Bowl Cuts, Corn, and Stamina Foods – 8 Things I’ll Never Understand About Korea

As is the case with living in any foreign country, you’ll inevitably run into aspects of society that are simply different than your own. Even as I continue to acclimate to life in Korea, the following 8 things are peculiarities that I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.

 

1. Matching Gym Outfits

Say goodbye to the ripped 50-year old guy wearing his Gold’s Gym cut-off from his peak in the 80’s; in Korea, no such specimen exists. Instead, nearly everyone can be found sporting the same gym-provided uniform – one color for men, and one for women.

There is practicality to it, as using the gym’s clothes undoubtedly saves you laundry, but I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing everyone around me exercising in the exact same outfit.

2. No Talking on Public Transportation

In Korea, it’s pretty acceptable to speak during a public presentation/concert, but there is one place that you better not raise your voice; public transportation. The majority of time spent on buses or subways is confined to a mere whisper. And believe me, people will, not-so-subtly, confront you for being loud (especially as a foreigner).

Coming from the boisterous New York subways where spontaneous dance crews and paper-bagged Bud Lights seem to be the norm, this took many a dirty stare before the unwritten rule registered in my mind.

3. School Slippers

As customary in Korean society, it’s essential to remove your shoes before entering homes and many restaurants. While I do appreciate the cleanliness of this, the rule also applies, far less-practically, to schools.

Rather than just socks, students and teachers alike wear what are universally referred to as ‘slippers’ – or essentially the equivalent of Adidas slides or Crocs (yes, Crocs are 100% fashionable here).

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The catch, however, is that many people wear their slippers outside as well; whether it’s teachers walking in from their car or students wandering the campus during lunch. Despite this, you will still be reprimanded if you wear your normal shoes inside.

4. No Hand Soap in Middle School Boy’s Bathrooms

Speaking of schools, let’s pivot to the lack of soap in my Middle School boy’s bathrooms. By no means am I a germaphobe, but let’s be honest; if there’s one demographic of humans whose lives most necessitate the need for hand soap, it’s probably boys between the ages of 13-15.

True, even if it was available, most would not use it in the first place. But by having the option, one would think that it would lead to at least a 50% use. 40%? Okay, we’ll settle on 30% – still better than nothing.

5. Corn, Corn, Corn

Now let’s talk about something that Korea does better than most; food – or corn in particular. In America, we too eat a lot of corn – whether it’s as a staple in BBQ, backyard grill-outs, or everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving meal.

But how about pizza? Breakfast sandwiches? Hot dogs? Ice cream?!!! Korea takes this ubiquitous gastronomic parcel to a new level, as it seems to find it’s way into your mouth in ways previously unfathomable to the human mind.

6. ‘Stamina’ Foods

This is one of my favorite quirks of Korean food culture. As a male, we are often told that the food we are eating will help to give us ‘stamina’. Whether it’s octopus, chicken soup, fish, or wine-like drinks, I am led to believe that seemingly most-everything I enjoy is ‘good for man’.

While one can infer the meaning of ‘stamina’ in this context, the explicit message seems to always be left ambiguous (certainly the language barrier doesn’t help). For now, we’ll stick with my interpretation of: why drink coffee for energy in the morning when you can eat live octopus?!

7. No Napkins or Water

At restaurants in the West, I’m pampered with large cloth napkins and giant glasses of ice-water. As a shamelessly messy eater who drinks water like a fish, these are luxuries that I have grown quite comfortable with.

Here, however, the napkins represent something closer to frail tissue paper and hardly protect you from Korea’s messy soups and sauces. Also, water cups (usually not brought unless asked) are typically the size of a small paper bathroom cup. First-world problems, I guess.

8. Bowl Cuts

I want you to take a  look at the following picture and tell me a similarity you notice amongst the boys:

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If you guessed their haircuts, you’d be right. More specifically the bowl cut. This look, synonymous with the American boy-band craze at the turn of the century, is all the rage these days in Korea.

An impressively fashion-forward country, Korea is equally as homogenous in it’s style trends and one look at any of the major KPOP groups shows exactly where they stem from. I’m not sure if it’s always been this way here but as of now, the bowl cut is running rampant.

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While the above list may seem like petty complaints I have towards life in Korea, they are absolutely not. Rather, I see them as subtle charms of society that often times, force me to stop and laugh.

Living here, I’ve learned to take things in stride and appreciate the peculiarities that make a country different. After all, if traveling didn’t expose you to new experiences and ways of life, what would be the point?

I hope you enjoyed this Rat Tale and that you have a wonderful holiday season with your friends and family!

 

Until next time; cheers,

ER

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How Travel is Changing My Life – and Can Change Yours Too

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” – Anthony Bourdain

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Ulsan, South Korea

 

We live in a cookie-cutter world. We’re told to go to school, study hard, and get a good job. Work your 40-hours, come home, and do it all over again – week after week, year after year. Such a framework encourages us to make ‘safe’ decisions in life – ones that prevent us from fully reaching our potential as humans and experiencing all this world has to offer.

Sure, there is value in stability; pursuing a career you love while making money is a wonderful concept. I’ve always believed, however, that uncertainty is the beauty of your early adulthood – uncertainty of where you will live, the job you will work, who you will date, etc. While often scary, it presents equal opportunities that become increasingly complex with the progression of life.

It’s easy to write an article like this and act like I have all of the answers. I’m 24 years-old and undoubtedly have many mistakes and failures ahead of me. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that even after only 7 months living abroad in Korea, my life has changed – and traveling can change yours too.

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Travel comes in many shapes and sizes. Maybe to you, moving across the world seems a bit drastic  – I get it. The way I see travel is simply going somewhere out of your comfort zone, whether that be a new city, a new country, or even a new continent.

Travel, however, does not come without its difficulties. Sure, photos of your friend riding an elephant in Thailand or posing with children in an African village are great; but this content often misconstrues the reality of the struggles we face while adapting to a new place – though ones we eventually learn from.

I live in Gwangju, South Korea. I’m in the far outskirts of the city, where days can go by without seeing a fellow foreigner. As you can imagine, things inevitably get lonely. (Before I drum up your sympathy, let me preface by saying that while traveling, you meet some of the most amazing people and I’ve made incredible friends here.)

As a textbook extrovert, the past me would have shied away from these times of solitude. Since living here, however, out of necessity I’ve learned to embrace these moments – filling them with self-fulfilling activities like studying Korean, reading, and practicing guitar.

I can now have basic conversations with Korean natives, I’ve had paid gigs playing guitar/singing, and I can hold my own in philosophical debates with my friends about ‘the meaning of life’ better than ever!

I’ve turned this previous dread of time alone into sources of positive contribution to my life, both personally and professionally. As travel broadens the scope of our experiences and perspectives, our abilities to adapt to the face of adversity are ultimately enhanced.

Professionally, I earned a college degree in Marketing, loved my previous work in sales, and am fortunate to have come here with a lot of momentum in my chosen career back home. So why am I in Korea teaching English?

While I don’t necessarily advocate teaching as the sole means by which to travel, I think it’s invaluable to have diverse experiences early in life because from each we can gain transferable skills that apply elsewhere later on.

Take my career in sales for example; what better preparation for a future sales pitch than by keeping a class of 30 middle schoolers captivated in a language they barely understand? Beyond these tangible skills, travel simply makes us more interesting people and tell me an employer who would not value that.

Another lesson taught by travelling is the cultural perspectives we gain from a change of scenery. Our current society teaches us to ‘build walls’ between groups of people. No longer are we human, but rather ‘Liberal or Conservative’, ‘American or Chinese’, ‘Gay or Straight’ etc. This adversarial landscape we’ve cultivated has blurred the lines of human compassion and sympathy and forged a strong emphasis on animosity and conflict.

It’s not until we experience the lives of people elsewhere, or “walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food”, that we can truly gain an appreciation for the diversity of their cultures and beliefs.

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The line separating North and South Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Often times, we learn the most by taking an outsider’s view of all that we have come to know. As a result, I am now more aware than ever in the person I am – whether it’s the interests I pursue, the way I treat others, or the people I chose to spend my time with. I’ve developed a strong sense of self-identity, as well as a stronger awareness of the world around me, that I don’t think would have been possible without a change of scenery.

So how does my story pertain to you and why you should travel? Maybe you feel like you are stuck in a rut; travel. You may be struggling to find your career aspirations or to get your boots in the ground professionally; travel. Maybe you’re going through a tough time or lacking a sense of purpose; travel. The common theme here is that we are all human, we all want to be happy, and I believe traveling to be one of the most actionable ways to make that happen.

It’s been only 7 months in Korea, yet living here has already changed me drastically. Don’t let yourself be stuck in life. Don’t let subpar define your reality. Travel, and trust me, you won’t regret it.

-ER

 

PS – If you think that traveling is reserved for a select few with the financial means to support it, you’re wrong. Nowadays, there are countless platforms that enable us to travel on a budget – or even make money while doing it! Reach out to me and I’d be happy to share some resources.

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7 Things My Mom and I Did In Korea

It’s 2018 and no modern-day blog would be complete without a good ‘listicle’. Last month, my mom braved the blazing summer heat for an 11-day visit to Korea. As you can imagine, there was a lot to see and do (and eat); but I’ve narrowed down the top-7 highlights of our trip!

1. Namsan Tower – Seoul

To give you an idea of Korea’s density, here’s a quick snapshot. Geographically, Korea is the size of Indiana, though it’s population (50-million) is roughly that of New York and Texas combined. Throw in the fact that 70% of Korea’s land is mountainous and thus uninhabitable and you see just how dense the country is in its urban-areas.

Chief among them is Seoul, Korea’s capital, with a population (9-million) greater than even New York City. Within Seoul, one of the main tourist attractions is Namsan Tower.

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Namsan Tower pictured at night. Credit: Peter Vaivars, fineartamerica.

Situated high above the central city, the tower’s observation deck offers sweeping views of the sprawling urban landscape, all sandwiched by beautiful mountainous surroundings.

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It’s said to be good luck to leave a love lock at the top of the tower.

 

2. Dog Cafe – Seoul

One of Seoul’s more quirky aspects is its abundance of animal cafes, particularly in the university area of Hongdae. No matter your preference of furry friend, there’s sure to be something for you – dogs, cats, raccoons, meerkats, sheep – and each cafe specializes in a certain one.

The concept is simple – walk in, order a drink, and enjoy it with a bunch of animals who eagerly await your company. This dog cafe in particular, Bau House, had about 30 dogs split into two sections for large and small.

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With an unfortunate lack of dogs in my life right now, this was the absolute perfect experience to escape the Korean heat. Not to mention, it didn’t take long for my mom to make some new friends…

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3. Gwangjang Market – Seoul

In a country that has so quickly modernized over the past few decades, visiting a traditional market is a breathe of fresh air for glimpse into the more traditional aspects of Korean society. One of the oldest among them is Gwangjang Market.

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Possibly my favorite spot in Seoul, the market is lined with endless streets of clothing, jewelry, and pretty much anything else you can think to buy. But the true star of the show is the food.

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As you can imagine, all of this traveling builds up quite the appetite and we ate A LOT! Of the many options here, I showed my mom some of the more traditional Korean street food dishes including:

  • Mayak Gimbap – almost a Korean sushi
  • Kimchi Jeon – kimchi pancakes
  • Japchae – stir-fried glass noodles
  • Mandu – Korean dumplings
  • Tteokbokki – rice-cakes in spicy sauce

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Needless to say, all of this delicious food was followed by a pretty extensive nap.

4. Gyeongbokgung Palace – Seoul

Another must-see on the list of Seoul destinations is Gyeongbokgung, built in 1395 by the Joseon Dynasty. I’ve always loved visiting historical sites outside of the US because they show how old the world actually is compared to the recency of America.

Gyeongbokgung gives a walk back in time to a Korea before K-Pop, Gangnam Style, and eSports gaming. Visitors can be found sporting ‘Hanbok’, or elaborate dresses indigenous to Korea past – and of course in the Korean style, taking selfies. I chose to skip this part.

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Even as of recently, the palace has an extensive history, having been torn down by the Imperial Japanese in the early 1900’s. Today, it continues to be restored to its original form with it’s many gardens, waterways, and royal buildings giving it an authentic feel unique to anywhere else.

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5. Hanok Guesthouse – Gwangju

After 4 busy days in Seoul, we finally made our way down South to my home in Gwangju (a 1.5 hour train ride). Far less spectacular from a touristic perspective, it’s still a remarkable city in itself, with an interesting history and amazing food. In fact Gwangju’s province, Jeolla-do, is widely known for having the best food in Korea!

Given the constraints of the closet where I live, we decided to stay in an old Korean guesthouse, or a ‘Hanok’. Hanoks are characterized by their beautiful courtyards, wooden exteriors, and lack of beds making it typical to sleep on a ground mat. Despite the zen of my surroundings, I definitely needed a lot of coffee the following day.

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6. Dreamers Temple Trip

As mentioned in a prior post, Dreamers is a Gwangju-based group that brings Koreans and foreigners alike together through the arts and cultural experiences. Fortunately while my mom was here, they hosted a day-trip to Seonwun Temple and its surrounding area.

We first visited the temple, about a 1.5 hour drive into the countryside from Gwangju. . We ate a delicious vegetarian bibimbap lunch, participated in a tea ceremony with a monk, and enjoyed the beauty of our simplistic surroundings.

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We then all spent nearly two hours hanging out in a river, which provided for a perfect place to relax – and apparently for photo ops as well.

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Credit: Tobias Hills

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From there we visited a large sunflower field, a place well-known in this region. My friend Eden who literally brings her violin everywhere (check out her Instagram, Violin Everywhere) of course brought her violin and graciously let me mom play some songs amongst the flowers. Pretty awesome!

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We ended the night watching the sunset at a nearby beach while eating chicken/pizza, drinking beer, and playing music. I’ve certainly had worse days.

7. Trip to Yeosu

Yeosu is a gorgeous port town located on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. A monk that I work with invited me and my mom to visit his temple and I quickly jumped at the opportunity.

The temple’s residents treated us like royalty as we were guided around the grounds. We found it funny that these monks, who sacrifice material possessions for a simple life of meditation, all had the latest smart phones as well as big TV’s and amazing air conditioning in their offices. I guess the whole vegetarian part of the gig is a big enough sacrifice in itself.

After the temple, we were showed around the city of Yeosu and the famed cable cars, which provide a beautiful view of the area.

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Finally we were treated to an unbelievable seafood dinner at a place that supposedly Moon Jae-in, the Korean President, eats at. When I tell you that the meal didn’t stop, I mean it – sashimi, clams, crabs, shrimp….

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For anyone traveling through Korea, I highly recommend visiting Yeosu, as I’ve found it to be one of the more underrated cities the country has to offer.

 

 

That about sums up the incredible 11 days that my mom and I had in Korean. For an old lady 😉 she kept up remarkably well with my incessant ways and I can’t wait for our next trip together! Seeing her definitely dampened the struggles of being so far away from home.

So, who’s coming to visit next?

 

Until next time,

ER

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A Tour of a Korean Middle School

Temperatures are blazing here in Gwangju (consistently in the 100’s) and air-conditioned cafes have become a lifesaver these past few weeks – meaning more time to write! In this hot-take of ‘The Rat Tales’, I’ll take you inside the main middle school where I teach. Enjoy!

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Seonun Middle School is relatively new – only about four years old – and is a hop, skip, and a jump away from my apartment. It’s where I spend the majority of my working hours (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) and my coworkers (most of who speak no English) have embraced this foreigner with open arms!

I recently cemented my legacy by performing Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ (an immensely popular song here) in front of 500+ screaming students at a school festival. No biggie but I’m pretty famous ;).

Here’s a look inside!

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Given the land constraints in Korea, schools are typically built up, not out – hence the four stories. Most schools have a dirt soccer/PE field located out front.

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My English Classroom

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A Typical Homeroom

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My Desk!

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Hope you enjoyed! Anything in particular you’re curious about here or would like to see? Feel free to drop me a comment below.

Cheers,

ER

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Sometimes Social Media Doesn’t Suck

From time to time, social media deviates from the mindless suction cup it’s become to actually lead to some valuable social interactions (shoutout to my good friend Emily Morris for the time we reunited in Boulder, CO merely because of her Snapchat story). In this particular story, it was Instagram that led to something pretty cool.

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I was graciously invited to a Kia Tigers baseball game by two of my Korean coteachers, one of whom has an 8 year old son whose English name is Danny. These particular teachers have been incredibly kind throughout my stay in showing me authentic Korean experiences and introducing me to their families.

Going with Danny for his first game, I thought back to the hundreds (and hundreds…) of baseball games that my dad and I went to when I was his age. Aside from a love for baseball itself, one of the great mystiques of the ballpark for me as a little guy was always meeting players and getting their autographs. It didn’t matter if it was the star player (see Mike Piazza) or a player no one knows (see Anderson Hernandez – inside joke that only one person gets, sorry) – it was all equally exciting.

Throughout my life, I’ve experienced a surprisingly great amount under the motto ‘you don’t know until you ask’ and this certainly came into play here. We were on our way to the ballpark when on a whim, I sent an Instagram message to Henry Sosa, the opposing LG Twin’s star pitcher with a previous (although short) tenure in the MLB. Here in Gwangju, however, Sosa is a bit of a legend, having starred for the Kia Tigers while leading this baseball-loving city through some of their glory years earlier this decade.

The Instagram message looked as follows (Dustin and the YourCause sales team will be proud to know I’m still putting my cold sales outreach skills to use):


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Within 5 minutes of the original message, Sosa responded and not knowing if I was some lunatic or not (still debatable), graciously agreed to meet. Logistics were coordinated and we soon found ourselves outside the LG Twin’s away locker room hanging with Sosa. Amidst a group of passionate fans pleading for his attention, we were the sole people allowed past the security barriers to chat.

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Although not on the mound that day, Henry took the time on a busy game day to meet with Danny, take pictures, and give him an autographed baseball. Danny’s reaction afterwards reminded me exactly of how I would’ve felt at his age.

Major props to Henry Sosa for being a true class-act and for taking care of his fans in a way that seems to be largely lost amongst today’s generation of highly-compensated star athletes. Although my Korean baseball fandom now runs deep with Tiger Red, I’ll always have a soft spot for the LG Twins when Henry Sosa takes the hill.

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I’m truly loving my time here, with new and interesting cultural experiences constantly awaiting around the corner. The people I am meeting are some of the most incredibly open-minded and adventurous people I have met in my life – qualities of which I believe to be some of the most valuable.

I miss everyone back home and hope all of your summers are off to a great start!

 

Cheers,

ER

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Dreamers – ‘Breaking the Walls’

I realized quickly into my professional life the importance of having hobbies. They undoubtedly keep you sane and give you a strong sense of purpose outside of work. Sadly, music – something that once occupied so much of my time  – quickly began to dissipate after I dropped my trombone major in college.

Noticing that something I love so much was fading from my life, I decided to take up guitar to channel my musicianship in a new way (let’s be honest – trombone is not the most practical to play while living in small apartments).

Upon moving to Korea, I made it a strong priority to finally start taking guitar seriously. Not knowing what to expect here musically, what I soon discovered in Gwangju is something that far exceeded any of my expectations: ‘Dreamers’.

‘Dreamers’ is essentially a Gwangju-based arts/culture collective made up of Koreans and foreigners alike. The group truly lives up to its mission of ‘breaking the walls’ between cultures, as one can find people from all over the globe (Korea, Canada, Sri Lanka, Ireland…just to name a few) performing alongside each other every week at the Daein Night Market.

Daein is a traditional Korean market that springs to life each Saturday night with street food (food lovers, this place is heaven), local artists, fish shops, and an overall myriad of the beautiful Korean culture. Amongst all of this excitement is the Dreamers Open Space, an intimate performance area that radiates the bustling market streets with music each Saturday.

The Open Space is managed by Gwangju-native Tae-sang Park (below), the founder of Dreamers, whose warm/embracing nature has enabled him to cultivate this thriving community of local-based musicians, artists, and overall incredible people.

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Tae-sang Park. Photo credit: Jinseon Yun.

 

I met Tae-sang during my first few weeks and he immediately welcomed me with open arms. In Dreamers, I quickly found my comfort zone and a sense of belonging within this foreign city – one that not only gives me a platform to perform my music, but also a place to spend time with quality, uplifting people.

In only my second month in Korea, I was invited to Jeju Island (one of Korea’s most beautiful destinations) with the Dreamers crew to perform in a concert at a Buddhist temple. The people that I met there have become some of my closest friends in Gwangju and it’s pretty amazing to have a home every Saturday night performing alongside them.

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The crew in Jeju. Photo credit: Tae-sang Park.
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The crew in Jeju. Photo credit: Tae-sang Park.

 

As I continue to grow as both a person and a musician here in Korea, I’m so excited by the opportunities that Dreamers will present in the future. Until then, here’s to more great music, cold beer, and good times :).

-ER

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68 Years in the Making

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – but for the sake of brevity, I’ll keep this closer to 200.

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I took this photo on the morning of Friday, April 20th – the day of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in’s historic summit between North and South Korea. Given the significance of the day’s events, many teachers in my school stopped their classes for the students to watch a live broadcast of the meeting.

Never in my life did I think I would experience something like this and I completely underestimated the power that it would have. Still technically continuing 68 years after it began, the Korean war tore families apart on the peninsula. Tragically, many of these families continue to be separated from each other to this day.

I couldn’t help but to think of these very students in front of me and the hardships that previous generations of their families must have had to endure. It’s one thing to hear about relevant world events from the news, but seeing them in person gives it all a brand new perspective.

A mere three months ago as I was planning to move to Korea, I received a ton of criticism from countless people. Albeit a much less stable situation at the time, people thought that I was literally moving my life to a nuclear war zone. Hearing this effected me to the point that I even considered rescinding my application and staying put in the US.

On one night in particular, I remember calling my mom from Dallas, feeling immense stress over this major decision I was about to make. In a way that only a mother can do, she talked me off of the ledge and reassured me to stick to my guns and carry through with the plan (she is certainly rewriting the script of a typical ‘worried Jewish mother’).

It’s incredible to have witnessed first-hand the enormous changes that have occurred in the past three months. Yes, we still can’t predict what will happen – especially with a particular orange man running our country – but the prospect of peace on the Korean peninsula is looking far more promising than it has in a very long time

It’s truly a pleasure to be teaching students in a country that has endured so much pain throughout the last century and if all goes as planned, I can’t wait to see what things will be like when peace finally does come.

Until next time – Cheers!

ER

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Pretty much the best sign ever.
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A beautiful portrait of me by one of my students.