On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
Maybe
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

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No Country for Ajusshi: A Short Drama About My Naivete

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Sarah: A naive, single woman in her early 20’s
Austin: A quick-witted man in his early 20’s
Dianna: A spunky woman in her early 30’s
Ajusshi: A middle-aged Korean man, single and ready to mingle

SCENE I
The ground floor of Home Plus in Chilgok, South Korea.

SARAH and DIANNA stand in a grocery aisle with a cart full of their purchases: bedding, tailored pants, winter coats, hangers, soju, chips, candy. They look tired from their afternoon of shopping. Austin is in a different aisle, pacing back and forth, wondering what soju to add to his spoils.

An older Korean man, the AJUSSHI, approaches SARAH.

Ajusshi: Where are you from? Americans?

Sarah: Yes, we’re from the United States.

Ajusshi: Which part?

Sarah: I’m from Colorado.

Ajusshi: I know Colorado! They have professional baseball team, yes?

Sarah: Uh…probably. I don’t really know sports. Baseball? They probably have professional baseball…I don’t really know.

Ajusshi: [guffaws] You don’t know!

Dianna: I’m from Wisconsin.

Ajusshi: Oh! Oh! Yes, yes. Wisconsin. I think I know Wisconsin, too.

[All smile and nod, like ya do.]

Ajusshi: [to Sarah] How long have you been in Korea?

Sarah: About three, four weeks now.

Ajusshi: Are you single or married?

Sarah: …Uh, um, single? [Looks at DIANNA uncertainly.]

DIANNA shakes her head “no.”

AUSTIN approaches the shopping cart.

Ajusshi: Do you have a boyfriend? [He looks at AUSTIN.]

SARAH blinks at AUSTIN.

AUSTIN blinks at SARAH.

SARAH blinks at DIANNA.

The AJUSSHI blinks at SARAH.

Sarah: Uh, yes. Yes, boyfriend. [She points at AUSTIN.]

Austin: I’m her boyfriend.

Ajusshi: Ah! Oh, yes. Wonderful! Wonderful. [Quickly exits stage left.]

Sarah: [to DIANNA and AUSTIN] I’m the worst at lying when I actually should.

Dianna: Yes, you are. [laughs] And you’re flushed.

SCENE 2
On a bench at Gumi Station, shopping bags lined up at their feet.

Austin: Well, Sarah, I hate to say it, but I think I’m going to have to break it off.

Sarah: How could you do this! Our love only just began.

Austin: I just feel used, you know?

Sarah: But you were there. You were there! When I needed you most!

Dianna: [on the edge of her seat] I feel like I’m watching a K-drama!

Austin: You can go on without me. We just don’t need each other anymore.

Sarah: You’re right. But, Austin?

Austin: Yes, Sarah?

Sarah: Thank you. I’ve learned so much through this relationship. The next time an ajusshi tries to pick me up, I now know what to say.

Austin: What’s that?

Sarah: “Yes. Yes! I have a boyfriend. He’s in the military. We have couples’ outfits and everything, so it’s very serious.”

[Both gaze off into the sunset.]

Dianna: [clapping and wiping tears from her eyes] Atta’ girl! Atta’ girl!

THE END

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.

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.

On The Truman Show and Exiting to Enter

If you’ve seen The Truman Show, you know the final scene where Truman (Jim Carrey) at last escapes the place he’s called home his entire life. When the tip of his boat crashes through the wall of the dome encircling the small city which, until now, had been his whole world, he gets this look of realization in his eyes: his life-long hope arrives with the crunch of a boat through plaster and a door that opens onto darkness.

Leaving for Korea feels like facing that exit door. It would be dramatic to compare my life exactly to Truman’s (e.g. I know I’m not in a reality show, and I’m at least pretty sure my family and friends are not hired actors). However, it’s easy for me to identify with that sense of resolution and tension as I prepare to leave my home country for the first time.

Truman’s dream was to go to Fiji: “You can’t go any further without coming right back.” I chose Korea not because it was the farthest from home, but because I fell in love with the language watching K-Dramas, I wanted to continue to work with ELL students, and I wanted to live somewhere no one else I knew had been. (Retrospective reality check: everyone and their mothers have been to South Korea. Oops.) Two years ago, when I started the search for international work opportunities, I was impatient to just GO. As a Christian, I’ve discovered how hard it is to trust God to deliver my greatest wishes when I want them so immediately. By the time I started college, I wanted to travel so badly, I felt like I could pack up and leave at any time.

I had also not yet seen the ocean until recently. I wanted to travel, even just a few states away, but circumstances, like the lack of financial and practical opportunity to take off, have always kept me from going. The first failed California road trip I planned was the mechanical issues as Truman sat on the bus, ready to leave, the driver shrugging and apologizing that the engine wouldn’t start. My second failed road trip was the people in Hazmat suits, knocking Truman to the ground and forcing him home. No matter how I tried to plan a trip to the ocean, I felt like it would never happen.

When I decided to pursue teaching abroad, I prepared my parents for my imminent departure by telling them of my plans to apply to programs halfway across the world. They were both sad to think that I’d be gone from their lives, even if just for a year, but my dad was additionally confused as to why I felt this need to travel. Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer, and she replies, “Oh, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.” This was not too far off from my dad’s response. He questioned my reasons for wanting to travel. I had trouble expressing it then. He wondered if I felt discontent, if I was seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

The reality show director, Christof (Ed Harris), speaks to Truman, disembodied, like the voice of God, and tries to persuade him to stay: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies. The same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.” It’s true that if I were to stay, if I were to give up on my dreams of traveling, I could learn to be content. God can use us wherever we are, and if He’s who I’m truly seeking, then I’ll find Him anywhere, even in the same city I’ve lived in for 12 years. I can still eat, pray, love in my backyard, right?

It strikes me that Truman doesn’t know that what’s through that exit door is any better than the suffocating reality he’s lived in; he only has the hope that whatever is but a few steps away will bring change. But we can discover ourselves when we step out of our familiar element. We grow the more our comfort zones are prodded. Truman and I are okay with uncertainty. We’re both willing to take one step forward, to ignore every whisper of “You can’t leave. You belong here.” That’s the trouble of being an especially curious person; I want to learn about whatever is outside my current realm of experience. I want to see what the unknown can tell me about myself and the world around me. It’s the same reason I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle, see the ocean, play a violin, jump the fences in my backyard.

My parents, though they tease me sometimes about them forcing me to stay, are accepting of my choice to leave home. I have the benefit of supportive friends and family, something that Truman didn’t have. And as much as I love my family and friends, and will miss them terribly while I’m having my long-awaited adventures, I know when I board the plane to Korea, my head will be swimming with “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”

Five Things That Scare Me

One of the questions we get asked when leaving for a big adventure is “Are you nervous?” or “Are you scared?” No matter how excited I am, my answer to this so far has been undoubtedly, “Yes.”

As one who tends to overthink things and get especially anxious about the unknown, I reflected on what exactly scares me about leaving the U.S. to live in Korea. Here are the top five things that scare me:

1. Being 6,249 miles away from my loved ones
I’m trying to entrust God with my family and friends while I’m gone. This is the ultimate letting-go for me. I keep reminding myself that it’s only a year. Only a year. But it’s especially hard, because I’ve never been away from them for so long. I’ve never been out of the country. Even when I moved out for my last year of college, I was still only a fifteen minute drive away from my parents’ house. So, I’m looking to God to allow peace and wellness over all my loved ones while I’m gone, and that if anything were to happen, he will hold everything together, as he always does.

But I also worry about what life will be like without them. I don’t know what it’s like to not have them near me for support and encouragement. As close as technology can bring us to each other these days, it won’t be the same as having my family and friends physically present in my life. I’m a little afraid that I’m going to get to Korea and think What have I done??? Who are all of these strangers?

2. My dog dying
My favorite animal in the world, Cody, is getting old. He’s about 11, and he’s in that stage where he has suspicious lumps on his body, he can barely get his Sheltie rump off the ground to stand up, and he mostly sleeps when he’s not eating. I’m gonna miss his presence as he lays by my bed, as he bites my pant legs because he thinks he’s supposed to herd me like a sheep. It’s going to be hard to pet his head in goodbye, because I know it might be the last time I do so.

I made my family promise that they wouldn’t just take tons of pictures of him as soon as I left (in case, he dies they said they would just send me a picture from their “archive” every once in awhile, making me think he’s still alive) or get him taxidermied (so they could just use him as a puppet when we Skype). My family is hilarious, as you can probably tell. But in all seriousness, I really would like to come back to my dog, alive and well, even if he’s a little more fragile.

3. Teaching Korean school children
On a lighter note, I’m afraid I’m going to struggle to communicate with the children I’ll be teaching. For the past three years, I’ve worked as a Writing Center consultant at my university, solely tutoring adults and sometimes high schoolers. You hardly ever see kids on a college campus, so when you do, it’s like, “Look! A tiny person! Is that a baby genius or are they with their parents because the babysitter is out sick?” Basically, I’ve got to get used to teaching an entirely different audience, with the addition of a language barrier.

And besides that, I’ve always been a tiny bit awkward with kids. I mean, I’m awkward with any person of any age, but I still have this weird fear of going for a Ms. Frizzle kind of coolness, and ending up more like Mr. Kimble from Kindergarten Cop. Both characters make inspirational teachers, but I don’t want to end up shouting “THERE EEZ NO BAWTHROOM!” to a bunch of children. We’ll see how it goes. I just bought a cardigan with pineapples all over it, so that should give me some confidence to start out with.

4. Losing important documents (like my passport)
The only stress dream I’ve had throughout this Korea-preparing process was one where I wandered through a dimly-lit airport checking and re-checking that I had everything with me. I just really, really, hope I don’t lose anything important, and that the trip there goes smoothly. Again, I’m going to have to trust my Father in heaven that I will be able to handle everything like the competent adult I pretend to be.

5. Liking Korea so much that I don’t want to come back
I don’t have a plan after year one of Korea. I’m not sure if I’ll return home, stay on for another year, go to grad school, do some more traveling, find a tech writing job, fly to the moon, join a circus. What if home is not Colorado Springs? Will my family be crushed if I don’t come back for longer than a year? Will I even be able to leave them for longer than that?

Giving my fears over to God is like peeling off a band-aid with an extra-strong adhesive, but I believe, one way or another, everything is going to be okay. (I think).

A Swollen Suitcase

The first time I traveled by plane, I was 20 years-old and couldn’t take my eyes from the window. The earth passed underneath, a landscape of black ink blots and dark-brown, dotted lines, like a scarred face or a child’s scribbles.

From my seat, I saw the shadows of clouds. You sit outside and the passing of clouds subtly turns the sky dark, veiling the brightness of the sun like a fraction of night is returning. But from a plane, you can see the full shadow of a cloud stretching out; the darkness is happening to someone else now, and you watch. I realized that I could, for the first time, see from a different point of view. I was above the clouds, instead of the clouds above me. The strikes of lightning that came later when the sky grew dark on that plane ride looked like cloud-islands bursting from the inside.

I couldn’t wait to be in Memphis. Crossing the United States, I thought I might find rest for my wanderlust, which I carted around like a swollen suitcase.

*

I grew up locked in land. Nebraska is bordered on all sides by cornfields shooting deep in the soil, prairies bending in the wind, and big cities that outsiders fail to acknowledge: “You’re from Nebraska? So what was it like growing up on a farm?”

My home was in the suburbs. The creek that ran at the edge of our dead-end street and a long field that stretched from our house to a neighborhood adjacent are misrepresentative. Our neighborhood was also bordered by car dealerships, endless rows of houses, and city parks. The creek itself was strewn with gardens of misplaced clothes, vines of graffiti on the concrete tunnel that ran beneath our street, and a harvest of twisted pop cans.

My adventures didn’t often go beyond Pinkney Street, my homeschool friends’ houses, and the public library. We came up with our own ways of traveling, using the imagination that our parents and PBS Kids fostered in us.

My oldest brother, Aaron, wrote an elaborate story on a yellow legal pad—a sort of Chronicles of Narnia meets Lord of the Rings that described children entering into a new world through a gate and meeting strange creatures from bordering lands who battled each other for some underdeveloped plot reasons. Aaron made my other two brothers and I act these adventures out, our own personal book-to-movie adaptation.

We unlatched the metal gate that led from our backyard to the fenced-out wilderness of the tangled trees that led to the creek. I remember there were Ghost People and there were Fire People. And, most of all, I remember wandering away from the game (probably bored with my character’s lack of development and dialogue) to seek out my own story, talking to the trees like friends and unburying secrets from the trash-strewn dirt.

Though much of the storyline evades me now, entering through the portal-gate is what intrigued my childhood self, equipped in a purple and turquoise windbreaker and shoes caked in mud. It was from there that I could enter the brush on the other side of the fence and create my own space around what already existed there. Because I could enter through the gate, duck under a branch bent in an arc and twisted into another tree, and open onto a space that was continually changing and adapting in my mind, that space was all I needed.

In the realer world, I usually only traveled two places: my grandparents’ house in Wheatland, Wyoming and some close family friends in Florissant, Colorado (okay, there were a few other places we visited, sprinkled throughout my life—Mount Rushmore, the very edge of Iowa, the farther reaches of Wyoming, a road trip through Missouri). It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized a road trip to visit relatives didn’t “qualify” as a “vacation.”

As a middle-schooler, I saw a picture of my friend stretched out on a boat deck, her hair blowing in the breeze. I saw my aunt’s two sons smiling at Disneyland. I saw my best friend posing with her grandma at the Grand Canyon. My brother’s digital footage of museums in Germany. The missions trip photos of so many people I graduated with, holding African children in their arms.

Suddenly my grandma’s tiny town in Wheatland seemed so much smaller. Suddenly the minivan we drove from state to state seemed suffocating.

*

My childhood best friend flew nearly every summer to the Grand Canyon with her dad. I was continually impressed that she had this opportunity—how can her parents afford that? She just goes and sits and reads a book while flying millions of miles in the air?

I became used to people finding out I’d never ridden a plane and exclaiming, “What?! You’ve never been on a plane?! Okay. We’re going this summer. My parents will pay for it.”

As a kid, I never realized how much money we didn’t have. We were wealthy enough—I had food and clothes and an education. But, the times we ate out were often because we earned free coupons from the library reading program, much of my clothes were handed down from me by family friends who had daughters, and I was blessed to be homeschooled by my mother who was a teacher before she started to have kids. We were definitely not poor. But a plane ride for a family of six was beyond my imagination.

Before my first plane ride, one of my biggest claims to adventure was moving from Omaha to Colorado Springs when I was eleven. I wandered the house aimlessly, trying to process having to leave everything I’d ever known—the one house I’d ever lived in. The one town I knew well enough to get to the necessities—the library, the swimming pool, school. I wouldn’t get to see my best friend anymore. Tears flamed behind my eyes. I sobbed at my mother.

“You can call her whenever you want,” she tried to reassure me. I was terrified of having to make new friends—of knowing I wouldn’t continue to grow up with them. It was like losing siblings.

The rope tying me to the doorstep of my home frayed and snapped with every mile our car drove away, and the city passed by in a blur through my tears.

Our first summer in Colorado, my brothers and I explored the mountains in Florissant, shimmying up boulders and peering over steep ledges onto the tops of pine trees. The air was thin and the everyday weather contained all four seasons. There were no fireflies. But the moments I experienced on the edges of rocky cliffs, in caves, underneath towering trees that smelled like Christmas made me fall in love with a changing environment. Sun, rain, snow. Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado.

*

About nine years later, my uncle invited us to visit him in Tennessee. We would fly on a plane. We didn’t have that kind of money. Dad said no. Uncle Steve offered to pay for our tickets; he was a surgeon and a saint. My parents discussed it. My father hesitantly, but appreciatively, said, “Yes.”

I tried not to get too excited (but I was electric with excitement). Soon we were mentally preparing:

“Sarah, research how much shampoo we’re allowed to take on the plane.”

What time do we have to get up in the morning?”

“How loud do I have to say ‘bomb’ before they do a strip search?”

No one is going to say the word ‘bomb’ while we’re at the airport. Just don’t.”

My family’s excitement about getting on a plane might have been adorable. To other passengers, it was probably like we were telling them, “I’m so excited to ride in an automobile! I’ve never ridden in one before. Only biked. In fact, I usually just roller skate everywhere.”

In Tennessee, I didn’t want to leave. It was hot and muggy and there were fireflies. I loved that there was more ethnic diversity. I loved that we could set off fireworks and not get fined. This all felt like Nebraska, like home. Beautiful and comforting. But it was also like being in a wilderness so unfamiliar I wanted to reach out and tangle myself in the impenetrable forests draped in the thick nettings of vines we drove by on the highway. I wanted to bring the color green back with me to Colorado Springs.

*

As the plane picked up speed and I braced myself against its accelerating kick and rush, it felt like an elevator lifting to the next floor. We were quiet, listening to the hum and creaks of the plane. Outside the fields rushed past.

Right when I thought it couldn’t possibly lift off the ground, the plane rose into the air.