Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Blog Carnival: Feeling at Home when Abroad

It is my second month contributing to the Reach to Teach | Teach Abroad Blog’s monthly "Blog Carnival." Each month, a blogger-teacher-traveler hosts and asks a question, which is voluntarily answered by interested bloggers. Published by the fifth of each month by the host on their blog, the Blog Carnival focuses on advice and helpful tips for ESL teachers. If you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please do contact Dean at - it is a very welcoming process. 

I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in two rural elementary schools in South Korea for one year (2013-2014). 

February 2015 – Sharon Couzens:
"At what moment did you finally start to felt like you were at "home" during your time living abroad?" 


My time living and working in South Korea was at its worst isolating and at its very best fulfilling and carefree. I think I would still be living and teaching in my city of Icheon had I achieved a steady feeling of "home." But I never found my place in Korea. There are moments, however, that life was good and felt complete. Moments of home - some familiar and some completely new that fit into my world of thinking. 

First, I want to thank the people who introduced me to and experienced with me new foods and new ways of dining. Those bowls of vegetables from above, sitting among the small and cluttered market kitchen/kitchen tables, were such a sight! I had never seen anything like them and they delighted me beyond words (so I snapped a picture). In Korea, vegetables made sense, and every day at school lunch and every time I ate out at a Korean restaurant, I stuffed my mouth full of traditional Korean side dishes where vegetables are the star. 

More generally, I like the way Koreans eat. Family-style with tons of side dishes. I always prided myself in having an "extendable fork," often stealing food off my family member's plate. It always felt like home every time we would go out for a teacher dinner, and I would pick off the same whole cooked duck as the principal and two other teachers. I have also always had an appetite for a variety of foods all at once, and no meal in Korea is complete without a plethora of side dishes balanced on the table. Food became a source of comfort and enthusiastic sustenance, as it is back home, and I soon developed a passion for my favorite dishes such as kimchi jjigae 김치찌개  and mandu 만두.

Second, I was so lucky and thankful for the group of people that came at the same time to Korea to teach English. I remember one comment about how our alma mater UW-Madison had sent us to Korea with built-in friends (read about some of our experiences in the Badger Blogging Blitz). There was one particular trip to Seoraksan National Park that was so fantastic it still sits in my mind as one of the happiest times in my life. Four of us travelled with an Adventure Korea group, and since we all had been living in Korea for eight months, we knew the ropes well enough to appreciate that we did not have to plan or organize the transportation or lodging.


That long weekend felt a good careless - I felt at home with my friends, and I could be less serious about the effort it takes living in a foreign country. I felt my age with them: old enough to appreciate being on vacation from the stresses at work and young enough to be crazy and sing "Let It Go" at the top of my lungs on the side of a mountain. 

One last angle from this weekend that made me feel at home was the time we stole the quail eggs from the other table. Maggie, Anne, Rebecca, and I had gotten back from a longer hike and we were hungry. Adventure Korea had organized a lunch for the group at a Korean restaurant on the mountain, and we surprised ourselves at how quickly we finished our food. Since the meal was paid for for by the program (and the restaurant staff was very busy), we didn't want to push the button to ask for more, please more food. 

So, we started to semi-complain that four people would normally get more food than we had as we watched the table next to us, full of newbie-Korea-arrivals, pick indelicately at their food and leave most of it behind. I seriously contemplated eating their leftovers, and I think we did end up taking the dishes they had half-heartedly nibbled at. We also had our eye on one table set with untouched food, waiting for its eaters. After a respectable amount of time, Rebecca quietly stood up and she snatched those quail eggs! Some of us felt guilty about that, but all of us ate a second round of quail eggs.

Third, I had two extremely hardworking co-teachers with whom I stressed, lamented, and laughed with during the 2014 Korean school year. I am so grateful to know them and have had the opportunity to teach with them. Small conversations with SK and SH would leave me thinking, "I could do this for another year. I could stay and live in Korea for another year." One of these "home" moments happened right after one of our open classes with the Principal and Vice Principal of our school. For weeks we had been preparing, stressing, and revising the lesson plan (SK doing the bulk of the planning, stressing, and revising), and by the time the day of the open class finally came (as it had been rescheduled twice), I was quite done. 

But the class went so smoothly - the students were so good - and the Principal was so impressed. She spoke a few kind words in English to me and then spoke with SK, and I knew. I knew it had gone well from their perspective, too. As soon as the classroom doors closed, SK and I jumped around and celebrated. As our second class of fourth graders scattered into the room, I exclaimed, "Hello, beautiful children!!" SK laughed and laughed. The kids bounced around wildly as they do. It was a great day.


My second co-teacher SH and I talked a lot about Korean and American culture. He asked my opinion on current events and included me in the coffee breaks he would take in the teacher's room, where he and the other teachers would chat casually. One of the routines we got into was small talk at lunchtime. This was when he really shut down the stresses of the job and we would just eat and talk. About the weather, about the cute but "devils in the classroom" students, and plans for the weekend. After lunch, we would return to the English room for our toothbrushes and head down the hallway to the bathrooms to brush our teeth. 

Moments with other teachers from my school also made me feel at home in Korea. The 2-1 teacher HBS immediately took a shining to me, proclaiming herself my Korean mom. We did a lot of walking/hiking together and I ate at her house a couple of times. She also always kept me in mind when it came to extra snacks and teacher outings. She was kind and gracious, especially when my family visited the school during my summer break. I also became friends with one of the after school teachers. HK introduced me to her daughter SB and mother and her tiny dog and we ate dinner, went shopping, and went hiking on several occasions.

Finally, I adored my students. They brightened my world, those little monsters. So energetic and enthusiastic, curious and kind, and absolute candy-enthusiasts. Each day at school, students made me feel at home no matter the kind of day I was having. From the tiny first grader whose eyes would get really big every time he would see me and say, "Oh! Hello!" to the 4th grader who stopped by the English classroom nearly every morning basically to ask for food (he would sometimes preface with "How are you?" or tell me that he scored in the 6th grade level on an English test). Those interactions and conversations, however sincere or mundane, were precious to me and made my life complete in Korea. 

Talking with my students, seeing them excel and sometimes rejoice in learning English, and being a small part of their school life (concerts, sports days, stick day celebrations, after school classes, random hallway encounters) always felt like home. They made sure I knew which K-POP group they associated with and taught me the games they liked playing. One third grader CSH, a very energetic/happy/loud boy, took it upon himself to teach me Korean. He would grab my arm and say, "Abby Teacher, clock is shi-gae 시계." Over the next days, he would grab my arm and test me, "Abby Teacher, what is clock?" Or he would be sitting at the lunch room table and would get my attention and simply point at the clock hanging above the lunch line. He did this for several different words "________ is ________," and would test me the subsequent weeks.

Like Dorothy and the Scarecrow, I miss my students most of all. 

Other small features and victories did make me feel at home in Korea. After giving myself time to figure and sort things out and absorb the realities of life in a new culture, I got used to doing laundry and going to the grocery store in Korea. I learned how to pay my monthly bills at the handy bill machine in the NH Bank across the road from my school, and I worked the bus and metro system from the day I arrived to the day I left Korea. One of my greatest feelings of "home" in Korea happened on the metro. Anne and I were chatting in a subway car, both of us heading home after a weekend in Seoul, when I glanced up and saw "신사" above the open doors. "This is my stop!" I shouted as I raced through the doors just before they closed and Anne continued high speed towards her stop. That was maybe three or four months into my year in Korea, and I was navigating the subway in Korean or Hangul. 

It takes time and a little more effort to feel at home when living abroad. And now, being back home in the United States, it takes time and a little more effort to find and make kimchi 김치, to stay in touch with my friends from Korea, and to drive in a car to work when there could just as well be a mass transit option such as a bus or high speed rail. Living and teaching in Korea was wonderful, difficult, and strengthening. My sense of home will always have a bit of Icheon and South Korea in it. 


Abigail prefers walking to motorized vehicles and likes the idea of slow travel, getting to know a place by building up a routine that absorbs the new culture. Her interests include illustration, editing (film & writing), reviews, boston terriers, artist books, and iPhonography. 


  1. Bravo! Haha those quail eggs! ^^ Remembering that made me smile. Hey, they totally would have thrown them out, we prevented waste. ; )

    I loved reading this, Abby. I don't remember exactly when (hence I didn't write a carnival post this month), but my apartment in Korea did feel like my home for the year. Yet I always felt like an outsider in Korea, which is why I couldn't stay. I didn't have that isolated feeling in Spain, though—I found a second home in Madrid, and still think of it as such today.

    1. Yeah I liked my apartment a lot, too. It was missing my personality though since it was move in ready and I didn't have to/I didn't buy anything. I remember Ashley saying something about how it was important to invest right away and buy things for the apartment, even if you were planning on staying only for a year. I wish I had bought a bedside lamp. Tough year, Korea. LOLOLOL those quail eggs. Fun getaway xoxo