On Two’s and 2048

This has very little to do with Korea. Rather, its a response to my friends who have asked whether I play 2048… There is no short answer to that question.  

Call it synesthesia, if you will.

Call it congenital psychosis.

It’s unimportant.

The fact of the matter is… Well… I hate 2’s.

I always have. I have nightmares of being locked in a room with walls covered in 2’s. I wake up, drenched in sweat, with my ears buzzing, skin crawling, and everything I see is the colour of grey vomit. It’s dreadful. I sit there writing 5’s and counting primes in my diary trying to calm down and eventually the world comes back into focus.

So when friends started suggesting I play 2048, I was suitably disgusted. You want me to match powers of 2 until I get to 2^11? Ah no, that is not an acceptable form of procrastination. What is wrong with all of you? Don’t you know that 2’s were forged in the fires of hell by Sauron, Satan and Santa Claus whilst drinking soju and injecting ketamine in a cat cafe? Clearly not.

However, when you are on a bus for around 3 hours every weekend, travelling to and from Gwangju, to direct a choir and assist the directing of a play, occasionally your novel seems boring, and “The Room 2″* infuriating. Thus, I found myself giving into curiosity and downloading… the game.

The first move was okay:

The 2’s went away,

a 4 took it’s place,

and another 4 turned up.

What my friends had failed to mention, was that there were more 2’s to come. That I had a 50% chance of getting another 2 in a potentially indestructible position. The rules of the game had to change; I became addicted to eliminating 2’s. If I managed to get none on the board I gave myself 5 points. For all you 2048 addictees, you might be interested to know that this method is a surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) effective way of getting to the 2048 tile.

For me, 2048, has become something akin to a first person shooter for “2” haters.

It’s awesome!

*For Mum: The Room 2 is a phone game by the Myst people that you should probably buy. 2048 is a phone game not by the Myst people that you would also enjoy.


Seoul Food – The Daily Eats Edition

If there is one question people ask me to no end, it’s “what have you been eating?”. I’ve been thinking about how to answer this question for a little while and I’m still not sure I can answer to the satisfaction of those who have asked, nor can I answer it with much entertainment factor, but here is my best shot:

When I first came to Korea my school offered to give me dinner every night. The food is mostly delicious, and presented in a 3 container “dinner box” – rice in one container, kimchi and some other banchan (side dishes) in the second container and protein in the last container. Banchans would range from radishes, to lotus roots in a sweet sauce, to spinach (my favourite), perilla leaf kimchi, bean sprouts, or other greenery. The protein was often an egg, black soy beans or stewed meat. My favourite, however, is fried tofu in chilli sauce – oh my gosh … melt in your mouth… delicious.

Side Dishes

A bunch of banchan at a restaurant

As my sleeping schedule was all out of whack at the start of my stay here, I tended to just have lunch and skip breakfast at home – usually I would eat rice and greens with an egg, or if in a rush I’d have a bowl of ramen. If I felt like something super tasty I would pick up some kimbap or make my own. Kimbap is  a little like sushi rolls except with more fillings. Usually you get spinach, egg, radish, carrots and cucumber and whatever extras you ask for – tuna is a popular choice – all wrapped up in rice and seaweed, and brushed with sesame oil. Delicious!

Whilst incredibly healthy, unfortunately, something in this diet didn’t suit me. About two months in I started to have serious stomach problems, to the point of feeling too nauseous and dizzy to climb the stairs at work and I headed to the doctor. After poking me until I screamed, he made a diagnosis of gastritis and sent me on my way with a prescription for what felt like 20 pills. Without exaggerating, it was probably closer to 10. He suggested that I stop drinking (I’d actually already done this) and cut out spicy and fermented foods like kimchi.

I went back to the school and explained my predicament. The foreign teacher before me had had similar issues with some of the food so luckily(?), they had a pre-made plan. The school would give me a small sum each week and I could bring my own food for dinner.

At first, I would just buy kimbap everyday, as it is free of the aforementioned banned foods and exceptionally quick and cheap to pick up on the way, however it really wasn’t filling enough and I would find myself ravenous by the end of the working day; meaning I would want to eat something before bed (my working hours were 2-10pm), thus not helping the gastritis in the least! The drugs were making me tired and motion sick, and I just wasn’t satisfied. To add fuel to the fire, I hate mega marts!

All those options make me ridiculously anxious. I don’t need 10 choices for plain(always sweetened) yoghurt, it’s bad enough that I have 5 in a supermarket back home. Nor do I need to buy anything but rice in bulk! And I certainly don’t need to buy a pillow or wardrobe with my chicken. Gah!

Supermarkets always fascinate me when I go to a new country, they are markedly different wherever you go, and I’m sure it has made or will one day make a great anthropology/sociology study. Yet, megamarts are simply overwhelming and I hate them. I could go on further, discussing the effect of such shopping monstrosities on the local economy, but for now I will spare you my imperfectly informed rant.

Not only are these shopping factories terrifying, they don’t really have what I want, or if they do, they have it at an unreasonable price. Luckily I have found a way of eliminating this terror.

First and foremost are the small marts, a little like IGA or smaller. They sell the basics and although they are slightly more expensive than the megamarts, I like the people who run them and they don’t seem to be too bothered by me.

My second resource is iherb.com . This American online store is marketed as a health food store, but it has become an institution among the expat community as a place to find ingredients unavailable in Korea (at all or at a reasonable price), like baking supplies, spices and canned tomatoes. Back home, I like to eat a lot of lentil and bean dishes. I’m  not a vegetarian, I’m just good at cooking filling, healthy vegetarian food on a budget. Meat is expensive in Korea, yet so are beans and lentils – if you can find them! Luckily iHerb has free/$4 flat fare shipping – depending on the offer at the time.


My first iHerb order. Beans, lentils, spices, oats, honey, stock cubes and polenta! The polenta was a delicious impulse decision.

Lastly, I’ve joined a program that sends fruit, eggs, veggies and bread (that tastes like real bread!) each week to my apartment. It’s a collaboration between the WWOOFing and CSA networks in Korea. The produce is delicious and it means that I am directly supporting Korean farmers, whose industry is dwindling in the face of competition from near-by China. I also like that I get some uniquely Korean produce like perilla leaves and certain other greens, adding challenge and excitement to my meals.

My first WWOOF and CSA delivery.

My first WWOOF/CSA delivery. It arrived within an hour of the iHerb package.

Since my hours have been changed to 1-9pm and I’ve been off the gastritis drugs, my sleeping habits have been much better and I’ve started having breakfast again. This is another thing I have turned to iHerb for – oats just aren’t available here! I could just eat rice but as it doesn’t cost me any more, I’ll stick with my old staple.

So after all that, I would say that, besides breakfast, I eat a combination of Korean food and cumin, with the occasional carb load of spaghetti or a cheeky pizza.

Oh and I’ve also discovered that it ridiculously easy to make your own yoghurt and ricotta cheese. See Mum? I am using those Chemistry degrees!

Eating out is a whole other institution and deserving of it’s own post, so stay tuned for more!

The Extremes of the Seoul

By the end of January, I was ready for a holiday. I’d had a terrible week, dealing with out dated education practices and a black dog that insisted on following me around – constantly reminding me that I had left my loved ones and forgotten my teddy bear in a warmer hemisphere. Luckily, my cold hemisphere position celebrates two New Year’s holidays and I was due to set off on an adventure up North.

No, no, not that North. I was going Seoul Searching!

As soon as I clocked off, I boarded the Seoul Train – a mildly insane idea considering that this meant I was to arrive in Seoul at 4am. The internet had assured me that 4am was a perfectly reasonable time to arrive in one of the world’s largest metropolises, leaving no surprises when I arrived in a barren wasteland of closed coffee shops and quiet streets. This was New Year after all, most Koreans were running home at half speed (traffic jams) to complain to their elders that the kimchi refrigerator had finally broken.

Seoul train

Waiting for the Seoul train to arrive

After fending off an overly friendly touting “taxi” I jumped into the most legitimate vehicle I could find and gasped “coffee”. The man turned, looked me up and down, snorted, said something about a waegookin, and drove me to Itaewon, the foreigner section of Seoul, filled with 24 hour cafes, brunch spots, western sized shoes, baking supplies and kebabs; most importantly kebabs.

I didn’t have a kebab. That’s really not the point. Kebabs existing, meant that people who needed kebabs also existed; loud, sleazy, raucous, completely drunk and distasteful people – everywhere. Never has disgust been more satisfying.

I was in the antithesis of Disney. An ‘old familiar point of view’ had taken over.  My Never-Wonder-land. The… ah… I could keep going but I’ll spare you some pain.

A friend of mine claimed, on our 4 hour trip in Macau, once upon a time, that if Las Vegas was the most fake place in the world, then, as Macau is a fake Vegas, it must be the most fake place in the Universe. The same could be said of Lotte World and Disney World.

Macau is to Vegas as Lotte is to Disney. From antithesis to hyper-reality, I was sure to make this a trip of extremes. Lotte World, is the largest indoor theme park in the world, and also has an outdoor section with it’s very… own… Cinderella’s Castle. I didn’t feel any pressure to go on the rides, I just wanted to soak the place in.

For anyone who has been to a Disney Land and ridden the “Small World”, you would know that it is best compared with Gene Wilder’s face and that terrifying tunnel in the original Willy Wonka movie. For anyone who is yet to experience either, well:

Round and round and round you go.

Everything is bright. Just a little too bright.

Everything is coloured. Just a little too coloured.

Everything is happy. Just a little too happy.

If you took that one ride, and made it a park, you would have Lotte World – An Architect’s Impression of Mania.

I’ve thought for a long time about what to tell you about Lotte World. I’ve been trying to decide on a fun story or particularly odd encounter. Yet, I don’t really have any I want to tell. My trip to Lotte World was an entirely cynical one. I intended to laugh derisively at the delirium – matching couples, overly happy staff and the wide eyed smiles of the Lotte characters – and I did. Yet it was an entirely personal endeavor. I went to wander, and have time to myself and I got a lot of that, yet less than I expected.

When I had finally decided that I had had enough, serendipity stepped in, in time for the parade, and I found myself completely barricaded from getting out. Suddenly, I felt a little poke in my back. Turning around, a little knight stared up at me, sword in hand, ready to take on the evil giant that stared back at him. As I bent down, he whispered “hello”, I pulled out the pen in my pocket, and we proceeded to duel. More kids joined in and the high pitched Korean lady performing silly dance moves to keep the children “occupied” while we waited for the parade stared daggers in my direction. With the little boy refusing to let go of my hand, I watched the show. The parade was a fascinating march of unacceptable racial stereotypes and sea animals. It was pretentiously hilarious, unpretentiously fun and I completely adored it!

That little boy really helped renew my enthusiasm for all things Korean, and reminded me to appreciate rather than laugh at what is innocent and kind. Seoul had done for me what my job had failed to do in the weeks previous. It reminded me why I want to be here. I want to educate beyond a university environment, and work with kids. I want to live in a culture that is so old and yet so young; having pushed so far ahead, in such a short space of time, that it is difficult to find anything below or above an extreme.

I love South Korea, it never stops amazing me and it never will. I have so much more to tell you about my Seoul adventure, yet for now I will leave you with this little face that I’m sure will haunt your nightmares just as it haunts my apartment. Here is my first Korean souvenir, a comforting slice of depression found within the coloured halls of the most manic place on earth:

Reginald the Cat

His name is Reginald

Names and Other Words

Happy Lunar New Year! Calling it “Chinese New Year” would probably result in the reneging of my visa. If there is one thing Koreans hate, it is a suggestion that their culture is not their own. You could say the same for all cultures I’m sure, however, for historic reasons, Koreans seem to have a particularly impassioned response to the insult.

I spent my New Year’s holiday in Seoul, and I can’t wait to tell you about it! However, whilst I’m letting myself process that adventure, I thought I’d pass on some cute teaching stories. It’s been a hard couple of weeks dealing with bureaucracy, yet everyday, all is forgotten, as soon as I step into the classroom. So much so, that I’m starting to wonder whether I might want to become a primary school teacher in Australia – we’ll see how I feel in 9 months time.

On Names: 

I never thought they could bring so much joy. My wild imagination had always hoped there was a secret naming dictionary that those born without an “English name” used to determine something phonetically similar; like how Heather becomes ヘザー (Hezaa) in Japanese and 해더 (Haedeo) in Korean – or sometimes 해인 (Haein) or 해진 (Haejin), depending on the student.

Alas! This wonder does not exist.

Hazaah! The responsibility falls to me – the crazy foreigner.

Not wanting to cause too much grief to my students in their older years, I usually choose the bland names of my friends – there are now Cams, Claires, Charleses, Brians, Andys, Amys, Aimees, Jasons, Tims, Chrises, Bens, Elanors, Alexes (both male and female), Lynnes, Lexes and Rexes (or is that the same student?) all running around the same school. I really hope some of them are housemates one day. They will never know how odd it is, yet I am left smiling thinking of an apartment full of a conglomeration of names from my past.

I’ve been fortunate enough to not always have to rewrite my students’ birth certificates. When students take the initiative to name themselves, well… it is constant source of entertainment. There’s:

Jelly – who isn’t sure where  her name originated.

Cena – after the wrestler, because he too is unusually large.

Hook and Peter – who are best friends and claim to have never seen Peter Pan.

Peter has since changed his name to Hawk.

Oh and Lucy. Who isn’t happy with Lucy and changes her name every week. For admin purposes I’ve stuck with Lucy, however I think her last suggestion was Prairie. As in, “Little House on the Prairie”.

There is a running joke going around the academy about my own name. Heather – they’ve got that one down. Mary – marry? merry? eh… same thing. Aitken, is a little harder, even in the western world. At home I can get Atkin, Atkins, Aytoken. In Korea, I am known as …

Heather Ate Chicken.

Needless to say, I’m terrified of them finding the evidence:


We Ate Chicken (Whitken?)

On Grammar:

I’ve had the “good fortune” to correct my students workbooks of late, which has lead to some private chuckles and subsequently odd stares from my students. My favourite came about when reading about a dog’s visit to the vet and subsequent need for pharmaceutical attention. The question “What did the dog get?” … The answer should have been something along the lines of “The dog got a shot” or “The dog got an injection” or “The dog got some medicine”. To my  joy, my students used their lack of grammatical knowledge to become murderous psychopaths:

“The dog got shot”

“The vet shot the dog”

“The vet was shot”

“The vet was shot of the dog”

“Doctor gets shot”

“The vet [is] shooting the dog”

“The dog is shot getting [an] injection”

On Vocabulary:

I discovered a new gem today. Better than “hand phone”, “cider” (which is actually just lemonade) or “glamorous” (a voluptuous woman). This, my friends, is Konglish gone wild!  In a fantastic game of inter-cultural Chinese whispers (or whatever the politically correct term is) my students have come to believe that the word for a “toilet” is a “bathroom”. Not the room in which one uses the facilities, just the facility itself. My students were quite shocked when I dismantled this falsity and some refused to changed their sentences, later gasping in disbelief once they had looked it up themselves.

A part of me worries I’m being racist… that I’m rude laughing at Konglish. However, my student’s  get their own back quite often, and have managed to get me to pronounce Korean words incorrectly for days on end, just for their own amusement. So really, when it comes down to it, language is hilarious, and my concerns are quite unnecessary.

I will leave you today with this wonderful question, that I am yet to answer:

“Teacher, what is poetry? Why is there poetry?”

Oh students, how simple you try to be, and yet, how deep you are.

Happiness Tip: Face backwards the first time you ski!

Just a quick note: Sorry that I am late posting this. Having just completed my first week of teaching elementary students on top of my regular classes – around 6 hours extra teaching time – writing home was the last thing on my mind. This has meant that for over a week the first post you see on this website has been a fairly depressing, brutally honest piece about the trials of living in a new country, so foreign to your own. By the end of today’s post if I haven’t made you smile, I give you full permission to force a grin on my face – Joker style. And so: 


I was a scientist these past few years – I research any new project so thoroughly that every moment feels like déjà vu.


I was a scientist these past few years – I read everything objectively and with a grain of salt.

When I first started learning about coming to South Korea, as an ESL teacher, I inevitably found my way to websites and blogs that were far from positive. After reading some of these accounts I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a scam; that I would get to Incheon airport, be thrown into a black car and sold to a very strange man with a fetish for slightly odd looking, mildly voluptuous, messy haired, 174cm, blue eyed, Caucasian women. It was a very small worry, given that the previous foreign teacher had added me on Facebook and was definitely short.

No, I am not usually this paranoid.

(That last sentence was probably a lie.)

Thankfully, my paranoia has so far proven unwarranted, and I was right to ignore the mindless drivel of cyber pessimism.

Over the New Year’s break I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a company workshop at Muju Ski Resort. When I first heard the term “Company Workshop” I was terrified. It sounded like I was about to spend the New Year sitting in a room, trying to concentrate on lectures whilst staring longingly out my window as skiers rushed past. How wrong I was! “Company workshop” was actually code for let’s go skiing together, eat amazing food and drink copious amounts of soju! I had a marvelous time and had a chance to build my relationships with my co-workers.

(I’m starting to feel that “copious amounts” is a redundant term when it comes to soju.)

On the other hand, I am less convinced of my relationship with skis. I think it is more likely skiing resorts that I am unsure of.  I just don’t really understand the appeal of repeating a carnival ride over and over again, and that is exactly what I felt I was doing:

Step 1: Waddle over to the chair lift.

Step 2: Sit in the chair lift

Step 3:  Admire the view (skip this if it is your 10th time (or 2nd) and just close your eyes to escape the glare)

Step 4: Ski down the slope

Step 5: Repeat

For me, skiing was maddeningly monotonous. I’d much rather go hiking.

Yet have no fear, my rant ends here! There was plenty of hilarity to break up the monotony.

As this was my first time skiing, I was sure that I was going to fall over countless times. In the end, I really should have had more faith in myself. Twenty years of dance training should not be discounted; I proudly stayed on my feet.

This is not to say that I was graceful off the slopes – my clumsiness outside of sport is unrivalled! The first time I went up the slope a coworker tried to pass me my phone and I slipped. Not a “slip and quickly gain balance” kind of slip, oh no, I slipped all the way down the slope…


Somehow, I stayed on my feet until the very end when I finally stopped screaming and realized that I had no idea how to stop! I was forced to skid onto my side to break. People came rushing towards me checking that I was okay; mistaking my maniacal laughter for a cry of pain.

Skiing backwards; watching our instructor try to have a conversation with us until he skied into a fence; watching a male friend ski straight into the gap of a woman’s legs, locked in a never ending hug down the slope; those are the moments I will treasure… not the wish washy, upy downy, time wasty nonsense, that was going up and down a hill for eight hours.

I’m glad that I got to do something with the company so soon after the norebang nightmare. It meant that I went in prepared for the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when, most of the time, I was free to be myself and speak my mind (politely of course).

Rest stop Muju

Not a bad place to take a rest

The Day Karaoke Made Me Cry

I knew it would happen eventually. That I would have “that moment” when everything became too strange. When the honeymoon was over.

It happened within the same amount of time when I was in China. I was in a city just outside Zhangjiajie National Park. It was an odd town to be situated so rural. There were high rise buildings and department stores, pubs and clubs, … and dog meat markets. That was the moment for me. When I turned a corner and all of a sudden I was thrown out of a city and into  something completely the opposite. The market was dirty, dogs were split in half hanging from metal frameworks, the stall owners had metal bins next to them containing the contents of their spitting addiction. It was too much.

It was fascinating.

It was too much. I walked back to the hostel. Sat down and chatted online at length to a friend who I knew would laugh it off and tell me to buck up. The next day I went on a two day hike and let off steam. It was fairly easy to get over. Nothing had happened to me, I’d simply overwhelmed my senses.

Zhangjiajie peaks

The beautiful sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie National Park

My Korean culture shock moment was quite different. To start with I wasn’t expecting it to happen on my birthday. My birthday is usually one of the most delightfully uneventful days of the year; smack in the middle of the festive season, no one, not even I, can be bothered celebrating on the 28th of December. Yet there I was, celebrating the end of the year with my company. The dinner was delightful. I had a wonderful time, and I was looking forward to discovering the appeal behind booking out an entire norebang (singing room – aka karaoke house) for the next chapter of the night. It turns out,  norebangs and I don’t really suit each other. Especially when everyone around me is too drunk too speak English or even Korean slowly and clearly. Especially when every song is in Korean with a bad 80’s backing track. Especially when it lasts for more than 4 hours.

4 hours.

That was my limit. One of my coworkers asked if I was tired and well… I couldn’t help it… I started to sob. I tried to explain that no, I wasn’t tired, I was overwhelmed. That I was in shock. That my senses couldn’t handle it anymore. The smell of spilled soju and dried fish; the sound of the Korean language and flat vocals;  the touch of the tambourine against my hand over and over again to a never wavering beat; the sight of flashing blue lights and semi-naked women on the teleprompter; the taste of the air in such a smoke filled room. It was all just too much. I gained permission from the CEO to leave, and ran home. Before I even made it to my apartment the tears were flowing uncontrollably.

I felt like a failure, but I wasn’t worrying about that. I needed to hear English. Preferably a strong Australian accent. So naturally, I turned to the Hilltop Hoods. I blasted them so loudly that I probably gave the Korean’s culture shock. I let out my frustration, yet I couldn’t stay the tears.  Luckily, a close friend of mine was online:

H: I’m feeling massive culture shock tonight.

J: Why? How do they celebrate birthdays in Korea? Do they feed you live octopus and make you dance Gangnam Style? Do they make you play scrabble blindfolded? Do they play Starcraft with your name as a player character name? … Do they make you drink so much you pass out, and then they take a photo of you and put it on the internet?

H: I had to go to the company (the large company that owns the school) end of year party. Everything was great until we went to karaoke. I was fine for the first round of singing, but they started all over again because someone had passed out for the first round… yeah… that much drinking is involved at these things. Everything was in Korean. All the sounds were in Korean! For hours!!! I freaked out a bit. They could tell I was “tired” so I tried to explain… The big boss let me go… you can’t go without his permission. Partying is part of the job. Now I’m at home crying and listening to terrible English music.

J: What do you mean all the sounds were in Korean?

H: Music, conversation, etc.

J: Oh wow, that would be a culture shock.

H: All the tunes sounded like bad eighties hits because of the karaoke backing music.

J: That sounds like a nightmare I had a few nights ago.

H: What happened?

J: I was DJing and all I had were bad 70s/80s hits. Everyone got angry and asked me to play better music but someone had deleted all of my good music and replaced it with ludicrously bad music I’d never heard of before. I just kept on DJing hoping that a song I’d never heard would be ok. It never was. I got booed out of the club and my reputation was left in tatters.

H: That’s exactly what it was like…. for hours. I’m pretty sure we started at around 7pm… and I left at 11pm.

J: You sat through that for 4 hours?

H: Yes I did! To make it worse, there were tambourines and bongos!

J: You’re amazing.

H: Thank you. Yes I am.

J: Even those Guantanamo Bay prisoners caved after 3 hours.

H: I should be a spy.

J: “Sir, it’s been 4 hours. We’ve played 내 인형을 사랑합니다 on repeat and she’s still not broken.” “She is not human.” “She must be…..SUPER HUMAN” DUN DUN DUUUUUN <Cue heroic music>

H: I just made the Superman arms.

I laughed for about 10 minutes. I was definitely in hysterics.

I was made aware of a group of friends out playing “screen golf” for the night. I whacked that ball so hard. I laughed. I chatted. I watched the soccer. Just for a little while I was able to forget that the place I was in was new, exciting and foreign. I let go. I got home at 5am having had one of the most memorable of birthdays, feeling better than I had in days.


Whacking balls at a screen creates infinite happiness

I feel so exposed and vulnerable having written this post.

I’ve admitted that I’m not a constant force of optimism;  that I’m not always a party animal; that sometimes, I crave the familiar; that sometimes, adventure is the last thing I need to be happy.

I’ve admitted that I’m human, and that sometimes, just for a moment, humanity is too much to bear.

Shock in a Box – The Christmas Post

I hate the lead up to Christmas. Throughout December, I rant non-stop at my friends and family.

I am a pre-Christmas Grinch.

Christmas lights – The attention seeking brat of neighbourly cheer.

Christmas Shopping – Phobic.

Myer’s Windows – Not lovely enough to hold attention, resulting in a rousing children’s chorus of the ‘Bourke Street Scream’.

Fake Christmas Trees –  Worse than the smell of Pine-O-Clean.

I hate pre-Christmas because it is nothing like Christmas. Pre-Christmas is that joyful time of year when I start to wonder whether love really is measured by material possessions and a horrendous electricity bill. I become bitter and twisted, counting my pennies; meticulously planning a Christmas Dinner that could headline Food Porn Weekly.

I love Christmas.

I love that I get to see my ridiculously large extended family. I love that getting a gift is more exciting than the gift itself. I love that I get to eat like I have the metabolism of an eight year old.  I give up on the fancy dinner and hoe into a non-glazed ham thrown unceremoniously on the table next to the yo-yo’s, gravy and mince tarts.  Gravy-laced-brandy-custard is delicious.

This year was different.

This December has proven truly remarkable.

I wrote Christmas Cards and letters (that have no hope of arriving before January). I decorated using the kitsch-est ornaments I could find. I bought a 10cm Christmas Tree that is entirely fake and yet I think it’s wonderful.  I created another tree out of green masking tape on my front door. I own a headband with reindeer antlers and my TV is wrapped in fairy lights.

I’ve planned lessons around Christmas and given the gift of Freddo to all of my students.

I’ve eaten Christmas [sponge] cake out of a cup with chopsticks and guzzled a towering mess of soju.

I have loved every moment of my Hallmark-Scented Korean Christmas Adventure.

On Christmas Day, I joined other expats for a delicious feast of turkey, mash, Yorkshire puddings, cakes, truffles… The list goes on! It was so refreshing to eat hot food at Christmas without feeling like I had melted into a substitute for the gravy. I felt like I was having that oft dreamed of “White Christmas” – in a country that views Christmas as an excuse for an extra Valentine’s Day.

None of it was like home, yet I felt so… at home. So welcome.

Before I sign off I want to mention how grateful I am that I have such kind, wonderful family and friends back home.

Thank you for skyping me into my favourite family gathering and for making sure I had a KK gift to open Christmas night.

Thank you for skyping me into the carols.

Thank you for making sure I knew I was loved.

Thank you for the letters and parcels.

Thank you for the photos and stories.

Thank you for my post title… Shock-in-a-Box… A box full of cards, chocolate, a chupa chup, vegemite, books and a choral t-shirt.

Thank you.


Every morning,

as I jump out of bed, all I want to do is lie down. Not on my bed. On the floor.

Every morning,

I set two alarms, the first one is a gentle nudge telling me to turn the heater on for half an hour.

The second, is your average “get out of bed now or you will ruin everything for everyone” screech. This, is when I want to collapse on the floor.

The reason for this madness has nothing to do with my distaste for sunrises or love of uncomfortable snooze-button sleep. The reason, is that I have floor heating. Heated floors…

My floors are heated!!!!

Pipes… running underneath the floor.

It’s marvelous.

I also have a rug. It’s all piley and shaggy.  It warms with the floor.

Prostrating myself on the floor in the mornings is like floating face down in a carpet spa.

The wallpaper is kitsch. I’ve embraced it. The floor is warm. I’ve embraced it. The hot water is the cold water. I’ve gotten used to it.

My apartment is probably better than yours.

I thought you might like to know all of that.

warm ruggy goodness

warm ruggy goodness

I think they’re starting to get used to my presence

My last class on a Monday night is a debate class, and as the topic of tonight’s debate was internet anonymity, I thought it was perfect timing to pen a new post on my rather conspicuously un-anonymous (nonymous?) blog.

I really love this class, it is one of three “special” classes that I have each week. The aim of these classes is to get the students speaking, rather than simply saying strings of words out loud like they often do when working from conventional textbooks. These classes really seem to build students’ confidence and furthermore, it allows me to focus on the students’ individual needs far more rigorously, as I only have a maximum of four students in each class. Not that my regular classes are huge either. The school is a so called “hagwon” – a private school that holds classes after public school is over for the day – and as such I think the largest class has nine students. Overall, I have a bit less than 100 students, out of 180 at the entire academy.

My students work hard! Their life is study. My hours are a blissful 2-10 pm and some of the students are at the academy from 4 pm until long after I leave. My heart took a leap of joy when the Head of the English Department divulged to me that “new research” shows that it is important that students take a more active role in the classroom. I’ve since spent the last week coming up with a detailed lesson plan for next year involving a different warm up game each class and far more partner work. They have also asked me to take on special reading classes in the new year and are encouraging me to get creative. We have a great textbook to work through, but we also want to get the students reading current articles and maybe even a novel. Yes, the students really are that good.

Craft supplies ahoy!

One of the extra activities I’ve had the chance to run – Christmas Cards!

I can easily hold a short conversation with most of the students, although most of the time it ends at their answer to “How are you?”. This isn’t just because most of these conversations occur on the devastatingly cold stairwell, held at sprint speed. No, it is more to do with the shock the students seem to have that I ask this question every time I see them (and my shock at their shock). To my students, this is a real question, and they want to take the time to answer it truthfully. This usually means I get “so, so” as the initial answer. When I ask why, it is often due to exams or disagreeable weather patterns. I’m not sure whether this is pessimism or realism on the students behalf. I like to think it’s realism. They aren’t telling me things are just plain “bad” and I feel that if I was a little less optimistic I would have to agree with them. They’re answer, if they were a little more confident, might be something like this: “The weather outside is frightful, however my mum will be making me some warm soup when I get home, and if I’m lucky she will make hotteok. I also have important exams at the moment, but I know that I will do well in them because I have been studying so hard. So, overall, I’d say that I am both good and bad; more concisely put, I would say that I am ‘so-so'”.

I have been lucky enough to get one student tell me that they are “bad”. Lucky? Lucky. The answer was adorable!

H: How are you today Amber?
A: Bad.
H: Oh No! Why?
A: Turkey.
H: You don’t like turkey?
A: I’m going to Turkey.
H:The country?
A: Yes.
H: You’re moving to Turkey?
A: No. Holiday.
H:You’re going on holiday to Turkey? That’s amazing!
A: No.
H: Why not?
A: History. Everything is history. Why learn on holiday? I hate history. And I am going with him *points to student on the other side of the room*
H: Oh, are you related?
Both: No!
H: Same school?
Both: No! Our Mothers. Friends.
H: Oh, so you both get to go on holidaytogether ?
Both: Not really!
H: So today you are “bad”?
Both: Yes!
H: *falls into a fit of laughter*

I think the students and I are starting to get used to each other. The fact that I always say “how are you?” is becoming more of a running joke than a shock. When the students stare at me they are no longer looking so deep into my eyes that I feel like my soul is being pulled to pieces. Rather, they are comfortable looking briefly and saying “Wow Teacher, you have blue eyes!”. If I see them in a store they don’t pull on their parent’s shirt and point. Rather, they yell loud and clear “Hi Teacher!” so that everyone in the store knows who I am.

Everything in Korea seems to be cute, from baby pink kettles, to koi shaped pastries and parrot shaped hand cream containers. It is not surprising that there seems to be a culture of clinging on to one’s innocence when you consider how mature the students must be and how hard they must work from a very early age. Yet, I can’t help but admire my students. School work takes up most of the day (and the night for that matter), so they manage their time effectively because like all kids, fun, play and socialising is still number one on their priority list.

I never miss anyone – and yet, I already do.

I feel it is only fitting to start this blog with an ending. It was after all, an ending that brought me here.

“Here” being the South of South Korea – Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do, South Korea – where, as of last week, I am employed as an ESL teacher.


My new city, Suncheon, from the top of “Bamboo Mountain”

“…an ending that brought me here” refers to the end of a budding career as a Computational Chemist.

That story, is not the story I wish to tell.

It’s a rather contrived, boring tale of a girl who lost her way, kept going anyway, came to her senses and became, not lost, but free, ready for an adventure, and a god damned job! However, I must acknowledge, that it is the story that catalysed today’s tale. That, were it not for the experience and maturity I have gained over the past few years as a scientist, partner, and friend, I would never have seized the courage required to admit that I was not ready to settle.

In the true spirit of adventure, I’m sitting in my new home, already missing someone. Her name is Ashleigh. My replace-ee. A South African girl, ready to move back home to study after 18 months in Suncheon. I was lucky enough to spend my first week here eagerly following her tail. The kindness she has given, the laughter she has taken, and the memories she has created, have left me wanting so much more.

We have eaten our weight in Korean cuisine; taught the same “scary story” almost twice everyday yet still giggled when our students jump at us turning out the lights; we have let ourselves be blinged at a nail salon; exchanged possessions (by which I mean I bought all her stuff and am very grateful for it); shopped till we dropped; and partied like it was December 31, 1999.


Ashleigh and I at her (academy) going away party.

I am not one to miss people. I keep myself busy and I converse with my closest friends and family using the wonder that is technology fairly regularly when I am away. Or at least that’s my excuse. I think the real reason I struggle to miss others, is that I know that I will see them again. It isn’t really goodbye. There is no point wasting the time and energy it takes to miss someone, when you could be living a tale to tell later.

Yet, with Ashleigh leaving, there is an odd element of shock hanging over me. Her kindness has eased the burden of culture shock, only to create a new brand of surprise. I’m sure I will see her again, yet it may not be for a very long time when many of my stories are forgotten (maybe not, now that I’ve dived into the blogging world, hehe). I know it’s crazy, but I can’t help but have this odd pain in my chest when I realise that I can’t just knock on the door across from mine to ask for a spoon; I have to go to my own drawer for that one now.  It’s a shock I’m going to have to get used to. I will also be leaving eventually, and many more will leave before me. It’s a reality check I knew was coming, I just wasn’t expecting it so soon. For now, I will let myself soak it all in, with a promise that I will buck up in the morning.

I hope this isn’t giving all of you back home the impression that I am struggling, because the reality is absolutely the opposite. I’ve settled in tremendously! My students are ridiculously intelligent, and even more so, ridiculously cute. The staff carefully balance fun and hard work. I’m eating well and sleeping well. My apartment is ideally sized and could definitely fit an extra mattress (*wink wink nudge nudge*). I’ve met expats and will be going out with them again this Saturday. Autumn is still pretending to exist, even though the first snow of the season has already swept by. ‘Nough said really! (I’ll expand in the next few days)

I’m having a blast!

It may now be the end of this brilliant adventure,

with a dear friend I certainly will treasure (sorry, couldn’t help it)…

but what an ending to have, at the start of something SO NEW!


Getting our nails done – Korea Style!