving past Cheomseongdae, we ventured to the Gyerim Forest, a small forest where people believe the Gyeongju Kim clan originated. The myth goes that a golden box was discovered hanging from trees within the forest by passerbys who heard a rooster cry. Beyond the forest, there is a Confucian school.

In the evening, my friends and I went to the Donggung Palace and Woji Pond. The palace dates back centuries to 674 AD, and the artificial pond reflects back the beautiful scenery of the palace grounds. At night, this area was stunning.

The last tourist site we went to was Bulguksa, a Buddhist temple with a rich history and many incredible artifacts, including gilt bronze Buddhas and two stone pagodas in the temple courtyard. Throughout the temple were lotus lanterns. Attached to each was a wish written by someone. At night, these lanterns are illuminated, as are the wishes. Despite the large amount of people swarming the temple grounds, I felt at peace. My friend, who is Korean, told me that all of the wishes brought her joy because each one shared something positive. I even got to make a wish of my own by stacking a small pebble on top of one of the many rock towers. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that it comes true!

What I Ate

Each region in Korea is famous for a different kind of food. Luckily for me, Gyeongju is famous for its soft tofu soup. While the soup is typically made with some type of animal stock, my friends explained to the owner that I don’t eat meat and she offered to make me a soup without the animal stock. Instead, my soup was flavored with soy sauce and some green onions. The soup was delicious, and so were the sides that came with our meals. Along with my soup, I had white rice, seaweed, and various other vegetables with red pepper sauce.

For dinner, we had kimbap, again typically made with ham, but a special roll was made without it so that I could enjoy kimbap with my friends. Along with our Kimbap we had Doritos, popcorn, cheese, and crackers. It was a hodgepodge of a meal, but every bite was amazing. We ate our meal, enjoyed traditional Korean blackberry wine, and played an intense game of “Would you rather.”

Between lunch and dinner we spent some time at a cafe, where we had Americanos and Korean rice cakes. I adore Korean rice cakes, and these ones were still warm. Of course, I wanted to know if the different colors meant different flavors (it didn’t), so we all shared the various colored rice cakes. Walking to the Palace, we grabbed some street food, including a sugary deep-fried donut and a grilled cake filled with a syrup-like substance and nuts. Both were warm and delicious.

On Sunday, we grabbed lunch to-go from the vegetarian restaurant near our guest house. While all the food that weekend was amazing, I have to admit that the take-out was my favorite simply because it was my favorite food: falafel. I haven’t had falafel in nearly six months, and I’ve missed it. Even though my pita had some pretty interesting add-ins like apple slices, it was still amazing.

Traveling to new parts of Korea is something I look forward to and wish I could do more often. I’m grateful that my friend took the time to plan such an amazing trip. Each thing she planned for us was something I’m glad I got to experience. My next trip will be to Seoul at the end of February, and I am excited to see what the bustling capital of Korea has in store for me.

January Update: Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing

January has been quite a crazy month for me, and I have to admit, I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to blogging as I would have liked. Amid all the winter camp chaos and using my weekends to catch up on everything I wasn’t able to do during the week, I had to put my blog on the back burner. But I’ve learned, and now when the next camp rolls around I’ll be more prepared.

Winter Camp

The first full week of the month started Winter Camp. Planning for camp started way back in the fall, and by the end of November my lesson plans were finished. Despite having written down how camp would go, I really had no idea what to expect. I would be teaching a different level, and multiple classes a day. Even prep time was minimal throughout the day, so I spent most of December and the last week before camp making sure I had everything I needed made and ready to go.

Naturally, I was nervous about camp, as I tend to be nervous about most unpredictable circumstances, but after the first day, I was back in the groove. Teaching lower level elementary students turned out to be a lot of fun. While they were filled to the brim with energy, they also really seemed to enjoy being in class.

Each day, we read a page or two in the book I chose for the class, The Sword in the Stone. We also played large group games with the other classes, and did in-class activities, games, and crafts.

In the early evenings, I had a group of middle schoolers. These students were also a lot of fun, but it took a bit more coaxing to get them to come out of their shells. But by the end of camp, the students were having fun with the games and activities. They even surprised me on the last day with a note they all wrote little messages on for me. It was incredibly thoughtful and very kind.

So even though I spent the majority of my days at work, the last three weeks of camp have been a lot of fun and a great experience for me. I hope the students feel the same way. Come next week, it’ll be time to start thinking about the spring semester and getting a head start on planning that out.

Graduate School

Another exciting life event that happened this month is that I officially went back to school. I knew when I completed my undergraduate degree I didn’t want to wait too long to go back for my master’s degree. I hadn’t anticipated that I could complete it online, or that I would be living in Korea, but life has a way of surprising us all.

I spent a good amount of time back in September researching different online English programs in order to find the best one for me. I knew I wanted to pursue something that would equip me with the knowledge to teach at the college level and allow me to take courses in literature. I settled on a program that allows for specialization in college teaching in conjunction with literature and writing courses.

When I received my acceptance, I was incredibly excited. The thought of going back to school for a degree I wanted to pursue was satisfying. Even when I was stressed about finding my textbooks and wondering whether or not I would get them before the semester starts, I just had to keep reminding myself that it would all be worth it. And it will be. I’ve already started reading my textbooks and am frequently checking the online learning portal to see if any assignments have been posted yet. It really is a great feeling knowing I’m finally doing what I’ve wanted to do since my senior year of college.

Everything In Between

Aside from working and eagerly anticipating graduate school, I’ve also kicked off the new year with some new habits. My coworker Sam and I have been going to the gym after work every day. Living and working in a city allows me to walk everywhere, and since I live and work downtown, everything is accessible. While gyms are far more expensive in Korea, I decided the investment in my health would be worth it. I actually look forward to going to the gym at the end of the day. And that includes all those days I was at work for twelve hours.

I’ve also been working on some other projects that I’ll hopefully be announcing within the next month. So far, 2019 is turning out to be the year I finally stop dreaming and start doing all the things I’ve wanted to do for far too long.

Vegetarian in Korea

One of the biggest challenges I have living in Korea is finding food I can eat that wasn’t prepared in my own kitchen. Living in a small city by Korean standards, my options for eating out tend to be pretty limited. After nearly five months of living in Jinju, I’ve become used to it and have really grown my culinary skills. I guess I’m lucky that I’ve always loved to cook.

I stopped eating meat nearly two and a half years ago for many reasons, the biggest one being my health. The hormones pumped into livestock exacerbated some already existing health problems and I decided to see how my health would improve without it. I also watched one too many documentaries on industrial agriculture and decided that was not something I wanted any part in. I knew when I moved abroad, my feelings wouldn’t change and that I would somehow find a way to stay true to my beliefs and do whats best for my health.

There are many reasons that it’s difficult to find vegetarian meals in Korea, the biggest one being the sheer prevalence of meat. Similar to America, most dishes are centered around meat. In fact, many restaurants do not offer any options without meat, and not knowing the language makes it difficult to ask for something without it.

Another reason it’s difficult is how common hidden meat ingredients are. Soups are typically made with some type of animal or fish stock, and different types of fish sauces are used to flavor foods, so even something that is seemingly vegetarian-friendly might not be. What makes this more difficult is that many people tend to forget that these ingredients are not vegetarian-friendly.

Saladen avocado salad with sesame dressing

But although it’s hard, I have found a way to make it work. Typically, I just prepare my own food at home, picking up staples at the grocery store and outdoor market, or ordering hard to find ingredients online. Since moving, I’ve probably learned how to prepare tofu 50 different ways. I’ve also found some really great places around Jinju for when Subway just isn’t cutting it. So whether its homemade chana masala or a hearty salad from Saladen, being vegetarian in Korea really isn’t that bad.

Ulsan: A Festival of Lights

Early in December, my coworker asked me if I would be interested in taking a trip to Ulsan the weekend before the new year to go to their light festival. Wanting to see more of what Korea has to offer, I quickly agreed.

So in the week leading up to our planned trip, we arranged bus times and booked an airbnb before making our way to Ulsan early Saturday morning.

We arrived in Ulsan around noon. Stepping off the bus was a great relief for me, as I never quite outgrew my tendency to suffer from motion sickness. Shortly after arriving and my stomach settled, we decided the first order of business would be to find lunch. It turned out to be quite the challenge. Sam is gluten free, and I don’t consume any meat products, which leaves very few options we can both eat in Korea. Fortunately, there was an Indian restaurant nearby, so we braced ourselves against the wind and made our way out of the bus terminal and into the downtown.

Ulsan is a much larger city in Korea, with a population of about 1.1 million, making it much larger than Jinju. Known as an industrial powerhouse in Korea, Ulsan is home to the world’s largest automobile assembly plant, owned by Hyundai. But despite being an industrial city, Ulsan definitely had a lot to offer for anyone visiting the city for a day or two.

Sam and I went to Ulsan specifically for the Light Festival, a large display of lights set up in the Ulsan Grand Park. The displays at the festival included the Zodiac, Under the Sea, Superheroes, and a large maze of lights leading to a giant Moravian-style star. Dotted throughout the festival were tents with space heaters inside, which we much needed as it was a cold December night. It took just under an hour to make our way through the entire display.

Following the festival, Sam and I went toward the University in Ulsan to find something for dinner. We found a restaurant that had a variety of soups for Sam to choose from, and French fries for me. We stayed there for hours, telling stories, drinking soju, and talking about the various things that brought us to that very moment.

When the soju was gone and it was nearly midnight, we made our way to our airbnb. The next day, we would catch a mid-morning bus back to Jinju.

Minimalism Challenge: Week Four

This week was the final week of my minimalism challenge, and I am not going to lie, I have been dragging my feet to go through this final stage of decluttering. Mostly because I’ve known since week three that I would not be able to find 220 more items to purge from my apartment, which is now the most organized, clutter-free space I have ever lived in.

With that being said, I forced myself to take inventory today, December 31, and discard any lingering items that I did not need and were taking up space in my life. Some of these things were passed over in the first three weeks, while others were things I had decided to hold onto, only to change my mind this time around.

Week Four’s Items

  • 80 sachets of tea
  • 11 aluminum food trays
  • 10 receipts
  • 5 store membership cards
  • 4 manuals
  • 2 reusable water bottles
  • 2 paper shopping bags
  • 2 cables
  • 1 empty tea jar
  • 1 paint brush
  • 1 magnet
  • 1 candle with a crushed wick
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 lighter

Week four’s total: 122 items

Minimalism Challenge Total: 386/475

Although I came up a little bit short at the end of the challenge, I still believe I have done an excellent job decluttering my apartment and minimizing my possessions. Now, everything in my apartment has a place. I don’t spend time searching for things, and I actually use the things I own. While there are still some things that remain, hidden away, I have also taken care to be mindful of the next person that will live in this apartment someday.

Not only was this minimalism challenge fun, it was also eye-opening. I mentioned this in an earlier post, but clutter is clutter. Whether it is in the form of too many pairs of shoes or a bag full of bags shoved under the kitchen sink, it still takes up space in our lives. In fact, since undergoing this challenge, I’ve been able to store things under my sink, because it’s no longer overrun by things I don’t use or need. I don’t think I’ll be able to do this challenge again any time soon, especially with my New Year’s Resolution to undergo a year without shopping, but I know that I should check in every month or so to make sure I throw away all the receipts that I have shoved into my wallet.

Life in Jinju: Four Months

And just like that, four months has gone by. I can still remember sitting in the exact spot I am now writing my three month reflection post, amazed that three months had gone by so quickly. I’ve heard people say that the passage of time accelerates as you get older, and I am starting to believe that this statement is true.

Hong Kong

December was an eventful month, full of excitement, friendship, and travel. For those of you who regularly read my blog, you know that I went to Hong Kong this month, visiting Disneyland, Victoria Peak, and various other attractions around Tsim Sha Tsui where I stayed. This trip was the first time I left Korea since arriving at the end of August.

Traveling to Hong Kong helped me to become even more confident as a solo female traveler. Even though I had to sleep in an airport, and even though I almost missed the last bus to Jinju after my flight landed, everything worked out perfectly. It took me a few days to recover from the two hours of sleep I got in the airport and then the late night I had after returning from Hong Kong, but the trip was revitalizing.

New Habits

I also took on a lot of challenges this month, the biggest one being my one month minimalism challenge, where I decluttered hundreds of objects from my apartment. Now, I feel more energized and less overwhelmed. Everything I own has a place and a purpose. Plus, having a nice, organized, and minimized apartment is a great way to kick off the new year.

Along with cleaning house, I also took on some new habits in December. I started doing yoga again, beginning before I left for Hong Kong and immediately picking back up when I returned home. It’s been a great way for me to end my day, or kick of my Saturday mornings. Although its only been a few weeks, I can feel my balance improving and my confidence improving. So shout out to Adrienne over at Yoga with Adrienne for being an awesome resource for at home yoga.

I’ve also abandoned my horrible habit of leaving unwashed dishes in the sink for days. It takes a lot less time to just was a dish after using it than it takes to wash the 12 I let pile up in the sink over time. By always washing my dishes when I make them, I’ve had more time to read, journal, and write. Not only that, but my pots and pans are always clean when I go to cook something, which is definitely a plus.

New Experiences

Finally, December brought about some new experiences right here in Jinju. The first experience was spending Christmas away from home for the first time ever. While Thanksgiving kicked off the holidays away from home, Christmas has definitely always been more of a gathering holiday for me than Thanksgiving. I woke up early and started my day by FaceTiming with my parents in Virginia, my sister in Pennsylvania, my brother in Oklahoma, and my Nana, who was hosting Christmas Eve dinner, in Pennsylvania. I spent the rest of the day with the friends I have made here, eating, drinking, and being merry.

Another new experience I had this month was getting acupuncture for my back pain. Although I’m still unnerved from the whole experience, at least I can say it is something I have tried in my life.

December has been another good month, one that went by far too quickly. I will spend the last weekend of December in Ulsan with my friend, visiting the city for its Light Festival. And then, before I can even wrap my head around it, 2019 will be here, and a new year will start all over again.


Minimalism Challenge: Week Three

As to be expected, week three of my minimalism challenge was the hardest week yet. It’s also the week I broke open my closet and did an assessment of what I brought with me from the States, and what I have actually worn since being here. I knew before even opening the closet that there were things in there that I’ve put on, only to take off immediately in favor of something I wear more often with more confidence. 

The past weekend was a great chance for me to clean out, as my neighbor and co-worker had a clothing swap party. She was kind enough to let me join in on the fun and her guests could come over to my apartment and take the clothing and jewelry I was ready to part with. Everything that remained at the end went to the second hand shop downtown.

But clothing and jewelry wasn’t the only thing that went this time around, although that did make up a majority of the week’s clean-out. I also continued to go through my kitchen, and went into my laundry room to do a quick assessment.

Below is a list of the 133 items I cleaned out in the third week of my minimalism challenge:

  • 38 wooden skewers
  • 25 magnets
  • 21 articles of clothing
  • 19 pieces of jewelry
  • 9 nose rings
  • 3 vacation souvenirs 
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 2 hair accessories
  • 2 small kitchen things
  • 2 bike accessories
  • 2 power adapters
  • 1 lone earring with no match
  • 1 broken pair of headphones
  • 1 small drawer unit that fell apart in my hands when I tried to move it
  • 1 sleeping bag
  • 1 small travel makeup bag
  • 1 broken Christmas ornament
  • 1 Tupperware lid I missed the first week
  • 1 empty container of fabric softener that has been empty since September

Looking around my apartment, I can see the difference the last three weeks of cleaning and decluttering has made. My space is more comfortable, cleaner, and brighter. I don’t have to shove aside things I don’t use in order to find the things I do. While I’m not sure how much further I’ll be able to go, I’m glad I made it this far.

If you’re interested in doing my minimalism challenge, or interested in the original challenge, which involves working with a partner and making a bet as to who will make it the the furthest in decluttering, comment below! Happy cleaning! 

Adventures in Teaching: Fall Semester

I still remember my first two weeks of teaching. More specifically, I remember how much of a train wreck I felt like. I always seemed to have extra time at the end of class and I didn’t know how to explain grammar structures in a way that made sense, nor did I include enough activities that helped to reinforce everything the kids were learning. I just tell myself everyone’s first two weeks are like that.

By the end of the semester, my kids were having fun in class. We played lots of games and I finally got them to speak in full sentences, through constant reminder and lots of encouragement. We did lots of worksheets and examples on the board. I finally figured out how to use warm-ups to tie lessons together. By the time my last day of elementary class rolled around, the kids didn’t want to go home. Instead, they asked to play one last game — a spelling game — before it was time to say goodbye. I was even given thank you notes and small gifts from some students. 

I learned a lot this first semester as a teacher. The most important thing I learned is to be flexible and to always have extra activities planned. Working at Jinju Academy has given me experience with so many different age groups, including pre-school, elementary, and middle school. By far, middle school is the group that challenged me the most. In many ways, working with all these age groups will continue to help me growing as an educator who is dynamic and flexible.

But now, the fall semester is over. I’ve said all of my goodbyes to the kids, and it’s time to prepare for what comes next: Winter Camp. Then, the Spring semester will begin. 

I’m so grateful for all the ways I was able to grow in the Fall semester. Teaching is a challenging career, and I have a newfound admiration for the teachers in my life and all the teachers I had growing up. I especially admire my high school German teachers, one of whom even took the time to give me advice in teaching foreign languages back in September when I was struggling to find my footing. Teaching isn’t easy, but every day it gave me a reason to smile. 

Minimalism Challenge: Week One

I’ve written about minimalism a few times before, noting that my inspiration to live a more minimal and meaningful life began back in February after watching a documentary from The Minimalists on Netflix. Before moving to Korea, I sold, donated, and got rid of 90% of my possessions, but after watching some minimalism videos on YouTube today, I thought it might be a good time to check in to see how my minimalism journey is going here in Korea. I haven’t really checked in since I got here, but I also haven’t accumulated much. That being said, there was a decent amount left behind in my apartment, and much of it I have never used.

One thing I came across in my video watching was this thing called the “Minimalism Game.” Essentially how it works is you declutter your space a little bit every day, getting rid of the same number of things that it is the day of the month. For example, on the 1st, you get rid of one item, and on the 12th you get rid of twelve. I love the idea of this challenge, so I decided December, the last month of the year, would be the perfect time to take it on and make sure I am really starting off on the right foot in the new year.

Since I am fairly busy between work, Korean lessons, and other things I do outside of work and studying, I decided to adapt this challenge to better fit my schedule. Rather that go through my possessions each day, I decided to add up how many items I would discard each week, and dedicate one day a week to minimize. Typically I clean my apartment on Sundays, so that will likely be the day I minimize as well. Since I discovered this challenge on a Tuesday, I decided to kick it off right after work, gathering up the first 45 items that I would be ridding my apartment of for the first week.

One of the great things about decluttering is it doesn’t always mean getting rid of large items like clothing, shoes, etc. So to start, I tackled some of the most annoying kinds of clutter that have been piling up on my table, in my fridge, and in my cabinets.

In the first week of my minimalism challenge, I was able to get rid of:

  • 19 papers, including old bills, receipts, and outdated resumes
  • 1 Pringles lid
  • 4 Tupperware lids with no matching containers
  • 1 Tupperware container with no lid
  • 2 half used jars of spaghetti sauce that were no longer edible
  • 1 stained wine glass
  • 1 bag of stale cereal
  • 7 packages of expired seaweed
  • 1 expired jar of tea
  • 1 package of jelly
  • 2 lids for pots I don’t own
  • 4 spuddy potatoes
  • 1 twist tie for a bag of mushrooms

This brought me to a total of 45 items in the first week, and I never even opened my wardrobe. 

I have to admit, it feels great to have all the expired food out of my cabinets. Much of the expired food was left behind by the teacher who lived in this apartment before me. But rather than getting rid of it, I just kept pushing it aside and letting it take up space in my cabinet. Now, I have more space to organize the food I have, which will make it easier for me to keep track of what I have and visualize my meals more easily. 

Next week, I will be going through my apartment attempting to get rid of 84 items. 84! It seems like such a big number, so I am eager to see how easily I can find 84 items in my apartment that aren’t adding value to my life or serving a purpose.

Life in Jinju: Three Months an Expat

Every time I think about how much time has passed since I moved to Korea, I am taken aback. While I don’t feel that my time here has been dragging by, it also doesn’t seem to be racing by as quickly as it has been.

This week marks three months since I first arrived in Jinju.

Three months since I started one of the most formative journeys of my young life.

Jirisan

Before coming to Korea, I heard over and over again that this experience would change me, but no one could ever really elaborate on how I would change. Likely because everyone’s experience is unique and results in personal changes that cannot translate to another person. Even so, I am only just scratching the surface of the changes I am undergoing.

Be Gentle With Yourself. After All, You are All You Have.

The most crucial change I am undergoing is undoing years of damage I have done to myself with my thoughts and words against myself. Until moving to another country, I didn’t realize just how critical I was of myself, just how often I put myself down and put harmful thoughts on repeat.

While I spent a decent amount of time alone back in the States, it wasn’t until I only had myself that I realized just how much I had mistreated myself. There is no distraction from my own thoughts and feelings, because the majority of the time I am awake, my friends are asleep. That makes me the only person I have the majority of the time. At least in the sense of having someone who really knows me and my life before Korea.

Travel More

Jirisan

My time in Korea has also brought me plenty of travel opportunities. I’ve done a few day trips as well as extended weekend trips since arriving in Korea. I’ve gotten to experience festivals, beautiful hikes, and plenty of public transportation.

I also have more travel planned. In December, I will leave Korea for the first time since arriving. I spent weeks trying to figure out where to go, knowing that one of my top priorities was to finally go to a Disney theme park. So after researching the parks, travel expenses, and visa requirements, I settled on Hong Kong, where I will spend five days. I can’t wait to share all of my experiences from my trip.

Homesick, but Found

Snowfall in NEPA, 2016

Finally, my first three months in Korea brought with it the expected bouts of homesickness. Each time I felt a longing to be back in Pennsylvania, I could directly pin down the culprit that brought about this nostalgic melancholy. First was homecoming, which happened the weekend after Hannah left Korea, making it a double whammy. This homesickness only lasted for one day.

The next came when Pennsylvania experienced the first big snowfall of the year. As much as I hated driving in snow, I cannot deny its beauty. Sitting inside watching the snow come down while reading a book and drinking tea never fails to warm me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will experience snow in Jinju like I did back home.

But other than those two major experiences of homesickness, I have not felt any overwhelming sadness to be in Pennsylvania. Life in Korea has been good to me. I’ve made many friends, traveled, and even started learning the language. All in all, I’d say that these three months have treated me well, and I can’t wait to share what month number four will bring.

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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.