A Spirit of Quietness at St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery

Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.

High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.

Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.

I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.

After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.

Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.

One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”

Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”

Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.

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Be Nice, Listen, Speak English, No Sleeping: Teaching English to Korean Children

12065617_907615582642412_6275626084768841933_nTomorrow morning, the start of my third week teaching Korean elementary and middle school students, the children will arrive in semi-straight lines, boys keeping each other in friendly choke holds and girls hanging on each other’s elbows. “Hello! Welcome!” we call out, standing on either side of them as they walk to the gym, dragging their suitcases along. They wave back, sometimes with both hands, and abandon “Anyang-haseyo” for “Hello” for the next five days.

The students give us gentle high fives and some teachers tease them by stealing their hats or greeting them in a high-pitched, falsetto voice. Every Monday morning the same jokes, different kids.

When I’m told that my group is ready, I go to the gym, taking with me the students’ passports (an imitation passport that they use to take notes and record their English nickname) and a folder that teachers use for learning background on the group (names, what school they’re from, etc.) and making comments. I then lead my group to a classroom for a quick pretest. I ask them, “Where are you from?” Most often they reply with “Korea,” sometimes adding their city name. Other times they just blink at me, look back at their friends who are watching, and laugh nervously. Sometimes, if the student is more advanced, we can ask things like “What’s your favorite animal?” And they’ll say, “My favorite animal is a cat.” We’ll ask, “Why do you like cats?” They’ll reply, “Because they are cute.” That amount of dialogue is not very common, though. This is why it’s a challenge teaching kids when they only understand a small percentage of what we’re saying.

People asked me when I was preparing to leave for Korea, “How are you going to teach kids if you don’t know Korean?” The answer to this is something I’m still learning. First, I’ve had to accept that they just aren’t going to understand most of what I say. Because that’s not the point. The benefit of immersing students fully in a foreign language is that they’re obligated to really pay attention or be completely lost, which does, unfortunately, happen. But even if they don’t understand everything, they learn to pick up on signals, like tone of voice and gestures. We use a lot of gestures. I’m probably going to come back to the U.S. and open and close my hand anytime I use the word “talk” or “speak.” I also use a lot of thumbs up, because the sound we make when we say “good” is similar to the word that means “finished” for Korean speakers. Basically, speaking slowly and simply, using gestures, and employing lots of repetition is what guides these kids through our classes.

Orientation is their next class and follows a short opening ceremony in the gym where the kids get pumped up and discuss general rules for the week–Do your best! Speak English! Ask questions! Orientation is where we get to pick the students’ names if they don’t already have a name in mind, which is often the case.

Me: We’re going to pick your English nickname. English nickname. *pointing at the words “English nickname” in their passport* You can pick one of these. *Circling motion around a list of English names* English nickname. Do you know which one you want? Do you want me to pick one? *Pointing to myself* What English name? Like, “Sally”, “Kathryn”, “Jessica”…Nickname? I will pick one for you?
Korean child: ???????

As difficult as it is for the student to understand what’s going on, especially on the first day, it’s fun to pick their names for them. There’s a certain power in coming up with these names if the student can’t decide. If I want to name the kids after my family and friends, I can do that. If I want to name them after all the characters on Arrested Development or Firefly, I can, and will, do that. The administration has had to remind teachers in the past, though, to stick to the names on the list because it can get out of hand sometimes. I was told that one student insisted on being called “Lucifer” (presumably after a video game he liked) and when asked where he was headed in the airport situational, he replied, “TO HELL!” Funny, but not so funny to his parents when they found out we called him Lucifer all week.

Also, we’re never supposed to call them “Johnson” or “Daisy”, because the kids are aware (even though I wasn’t???) that “Johnson” means “dick” and “Daisy” sounds like “dwae-ji”, Korean for “pig.” But it really doesn’t matter how normal of a name you give them because they will probably laugh at it, anyway, just like they laugh at the way you mispronounce their Korean names. You know you effed something up when they repeat the way you said their friend’s Korean name and giggle. A teacher I observed my first week gave a kid the name “Clive” and he dropped his jaw dramatically to pronounce the “ive” like the word was too big for his mouth. The kids busted up from how hilarious that word sounded to them.

At some point, you have to reign the kids back in so that you can set expectations. At the beginning of each class, we’re supposed to go over the rules.

  1. Be nice [Because the kids wail on each other as a part of their friendship. The boys will tackle or choke each other and the girls will slap the boys with all their strength–but, most of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “play” fighting and bullying…mostly I just intervene when it becomes a distraction or someone starts crying. *Teacher of the Year!*]
  2. Listen carefully [Even though you don’t understand almost everything I’m saying.]
  3. Speak English [This is America. We speak English here…wait…?]
  4. No sleeping [Because the kids stay up late talking to their friends and about mid-week start sprawling on benches and openly napping in the middle of class. They’re all set for college.]

The classes I’ve taught at this point are Video Store and my academic class, Music Genres. It takes a lot of lesson plan-adjusting as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work for students of different English levels. For instance, when we played musical chairs in the first few Music Genres classes I taught, it went pretty well overall. And then I got a class that didn’t understood half my instructions, so when I played the music they just stood next to their chairs and kind of danced around to “Sugar” by Maroon 5, which they love here. (I can’t escape it. I just can’t.) No matter how many times I made a circle motion with my arm and tried to show them how to walk in a circle, they just ignored me and it became a matter of who was too into their dancing at the time the music stopped that they didn’t grab a seat. It was chaos, but I was laughing really hard at them when the DGEV photographer came in and wanted an action shot. So I’m pretty sure those pictures were of me dying of laughter while the kids formed a mosh pit to music that had out of control volume. *Quality education brought to you by Sarah Teacher*

Anyways, I might need to pick a different game for the kids who are more clueless and the middle schoolers who think they’re too cool for musical chairs and basically fought over who was free to stop playing the game and who was forced to march in a circle.

The kids craziness and unpredictability is what makes teaching fun here, though. They have a sweetly naive way of making sense of us foreigners, too. I’ve had many a Korean student stare into my heterochromatic eyes and ask, “Teacher, contact lens?” I’ve been asked a few times if I was married to the teachers I was observing the first week, and then asked if I was the teacher’s younger sister because of our age difference. The children ask “Same same?” and point at YouTube videos with white girls in them and then point at us, because, yes, all white girls look the same. Any female teacher with blonde hair and a braid will be called “Elsa” and there’s always a boy who stops the class at some point to sing, “Teacher…Do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaan?” Thanks, Frozen.

When class ends, I shout above the throng, “Sign passports! Sign passports!” And suddenly there are fifteen suspiciously-stained passports thrusted into my face and I circle how many points each student earned for participation and content and sign my initials. And then I release them to their Village Guide and wait for the next group to appear, waving “Hello, Teacher!”

So this is my life now.

Integration Field Trips

I sit in the back seat, middle. In both Korea and the U.S., I am considered short, so I don’t need leg room. Wedged in between two other teachers, bracing to avoid sitting in someone’s lap. First Korean car trip. Saccharine Kpop plays from a mix on the stereo. Our supervisor is driving us. One teacher asks me, what do I think of the mountains here, being from Colorado? The mountains of Chilgokgun are beautiful, but in a different way–like moss, the smooth roundness that the treetops form as they rise in soft angles in the foggy air. The rich, dark green. Colorado pines are brittle and triangular like the mountains themselves, reaching up sharply to the sky.

In the car, we tell stupid jokes and our supervisor is silent. Traffic is like a crowded, toothy smile, cars packed in tightly together on the street. Side roads have barely enough room for traffic. No parking tickets. Please, don’t let us crash. Oh no, we’re going to hit somebody. And then, we neatly back up into a parking space. And our supervisor is silent, smoking cigarettes when we leave the car. Outside, we walk past patients wandering in hospital gowns, their IVS following next to them like loyal pets. There’s a coffee shop inside and stations for every ailment, disease, condition. We travel up an elevator. I try to sound out the Korean hangul that I see all around me. Nah…Nah…Ri…? We arrive at a desk with a young woman shuffling papers. “She’s new.” A small, elderly nun smiles behind me in line. Paperwork in my hands that I can’t read. Did I bring my passport? Won? 30,000 won? Passport photos?

We wait on a brown leather couch. A nurse gluesticks my photo–my painful portrait, my wincing smile–to paperwork. They measure my weight, my height, my chest size? My hearing, my color-sight, my blood pressure. I sit on a couch, watch the three other teachers be examined. Our supervisor translates. Our white faces are dumb.

New station. A small child barely walking. “Annyeong haseyo! Annyeong! Aw, so cute!” The child stares intently at my eyes. I wave. The mother waves the child’s hand back at us. And then hand-holding, moral-supporting, breath-taking, blood-drawing. My turn. The nurse wears no gloves. The pinching of the needle–it pinches. I blush from the pain and two teachers and one supervisor looking over my shoulder as the nurse, bare-handed, empties my arm of a vial of blood.

Dixie cup. Bathroom–squatty potties. Yes! Squatty potties! Pants down, urine collecting, awkward walk, carrying my own pee across the hall to place it on a tray in the fridge, like, “It’s cool. Just putting a cup of my own piss in this display case for all the see.” My sample is healthy; someone else’s is tomato juice-orange. I marvel at my sore arm. Wash hands. A nurse runs into me with a tray of dixie piss cups. Splash. Not on my clothes, thank goodness. That was almost the worst day ever. That was a close one. I hope whoever owns that orange pee gets well soon. Back to the elevator. Time for Xrays. First, “crazy test.” Fold in your fingers from thumb to pinky to prove your mental stability. “Do you have any disorders?” “No.” The doctor’s smile is huge. Goodbye, I guess? “Kamsamnida!” And then…waiting. Extra long wait. I practice Korean. Try sounding out the syllables. I suck at this. Play “Pop Popping Korean” on a phone. Netflix. Fifteen minutes of Portlandia. People-watch. I wonder what was up with that orange urine. Tap my feet.

Xray. What did she say? I take off my shirt, my bra, put on a purple hospital scrub. Hug a plastic machine. My lungs are healthy. No TB here. Changing room again. Finished. Finally.

We go out to lunch. “Chicken is not real Korean food.” “Barbeque is rare for lunch.” The city rises upwards. Tall apartment buildings, tall shops, short me. Motor bikes shoot past us. Hangul everywhere. You don’t notice so many words around you until you can’t read them. Try to sound out the syllables. Do…Re…Mi…Fa…Fried rice with an egg on top. “Just use the spoon.” “That’s what it’s there for.”

Next day. Immigration. Back to the middle seat. I’m the fresh meat in a foreign teacher sandwich. Supervisor’s ecigarettes smell so good. Like cotton candy? No. Like the best smell ever? We try to walk casually behind him. A competition to see who can breathe in the most second-hand smoke. Delicious lung cancer. The smell is “My Wife.” Supervisor driver is tired, so we stop at a rest station. Squatty potties! Yay, squatty potties. And the next best thing, ice cream in a bag. A bag of ice cream that tastes kind of like my mom’s homemade recipe. My fingers burn red from the cold.

Immigration. Signatures on paper. More paperwork. I sit down and wait for the clerk to stop typing and ask for money. I can’t count the wons with the man and my supervisor watching. What is math? I fumble with the money. Passport photos? Of course. Of course I have them but can’t find them in my purse or in my folder of paperwork. Are you kidding me? I paid ten dollars back home for those! The passport photos are not with me. I thought I had them with me. “Choesong hamnida. Yes, copy my passport page.”

Finished? That’s it? We’re legal! Back in the car, back to the school we pass on the highway, the English Village standing its ground in the hills, protected by trees.

A week later, the bank. Another Korean staff member. “Nice to meet you.” Crawl to the back of the van. I’m the smallest and I don’t need leg room. Rumble up through the hills to the Daegu Bank. The staff member, she drives us down a tight entrance to a small place to park below ground. Deep breaths, the van barely fitting, tires grinding the wall. Screech, teeth grinding, no place to park. Park anyways and leave a note. Inside the bank, the clerk speaks English well. I hand her money, passport, no ARC as of yet. Wait. And wait. “Korean language. Korean language. Korean language.” Signatures, signatures. My ATM card offered to me on a little tray. I take it. Done. Next. Small talk. Bank talk. Then the van barely makes it up the exit ramp. Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. ATM card, empty bank account. Busy city. Here I am.

A Tour of the English Village

The foreign teachers are very privileged at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village (DGEV), from the beauty of our surroundings to the general ease of our jobs. As I’ve been undergoing training and starting to teach the past two weeks, I’ve been able to explore the campus in my free time both inside and out.

The campus is relatively large and the architecture is unsurprisingly Western. The main building looks like a government building with tall pillars in the front and marble-patterned tiles. There are many windows and glass doors in every building, allowing for a profusion of natural light. On weeknights, lights glow from the gazebo and lampposts that stand along the walkway from the fountain in front of the main building to the fountain by the stationary airplane (forever stationed at the airport situational gate) on the other end of campus. A pebbled, man-made river runs through the middle of campus, though its usually dry.

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In the situationals, the impersonation of a Manhattan street can be noisy from the traffic of students following their Village Guides to their next class. They might go to a grocery store, a bank, a police station, a hospital, an airline terminal, a video store, a gift shop, a zoo–all rooms where teachers use these themes and any corresponding props/sets to teach English vocabulary. It’s kind of like a children’s museum.

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I’ve learned that the Village is full of quirks. It caters not only to students, but also to flight attendant trainees. They have a room specifically for instructing young women who fit their strict physical requirements. This explains everything. The room is equipped with vanity mirrors in rows that at first look like computer screens. The floor is marked with two lines to form a catwalk so that flight attendants can practice the proper way to walk down cramped aisles and ease past grumpy travelers. It also has a station where you can weigh yourself and measure your height. I’m fairly certain I would meet zero of the qualities they look for (the fact that I’m not even Korean aside).

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There is also a combat room, which some of us interpreted as a laser tag arena when we were told about it. After shimmying through a gap between two walls (because the room was locked and I was curious), walking through some dark rooms, and exploring them with a flashlight, to my dismay I discovered there was no arena, and rather I found myself in a room with a bunch of rifles pointing at me, which sounds like a scene in a thriller, but really the guns were just stationed on the floor to target practice on a screen on the opposite wall. I think I heard that the military sometimes uses this room for training, because if there’s a class on gun-wielding, I have yet to hear about it.

Another quirk of the Village, in the most comical of senses, is that the Korean administration of the school feels children’s nursery rhymes must boom from the speakers during transitions between classes, which, to the foreign teachers’ chagrin, is every 45 minutes. Right when silence seems normal, a woman’s voice busts out (to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”), “Dad is taking us to the zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow!” and it echoes inside the buildings and across every parking lot, sidewalk, or hole in the ground you try to bury your head in to get away from that music. Some of the lyrics to the three or four songs they play are up to interpretation. Some people hear “sausage in a bag” while others hear “toss it in a bag,” when, apparently, the lyrics are really, “sausage in a pan.” Either way, I don’t know what it has to do with “sweeties in a jar” or “jelly on a plate.” Didn’t the U.S. once use the repetition of the Barney “I Love You” song as a method of torture?

One thing, which I guess you could call a quirk, is the lack of interaction the foreign teachers have with the Korean staff. They have separate offices that we’re not allowed inside and a segregated cafeteria, as well. Our supervisor told us it was because Koreans have loud, frequent conversations on the phone, and we would find it distracting. While this may be true, this concern about distraction probably goes both ways. It would be a fun experience getting to know the Korean staff and learning from each other, but I’m trying to be understanding. Two languages clashing with each other in the same office might prove to be more of a hassle, at least for the Koreans, than a benefit to their fast, hyper-productive culture. Additionally, we don’t really have reason to collaborate with the Korean staff on much, so the chain of command also ensures this separation.

As I expected, there’s a lot I’m learning and trying to figure out about Korea, but I’m happy to be teaching in such an interesting school with beautiful surroundings.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Avischious.

It’s difficult to know just what to expect when visiting a foreign country. No amount of reading about sights to see or cultural practices are a replacement for the real thing. When I was preparing to go to Russia, this process was made even more difficult as I knew very few people outside of my Russian professors at school who had actually been there. Most of my friends had no experience there, and what they did know was usually based off some joke or Russian stereotype. Needless to say I was nervous and excited to venture off into a completely new part of the world in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Stepping of the plane, I realized just how different learning a language in a classroom was compared to actually being surrounded by native speakers. At college the speakers I talked to were just learning the language, and apart from my professor, no one spoke quickly or with great pronunciation. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby to see if I could pick up anything they said, while only sometimes being able to pick up the gist of what they were saying. What really forced me to get comfortable with speaking Russian was living with a host family that spoke no English. It took getting used to, but eventually we were able to understand each other,  and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the language.

After about a week of being in St. Petersburg, I began exploring the city with friends to see the sights. When most people think of Russian architecture, they think of Red Square or giant Soviet apartment complexes. However, St. Petersburg is a very different type of Russian city.  Since the city was originally founded by Russian czar and Europhile, Peter the Great, there is a distinct European style in much of the city. Many of the buildings are pastel colored and feature arches and pillars like in classical French design. That is not to say there is not Russian style, though. As one heads out from the center of the city towards the additions added during the Soviet times, there are towering grey apartment buildings where many of the city’s residents live.

The city not only has unique architecture, but also has its fair share of art. There are many museums in St. Petersburg, but none are more famous than the Hermitage. It’s one of the most famous art museums in the world, and after visiting several times while I was there, it’s easy to understand why. There are pieces from ancient Egyptian art all the way to modern galleries from around the world. While it is an amazing place to visit, I preferred another nearby art museum called the Russian Museum. What makes it special is that it contains only the works of artists from Russia. This helps to give a distinctly Russian perspective of art and the world. It features early Russian icons which show the deep connections with Russian Orthodoxy, portraits of Russian aristocrats during Imperial Russia, and paintings of modern Soviet ideals.

To better understand Russian culture, I then had to travel outside of the city to explore some of the vast parks and gardens. Russians traditionally have emotional and spiritual ties to nature, and getting out of the city is a great way for them to unwind. To get to the parks, my friends and I traveled in old soviet style train cars out from the city, and despite the cold weather, large groups of Russians were out enjoying the scenery. Many of the parks are on the land from former imperial palace grounds, and the amount of space they take up is absolutely gigantic. One could easily spend a day or two just walking around a single park. Through the thick forest and rolling hills, there are often small buildings scattered throughout the parks. These buildings range from green houses to mausoleums built for royal family members.

Of course, it is impossible to really know a culture without actually talking to the people who live there. Walking down the street or riding the metro, people always have a serious look on their face, which can be quite off-putting for foreigners. However I learned to not be fooled by the stern outward appearances of the Russian people. Once you get to know Russians, they are very kind and welcoming. From the friends I made while playing soccer matches in the park, to the old Russian grandmothers who simply wanted someone with whom they could practice their English, they are the ones that truly made Russia feel like an amazing place.

South Korea: First Week and First Impressions

12109283_901438709926766_7741723750300968074_nAnnyeong haseyo. I’m back! (To my blog, that is. I’m actually in a whole different country now, if you weren’t paying attention.)

I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.

But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:

Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.

Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?

“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.

I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!

In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.

At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.

I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.