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.

codea in Korea: Fall 2015

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.

Chasing Magic and Building Bridges

Let me start by sharing something that I wrote to myself a few months ago in my iPhone notes. I had a rough day of teaching and on that Friday night, I was so happy and relieved to arrive in Seoul and see my friends. Around midnight and after our first few shots of soju, I was overcome with an urge to write these words to myself:

Hey Christine.

Lately, a lot of people have been telling you that you are “living the life!” but you know that’s not true, right? Today, you had an okay day. So this is a reminder: you’re not living the life. You’re just…living life.

Maybe people think that living abroad is easy, but you know more than anyone that it’s not. Moving to South Korea to teach English isn’t your average college grad’s move, and while it is an incredible experience, it doesn’t make your life “the” life. In fact, nothing makes any life “the” life, because every life is different. Don’t forget that. Just remember to put your money towards experiences. You are a twenty-something, with dreams of one day having a job you love and a family you love even more. But for now, you deserve to see what and who the world has to offer before you settle.

You were not given the life. You were given a life. And you have the power to choose what to do with it. Your time, your energy, your money, your love, and your feet can go where you choose. No matter where you go, you’ll find that you’ll have some so-so moments.

It’s not always easy to be surrounded by what you don’t know, but I urge you to continue to make a life outside of what you do know. By the end of it all, let’s see if you lived more of “the” life than you dreamed, or dreamed more of “the” life than you lived.

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At the end of a bad class, I read that note to self, and I’m reminded of what’s good. For four months and counting, I wake up with a smile on my face. And every day, I say to myself, “Christine…You are in South Korea.” Then I smile, turn my alarm off, get out of bed, and have a great day.

I don’t know how to describe what life is like here; I just know that not one day has gone by where I woke up or went to sleep feeling anything but happy. And sometimes drunk. But the bottom line is that I know I’m happy.

A few days before New Years’ Eve last year, when I was sitting in a New York City diner at 4 am, I found out that I was accepted into the EPIK (English Program In Korea) Program, and that in a few weeks I would be on a plane to South Korea, where I would spend the next year. It has been four months since I first stepped foot in this country, and every day since has been eye-opening and mind-stretching.

I came here for a reason. I was (and still am) chasing a certain feeling that inspires me each time I feel it. When I was ten years old, I moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, and I don’t remember a thing about the flight or any part of the trip, except for one moment. We landed in JFK airport late at night and on the drive to our new home in New Jersey, I discovered a little place called New York City. All I remember about my first moments in America is looking out of the car window and up to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The city of dreams, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. It was a fantasy land that I thought could only ever be just that–a fantasy. But there I was, at ten years old, lost and speechless in the magic of New York.

Years later I would discover the magic of so many places. Washington D.C., London, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Madrid, and Sevilla. The beaches of the Bahamas, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Niagara Falls, the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Switzerland, and even the three largest cathedrals in the world. In each and every one of those places, I got the same feeling that I did when I found myself in New York for the first time. It’s the feeling that I get every time I step foot on foreign ground, and every time I see something that I have only ever seen on pages and posters and screens before. This knowledge that it was worth every cent and sacrifice it took to get there, just to see it with my own eyes; that no high definition flat screen view of this would ever come close to the real thing. A simple feeling that tells me: I’m here, in the world. I’m in it, and I’m breathing it and walking it and touching it, and that this is no fantasy. And it’s not something I can easily describe, and surely I can’t say that this feeling is the same for everyone. Maybe you get this feeling from an entirely different living experience. But I know with certainty that some of my best moments happened in places that I might never be again.

It is a great blessing to me that my life’s memories and stories are set all over the world. I have seen more of the world in a decade than most will see in their life, and I am only constantly wanting more. The world does a great job of making me feel small, in the best way. It humbles me, and it makes me honest somehow. The more of the world I see, the more I can understand what it needs to grow better. Whether it’s honesty and truth, or understanding and strength, or kindness, or opposition, rebellion–I hope that I can hear the message loud and clear, and I hope that I can spread that message to the next place I go and to the next person I meet. This is the feeling that I chase; a sense that somehow I’m helping to bridge gaps between places and people.

This year, I came to South Korea because I wanted to expand my boundaries and challenge myself–in work, in language, in culture, and in any other way that I felt the world could test me–and believe me, I’m being challenged every day. I also came here because I wanted to prove to people (including my own friends and family) who were skeptical about this move, that ignorance is only ignorance until someone shows you the other side. I’m happy to be the person who proves that, and I hope that I can be that person for many of those whose minds could stand to be a little more challenged and a little more opened. I also hope that I can continue to meet people who will do that for me.

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I have never been the type to want what’s easy and I certainly don’t want what’s comfortable. That’s why I’m here. My passions for international education and travel and people and language and learning has led me down this path of opening minds and building bridges, and I am confident that this field is already doing just that, even with the so-so moments in between.

Living abroad is hard. I know this because I leave my house every day and it reminds me.

Teaching English is hard. I know this because I have days that remind me.

Learning English is also hard. And I know this because I have students that constantly remind me.

But these daily reminders don’t stop me from spending five days a week in Korean classrooms teaching English to kids who might not like it, because I know that one day they might make a difference, whether big or small, in their families or for their countries, or in our world. I am constantly hoping that learning English and interacting with foreigners will open their minds, or inspire them to chase their own magic and to build their own bridges. And with over 1,000 students, I might have a pretty good shot.

I’ve only just started planting seeds. Stay tuned.

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