20 Things I’ve Learned in Korea (so far)

  1. If a middle-aged person wants to talk to you in English on the subway, just let them do it. No matter how much you want to practice your Korean, I assure you they are just as persistent (if not moreso) with wanting to practice their English…especially 아저씨 (middle-aged men)
  2. Always have a fake name/email/address/phone number to give out to said persistent English-speaking Koreans. Some will chase you until you give it to them…especially 아저씨 (middle-aged men)
  3. You can definitely make it on Korea on free wifi alone, though this means you won’t be able to join reward programs or order food delivery.
  4. How to use your roommate’s food delivery app Yogiyo (on her dual sim phone) to order food.
  5. As soon as Sept 22nd passes, Korean dress in full fall garb, complete with turtlenecks, boots, and coats even if it’s still 75 degrees (F) outside.
  6. How to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit in my head (See here: https://lifehacker.com/5917331/quickly-convert-between-fahrenheit-and-celsius-without-a-calculator)
  7. How to make lemon ginger tea from scratch. It actually does help fight off colds, by the way!
  8. Crack your eggs carefully and never directly into a pan…there might be a chick inside….
  9. How to explain there is a baby chick (complete with feathers and beak) inside an egg to the poor student working at the convenience store.
  10. How to say vegan in Korean: 비건
  11. It’s a real struggle to cut dairy out of your diet when you’re in the land of bingsoo.
  12. Korean clubs are a bit different from the ones back at home (lol listen to me talking about clubs, haha) Some of my friends and I went to Madholic in Hongdae, and everyone was standing in lines and rows nodding their heads to remixed hip-hop. Not really much dancing, but tbh there wasn’t any room to dance, so….
  13. Oh, unless you go to NB1 or NB2. Lots of space, actual dancing happens. NB1 > NB2 in my opinion because there are fewer creepers.
  14. It’s extremely easy to get a boyfriend here. Nothing special. You change them like socks.
  15. If you speak Korean to the ladies giving out samples at the grocery store, not only will they encourage you to eat more samples, they’ll also give you free paper towels. After an hour in the grocery store, I had like 5 free rolls of paper towels.
  16. I don’t need to date because I get all the love and free food I need from Korean  아줌마 (middle aged women)
  17. Apparently 나는  애교가 많다. (It’s not on purpose, I swear)
  18. Listening to Korean radio is one of the best ways to practice your listening when you can’t be around Korean people.
  19. People still submit song requests to radio stations.
  20. My Korean teacher knows “It’s Raining Men” and can sing the whole song in Korean. (하늘에서 남자가 비처럼 온다면 좋겠어요…Hallelujah!)

For Whom the Midterm Tolls

I knew we were learning a lot at Ewha, but I didn’t know exactly how much we had learned until I was faced with about 800 vocabulary words and 34 grammar points to review for the midterm. Now, I could’ve done better by simply studying bit by bit over the one week break (for 추석) but I felt I had a good grasp on everything and didn’t need to start studying THAT early. Haha…

That changed several days before the exam, when I learned about the structure of Ewha’s exams. The midterm is split into 5 mini-tests: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and grammar/vocab. Listening and speaking are scheduled on the same day and reading, writing, and grammar/vocab are on another day (that’s right; two days of testing). My confidence was in grammar and vocab, so I was most prepared for the grammar/vocab section (naturally) and the reading section. However, I had no idea how to “study” for listening, writing, or speaking. So, I spent those several days before the exam listening to all the book dialogues over and over again; I also made sure to review all the mistakes I made in my writing homework and rewrite each writing assignment with the corrections. As for speaking, I just figured I should probably just wing it. I think speaking tests are almost impossible to prepare for unless you’ve been talking with a  native speaker all semester (*cough cough*) and/or you know exactly what topic(s) you’ll be asked to talk about.

On the first day of exams, we did the listening and speaking portions. Listening wasn’t too bad; all the questions are multiple choice and you’re given little time before each recording to read the questions, and they let you listen to the dialogues twice. It started out fine and then got progressively harder. The most challenging part was closer to the end, when the number of listening comprehension questions per section doubled or tripled in number (so, from 1-2 per dialogue to 4-6) and it was nearly impossible to read all the questions before the dialogue started. This resulted in me reading questions as I was listening which is a dangerous game because it’s easy to miss what’s being said. Only one dialogue really threw me for a loop, and that was because there were words in it we definitely hadn’t learned. And once you encounter one or two words in a dialogue you don’t know, you’re kind of screwed for the rest of it, so…that was that. But other than that, I felt it was a very fair test.

The speaking portion….went. Haha. You sit one-on-one with your teacher and do three things: read a paragraph, make a dialogue (based on one from the book), and free talking. Reading and free-talking went pretty smoothly for me, but the dialogue part was just awkward. You’re given a scenario (from the book) and supposed to have a smooth conversation with the teacher using key phrases and vocabulary from that specific chapter. The dialogue happened, but there were lot of awkward pauses as I tried to remember exactly which key phrases had been in that chapter (plus I tend to be awkward in general when it comes to speaking tests anyway, so….that wasn’t working in my favor either.) By the end, the teacher looked disappointed, I felt disappointed. I went home and sat in my own puddle of disappointment.

The second day was reading, writing, and grammar/vocab. I blazed through grammar/vocab and, to my surprise, I also blazed through the reading section. See, on the placement test, reading was my lowest score and they held me back from level 4 mostly because they didn’t think I could handle the reading. When I got the reading test and thought it was relatively easy, I was a bit shocked. And proud. (HA! I can read!) But that writing section was a blood bath. We had 80 minutes to write two essays. The first one, while it wasn’t the best, was all pretty and nice looking with long sentences. The second one, however, was a hot mess. I couldn’t decide what to write about, so I just scribbled something in the end. Pretty sad.

My test scores reflected exactly how I felt, for the most part. I did very well on grammar/vocab and reading, speaking and listening were decent….that writing score though….Well, let’s just say I passed. That’s what’s important, right? I PASSED.

I think I would’ve done better on the writing portion if I had also prepared an outline of a backup essay. The prompts on the writing test were the same as our previous writing assignments, so if I just come up with several ideas for the same prompt beforehand, I won’t spend so much time thinking about what to write on the test. It’s an easy fix (in theory)! I think I can also improve my speaking score if I group all the grammar and key phrases by chapter, so I know what “goes together.” Honestly, I find it rather frivolous to do that (because will that really make my Korean any better…?), but if they want me to use the key phrases from a specific chapter, fine.

At least I know what to expect for the final! Onward and upward.

What’s Open During Chuseok?

This past week I had the opportunity to see Seoul the emptiest I’ve ever seen it. “How empty?” you might ask. Well, empty enough for Simon and Martina to dress up in costumes and dance in the streets:

That video was from several years ago, but I would say it’s still a good representation of what Seoul looks like after the mass exodus of hometown-bound Seoulites. Often called the Thanksgiving of Korea, Chuseok is Korea’s harvest festival; traditionally, this was when families came together and gave thanks to their ancestors for the plentiful harvest. Even today Chuseok is still a time meant to be spent with family. I heard that one tradition is to visit ancestral graves and clean them to show respect. On the morning of Chuseok, families hold memorial services in honor for their ancestors called charye, wherein freshly harvested rice, alcohol and songpyeon are prepared as an offering to the family’s ancestors. I’m not sure if every family still does all the traditional Chuseok festivities every year, but at the very least, everyone does seem to go back to their hometowns and enjoy a whole mess of delicious food. More recently, it’s become more common for people to give gifts to friends, family, and even business partners during Chuseok. If you go into any market, there are huge displays of gift sets containing a variety of goodies like cookies and traditional Korean snacks…oh and, spam. Spam is crazy popular. I know we (Americans) consider it junk food, but it seems to enjoy an elevated status in Korea. I would never ever want to receive spam as a gift (and what would you do with 10 containers of spam, anyway?) but hey, whatever floats your boat.

Photo source: http://asiasociety.org/korea/chuseok-korean-thanksgiving-day

Seeing as I am a foreigner in Korea without any family, I did not take part in any Chuseok festivities, but I did enjoy some staple Chuseok foods–songpyeon and jeon–with my housemate. We made the jeon together and bought frozen songpyeon from the store (too lazy to make it by hand…). We sat on our rooftop with some traditional ~spirits~ and had ourselves a good time.


(PC: housemate)

So, from left to right on the wooden serving plate, we have perilla jeon (perilla leaves filled with meat and fried) and zucchini jeon (zucchini tossed in jeon flour and fried) on the top row, shrimp jeon and goju jeon (peppers stuffed with meat and fried)on the second row, and meat medallions made out of the jeon filling on the bottom. On the right side of the serving plate, you’ll see a dish of japchae, which is noodles, vegetables and eggs tossed with soy sauce and sesame. The yellow and white balls above the jeon are songpyeon, which are rice cakes filled with with things like sesame seeds, chestnuts, red beans, etc, and steamed with pine needles (traditionally). Even the store bought ones were pretty tasty!

Other than this mini-feast, I had a pretty chill Chuseok. I was told that a lot of things would be closed because of the holidays, so I was relaxing at home for the most part. Sure, a lot of shops and small restaurants around the city were closed, but there’s still some fun to be had if you’re stuck in Seoul during Chuseok. Everland was having a special discount price for foreigners during Chuseok, but I didn’t get to go; I was kind of pissed that none of my friends were willing to go with me (I should’ve just gone by myself…!) Most major tourist attractions, cultural facilities, and department stores also seem to be open during the Chuseok holiday. Korea’s tourism organization releases a Chuseok holiday schedule every year, so if you’re going to be in Korea during Chuseok and need to get the skinny on holiday hours, hit up their website: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AKR/FU_EN_15.jsp?cid=2507616

I would have gone on a trip during Chuseok, but I hear that airports, trains, and roads are MOBBED with people. I was texting some of my classmates that went to Busan and Jeju Island and they said that both places were so crowded, that they wish they had just stayed at home. So, I absolutely don’t regret staying in Seoul for Chuseok…!

I’m Here to Exchange Languages, not Saliva

In line with being a proper student of Korean, I’ve been on the hunt for a language partner. I guess by language partner, I mean a native Korean speaker I can meet once or twice a week, who will let me fumble through embarrassing stories in Korean, correcting me as I go… someone who will teach me how to not sound like a textbook. And, if such a person would like to use half of our time together to practice their English, this is completely fine with me as well. Even better if we like each other enough to look forward to our weekly meetings and–dare I say–even become friends.

I thought it would be relatively simple to find a language partner, but I’ve realized that this is might be a tall order because so far everyone I’ve encountered is looking to exchange saliva or other bodily fluids, not languages.

To be fair, I’m probably not looking in the best places. The first place I tried was an app called HelloTalk, which lets you connect with native speakers of the language you want to learn. They’ve had quite a presence on YouTube lately, having sponsored several of my favorite (black, female) YouTubers (living in/visiting Korea). Both KennieJD and Megan Bowen (used to be a big fan!) made some videos about their experiences on the app. Of course, they said you get some creepers, but not everyone is blatantly trying to get into your pants. So, I thought I’d try it out. (Am I just a sadist?)

As advertised, I was quickly able to connect with a lot of Korean speakers. Unfortunately, most of them only wanted to message me in English, so I was kind of put off. Also, all of them were men. I got some messages from people who said they were really interested in African culture and African dance, so they wanted to be friends with me (sorry, can’t help you there buddy….) some avidly expressed their love of “Black music” (Dear God, I hope they don’t actually call it that in Korean….) and some conversations just went like this:

Him: Hi

Me: Hi.

Him: U r prety

Me: Thank you.

Him: Kakao?

Me: …….

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Etcetera. But there were two people that really stood out to me on this app. One was a guy we’ll call Horseface (My roommate named him.) He lived in Australia for several years, so his English is quite good, but if I message him in Korean, he will happily answer me in Korean. All in all, seemed like a regular guy on the app. But, once we switched over to Kakao it become more and more apparent that he wasn’t exactly trying to keep up his English. (He was trying to get something else up, y’know what I mean?) He kept bugging me for pictures, for one, and being way over the top with the compliments when I did finally send him a picture (OF MY FACE). But the icing on the cake was when we finally agreed to meet on a Saturday evening. To me, 6 or 7pm is a decent time to meet in the evening. So I asked if we could meet around then. He said that was fine. Then, a little voice in the back of my head told me to also make up a curfew so he wouldn’t try to keep me out so late. So, I told him I had to be back by 10:30, to which he replied….

Horseface:  Heyyyy, why the rush?

Me: Oh, I haven’t really talked to my parents since I’ve been here, and they’re really missing me. It’s the only time that works for them (LIE LIE LIE)

Horseface: Oh, I see…Well, we can hang out when you have more time.

Me: What? But if we meet from 7-10, that’s three hours… isn’t that enough?

Horseface: I was hoping we could hang out longer.

Me: How long did you want to hang out, exactly?

Horseface: I dunno….just depends on how well he get along 😉

Me: I think 3 hours is more than enough if we’re meeting for the first time.

And then I didn’t hear from him for a while. GURL, these people think they’re slick. Puh-leaze. Anyone with two eyes could see straight through that “I just want to spend more time with you” cutesy act. And then he had the nerve to pull a classic f*ckboy move and text me at midnight two weeks later, saying “Heyyyy. It’s been a while. Wanna hang out tonight?”

What did I say to him? The world will never know. Because he was blocked and deleted. NEXT.

The other guy I met on HelloTalk seemed quite normal. We messaged once or twice per day in Korean, just talked about our hobbies or what we did that day. We ended up switching to Kakao after 3 weeks of using HelloTalk and then things got weird. (I feel like shit gets real on Kakao…)

He went from chill to desperate real fast, girl. He messaged me good morning and told me to eat breakfast everyday. He texted me mid-morning and said “good luck with school”, asked me what I would eat for lunch, what I planned to eat for dinner. It was kind of creepy, to be honest, so I just started lying about everything I did (It’s still language practice, so who cares?) If I said I was going to a cafe, he would say 그 카페에 가고십네~ If I said I ate soondubu jjigae for lunch he would say “Ah I wish we could eat together…”

I didn’t mind talking to him, or meeting him in person, honestly, but because he didn’t have a profile picture on Kakao and he later admitted to me that his profile picture on HelloTalk was a fake, I didn’t know if I was actually talking to a 29 year old Korean guy or some 60 year old ajusshi. I know you can’t always trust photos, but somehow it was even creeper that he had no pictures and absolutely refused to send me one when he’d seen my profile picture and asked me to send other pictures before. So I stopped answering him, hoping he would cool his jets.

When we started chatting again–about hiking, this time– I thought everything had gone back to normal. But when I mentioned that it’d be nice to go hiking again soon, he sent me: 같이 가요! 같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이!!!

Sooo…that sat unread in my inbox for a long while….

Honestly, I’d like to have a female language partner so maybe I won’t run into these issues as often, but they don’t seem to be as responsive on HelloTalk, which is a shame. I think it might be better to go to language exchange events so I can get a read on people in person. But even then, events like those have a reputation for drawing people who are looking for dates… *sigh*

Surprisingly, the closest thing to a language partner is a guy I met on Tinder, who has a girlfriend and actually just wants to practice his English with me. He teaches me Korean slang and is actually really nice. No creepy vibes at all so far! One point for Tinder….? (It’s got a lot of strikes too though…!)





“That’s Just Asia”

Well ya’ll, I might’ve spoken prematurely when I said I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. In my defense, she did come bearing gifts and she DID offer to handle the cooking for the household and she DID buy me bingsu for my birthday, so I might’ve been a little biased when I spoke. One thing that happens when you meet someone decent in a foreign country is that the pace of your friendship is accelerated– the honeymoon phase of friendship hits you fast and hard, you open up to each other too fast too soon to imitate the intimacy of (real, stable) friendships back home, and just as quickly, you’ll hit the sink-or-swim part of the friendship, in which flaws are exposed, you find out you have opposing values, and you might even start arguing. The reality of spending the rest of the semester with this person looms large…and I’m looking for a life vest so I can jump ship.

We don’t have any problems when it comes to day-to-day living. She’s very clean. She’s not loud. We have opposite schedules– I wake up at 7:30 everyday and (ideally) go to bed around midnight and she wakes up at noon and goes to bed some time between 3-5am. It’s not our opposing schedules that create a problem, it’s her habit of blaming every difference we have on the fact that I’m American and she’s Singaporean. For example, this girl loves shopping, like big brand names. When she comes back from shopping, eager to tell me all the name brand bags or shoes she’s bought, I just nod and smile. I think she’s almost offended by how little I care about a bag or shoes; several times I’ve said to her, “I just never thought things like brand were very important; I just buy what I like.” To which she replies, “Well, I guess it’s just because you’re American, but welcome to Asia–bags and brands are important here. So, get used to it.”

She also loves taking pictures….of everything. We can’t get on the subway or the bus without her whipping out the camera. You might think, “Well, Carmen, maybe she’s just excited…it’s her first time in Korea, after all.” Well…it’s not. She’s been to Seoul 7-8 times, so none of these common city views are new and yet, snapshots of everything, all the time. She’s even taken several photos of me without my permission and sent them to some other friends in Korea and at home. I’ll let the manic tourist picture-taking slide, but when I confronted her about taking pictures of me and sending it to people I don’t know without my permission, she said, “Oh, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal….it’s very normal in Asia.”

(That gives me flashbacks to that time a group of Chinese tourists chased me around Gyeongbokgung to take creeper pics of me, but whatever….)

Once, she promised to take me to a store in Hongdae that I was having trouble finding online. Halfway there, it started to drizzle a bit and she insisted we go home right then because she didn’t want to get sick. “You said the store is like….5 minutes away from here. Can’t we just run there and take a quick peek, so I know where it is at least?” I asked.

“No,” she insisted, covering her head with her hands and turning towards the station, “If a drop of rain touches my head, I’ll have a fever by tomorrow. I’m not getting sick for this.”

“I don’t think you’ll get sick if we just run there now….”

“I guess you don’t understand because it’s an Asian thing, but in Asia people get sick from the rain.”

I wanted to say, “Oh really, because YOU are the only person on this entire street freaking out about a little drizzle. Every other ASIAN person here is completely fine.”

It’s not that I have a problem with her wanting to stay out of the rain. I don’t have a problem with her liking brand names, or liking photography. The problem is that every time we disagree about something, she’s quick to blame it on “cultural differences” when it’s really just her own personality quirk. Yes, I know that in Korea and Japan (maybe less so in Japan…?) brand-names, how you dress, what car you drive is extremely crucial to how other people see you. In America, though, there are also tons of people who also think brand names are very important and will judge you (perhaps less overtly) on what bag you’re carrying, or your shoes. I can easily run off a list of friends who care deeply about brand names. She had an equal chance of meeting an American who REALLY cares about brands.

Similarly, people who live their entire lives through instagram, snapchat, etc, are all over the freaking world, so the obsession with taking pictures isn’t an “Asian” thing. I wish she would just own up to it and say, “Yes, I am one of those people who will never put down the freaking camera (phone).” Instead of speaking for the entire Eastern Hemisphere.  I’m very sure there are people living in Asia who don’t feel this compulsive need to record every single moment of their lives on camera.

Most of all, I’m reluctant to categorize “Asia” as one big culture. When she says “That’s just Asia or it’s an Asian thing,” I think she’s speaking from her experience of Singapore, China, Malaysia, and maybe even Korea, and other countries I know she’s lived in or visited very frequently. But these aren’t the only countries that make up Asia. What about Japan? Countries in Southeast Asia? What about India? After being exposed to its diversity, it’s hard to think of Asia as this one big homogeneous blob. I’m not saying that these countries don’t have anything at all in common, but it irks me when she uses such a broad brush. There’s no way I’m going to travel to Indonesia or Nepal expecting it to be like Japan. Korea and Japan, though often lumped together, are radically different. Hell, even Okinawa, Japan, and Tokyo, Japan are worlds apart.

At the same time,  her experiences growing up and traveling in Asia as an Asian (Chinese-Singaporean, to be specific) person are valid. Clearly the culture she was raised in values things like brand names and photos and being terrified of the rain, and she has incorporated those values into how she lives. How can I respect that while also telling her, “No, that’s not all of Asia, sometimes, it might be Singapore, or it might be just YOU”?



Well Butter My Butt and Call Me a Level 3 학생

If you recall, last time I studied in Korea, I was in Level 2 at Sogang. As much as I loved the conversation-focused instruction at that school (read my semester report here: https://thecarmensutra.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/so-long-sogang/ ) I wanted more balanced instruction this time– listening, speaking, writing, reading, with vocabulary quizzes and cultural excursions, the whole nine yards.  The language school that best fit the bill happened to be Ewha, a women’s university famous for the sprawl of cheap clothing and accessory shops right before the main entrance (that had nothing to do with my decision….)

I’ll spare you the gory details of my placement test and the bit of placement drama afterwards and just tell you that I’m taking Level 3 this quarter. I was disappointed to say the least. The Level 3 teachers teach the class in slow, dumbed-down Korean, and my classmates speak in very slow, broken Korean, if they speak in class at all. Not to shade anyone’s speaking abilities, of course; my speaking is less than stellar, but my classmates in Level 2 at Sogang could talk circles around my current Ewha Level 3 classmates, so it’s hard to feel like I haven’t gone backwards.  Additionally, when I flipped through Ewha’s textbooks, I knew most if not all of the Level 3 grammar already. “What good is Level 3, then?” I thought.

The short answer is: Level 3 at Ewha is good for vocabulary and reading comprehension. Within the first 3 weeks of class, we had completed 4 chapters of the 3-1 textbook and learned approximately 400 new vocabulary words. (And they are very useful words. I’m surprised I’ve been bebopping around Korea without knowing them….)I can skim Korean websites about food, health, and travel, and usually understand at least half of what I’m reading. I’ve had the chance to write about the benefits of yoga and meditation and how to ease symptoms of insomnia (Things I’m actually interested in….!) I definitely see why the professors thought it would be best for my to stay in Level 3. There’s a lot to learn here. (Whaddaya know, Level 3 has MERIT!)

Though Ewha’s program is technically very “balanced”– as in, we don’t spend any more time reading/writing than we do listening/speaking– the methods for teaching reading/writing just produce rapid results. When we do the speaking portion of the chapter, it’s usually a very practiced conversation with set phrases that you have to use; there’s really no opportunity to express your own feelings or opinions, or talk about your own experiences. The professors will usually ask for people to share their own feelings after you practice the set conversation, but by then, I guess everyone is tired of talking and doesn’t want to say anything else…

It’s easy to follow my classmates and stay silent, but I know if I get into the habit of not talking in class, my speaking will never improve (and this is a crucial skill if you’re LIVING IN KOREA, y’know…?). So, I try to talk more in class, even if I don’t feel like it or don’t really have anything enlightening to say. Still, I can’t help but feel like it’s not enough speaking practice. Because I’m not living with a Korean family this time around, I really only speak Korean in school, or if I’m with my classmates, or if I go shopping or something (…..it’s for the language practice, okay?) If I really want my speaking to improve I know that I’ll inevitably have to find a language partner or a language exchange group or something….




I Ain’t Your Personal Movie Star

If you’re my friend on any social media outlet, you’ve probably noticed the sudden influx of high-quality (non-selfie) pictures of me and two other lovely ladies. Here’s the long, grueling tale of how those pictures came to be.

One morning I was asked by the property owner to play a role in the property’s new promotional video. I took a quick look at the script, which only had me saying 8-ish lines, and thought, “eh, what the heck, why not? It looks pretty painless. I’ll do it.” Because going abroad is all about ADVENTURE, right? And trying new things, right? Right? Hoo boy, am I an idiot…

Guess what? the filming was scheduled for 2 days AFTER they asked me to be in it. So, as soon as I agreed, my Kakao inbox was flooded with messages from the director and the property manager about where to meet, what time to meet, what to wear. I had to send several photos of different outfits to the director for her approval. Specifically, she wanted me to dress in a simple, casual clothes, like a student would. I’m thinking, “Well, I AM  a student, so wouldn’t anything I wear on a normal day would make me LOOK like a student?” Apparently not. Since my small summer wardrobe I brought with me to Korea mainly consists of neutrals, I sent her pictures of me wearing combinations like a black shirt and jeans, a white shirt and jean skirt, simple, but very American style things (V-NECK. PLUNGING NECKLINE). Each picture was met responses like “No, no, no, don’t you have anything brighter?”  “Is there something with a pattern?” “Do you have anything other than black?” If they were going to be so picky about what I’m wearing, they could’ve had a freaking wardrobe ready for me or bought me new clothes, but I digress… (Strike one.)

Eventually, I just decided to wear whatever I wanted, as long as it had some color in it and didn’t make me look like a sack of potatoes. White shirt, jeans, red headscarf from The Wrap Life. Turns out, this was a good idea because the director LOVED it. The other two girls who were asked to be in the video were very pretty and dressed in the casual Korean style (WHITE SHOES). Most of the morning was spent taking individual and group photos (which no one told me we would be doing….) After that, we were taken to different parts of Ewha’s campus to shoot our parts in the video. Luckily, we didn’t actually have to say any lines on camera, we just had to act out our parts and then record the voice-over later. This was a huge relief because it was difficult enough to take stage directions in Korean; I couldn’t imagine having to memorize and deliver lines perfectly too. I already found her directions difficult to follow. Sometimes it was because of the language barrier, and other times it was just because I found her directions nonsensical. She told me, for example, “look lonely without looking sad.” I have yet to figure out that the heck that means, but I just kept making faces until she was satisfied or gave up.


(Real talk, we were pretty cute though…)

After lunch, we were taken to another location– the cafe in one of the new apartment buildings the property owner just had built– and were told to “eat, drink, and chat comfortably.” Mighty difficult to do when you’re being told when to take a bite of food, when to sip the coffee and which way to angle your chin, but there it is. Finally, after we shot all the scenes scheduled for that day, they let me do my voice-over and go home.

The second day of filming was pretty similar to the first, except I grew increasingly irritated when the director kept asking me to stare in the direction of THE SUN for a long period of time (Do I look like Trump during the eclipse to you, lady?) and she wouldn’t let me stop until I had a “thoughful, hopeful about the future” look on my face.

And I was even more irritated when I was asked (read: told) to edit the English version of the script, to write in natural English and match the Korean script. Like, at that point, I feel like they were just exploiting my native English speaker status. I was asked to be in a video, not be a translator and editor, but I digress…. (Strike two.) If I was more mean spirited, I totally would’ve just mucked the whole thing up on purpose. After that whole thing, I had to sit pretty and smile throughout this welcome party thing the property owner was hosting in the cafe. I couldn’t even relax and enjoy the food, or the traditional Korean music, or the company of my housemate  because there was a camera being shoved into my face (on ZOOM) every few minutes. I’m not very good at hiding me feelings, so I had a feeling the irritation was showing on my face. After seeing the pictures from the shoot, that’s CONFIRMED.


(My face in all its shady glory)

Hate to be the one to ruin the mood of the party with my sour face but I was sick and tired of the whole thing by then. No one told me the filming would take two whole days, or that I would get stuck editing the crappy English translation of a Korean script that Google translate spat out. (No shade, Google translate; you’re definitely improving.) Plus, this was just three days after I’d arrived in Korea, so I was still jetlagged. I learned (again) that I should be turn into a PI and ask HELLA questions before I agree to ANYTHING. But I got through it. I got paid.  I thought it was all over when I left the party. Hoo boy, am I a BIG idiot…)

About a week later, I get another message from the property manager asking me to come back to the cafe to take some more photos. I thought my face at the party had ruined the first batch of pictures completely and we had to redo them or something, so I had to live up to it and just go retake them. Nope. It was something different entirely. The manager met me in a suit and asked me to pretend to sit down and chat with him in the cafe. The same director from the PR shoot just starts taking a billion pictures of us. No instructions, no nothing. It was somehow even more awkward than the PR shoot. This didn’t take as long though; only 10 minutes. It was after this 10 minutes that the manager said, “If you’re in my new profile picture, it’ll get a lot of likes, don’t you think?”



Was this whole thing for a PERSONAL picture? Not something for promotional purposes? (Strike three….!)

You know, someone I met at Sogang two years ago told me that this kind of thing happens to foreigners in Korea all the time, but I didn’t want to believe her. Hoo boy, am I an idiot.



All Aboard the Housing Struggle Bus

Finding suitable (student) housing anywhere already comes with its own drama, but it’s compounded if you’re searching in a foreign country. If you come to South Korea to study Korean for the first time, chances are you don’t know anything past the basics, and usually, the basics don’t include questions like, “Are all utilities included? If not, which ones do I have to pay separately?” “Is there a curfew?” etc. Then, even after you move in, there might be something about the place that’s still not quite right. Maybe there’s a cloud of funk that permeates the room every evening, maybe there are roaches or water bugs, etc. A lot of students who come here play musical chairs with apartments and dorms for the first two weeks or so, trying to find the right place for them.

Honestly, I have no idea how people do it. Long flights already leave me tense, tired, and weary; searching for housing as soon as I arrive would just compound that stress. To make my move to Seoul a bit smoother, I decided to take a room in an “international dorm” in Sinchon, which had been recommended to me by several past Light Fellows. This “international dorm” is more like an apartment, and from the pictures online it seemed like a clean, convenient place to stay. I know this sounds ominous, like I’m about to tell you all the pictures are a lie, and there were bugs and roaches, and my next door neighbor is a screeching banshee, but no, it’s actually okay! Even though the room I reserved looked bigger online and the place wasn’t spotless when I arrived, I don’t think the apartment was severely misrepresented on the website. HowEVER, I did have a bit of a heart attack when the landlord demanded I pay 6 months worth of rent as soon as I arrived. Mind you, he never told me how I should go about paying, even though we spent at least a week or two talking about the moving-in procedure and the content of the housing contract. So, for him to blindside me like that was just rude, in my opinion. I only has one month’s rent on me. I don’t carry $3,500+ with my while travelling, and there’s no way I could have a Korean bank account after being in the country for a few hours. And he did not seem keen on waiting for my to get my life together. Long story short, I told him I would only be staying for 3 months; I took as much as I could from an international ATM for several days until I had enough.

Meanwhile, there was a game of musical chairs happening with the other bedroom in the 2-bedroom apartment. The Indonesian girl who was supposed to occupy the other room of the 2 bedroom apartment copped out at the last minute and decided to stay in her school’s dorm. The next day, a French girl moved in to take her place. She seemed nice, but our conversation was limited because her English wasn’t that great, and she had no interest in learning Korean…? Even though she’s in Korea….? I offered to teach her how to read hangul and say basic greetings, but she turned the offer down, insisting that she didn’t need it. So, what is she going to do for communication, you might ask. Well, her solution was to talk to everyone in LOUD, BAD, SLOW ENGLISH. (Head, meet desk….repeatedly). After suffering through a couple of hours of her complaining about why Koreans don’t speak better English (omigodomigodomigod learn Korean) and about the spicy food (WHY ARE YOU HERE?) I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the semester with her. Good news is, I didn’t have to. The next day, I came home in the early afternoon and all her stuff was gone. After confirming that we had not been robbed, I messaged her asking what was up. Turns out, she had a family emergency and might have to go back to France but she needed to hear more from the doctor first. When she told the landlord this, he told her to just move out. ASAP. Pronto. Immediately. And he kept her deposit.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to get attached to the next person who moved in because there would be no guarantee that they would stay for the whole semester. But 3 really must be the charm. The 3rd girl moved in the night the French girl was (viciously) kicked out. She’s from Singapore (so she speaks perfect English!) She warmly greeted me at the door, brought be souvenirs from her home country, and even offered to buy odds and ends for the house that night. Since she arrived, we’ve had great adventures at the grocery store, local market, and Daiso. She can even cook, y’all! I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better housemate. As long as we’re together, maybe we can survive this crazy roller-coaster that is 유학생 생활.

Nanzan in a Nutshell [Final Report]


It was when I was studying for my Japanese for Communication final that I rediscovered this example sentence I had written for homework. Y’know, one of those sentences that you write because it’s appropriately cheesy at the beginning of the year when you’re taking the ‘studying abroad for a whole semester’ pill with a bite of bread to help the medicine go down. It’s terribly ironic that now at the end of a long and terribly slow semester I look back at this sentence and realize how true it is. Bags are being packed; Goodbye parties are being partied; finals are being written; parting tears are being cried. With the end of my semester at Nanzan comes the obligatory reflection post.

In previous posts, I might have dragged Nanzan’s classes a little bit because the teaching style and speed may not be what I’m accustomed to at Yale, but I’m realizing this might not be an entirely fair comparison. Just because classes weren’t what I expected doesn’t mean they were completely ineffective; there were definitely pros and cons to every class and instructor. The weight of those pros and cons could be different per person, so I want to take this time to talk about Nanzan Japanese and elective classes more objectively, drawing on my own personal experiences/observations as well as feedback from other Nanzan students.

Nanzan’s Japanese classes are labelled as intensive because students cover a year’s worth of material in one semester, but what’s considered “a year’s worth of material” varies by college. According to a friend of mine, the general consensus among Nanzan students is that Nanzan Japanese classes are markedly more difficult than those at their home universities. Whether it be purely the length of the classes themselves or the actual content is unclear, so I’ll just talk about the general layout of classes and let you judge for yourself.

I was placed in NIJ 600, the second highest level offered, appropriate for students approximately at the JLPT N2 level. NIJ 610: Japanese for Communication covered five different readings on topics based around issues in modern Japanese society including the absence of fathers in Japanese homes (always work work work), welfare and healthcare, and environmental issues. Some of these were editorials or actual newspaper articles from the 90s (Would’ve been more relevant with recent material, but I digress). Each chapter, we did prep homework where we looked up background information relevant to the reading or wrote our own opinions or what we knew about our own countries’ policies. This also was a chance for us to get familiar with the vocabulary and grammar that would appear in the reading. We had grammar practice every chapter, where we would write example sentences and go over them as a class. Then we went through the reading sentence by sentence with the professor asking clarifying questions and giving us the opportunity to pose our own questions. Usually by doing this in-depth reading, we could fix our reading comprehension homework before turning it in if we made a mistake. Some readings were supplemented with videos, clips or recommended websites or extra newspaper articles, and we did debates or group presentations to learn how to express our own opinions on the issue in Japanese. The class was very structured, almost to a point where it was irritating. The debates weren’t spontaneous or natural discussion, rather each person on a team talked about a particular point using suggested key words and ideas during a time limit. There was a specific time for posing questions and for one side to refute the opponent’s point and no clear winner. Even in answering homework or test questions, if the answer wasn’t posed exactly how the professors wanted it or how they answered it in class, it was marked as incorrect. (Just to throw a little salt in here: I was told that an answer that was marked correct on my homework assignment would be considered incorrect if I answered the exact same question the same way on the test. And what kind of sense does that make? Exactly, it doesn’t. Okay, that’s my little pinch of salt to the recipe. Moving on.)

NIJ 620 is the class focused on reading and writing. This class was less structured and repetitive than 610, but this could simply be a difference in the professors’ teaching styles. The readings were more geared towards literature and personal essays than the ones in 610 and in my opinion, much easier to digest. Despite reading comprehension being the backbone of the class, we spend a great deal of time reviewing basic grammar points and addressing mistakes in common grammar usage. This was actually very helpful because we teased out the differences between は and  が, and found out linguistic motivations for what appears to be a silly distinction. We spent time learning new ways to study kanji (by origin, groups of meaning, and radicals) and learned the formats for emails and letters in Japanese (yes, there are numerous rules and etiquette when it comes to this too.) Overall, it was a fun class with a lively teacher that everyone seemed to like, even if it lacked the structure and good planning of the 610 class.

I thought this might be unique to my NIJ 610 teacher (who was the least favorite of the 600 level teachers, but that’s a topic for another day), but Nanzan Japanese teachers can be strict and inconsistent when it comes to grading, which just confused students at all levels. Some other students had things marked incorrect on a test that were marked correct on homework, or the same answers were marked as correct and incorrect, depending on the student. When students asked about these discrepancies, they were either told to look up the answers themselves or given some vague response like “both answers work, so don’t worry about it.” As far as I heard, mistakes with grades were never corrected, instead it was the student’s responsibility to “think a little harder.”  Though the teaching is in-depth, my general impression is that the teachers want to stick to the book at all costs, a golden reward that all students are to strive for absolute perfection through memorization and regurgitating what was taught. If you can’t do that, you will be cheerfully and politely left behind. Between this and the rigid structure of the classes, many American students just seemed done with Nanzan right around midterms. Depends on the type of teaching style you’re used to/whatever works for you, I suppose.

There are a number of elective classes to take: from academic Japanese, to Japanese culture/society classes to the arts, and I can hardly speak for the teaching style of all of them. The workload also varies, so just take the time to read the syllabus at the beginning of the semester or ask someone who’s taken the class previously. Since most of these classes meet for a huge chunk of time once a week, the teaching was less in-depth since we only spent once class on one topic and we had so much to cover by the end of the semester. Some teachers talked in technical terms without explaining in-depth, causing more confusion for students than necessary, and some teachers lost their lectures in story-telling so we were all confused about what we were actually learning, but some managed to find a balance. Either way, grading for these classes was overall significantly less strict than the Japanese language classes–any homework was taken purely for completion and a lot of mistakes were allowed to slide. Because of infrequent graded assignments, students had no idea of how the teacher graded or what their expectations were, which caused a bit of anxiety when facing final papers and exams with very vague guidelines.

Outside of the classroom, there are a bunch of clubs and activities for international students to participate in like sports and dance teams. The Japanese students in these groups seem pretty receptive to foreigners joining them (not in my case, but nevertheless) and it’s a great opportunity to practice Japanese outside of the classroom and make Japanese friends to hang out with on the weekends. Be aware that some clubs and circles require a lot of dedication: practices and meetings are particularly long and drawn out close to the school festival, which also happens to be right around midterms.

So, would I recommend Nanzan to another student? Sure, why not. Any problems I encountered were because of my preferences for a certain teaching style, and those issues didn’t keep me from learning– I think my reading comprehension has come a long way from what it used to be; Japanese newspapers and television don’t scare me anymore. If anything, I’m even more motivated to read and write in Japanese than ever, as long as I’m actually interested in the subject matter. If you’re looking to Nanzan to make you completely fluent, then maybe reconsider. Though some students found it intensive, I’ve definitely had worse (er….better?). To be honest, no matter what program you do, it’s up to you to push yourself and practice until you reach the level of fluency you desire. The program alone won’t do it for you, but you could certainly do worse than Nanzan.



Dear Japan

I don’t hate you, but I don’t think I can live or work here.

For starters, you are not good for my mental health. In a previous post about feeling homesick in Korea, I noted that there was a distinct lack of “emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours.” Needless to say that my visits in Japan are all but characterized by these experiences, and I really can’t put up with it much longer. By now, you know that I’m an anxious person, always self-conscious of what I’m doing, where I’m doing it and how. You just make me even more paranoid than I already am with your strict societal rules and regulations. I know that as a foreigner, people may not expect me to get everything right, or follow the rules to a T, but after being here long enough I can’t help but wonder when I’ll stop making mistakes, or wondering if the reason no one wants to be friends with me is because I’ve made some huge social faux-pas that people are too “polite” to tell me about. As much as I’m for reading between the lines, in recent years I’ve also found that this is creates a huge block in communication and can inspire numerous misunderstandings. I want you to communicate with me, so I can understand where you’re coming from, and maybe listen to me when I speak Japanese instead of letting your panic deafen you to what I’m saying.

Maybe I’m just at a rebellious stage, but I’ve kept a tight rein on myself for most of my life to strive for what I perceived as social perfection and peace, and now I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of holding everything in, quieting myself down to keep people comfortable. To live here, you must care too much about what other people think. I’m tired of hiding behind my shyness, and the longer I’m here, the longer I want to give into my shyness and the people-pleasing mentality. It’s time for me to bust out the box I’ve been living in for so long.  As it is, you are on the verge of giving me a crippling social anxiety that I just can’t afford to shoulder.

Also, I need hugs. Hugs are an integral part of my life, Japan. My life is made richer by meeting people from all walks of life. Diversity, encountering people from different countries and backgrounds has really made life worth living. You know, variety is the spice of life and all that. Here, there’s a definite lack of inclusiveness, drawing bright red lines between who is and isn’t Japanese; the people who aren’t “Japanese” face a whole load of discrimination and criticism. Even Japanese-Americans. Not saying we don’t have that in the States, but at least in the states you can speak up for yourself and there are marginalized people who will stand up with you. It can get a little crazy sometimes, but at least we have a way of recourse to right those injustices instead of taking the beatings quietly.

I’ll never work here. Strict hierarchies within Japanese companies are not for me to begin with, but especially as a woman, the Japanese workplace ridden with sexism and sexual harassment, the Japanese workplace is a dark land I have no desire to venture into. I could go on and on about the Japanese work ethic (equally incredible and frightening) and the treatment of women in the workplace, but these would be stories I’ve only heard, as I’ve never entered the Japanese workplace myself. There’s another blogger who worked in Japan for three years and makes observations about the Japanese work ethic. I suggest you read what he has said here. Spurred by some recent incidents in 2014, Eryk has also written on sexual harassment in Japan and more specifically for sexual harassment in the JET program. If you are at all interested in the treatment of women in Japan, women’s rights, working in Japan and especially if you’re considering applying for the JET program, I highly suggest you read these posts (click here). Like I said, I’ve never been victim to these myself, but I’ve seen business outings at izakaya, even had encounters with Japanese youths that have sent off tiny warning bells in my head, small but meaningful indicators of what life is like on the inside. I have to say, I certainly don’t envy it.

People say that it’s changing, and I’m sure the treatment of women and non-Japanese people has changed over recent years. By no means am I trying to say that people can’t change, but the way it is now is not the Japan for me. And that’s fine. Foreign countries aren’t made for my comfort. As many pros as there are for living in Japan, the cons that I’ve listed here far outweigh the pros, according to my value system. Ultimately, I’m a guest, and this was just a test-run. Far be it from me to tell someone how to run a country or what a whole culture is doing “wrong”. But what I can do is experience the good, learn from our differences, and work on making myself the best me I can be. And Japan, you’ve played a huge role in the person I am today. I will always be grateful to you and appreciate you. It’s time for me to be the best person I can be somewhere else. No hard feelings, right?