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.

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.

Holidays Away from Home

Although this isn’t my first year living on my own, it is my first year living so far from my friends and family. In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, I was a little skepticle about how I’d spend Thanksgiving, my first holiday in Korea. But as Thanksgiving day approached, plans became more concrete and I was prepared for nearly an entire week of celebrating with friends and plenty of food.

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The first holiday invitation to come was from the woman that my coworkers and I take Korean lessons with. She invited us to her home on Thanksgiving day to enjoy a meal together. It wasn’t your traditional Thanksgiving fare. Rather, it was a table set with Korean food, including some tofu for me. We spent a few hours talking with her and her husband, hearing stories from their time living in the United States and also talking about our own experiences before coming to Korea.

Earlier that week, I have dinner with one of the many friends I’ve made in Korea, and once again I enjoyed some traditional Korean foods made specially without the meat. We stayed together long after the food was gone, filling the room with laughter and warm memories.

With the weekend came Friendsgiving. While I’ve celebrated Friendsgiving in the past, this one was special because all of us were spending our first holiday away from home. We all crammed into a studio apartment and ate mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash, soup, and for the meat eaters, chicken. As we began to eat, we shared what we were thankful for. For many of us, it was that our lives all converged together at that moment in time. That we had each other, and that whatever it was we were running toward, or from, had brought all of us together in that room.IMG_1655

For dessert, we had korean pancakes with cinnamon sugar filling, fruit, truffles, and apple pie. The room was filled with laughter and stories from people who came from all over the world. It was everything I could have asked for this year.

But it doesn’t end there. The following night was the Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the International Church. This event is the one everyone looks forward to because it is all the foods of Thanksgiving–turkey, stuffing, corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, and even pumpkin pie. Where they managed to find all of those things in Korea, I’ll never know. But it didn’t matter, because sitting in the crowded church basement surrounded by my friends I felt right at home.

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As an expat, holidays can be difficult. We’re reminded of just how far we are from wherever it is we call home. But for me, I spent the week surrounded by caring people. I was reminded of the kindness of others and the importance of community. This Thanksgiving has given me so much to be grateful for.

Living in Korea: How I Got Here

When I first applied to teach English in South Korea I had no idea how lengthy or intense the process would be. While the first few steps went rather quickly, there were many weeks spent in waiting for one thing or another before I could move further along in the process.

If you have considered teaching English abroad, don’t become discouraged–while the process was lengthy and some steps were incredibly overwhelming, the peace that comes over you when you finally land in South Korea is incredible, and makes the entire process worth it. There’s something incredibly calming about feeling the wheels of the plane touch down and the little voice in your head whispering, You did it. You’re finally here.

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So, why Korea?

For the purposes of transparency, one of the biggest factors that led to me seeking employment abroad was a quarter-life crisis. I had spent the majority of 2017 and 2018 doing research on graduate PhD programs in English and studying for the GRE. When I took the GRE again for the second time and came out with identical scores to the first time I took it, I panicked. My scores only qualified me for two programs, programs that had acceptance rates below 10 percent. It definitely didn’t help that I really disliked the town I was living in and felt that I didn’t have the means to get out. So, in fear of getting stuck somewhere I was incredibly unhappy, I applied to some recruiters with the encouragement of one of my friends.

How I Got Here

When I began looking into teaching Korea I chose to go the route of using a recruiter rather than searching and applying directly to jobs. I applied to a few recruiting agencies, but heard back from Korvia within 24 hours about an intake interview. The next recruiter I heard back from after I already had an interview set up with a school. Since I didn’t know much about the process and didn’t really know anyone else who had taught abroad, my recruiter at Korvia helped me to navigate the entire process, from an initial intake interview where they got to know a little bit more about me to aiding me in filling out and submitting my appliation to the school where I sought (and gained!) employment. While I can’t speak to what it’s like to just apply for jobs on your own, I can say that using a recruiter made the process a lot less stressful for me.

The applications to teach in Korea are pretty lengthy and they can seem overwhelming, especially when they ask questions about your weight and how many tattoos you have. When I read that question I wondered if I should even both applying considering I have a few visible tattoos, some easier to cover than others. But after reading some blog posts and other websites, I decided to keep moving forward.

Another part of the process was putting together a video introducing myself. I watched so many videos from past and current teachers on YouTube so I would have a better idea of just what should be included in the video and how to make the best impression.

After Hiring

I still remember where I was when I got the job offer from my school. I was sitting in my office at my current job, and the first thing I did was call the two people who wrote my letters of recommendation. Then I went to my director’s office and told her about the job offer, and that I would be accepting the job offer the following day after reading over my 18 page contract. She was one of few people at Misericordia who knew I was considering taking a position overseas, and her support never wavered. I am still incredibly grateful for her support.

So after I accepted the job, I had a long list of things to do before I could leave for Korea less than three months later. First, I had to get an FBI background check, apostilles for my background check and for my college degree, copies of transcripts, and more passport photos than I could keep track of. Along with working full time and getting all the documents I needed, I also needed to finish my Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certification. To teach overseas, you need to complete a 120 hour online course, and some schools require a classroom component as well. I did not have to complete the classroom component, but spent countless hours completing my online course and taking many notes. I received my certification from myTEFL.com.

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Once all my documents made their way back to me, I completed my certification, and got all my passport photos taken, I sent everything off to my recruiter in Korea. Not long after, I received my Visa Confirmation Number and made my way to New York City. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to live close enough to the consulate in New York, so I took a bus in to apply for my visa. The following week, I returned by train and picked up my passport. I would leave for Korea in just under three weeks, so having my passport back was a huge relief. My flights were booked, my bags were packed, I said goodbye to my friends and coworkers at Misericordia, and I had moved out of my first apartment and spent a few weeks visiting family and friends back home. It was finally time to go to Korea.

If you are considering teaching English abroad, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have and point you in the direction of resources I used regularly before coming to Korea.