Teachers Are Students, Too

The other day I opened my travel journal and read what I wrote just a few days after I left Korea back in March. I cried at the rawness of my early reflections because I realized that there is always so much to learn. Below is the word vomit that I scribbled over 15 pages almost ten months ago:

Korea has been everything. Now that I can look back and see it as a part of my journey that is finished, it feels like I can grasp the meaning it had as a segment of my life. I can see who I was there, through my experiences and those I shared them with, the decisions I made and chances I took. At the end of it all I can say I’m proud of myself. For facing challenges and learning from them. For stretching myself in all kinds of ways — emotionally, physically, mentally, and in capacities I never expected to.

Lessons In Love
One of the biggest lessons I had during my time in Korea was through Sway. In the beginning of the relationship, I saw myself taking a risk, being open to new things, and blindly trusting. Choosing to do all of those things rewarded me with love, fun, and knowledge that I could choose the good assumptions over the bad ones. At the end of the relationship though, I learned something much more valuable. I learned pain. I’ve never hurt myself by hurting someone else before, and I didn’t know what that was like until him. It hurt me deeply to learn that I could be the cause of someone else’s pain and it took months for me to let go. I realized the inevitability of the fact that we will hurt the people we love, and vice versa, and that is a natural part of humanity.
After I came to realize this I felt refreshed and as if I had finally put down the burdens I carried from the end of that relationship. I let go of blame I put on myself by recognizing that self-blame is unfair and totally in our control. Guilt is a choice. And letting go is hard, but helpful. Forgiveness is a heavy responsibility; choosing it is not weakness but evidence of our strength.
When I look back now I can only remember the good things, and I’m thankful to know that the hardship that followed what we had was only because of the love we shared. Korea would not have been Korea without him.
On Energy
Another lesson I learned in the past few years is that my body is a powerful machine that I am lucky to have and know how to operate. I trained for a long time to run a full course marathon; it took literal YEARS. I lost focus many times but I never gave up. As I continued after each difficult phase I found that all I needed was a time commitment, a good support system, and a strong believe in myself that I could do it. I had all of these at different points, but until they lined up with perfect timing did it all come together. I learned that I can reach such big goals through little ones, one by one.
By joining the yoga studio I was able to make a commitment, and continuously work on a part of myself in body and mind. I dedicated myself to the mat, the practice, the growth, and the hardship. I worked. I reached. I learned so much, and I hope I never stop.
By joining Crewghost, I opened up in my running abilities and insecurities. Running with more support, and a crew who turned into family, made my first marathon even more of a passion and an achievable goal. I felt so proud to be a part of this team and I still am.
A few months after joining Crewghost, I signed up for the Vinyasa Intensive I teacher’s course and it changed me completely. I found myself more aware, more open, and more than ever, happy with myself. And that’s honestly what makes joy come from other avenues without obstacles or delays: self-awareness and self-love. Then I signed up for the Vinyasa Intensive II…and felt even better. I felt healthy, light, fit, strong, and in an incredible place where routine did the opposite of put me in a box or limit me. It brought me to myself.
Pushing my body’s limits and taking it to new ones changed me not just physically but mentally too. I needed no one but myself. And that is a feeling I wish for everyone to internalize and feel genuinely.
When I ran my full course, the pride and excitement was exactly what I thought it would be, maybe a little bit better because it was real. Until now I can’t believe I finished that race. I am proud of my focus, my hard work, and my perseverance, but also my body.
Teachers Are Students, Too
Above everything else, most of my time was spent at SOT. Working there taught me a lot, specifically about what’s important to me and how that affects others. At work I focused on the kids and that was a huge priority of mine. Yes, money was important, and yes, my work environment mattered, but at the end of the day, my job as an educator and leader is what I held close to me.
I learned that all of the little teaching moments I took the time to focus on (teaching about sharing, embracing differences, being kind, accepting and understanding others, knowing your own energy — yes, somehow I tried to teach this to seven year olds) were the things I valued most. I loved each and every one of my students and I wanted to teach them so much, but it turned out that they taught me more. I am so grateful that I learned from them, by watching them and figuring them out, and literally trying to navigate each of them as individual humans and the unique ways they learn. It was a blessing to be their teacher.
When work was hard, for various reasons, I kept this focus. And there were times (summer 2017) when I felt guilty. Looking back I know that was my choice. Why was I made to feel bad for not being angry? For not fighting? And for not choosing sides? It was unfair and complicated for everyone involved, but I look back and know that I should have never felt guilty about making a decision for my own reasons and sticking to it. Through that experience, I also felt pride, for standing my ground in the silence, and for facing those angry and frustrated with me. For handling things in a mature way. And for making a decision based on my own needs and no one else’s. For choosing to spend my last several months basking in the goodness of what I had.
On The Horizon of Change
At the end of last summer I decided to take a year off and dedicate to those I love. I made a plan to visit all the people I know around the world — to fulfill my need of movement and my craving for quality time with those who have been far away from me for the last few years.
So 2018 became a year full of dreams and adventure and travel. I looked at maps and flights and made plans to make no plans. I remember going on a long run one weekend morning and scheming so intensely in my mind about what I’d do in 2018, that the 3 hours it took to run 32k felt like nothing. All I wanted for 2018 was freedom and to be with who I care about. To surround myself with goodness and creativity. And to respark what lights in friendships might have dimmed with distance. This plan brewed in my heart and mind for months.
Then in the fall, something happened that changed me. I went to the yoga studio, and as I was leaving my teacher said to me, “See you tomorrow! Same time?” And I kind of laughed and said, “No no no. Same time tomorrow is pilates. I don’t do pilates.” She asked me if I had ever tried and I said, word for word, “No, but I’m scared.” Then I walked home and thought about it. Why was I scared? I had never even tried.
So I got home and made a list of all the things and experiences and ideas that I always say “no” to. And I wrote:
  • pilates
  • Game of Thrones
  • Tinder
  • working out at the gym
  • make up
  • 된장찌개 (doenjang jjigae – a fermented soybean soup stew thing that smells bad but somehow people think is delicious)
And everything changed.
I found a new practice: saying yes to more. Instead of making claims about what I don’t know, I should just say yes and try new things. So Jana and I watched season one of Game of Thrones until (spoiler alert) they killed Ned and I boycotted the season finale. I started BBG workouts with the intent of consistency instead of as supplements to my running regime. I ate the fermented soup whose smell had scarred me since my first week in Korea on my first Tinder date (two birds with one stone). I met some people I really connected with. I pushed myself. I made a commitment to learn about myself through all of the little steps I took outside of my comfort zone.
My “yes” project opened my eyes to the little changes we can make in our lives that, if we’re open to learning, teach us that we are capable of evolving and adjusting. Being able to say yes with the purpose of learning and knowing your boundaries opens doors through which acceptance and good giving and receiving can so easily flow, and I highly recommend it.
The Hardest Lesson
The end of my time in Korea came at the same time as the end of one of my life’s most treasured friendships. I would say that it started last summer when we talked about “us” for the first time. The “us” conversation was a conversation I never had with a friend before, and now I would love to have it with each of my friends. It was eye opening and heart-filling.
We discussed our respect for each other, what qualities we magnify and minimize in each other, and we talked very transparently about the difficult and unspoken parts of our friendship and feelings. Until this day I am so grateful for our exchange and how intimate and open our conversation was. I don’t think it’s often that people reach this level of introspective and unified closeness with others, and I consider myself lucky.
It’s difficult to explain how a bond forged so deep through shared experiences and how memories get lost in the chaos of pain, but it happens. There are so many differences between us, and there always have been yet we worked so well until we couldn’t. In retrospect, it might have been easy only on the surface, or to me. The tension wasn’t there in the beginning for me like it was for her; sometimes I wonder why I never felt it but she did.
The interesting thing about friendship that we don’t realize is no one on each side owes the other a single thing. Friendship is a commitment we make slowly and silently, and inevitably expectations build because over time we learn how to love this other human who has become so important to us. But in the end, and I hope to remember this in all of my friendships, we are just two people navigating life together. We can put as much love and understanding and support as we can for the other, and at the same time remember our own boundaries. Powerful friendships change you, and this one did from the moment it started
I can see so much looking back, and I know now that people come (and go) to show us what we can’t see on our own. I found a cherished companion and a great connection with a good person who brought out in me some needs I had to face. And I’m grateful for the fear and doubt and parts of myself that were brought out in me through our struggles. One day when we both have happiness I hope we can recognize that we did our genuine best.
But in this moment, in the end, as the sun sets on one of the brightest friendships to enter my life, I can’t help but hope that it might see another day. To walk through life is a gift, but to come across a person who becomes a friend, a teacher, and a mirror, is a treasure. For now I’ll look back fondly with a deep sense of gratitude and embrace the knowledge that it was what it was and what it did was move me. Tomorrow I’ll hope for the light to come again.
What Comes Next
I have just started the 2018 I dreamt of while running along a stream in the middle of Seoul last summer. I’m in China, next to the Great Wall. Tomorrow. I will wake up and walk for hours until I get enough of the path I find. And the next day I will find a new city and the day after, another. And that’s what this year will be about.
I imagine that it will be beautiful and that I will learn. And that I will look back and I will learn more. I will look ahead and I will have no idea what the future holds. There will be hardships and losses but also joy and brightness and good love along the way. I can’t wait.

Little Things I’ll Miss About Korea 

In the months before I left, I started writing a list of the many things I would miss about Korea. Also a list of things I never want to forget about my life in Korea.
  1. This corner spot at this cafe, where I go only when I’m by myself
  2. Killing time by people watching
  3. Sitting outside in the sunshine when it’s fall
  4. That moment when the first student comes into the classroom and says “good morning teacher”
  5. Watching the Seoul sunrise during summer runs when the streets are empty at 5 am
  6. When the soju bottle is empty and we look at each other and without a word know that we need another one
  7. That really friendly crossing guard at work that always smiles and says good morning; he always made our day
  8. All of the hilarious things that happen in a school day; things the kids say in English, Jana coming to my classroom and messing with the kids, eating snacks together, when Jean and Jana send their kids to my class with cups of 꿀떡, 편의점runs with Allie during break time
  9. My legs feeling sore when I sit down for the morning teacher meetings
  10. When restaurant workers know our order because we’re regulars
  11. Getting service
  12. Riding the bus to visit the first city I lived in; getting 계란빵 from the best stand ever in downtown Gumi
  13. Walking to work listening to 00000 Million after 7 am yoga
  14. Walking anywhere, anytime, with both headphones blasting, and never feeling unsafe
  15. Solo hikes in the fall
  16. Going to to run with my crew every Thursday night
  17. The routine that makes me love the life I created in this city
  18. That old man who I always see running on summer mornings (who sometimes passes me cause he’s a speed demon….)
  19. The grandpa who I always see walking on the track that waves and cheers for me when I run
  20. When the soccer players accidentally kick the ball toward me while I’m running on the track and I panic that it’s gonna hit me in the face, then it doesn’t and I laugh at myself
  21. When my crew or yoga friends say “우리 크리스틴” and my heart is happy
  22. When random children (or anyone really) try to speak English to me
  23. When I zip my kids’ jackets up and for like half a second I pretend that they’re my child and I’m sending them off the school
  24. Going for evening walks by myself in the winter, wrapped in a scarf and listening to music
  25. Fighting at the restaurant about who’s gonna say 여기요
  26. Seeing my yoga teachers handing out flyers in the morning when I walk to school and getting hugs from them
  27. The way people hug at the studio
  28. Crossing the Han River on the subway and looking outside thinking that I came to this city to be a part of it but instead it became a part of me
  29. DK, our favorite chef guy at the BBQ restaurant 한남돼지집
  30. Having the fastest internet in the world
  31. Never carrying keys ever
  32. My favorite Hershey’s cone
  33. When Jana and I go on trips and get excited for our “airport sandwich” which we later discovered exists in Paris Baguette stores everywhere and not just at the airport
  34. Transportation apps that accurately live track the subways and buses and also tell you exactly what door to stand at to make your transfer the fastest possible
  35. Blending in, in a country of Asian people, and for the first time not feeling like a minority
  36. Being an invisible foreigner
  37. Going to Daegu to visit Michelle
  38. All of our favorite restaurants
  39. Random moments where I feel like I really made a life here
  40. Walking around and reading signs and advertisements even though I have no clue what they mean because just reading characters makes me feel accomplished
  41. Convenience stores actually being extremely convenient
  42. Being in situations where being a foreigner makes things so much easier / Playing that foreigner card
  43. Living in the same building as my best friends
  44. That feeling I get when I do something by myself for the first time and with no help from a Korean person
  45. Standing in a store perusing Korean snacks
  46. Getting to see the moon change phases every single night while walking home from the yoga studio
  47. Feeling like a proud New Yorker when I completely disobey crosswalk signals
  48. Bowing to every single person ever
  49. Monster pizza
  50. All the people we meet when we go out; the next day when we recap the night and laugh so hard
  51. Staycations with Michelle
  52. Heated floors
  53. Heated subway seats
  54. Awesomely cheap medical insurance
  55. Meeting Koreans who lived or studied in America and asking them what they miss, and hearing “Chipotle” as the answer
  56. Going to the grocery after school and buying basically the same exact things
  57. Costco trips and taking the wrong bus and ending up somewhere far away; aborting the mission and going to get food
  58. Crazy and hilarious taxi drivers, and taxi drivers that speak English
  59. The anxious and possibly exciting feeling every time I go to the Sinsa area that I’ll run into Sway
  60. Drinking soju at convenience store like the foreigners we are
  61. Ordering 네네치킨 and watching a movie in my cave
  62. Leaving school immediately after the last bell on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays so that I can make it to yoga class on time
  63. When we sit and have tea together after class and the people at the yoga studio discover that I’m not Korean
  64. When Jana has to buy BTS tickets and it’s the funniest thing in the world because life depends on this moment. Literally
  65. Waiting on line at Downtowner and feeling VIP when Mojito personally delivers our burgers and gives us free french fries
  66. When people visit me and I already know exactly what we’re going to do and what they’ll love
  67. When people ask to do tarot
  68. All the help from Jean and Harim when it comes to Korean stuff
  69. Walking behind Rob and looking at all the girls that stare at him in adoration of his 스몰 페이스
  70. Beerday Sunday Fundays!!!!!
  71. Waking up early and going to run races
  72. Meeting up with Margaret to eat ice cream and laugh about how we met in Korean class and bought matching pants an hour later
  73. Eating endlessly basically every meal
  74. How so many things feel like second nature after two years in Seoul
  75. Requesting music at the club (sometimes by screenshotting “Rihanna” and holding it up to the DJ booth ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ”

Connectedness

A few years ago, my ex asked me who I’m closest with: friends from home, friends from school, or friends from abroad.  I never answered him, but I’ve since thought of that question on occasion, and I have come to the conclusion that I’m not more or less close to each of the groups; the levels of friendship and connection are just so different.  These people are part of significant phases of my life, and perhaps each group knows me in a different way than the others.

My friends from home have known me since I was ten years old, and they have, no doubt, seen me grow the most.  These people have watched me change, and vice versa.  There’s something about growing up constantly surrounded by the same friends, seeing slow evolutions in each other, and sharing experiences that shape us both as individuals and as a system.  All of this transforming brought us to a level of friendship that can only be achieved with time.  And all of this time has brought us ups and downs that only continue to bring us closer.  They are my cornerstone, the building blocks of who I am, the very core of where my growth began, and one of the main ingredients to my happiness.  My friends from home are the ones I am glad to always have.  No matter how far down the road, I know I will have them to come home to.

It was hard to imagine who my college friends would be and what role they would play in my life until I found them.  Turns out, they’re some of the best friends to have around.  College friends get to know you in incredible ways–at house parties and bars, hungover in dorms, during all-nighters at the library, and every other second in between.  These are friends who live with you–sometimes literally–and get to see who you are while you’re in the process of finding yourself and potentially, who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.  They are there to watch you overcome the most difficult challenges you will ever face, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be right next to you every step of the way, making the same exact horrible decisions.  I have formed unbreakable bonds with my college friends, and with them I’ve learned how little time can affect friendship.  They are my support networks and secret-outlets, my squad, and the bottom line is that they get to know me better than most people ever do.

Sigh.  Sevilla friends.  These are people with whom I have created an entirely new bubble of friendship.  They are there, living in the stories that I will be telling for the rest of my life.  These friendships formed exceptionally fast, and I think that might be the reason for our extremely high comfort levels with each other.  Suddenly I found myself in a foreign country with just a suitcase and this group of people to hold on to.  And I did.  We all did.  Fortunately I don’t think we will ever let go.  What we’ve been through were some of the best moments of our lives, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We’ve seen the world, pushed through borders and boundaries, and fell in love with the same city together. Through all of this, and in less than half a year, what we did was more than travel. We left parts of ourselves with each other, in all corners of the world, and if that doesn’t bond you for life then I’m not sure what does.

Since this question was posed to me, I entered a new phase in my life which has brought yet another incredible group of people into my life: my Seoul friends. The last three years in South Korea have been life life life, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all my experiences here. I’ve grown part of different communities–teachers, foreigners, local yogis and runners–who have welcomed me and helped me to see the life I’ve built in this country. I hold close the group of friends I made within the first few days of arriving, and I think that through meeting them I became solid in who I already was. We all got to know each other exactly as we were and as we still are, and I have nothing but gratitude for the fact that we loved each other through flaws and mistakes.

Most recently I’ve been thinking about the running and yoga families I’ve come to know and love here in Seoul the last two years. When I first walked into Zen Yoga studio, and first went to an open run for Crewghost, I never thought it would become a completely engrained and habitual attendance. Now I go to my yoga studio 5-8 times and to a crew run at least once or twice, both per week. Spending as much time sharing a mutual passion with a group of people for hours at a time brings you together without even trying–certainly regardless of language. These two communities have brought me joy and support, and a family to back me in the goals that no one else can understand.

As I come to realize that I have just five short months left before a new adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I’ve spent my years with. And as I get ready to leave this group of friends to visit the others, all I can feel is gratitude. To have so much love from around the world. To know that I can turn to so many to receive all kinds of needs. To understand that I can be a different version of myself and still be loved for it. To find that I am open and lucky enough to be able to connect with so many souls. And to recognize that with time, I am changing for the better. How do I know all this? Because each time I come back to all of the people I love, no matter how long it’s been or how far I’ve gone, I never doubt that the love and connection and friendship remain.

Let’s Go

When I told people that I wanted to move to South Korea and teach English, I got the sense that they thought it was a joke, or maybe my own version of an escape from “the real world,” or that I would be in danger. I don’t know if any of those opinions could ever be fully right or wrong, but I do know this: my experiences in the last few years have showed me more of “the real world” than any three years in an office could. It showed me through relationships and friendships, new practices and challenges, and a distance from what I’ve always known.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that people don’t learn from working in an office for three years. And I don’t think that traveling or moving to South Korea will make you smarter or better, because it might not. But it did all of that and so much more for me. Believe it or not, I once got into an argument with a friend about my passion for travel, and I am grateful for that argument every day because it opened my eyes to just how different two minds can be, and that that’s perfectly okay.

After almost three years of living in a totally different culture than what I’ve known for my entire life, I can say with confidence that my mind has never been more open and my heart more full. I find myself loving what I do each day, in all aspects of my day…or at least trying to. I’m realizing that it’s not until you look back at who you used to be that it seems possible to change so much; that you don’t know how much one place can change you until you get there. And I’m discovering that people really are each their own.

I don’t think people who travel are better than people who don’t. And I don’t think that just because you’ve visited 50 countries, you’re smart, or cultured, or rich, or happy. I also don’t think that because you’re rich you’re spoiled, or that people with college degrees are smarter than people without them. I could never assume anything about a person because they travel, or because they don’t.

There is only one thing to know: it is of utmost importance that we support each other in our decisions. That is what makes people feel good. And that is what will bring us together no matter where in the world we are.

Finding Balance in Intricacy

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

And so we are told this, again and again. As children, we hear it when we make mistakes we are too young to fix–like spilling milk or breaking a toy. In school, we hear it when we get an unexpected score on the test we thought we were ready for. At work, we hear it on the first day when we are lost and completely unsure of our responsibilities. And in life, we hear it from our friends and our parents and those who love us, in the moments we feel like we just don’t have it together.

Everyone makes mistakes. It is a simple fact. That’s the easy part.

What comes after mistakes are made is where the complications start. Black and white collide and simple facts are only simple from a certain point of view. While people make mistakes, the consequences can’t always be fixed. The milk can’t be cleaned, the toy can’t be fixed. The next test won’t up the average. And it’s not the first day of work. Not everything comes with second chances.

I’ve found that after making a mistake, there are two choices. Learn a lesson, or don’t.

Recently I made a mistake that opened my eyes to the importance of making mistakes: learning forgiveness. It is a complicated concept. Whether you are in the position to give or receive it, forgiveness requires practice. It requires patience. And it requires pain.

Through this mistake I discovered what it feels like to be denied forgiveness, and to lose someone as a result. I also learned that the power of forgiveness is in the hands of the forgiver. Understanding both sides of forgiveness is necessary in understanding that neither side is easy to be on.

Finding a safe balance comes in time, and we each find that balance at our own times and at our own pace. I found balance when I forgave myself. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. I lost someone as a result, but each day brings me closer to accepting that. Life is too unpredictable to deny forgiveness. Too short to regret. And all too wonderful to wallow.

 

Things That No One Told Me About Teaching English in South Korea

Learning a language is a matter of persistence and motivation.

English is an extremely difficult language to both teach and learn. By teaching it, I’ve learned just how many exceptions to rules, irregular verb changes, and difficult words to spell and pronounce there are. Korean students are required to learn this language, and not all of them want to. Unless a student has a reason or inspiration to learn English, my class is not much of a class for them at all.

Korean is also a difficult language to learn. I’ve never had serious difficulties with the language barrier here, but I have learned that when you take language away, you are forced to interact, form bonds, and learn through the most basic form of communication—body language. Once I could read, write, and use basic verbs in Korean, my study of the language was put on hold until I realized that I’d never reach my goal of fluency unless I persist in practice.

Making Korean friends is harder than you’d think. 

Most Koreans are shy in personality, and shy to speak English. If they’re not either of those things, then you got lucky and should keep this friend for life. I have very few Korean friends, and I value the insights to their culture I get from our friendship.

Koreans can be very judgmental.

Physical beauty standards in Korea are very high, and many won’t be afraid to call you names that would be considered offensive in the U.S. Although Koreans often tell me that my “face is beautiful,” they don’t leave out that my “arms have hair,” my “skin is too tan,” or that my “feet are big.” They also think that I “eat too much ice cream,” but…isn’t there no such thing as too much ice cream?

Your mindset will evolve.

This is one of the most beautiful lessons I have learned since moving to Korea. From little things like my sense of fashion and my perception of beauty, to more significant ones like my taste in music and beliefs about people and the world, I have changed notably within my first few weeks of living here. I don’t judge people based on looks or fashion in the way that I used to, and I can now understand how or why people act the way they do. I have come to understand the phrase “To each his own” in a new light. Living in a society that was so different from the one I grew up in gave me insights to people’s choices, personalities, lifestyles, and principles that I never had before. The longer I live here, the more I find that the farther away I get from what I know, the more beautiful the world becomes.

Every single day will keep you guessing.

There is a thing we foreigners here call the “Korean surprise.” This is where totally unexpected things happen, in and out of school. From cancelled classes and surprise classes, to being forced to sing karaoke songs for the principal and teachers at my school, to strangers stopping you on the streets to speak English, the “Korean surprise” is very real. Each new day in Korea has something in store with the element of surprise.

Laziness is a terrible trap.

It’s easy to set goals, make to-do lists, and plans to explore and discover Korea, but it’s also easy to fall into the weekday rhythm of going to work, coming home to nap, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, and going straight to bed. I had ambitious goals of learning Korean, teaching myself to code, reading books, running, practicing yoga, and writing blogs left and right with all of my free time here. Soon, there were days and weeks that were exhausting and it required real motivation and a conscious effort to reach these goals. With the right balance of work and play, I can proudly say that my to-do list is slowly getting done, but it took some time to get here.

These kids are crazy.

“Korean students are very respectful,” they said. “Korean students love learning,” they said. “Korean students are very quiet,” they said. Yeah, well, they lied.

You will own a selfie stick, and your selfie count will skyrocket.

On our first weekend trip after moving to Korea, my friends and I kept asking people to take pictures of us in front of the sights we were visiting. At first, this felt very natural. I mean, how else do people take group photos while traveling? Throughout the day, as we kept asking people, we felt weirder and weirder each time. No one else was doing that—they all had selfie sticks. Within a matter of days, we each purchased our own, and before we knew it, that “Selfies” folder on our iPhone albums had more pictures in it than we ever wanted.

The black hole of music also known as K-pop will suck you in.

I remember watching my very first K-pop video during orientation nine months ago. It was BigBang’s “Fantastic Baby.” I looked around the room and wondered why so many people loved this. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t listen to music sang in a language I couldn’t understand, and that it was strange that the guys wore makeup and outrageous outfits, and that they weren’t even attractive. A few weeks later, there I was, singing, dancing, and screaming my favorite member’s name in Seoul’s Olympic Arena, one in a sea of thousands of BigBang diehard fans. I have listened to only a handful of English songs ever since.

The Korean education system that is so highly praised outside of this country is, in reality, quite flawed.

It’s hard to keep this short and simple, because there are so many aspects to Korean education that would be difficult to understand unless you witnessed it yourself. Around the world, Korea is known for breeding the brightest students, but what’s often missing and ignored is that these students are put under extreme pressure to succeed in school. For people aged 15-24 in South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death. This is not to say that school and education is to blame for this statistic, but I do believe in the correlation between them.

Korean students, beginning in middle school, go to school for the majority of their days, sometimes not going home until 8-9 p.m., and even later for high school students. In my classes, kids are sleeping with their heads on their desks left and right, and sometimes they tell me lunch is their only real meal of the day because of their hectic schedules.

I once did a two-week lesson about high school in America, and after my first class I regretted it immediately. Seeing the shock and longing in my students’ faces when I asked them for their opinions about the differences between our educations systems broke my heart. Korean kids grow up very fast. By high school, their maturity level is that of American upperclassmen. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s my opinion that they should have more opportunities to have more fun, more free time, and more chances to feel young. Instead, they spend 12+ hours in classrooms turning pages and not feeling good enough or smart enough to pass their next test, or get into the school they want. With these things in mind, I’ve made it a goal in my English classes to give them a unique way of study—a little less bookwork and a little more fun and human interaction when possible.

It is not easy.

Before coming to Korea, I read countless pieces of advice from current and former teachers here. Many times, they would talk about the motivation that Korean students have to learn English, and how this would naturally make teaching classes feel more like an easy and fun experience than an actual job. I was lucky enough to be placed in a great all-boys middle school where the teachers are extremely strict, resulting in the forming of very respectful young men. However, students are students, and they are the same around the world—some smart, some sleepy, and some disrespectful. Every class has its own set of geniuses, its own attitude, and ultimately, its own troublemaker. Some classes are quiet and nonresponsive, while others are madhouses. Picture kids standing on desks and water bottles flying across the room. That was once my reality.

The blogs and testimonials I read also talked about how much easier it would be thanks to the help of the Korean co-teacher. Surprise! I have 7 co teachers and none of them stand in front of the class with me to “co-teach” with me at all. Two of them sometimes step in to help, and the keyword there is sometimes. Imagine how difficult it is to teach English when your students don’t speak English and you don’t speak Korean, all while there is a Korean teacher in the room who absolutely can but just does not stand up to help at all. It is, as they say here in Korea, no jam (no fun).

The bright side of this is that, by the end of each class and each day, there will always be certain students that I reached, classes that were successful, and moments in which I looked around and smiled because I do love this job. Despite the challenges, I feel like I have a unique power to teach these kids about worlds they don’t know, and I have strong hopes that my lessons inspires them to explore those worlds.