Finding Community in an Unexpected Place: A Choir of 8 South Koreans, 18 North Korean Defectors, and 1 American

*Throughout this piece, dialogue originally spoken in Korean will be italicized while English dialogue will not.


This semester, I participated in a truly special choir made up of both North and South Koreans. I first heard of this group through participation in the North Korean Defectors Program [NKD]. NKD is a program where Fulbright ETAs throughout South Korea have the opportunity to teach English to children from North Korea by way of local Hana Centers. Once a week, a few other ETAs and I practice English with four absolutely precious middle school students. Before seeing the students, I met with the Hana Center director in person to discuss schedule and the nature of teaching the children. When we exchanged info for posterity’s sake, she noticed that I was a pianist, vocalist, and former choral director from my business card and we got to talking about music. Turns out, she was a singer as well and wished to invite me her choir with members from both South and North Korea.

I think it will be good if you come, especially since you like music,” she said, so excited that she found songs the choir was working on on YouTube to show me. They were melodious and quite vehemently sung.

It’s so beautiful,” I told her.

This is actually a North Korean song. A lot of the music that we sing is North Korean literature, so I think it would be something you might enjoy.

I thanked her profusely for her invitation.

But, we are not professional level,” she continued.

No! I would love to come and hear everyone.

The following week, I attended my first rehearsal.

This choir was much like any choir in that there were plenty of different personalities: some bubbly choir types and some that were a shade quieter. I tried to be my usual, obedient foreign self, a role I’ve got down pat at this point.  I do as I’m told, am polite, and ask nicely for things if there is a need. People left me alone for the most part. Before rehearsal began, we all passed around the kimbap! This might be a typical choir-in-Korea thing, because I noticed the same ritual in the two choirs I participated in last year. The strong scent of sesame oil put a smile on my face before I was thrust back into sight-reading in Korean, no easy task, but I was pleased to find my ability much improved since the previous year!

The following week, a new member came up to me and introduced himself to me as we waited for the conductor to arrive. He acted surprised to see me. I guess I do stick out like a sore thumb in a choir of North and South Koreans.

“Oh!” he exclaimed loudly. “Where are you from?” When I hear someone address me in solid English, I still try to answer in Korea for fun. ‘They can handle it,’ I think. ‘He doesn’t need any extra help from me.’ I want Korean people to know that I am not waiting for someone to swoop in and rescue me.

I am from Piladelpia,” I respond, Koreanizing both “ph” sounds. I saw a smile creep across the corners of his mouth.

During break time, we had the chance to talk more. I learned that he and his family were from North Korea. I had just assumed that he and his wife were from South Korea, when his wife told me that she lived in Incheon before moving to Jeju. I assumed she was a mainlander! Even in a country that purports being 97% ethnically Korean, it is easy to make assumptions about ‘all Koreans’ or ‘all people in Korea.’ In fact, though rarely mentioned, there are large numbers of North Korean defectors living in South Korea – six hundred some on Jeju Island alone. The stigma surrounding being North Korean keeps many defectors from freely offering up information about their backgrounds. They may even try to mask their North Korean accent. I made a point not to ask them about their circumstances but relate over music, Jeju, and other relatively neutral topics while ‘listening like mad,’ advice from my university choir director that will stick with me for life.

This man told me he has three daughters.

Same with my family! I am one of three girls!

He said that they have all moved out of the house and live on the mainland. He and his wife are lonely at times, because the girls have moved away. At this moment, I feel a pang of guilt for whatever pain I have caused my own family through my absence.

I know what you mean.”

Then, suddenly he said, “you are my daughter.”

It caught me off guard and I didn’t know what to say.

I could tell this man was genuine and he said it maybe two or three times more before I could muster a pitiful response like, “thank you. I appreciate your help.”

I had understood him the first time he said it. I was just another instance where I am taken aback by the kindness of Korean people. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say something like this. If fact, sometimes it seems that Koreans are eager to offer me care. In all honesty, Korean people owe me nothing. I chose to come here and be a foreigner in their country. I am an adult and responsible for my own happiness. Their generosity can be so much it stuns me and with no outlet for my gratitude or the linguistic ability to express it, my heart is left to contort uncomfortably in its cage.

During a later rehearsal, I voiced a minor issue as discreetly as possible, “my page is missing...”

He switched his entire score with mine to resolve the issue and allow me to go right along rehearsing.

Thank you so much,” I offer this response wishing my presence hadn’t inconvenienced him.

“It’s ok. You are my daughter.” There it was again.

I had never imagined in my life that I would be making music with people from North Korea and that I would be the recipient of their kindness, openness, and acceptance. I get choked up thinking about it. To be honest, I was a little nervous the first week. I had expectations about where they were from and how they might behave and what their attitudes toward me might be considering the weight that the word ‘American’ carries. There’s never been a single issue. Granted, at this point, I know how to blend in as much as a person who looks like me can in this place thanks to Fulbright Orientation and one year in Korea already under my belt. I know the right things to say. I know the right way to bow. I know when to speak and when not too. But, geeze! Sometimes the consideration for others here is overwhelming. It’s pretty cool that I am able to make art with these amazing people with stories, lives, and strength, and courage.

The repertoire has been a treat to sing! I practice by turning my one room apartment into a norae-bang, or karaoke room, and singing along to YouTube. When my students overheard me in the school halls, they asked, “Ms. Beavers, where do you learn these old songs?” Half of the songs are South Korean ka-yo, or folk songs, staples that my Korean friends easily recognize. I guess I better be sure to make sure I get them right! The North Korean songs are gorgeous and very passionately sung. They have the same sweeping melodic phrases and slight pentatonicism as the South Korean songs, but with an additional layer of communist China buttercream on top.

One week, a choir member leaned over to ask, “do you understand what these lyrics mean?” These kinds of questions can be patronizing, but this time, they really wanted to make sure I understood the meaning of the song.

Hmm, it sounds like it’s about a small island in the ocean…a boulder…and the waves are crashing around…and seagulls are flying by.” This wasn’t wrong, but I was clearly missing some greater metaphor.

The song is about Gwangju Sa-tae,” he said.

I didn’t understand the second word but tried to further engage, “I have been to Gwangju before. I hiked Mudeungsan Mountain. I like Gwangju!

Oh. Do you know sa-tae?” he searched my face, then continued in English, “sad time. Many students died.”

“Hmm, maybe the Gwangju Uprising?” Now, I search his face for recognition. Nope. I resort to the translator on my phone, confirming that he was indeed referring to the Gwangju Uprising.

He continued, “this is a very sad song, not a happy song. Every Korean feels this song. When this happened I was in high school and many students died.”

From that point on, I couldn’t get images of the sixhundred-some dead police, citizens, and students out of my mind and found it difficult to sing the song. I looked around and the Koreans seemed to be having no problems. Now, I am by nature a sensitive person, but what I often find with Koreans, is that even though there’s been some truly horrific history, they don’t let their emotions interfere with what work needs to be done. Kdramas and pop culture aside, when there’s work to be done, Koreans step up and do it, no complaints, no questions asked. In another song we sing the words, “my hometown is on Northern land. Kagopa!Kagopa means ‘I want to go so badly it hurts.’ Even singing these heartbreaking lyrics, no one let their emotions get in the way of their singing. I really admire Korean people for this. It is not the suppression of emotions, but the resilience of Korean people that I find so beautiful.

I am humbled by my experience singing with these people. I have been offered food and rides home. They ask simple questions about my Fulbright teaching, which shows that they care. It is this kind of genuine compassion that can knock the wind out of you. I hate to admit that I wondered, “how? How are they so selfless and so kind after being through whatever hardships they’ve been through?” Of course, I have made way too many assumptions about them, knowing close to nothing at all.

When I look around the room, I see one member’s child playing games on a smart phone while another member tries to offer him a large piece of kimbap. I hear the ring leader, a sixty plus year old woman with a strong voice, cracking jokes as others chip in.

Oh, no unnie*.”

Oh yes, unnie.”

No unnie, it’s like this!

Boisterous laughter erupts.

I clearly can’t make my way around their use of language, but usually it goes something like this and I feel their joy, grateful to be allowed to be a part of their world each Tuesday night.

Singing with this choir feels like important work, not just from a musical standpoint, which does help fulfill some need in my soul, but to foster feelings of connectedness. We are all brought together by music and I feel like I am getting way more from them then they are from me. I live for moments like this where everybody realizes that they all share some commonalities. The North Koreans may be fluent in the Korean, but I also have an accent that I seek to minimize. We are all trying to find our way here.  So, while it may be true that we are coming from wildly different places, all we really need is the music, to bring us together. Thanks to the creators of this group, a special community has been born.



*Unnie literally means older sister for women. However, it is often used by women to address other women with whom they are close and of a similar age.

Jeju Stone Culture Park

The Jeju Stone Culture Park and Museum was both a highly informative museum and a mind-opening outdoor space of courses leading the viewer through artistic and thoughtful exhibits of historical artifacts, monuments, tombs, and stone figures of cultural significance. This place was wonderfully mentally stimulating and I learned so much about Jeju Island’s volcanic activity, geology, culture, history, and spirituality. AND it was breathtakingly beautiful. The three plus hours spent taking it all in were completely healing and this was arguably the best museum I have ever been to.

Most of the museum descriptions were in both Korean and English and I must have read it all! I geeked out over all the petrified trees, lava balls, space rocks, and stone statues. Geology rocks! …get it?! With all that scientific and cultural significance, I thought my head was going to explode.

The location of Jeju Stone Culture Park could not have been more perfect as its backdrop consisted of many oreum, hills formed by volcanic activity. After reading about the various scoria cones, tufts, and other volcanic rock formations, one steps outside to behold their beauty.

Surrounding the museum, there are several pathways one can take to see even more stone statues, tools, and culture. Exhibits are organized by dynasty and many traditional thatched roof houses hold artifacts and photographs. Deeper in to the woods, there are many statues thought to be deities. The people of Jeju Island used to worship them. Some brought fertility; some brought a bountiful harvest; some brought a big catch of fish; some were even childlike and meant to pay respect to the dead by overlooking their graves. My journey through the forest of stone divinities was something spiritual. It felt like I was in a Miyazaki forest of Kodamas [kodamas are the tree spirits from Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke]. It was also truly amazing to see real Jeju graves (some had even been princes!) and statues all cradled in this beautiful valley of lush green and oreum.

The final reason why this museum was awesome is that it not only tied together history, science, culture, spirituality, but, on top of all that, it artfully displayed some Jeju mythology through rock formations. Please take a moment to read about “The Legend of Seolmundae Halmang” in the pictures below. Halmang 할망 means grandmother in the Jeju dialect. One piece of her story is that she gathered many rocks and carried them in her skirt. As she walked, rocks fell out of her skirt through a small hole, forming Jeju Island’s 360 plus oreum. [It should be noted that Jeju Island was once a matriarchal society and many of their creation stories involve badass women.] After reading Seolmundae Halmang’s full story, you can see her 500 sons represented as rock towers. There is even a shrine in her honor.

On the way out about fifty dol harubang 돌 하루방, Jeju’s iconic stone grandfathers, silently bid you farewell. If you come to Jeju Island, visit this museum and wear good walking shoes.

First Impressions

I can’t believe three weeks have already passed since I started teaching at my new placement! I can safely say I will be very happy teaching here. When I met the students, they screamed in excitement. The don’t seem intimidated by me, but rather curious and eager to practice their English. The students tell me that they like their school, everyone is kind, and there is no meanness.

The school is a private Catholic girl’s high school, a totally new environment for me. However, so far I am very impressed and frankly fascinated. Because there are only girls here, I see my students expressing themselves in a wide range of ways. The students wear uniforms, but have a whole range of hair lengths and a broad spectrum of personalities. These young women are confident and speak up in class and are aggressive in taking responsibility of their classroom learning. I wonder if it has to do with the absence of male students. I am sure that support of teachers and families helps as well. Needless to say, I look forward to my time with the students every day. Also, I have an advanced English class after school once a week and I have been granted permission to teach them choral music for a portion of our time. Hooray!

The teachers at my school are also more than welcoming and friendly toward me. Most people appear busy but kind and several teachers offered to help me if I should ever need it. Last Friday we had our first hoeshik [회식], a meal among colleagues typically complete with food and drinking. We enjoyed grilled duck washed down with soju at a local restaurant. Funny thing is, the school music teacher invited me to join his church choir later that same evening for rehearsal. Good thing I didn’t have too much soju! I met the choir and we sang some polyphonic music. The choir wanted to properly welcome me afterward so we all went out for a beer! What a great way to get to know the choir and let loose. Korean hospitality still shocks me at times and I was really touched.

This week for our second rehearsal, one of the older men, who speaks amazing English, told me he wanted to give me a gift. Last week we had talked about unusual Korean foods and both Korean and surprisingly, Philadelphian history. I wondered how he knew so much about the U.S. Anyway, before our second rehearsal, he said it’s not often he meets a foreign teacher who speaks Korean so he wanted to give me an old English textbook that he wrote. He thought it would help both me and my students learn each other’s languages. Not only did this seem like an invaluable gift, but it was so kind of him to express his support and gratitude of my language learning. I easily absorb stress from language inadequacies on a daily basis. I am hard on myself for the mistakes I make and no one is there to pat me on the back when I get something right. I just live in a Korean speaking country and therefore have to keep trying. This man’s kindness meant so much to me, because I knew he understood my situation and cared about my wellbeing.

Yes! Choir found, my new school is a healthy learning environment full of possibilities, and I feel welcomed into the community.

My First Weekend in Jeju City

I want to start by saying thank you for all the love and support during my hiatus in the U.S. It was so good to see many of you. I feel the love and am truly inspired by the good work you are doing and kindness you are spreading. I hope this post catches you up on my getting from point A to point B in preparation for a second year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in South Korea.

Like last year, all ETAs gathered in Goesan, S. Korea to be picked up by our coteachers. The first year ETAs had been in Goesan for six weeks for orientation and an accelerated Korean course. However, the grant renewees had just arrived the day before the departure day ceremony and were jet-lagged as hell. Nevertheless, we dressed to impress, dropped ninety degree bows, and tried to make a good first impression on our coteachers. This year, I am in a new placement on Jeju Island with a new school, students, and community. There are seven of us on Jeju. We bussed and flew together with our coteachers. It was a long day and I am sorry to say that this time, I did not look out the window at the looming volcano as we began our descent toward Jeju International Airport. My ETA friend and I slept like babies for the hour and change flight from the mainland. Throughout the trip, I was struck by the kindness of the coteachers and vice principals traveling with us. Despite the varying levels of Korean and English among us, they tried to quickly get to know us, bought us convenient store coffee and ice cream and invited us to their respective schools at some point down the road and bidding us farewell.

Upon arrival, we went our separate ways. My coteacher and I went to my new one room apartment! Though the homestay experience in Masan last year was an amazing experience, I am so excited to grocery shop again and have my own place. My coteacher helped me unload my luggage and work through the contract with the landlord. At 8pm we finally grabbed some dinner in the area.

“What would you like to eat,” my coteacher asked.

“Hmm…I could go for anything really. …how about Jeju food?”

“Of course!”

We ended up getting spicy, frozen, raw squid soup, topped with cucumbers and sesame leaves. Just to die for and completely refreshing after the move. In traditional Korean fashion it was served with banchan, communal side dishes. We had anchovies, seaweed, pickled bean sprouts, and of course, rice and kimchi. Oh and even more spicy raw squid. Cracks me up. It was so kind of my coteacher to treat me to a tasty meal on my first night in Jeju.

I’ll spare you the details of unpacking and settling in over the next day, except for a few things I have noticed. First, one of the best ways to get to know a place is by walking. Just use the satellite map on your phone. Here it’s simple. South is a giant volcano and North is the sea. Both are easily visible due to the slight incline that becomes Mt. Halla. Second, I’d like to recommend a bood, Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She writes that if you declutter your home, you declutter your mind and your life. This book really did change my life. It advocates surrounding yourself with only the things that bring you joy. For most people, that means downsizing and I have downsized quite a bit since flying over the Pacific. You gather all of you possessions one category at a time, hold each thing in your hands one by one and ask yourself, “does this spark joy.” She also offers ways to part with things that used to bring you joy, but no longer do. For example, you can thank the object for the happy memories it gave you. Anyway, I highly recommend The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and thoroughly enjoyed tidying up my new place.

Next, I had some business to attend to. The previous ETA at my new high school and good friend of mine left me her bike! I only had to visit her homestay family and retrieve it. So I took the bus to her old homestay family’s house right by the water. In the era of cell phones, it felt strange to just show up at a place and plan to meet a stranger or two without warning them. And my nerves were growing.

I rang the bell, “Hello. I am a friend of Tay’s…”

“HELLO!” (In English) “Come in!”

The mother invited me into her kitchen and offered me tea and fruit as we chatted. Then, the father cautiously approached the table and tried his hand at Korean conversation with the foreigner. Next, the son. His English was outstanding, having lived in Australia for six years. We somehow found our way into politics.

“Isn’t your family worried about you being so close to North Korea?” the mother asked.

“Not really. But I think Americans are generally more worried than Koreans seem to be.”

“Yes, that’s right,” she replies.

“We can’t change the situation. Even if we worry.”

“Yes.” Good. The father agrees. Suddenly, we are on the topic of Trump.

The father continues, “North Korea is a closed country, but America is not, so things back home will improve.”

“Maybe, but our government is broken at the moment,” I respond.

“But America is still one of the strongest countries in the world,” the son chips in.

Then the father goes into detail, “sldakfj a;sldkjfas ELECTION asdlkjslkdaj TRUMP a;sldkfj;asldk a;sldksfjldkjjsalksj asldkfjaslkj.”

I don’t understand. “Ne?”

“Dad, you use vocabulary that is too high level. Use simple Korean,” the son told his father. He explained to me in English, “he said, ‘during the midterm elections the Democratic Party can win more seats and prevent Trump from doing anything.’”

“That could happen. Or, the people can rise up and get rid of him,” I say.

“No, no. America can do this legally,” says the father.

“I hope you’re right and things get better,” I say.

The conversation goes on for over an hour. It is not only about Trump. We also talk about everyone’s areas of interest, the previous ETA, Jeju Island, etc. For me, it was a careful language ballet. I have learned that language ability is a very sensitive topic for many people. I should speak the appropriate language in the appropriate situation to the appropriate person. I made that mistake a few times last year. In this situation, it was pretty simple. Korean only to the father, English mostly to the son because he was learning and showed strong interest, she either language to the mom. She seemed like a strong former English teacher who was proud to share her Korean culture with me. With my previous coteacher, almost exclusively English. With my current coteacher, I follow her lead. If she speaks English, I speak English. If she speaks Korean, I try to speak Korean.

At last we exchanged our it-was-very-nice-to-meet-yous. The mother offered me her phone number and told me I am always welcome in her home. The father drove me and my friend’s old bike back to my apartment.

Later that day, my coteacher showed up at my place with a very interesting housewarming gift – a package of several rolls of toilet paper. Leave it to the Koreans to be both thoughtful and practical. Who wouldn’t love spare toilet paper?

She also came to offer me a ride to see the way to the school that I can get there easily on my own the next morning. It was a very thoughtful gesture and I accepted. She then asked what I had ate and if I needed to do grocery shopping. She had planned to go grocery shopping too and thought we might go together. I took her up on it and she brought me to an amazing grocery store in my neighborhood where I found everything I needed.

The offers continued.

“Would you like to come with me to Dongmun market? I planned to buy some fish.”

Dongmun market is a wonderland. “I would love to go to the market with you!”

Like the famous fish market in Masan, there were fishy smells, the sounds of chopping and water trickling, and a wet concrete isle lined with countless buckets, bowls, tanks, and tables full of fish. There were certainly more kinds than you can identify by a hundredfold. She even gave me a few pieces of long silver fish, kalchi (I believe it’s called cutlass or hairtail fish in English), that she had purchased.

She said, “you can try this at home. It’s famous on Jeju Island.”

In my first weekend here, I have been blown away by the generosity. The kind gestures and gifts of time were very much appreciated. Imagine if we Americans welcomed immigrants and foreigners into our homes, showed patience when talking with them, and offered to help them get what they need. Foreigners may not fit perfectly into the dominant culture, but generally they have an interest in or at least a reason for being wherever they are.

Anyway, I feel pretty squared away with a bike, groceries, and the support of the few people I know in Jeju City. Can’t wait to meet the students tomorrow morning!


If you are interested in seeing my experiences in South Korea more play-by-play and with more pictures, you are welcome to follow me on Instagram (e.beavers) or Facebook (Elizabeth Beavers).

Hahoe Folk Village

I went on another Korean adventure! This time, my friend and I went to traditional, 600 year old Hahoe Village. We decided to tour the place in style on a pink umbrella fitted scooter. We cruised down the narrow streets at a whopping 5mph while taking in the traditional thatched roof houses.

Our first stop was at a long table where tourists could write their names with a brush in the traditional style. I asked the kind calligraphy scholar to help write my Korean name in Chinese characters, the old writing system in South Korea. I think my name is special because I made it with my Korean friends in the U.S. It sounds like a popular Korean name, but I spell it differently so it means “sea” rather than “grace.” When I tell people it’s because I love seafood, they usually chuckle. If you write my Korean name in Roman characters, it starts with the same letters as my English name: Bae, Eunhe and Beavers, Elizabeth.

After I described my name to the ladies at the calligraphy station, they helped explain it to the calligrapher, “she said, ‘ocean!’ Ah-ee ah-ee!” He did a beautiful job.



Later, we regretfully returned the scooter and followed the crowd to the theater to see the tradition mask dance. When we entered, the square theater was already full of onlookers and the clamorous sounds of traditional Korean samulnori music. Someone was really letting it rip on the small but mighty kkwaenggwari, a small metal gong. The bigger drums followed suit and the piri oboeist wasn’t coming up for air.  In the open area for the actors, two figures covered in white sheets and antlers were fighting until one fell to the ground. Then the butcher came out in a mask in a jovial kind of jig-walk. He removed the deer’s testicles and offered them to the audience. What was going on?!

The characters came out one at a time with their own stick and highly nuanced movements. I was suddenly struck by the artistry. The more I pondered the mask dance before my eyes, the more overwhelmed I became. It was so beautiful to see and feel this traditional music live with the backdrop of a traditional folk village and magnificent mountains. This is what I had imagined Korea would be and it was suddenly so real. It was the most “Korean” feeling I had had in the eleven months of being in Korea. I felt transported to the Joseon dynasty. I had to look at the surrounding faces in the crowd to check. There were older people who seemed familiar with the work, as well as children who looked on in wonder.

At this point I couldn’t contain myself any longer and had started to cry. Why was someone like me, flown in from the other side of the world on an airplane, so profoundly affected by this folk dance? It almost felt like a homecoming, a familiar satisfaction from something I had never before seen. I hadn’t right? I wasn’t so sure.

A year earlier, I was the one flipping flashcards on the beach while everyone else dug into novels, “의사 (doctor), 상추 (lettuce), 냉장고 (refrigerator).” Those who know me will attest that I was obsessed with the idea of Korea. I can still hear my dad explain to a relative, “she’s doin’ the flashcards,” with a slight shake of the head, supportive half smile, and a shrug. I miss the slight Philly accent. Driving with my friends, I would stare out the window and state quietly but assuredly to myself, “나무 (tree), 나무들 (trees), 새두마리 (two birds), 빨간차 (red car).” I don’t understand why I was like this, but I felt a need to go. Korean wasn’t even any kind of burdensome obligation. I felt simply possessed by some other force acting within me. And as I studied, I felt the pull of the far off peninsula like the great and mysterious Death Star. Now, I was where I had been trying to get to and hadn’t known it all this time.

I hadn’t expected to understand the performance at all, but there I was laughing and responding with the Korean audience. Crying, laughing, being moved, crying some more. The masks themselves were striking, almost alive. They were carved from wood and some had jaws that moved with the actor’s speech. Each mask only had one expression, but it was fascinating how much the actors emoted and how much could be felt.

My favorite character was the grandmother. She had a special, funny way of walking. They all did. She was the only character who sang and when she did it was about how she had married young and thus aged quickly. Her voice was raw and heartfelt, a rare find in the days of digital music everywhere.

The mask dance is a social and political satire, like many immortal plays throughout history. In this one, each character is a member of the social hierarchy and it’s fun to see them interact. Back in the day, all the characters were played by men. Nowadays, the grandmother is played by a female actress, but Bunae, the character with the most beautiful face and clothing, is played by a male actor. His movements were highly effeminate and comical. Hundreds of years ago, people believed the characters were also gods and the performances were both entertaining and spiritual. After performances, the masks were ritualistically burned. My Korean friend described this kind of shamanism as being similar to Native American beliefs: spirits, gods, and goddesses inhabit things and one should have a strong appreciation for nature.

Later that day, I got to see a 600 year old tree inhabited by a goddess. It was the real Grandmother Willow from Disney’s Pocahontas. The goddess’s face is carved on a post in front of the protected tree and people come from far and wide to ask her for protection and grant wishes. You can write a wish on a slip of paper and tie it to the wooden fence.


To conclude our adventure, we ascended a stone path to a traditional tea house with a woman in a hanbok (traditional Korean dress), serving tea to an ordinarily clothed man. We were invited to come in and enjoy the local chrysanthemum tea from Andong. The open walls let in the stunning view of the surrounding river, cliff, and mountains. I asked if there was a proper way to drink the tea and she said, “since you came, I will teach you tea etiquette.” She proceeded to explain how the culture of drinking tea is different from that of liquor, a topic that my friend and I are well versed in at this point from all of the company parties with principal, superiors, and teachers all drinking together. The woman showed us how to hold the tea, how to sit, and how to serve others. I asked about brewing and she explained that as well. I mentioned that Masan is also famous for Chrysanthemum tea and we started talking about regional teas. We try the bean powder and honey tea snack. The older man asks how to say 콩 in English. “Bean.”

We talked about Korean traditional social etiquette. The woman said that people from other countries come to Korea and are impressed by the manners. I tell her that Americans also admire Korean culture. We get to the subject of modernism. She fears it is growing. Many of her statements include, “it was like this, but not anymore.” I tell her it’s possible to have modernism and traditionalism.

“They will mix, I’m afraid,” she says.

“It can be separate, too. It’s possible to have both modern and traditional culture.”

“I sense you like a Korean person. Are you happy here?”

“Yes, very much.” That day was particularly positive and at that point I didn’t care to spend energy thinking about the struggles of foreigner life in Korea. I was, for the most part, happy and left it at that.

She gave us many well wishes before we boarded buses speeding away from the precious folk village.

Breaking the News to My Students

Today, I began to break the news to my students that I am leaving in three weeks. “Teacher noooo!” In recent weeks it had already become difficult to look them in the face without feeling a pang of guilt. Now, I had to stand helpless before their upset faces. I seek to constantly build a strong rapport with my students while maintaining the utmost professionalism. What would a professional say to them now?

In an effort to share some of my students’ spirit with you, I want to display some of their work. A few months ago we did a project inspired by the Frank Warren’s famous PostSecret project. I asked the students to write anonymous secrets about anything. Then, one week later, we read each other’s secrets as a class. I got the idea from a fellow ETA, Rachel Fauth, during our Spring Conference and thought it might be a great way to get my students using English in a more creative and meaningful way. My students do not learn writing in the Korean English curriculum and are therefore very apprehensive. However, they seemed to put genuine effort into this activity and I could feel them gain composure as we proceeded. Even though the secrets are brief and there are some errors, I think you can get an idea of who my students are. I work with them every day and think they are beautiful. I hope that even though some students wrote sad secrets, that submitting their writing helped bring them comfort.

Please click the link below to view the secrets in a PowerPoint. 

PostSecrets at Guam High School


Fulbright Update

In a month, I am finally coming home! I can’t wait to see friends and family again. YAYAYAYAY!

The other big news is that I have decided to renew my grant with Fulbright for another year. I am happy to announce that I will be teaching on Jeju Island starting in late August of this year. This decision comes from being satisfied with my life in Korea, as well as wanting to continue learning about the culture and myself as I am challenged by my experiences here. I also believe in the work I am doing with Korean youth in terms of English education. However, I truly believe that the fact that these students can interact with someone from a different background is more important than learning English. I love our interactions where the students can see that we are all people despite our appearances, languages, and culture.

As you may have read in previous posts, Jeju is Korea’s beloved volcanic island and getaway destination. It traditionally had a matriarchal society. Some people still speak what is considered an endangered language. It is famous for special citrus fruit, horses, hiking, and amazing seafood. When the volcano last erupted, it formed 365 small mounds of lava all over the island that can be hiked up. One for each day of the year!

PLEASE EMAIL me so I can be sure to see you while I am back in the states from July 18th to August 15th. I have thought about you A LOT during my year in Korea. ❤