Tough Times

As I approach the 6-month mark of life in Korea, I cannot count my blessings on my fingers and toes.  I have a supportive group of friends, students who show me nothing but kindness, coworkers that help and encourage me, an apartment in relatively good repair, an accessible community bordering a fun city, and an unbounded multitude of horizon-expanding experiences.

However, life is not all sunshine and rainbows in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I am still susceptible to tough days, cultural gaffes, and bad moods. 

On a windy Wednesday afternoon, I sat at my desk working on a Social Psychology assignment when one of my co-teachers accompanied by a first-grade student approached my desk.

“Ian, did you forget about club activity today?”

I froze in my tracks.  He asked it like a question, but I recently learned that that’s how my co-workers posit facts politely.  I forgot about the club activity.  My students sat in an empty room for 15 minutes with no teacher in sight.

After a brief adrenaline spike, I took a deep breath (as meditation practice teaches me) and walked toward the elevator with the student by my side.  It was the longest walk of my life.

“Yeah…sorry about that.  I didn’t know we had club activity today.”

“Yeah,” the student said curtly.

I entered the classroom and looked at eight students who looked back to me bewilderingly.  My embarrassment was palpable.

“Have you all played hangman?”


So we played hangman…for 30 minutes until break time.  From there I quickly got on the computer and googled quick ESL speaking games.  From there I quickly assembled some games of Scattergories and charades to save face.  It was an adequate recovery in my view.

I wish I could say that it ended there.  I had a minor bout of forgetfulness and I never forgot about a class or activity again.  This is true.  However, I may have overcompensated.  

During Festival Week, I made the choice of showing up to my classroom and setting up a lesson despite heavy doubts about my students’ attendance.  Normally. a student from the class would tell me that they wanted to practice for the festival to which I (mostly) relent.  However, one class was a no-show without explanation.  I marched upstairs to check into their classroom.  The door was locked.  Nervous, I sought the homeroom teacher.  I asked if her class was preparing for the festival.

“Oh.  Yes.  No one told you?”

“Yeah.  No worries.”

Another day, I walked into a classroom to prepare for a free talking class,  Another English teacher walked in as well.

“Ian, what are you doing here?”

“Normally, we have a free talking class here.”

“Yeah.  They’re probably preparing for the festival.”

“I know.  I just like to be prepared.”

Later that day, one of my co-teachers entered my empty classroom.

“Ian, one of the teachers said you waited for a free talking class and they never showed up?


“She says they were practicing for the festival.”


“She is concerned that maybe you feel ignored,”

“No, no, no it’s not like that at all.  I know they are busy,  I just like to be prepared.”

“I know, I know.  But next time students don’t show up, you need to tell me so I can ask the students if they have a good reason of if they are just lazy.  Next time, tell me.”

“I understand.”

That was the first time in my life where diligence got me into trouble.  I’m sure it was just Anxiety-Brain playing up imaginary problems, but I still produced a general unease.

Nevertheless, the experience stressed the immense importance of communication with my co-workers.  Back in Sacramento, I sometimes frustrated myself when reality misaligned with my assumptions.  I came to learn that those frustrations were entirely preventable.

As a foreigner, my assumptions are almost always wrong.  It can be frustrating at first, but on the back end, it is very enlightening.  Learning adds value to our mistakes.

Photo Corner


Uplifting messages in the hallway always remind me how to act right (not that I need reminding).


Anyone remember those Airstream mobile home trailers that looked like airplane fuselages?


Many countries (except pretty much the U.S. as far as I know) like to show demotivating images on cigarette packs.  While most of them just show images of diseased body parts, I found this one much more powerful and poignant.  It would have been even more powerful (though maybe too strong) to show the kid ashing away from secondhand smoke.


GS 25 is one of many Korean convenience store chains that I enjoy when I need a bottle of water, roasted eggs, or a matcha ice cream waffle in a pinch.  I’m sure I’ll write about these lovely stores later.


I still love my school’s lunches.  Today we had seaweed soup, roast duck with mustard, Asian pear, pickled radish wraps, seasoned mixed onions, radish kimchi, and seasoned bean sprouts.  Find me an American cafeteria that can deliver this level of flavor and nutrition.  I’ll move there next.


Didn’t realize my school was associated with UNESCO.  Didn’t even know what UNESCO was until recently.

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