In defense of rural people and places.

Yesterday, I had a good conversation with one of my students. She speaks English very well (the result of years of learning English at school and going to English academy after school), and has lots of opinions about Korea. She was especially troubled at the bias against students in rural areas.

Paraphrased, this is what she said, “Teachers tell us that students in Seoul are so much better and are under so much more stress than we are. But we take the same tests as they do, and we do the same things as we do. The problem with Korea is that they think that bigger is better. They think Jeju is less because we’re not Seoul.”

I told her that Korea is not alone in its rural bias. It is alive and well in the USA, too.

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky – and by small, I mean 200 people (as recorded by the 2000 US Census). We have one general store, 6 churches, and a school building that no longer functions as a school. We have to go to the next county over if we want Wal-Mart or a hospital or a quality Mexican restaurant. Because of the lack of resources, many people are leaving. I believe this is the story of many rural towns, not just mine in Kentucky.

But, perhaps it’s time to stand up for rural America and her people.

Despite the lack of resources and even perceived isolation at the local levels – rural America is good at heart. While there is a lack of modern entertainment, “good” schools, and general bustle, the rural setting is a place of quiet thoughtfulness. The days are longer, the nights a bit darker, and the silence? Well.  sometimes deafening.

But, in my experience, rural America has nurtured a constant sense of pure amazement. Ask me how I feel anytime I get on a subway in Seoul. I can’t stop thinking about how people can dig miles of tunnels underground and stick trains in them. Ask me how I feel when I get on an airplane. Freaking amazing. Ask me what it’s like when I’m in Kentucky and I see a plane flying overhead. I feel like someone’s on a good adventure. Ask me what it’s like to overlook a city skyline and then lament the lack of green space. All too real.

If anything, students in rural areas (whether the USA or Korea), may have a greater appreciation for the world at hand. For it is this “isolation” from the big cities that helps develop a sense of wonder and amazement at the world beyond the fragile city limits. In a big city, there’s everything to see and do. In rural settings, it’s all to the imagination.

So, I say to my students at my (somewhat) rural island school, take your imagination and run with it. The size of a city does not measure one’s intellect or potential. If my fate depended on the fact that I was born near and raised in a 200-person town, I probably would have never went to a top Kentucky college or became a Fulbright scholar.

In the end and in defense of rural people and rural places, I say that we are bigger dreamers, harder workers, and the most creative. Sure, we’ll have to drive a bit to get to a hospital, theater, restaurant, or supermarket, but all of these amenities can never add up to the constant feeling of amazement and wonder.

geon bae!



Peanut Butter Genesis



Today was the second day of my English winter camp at my all girls’ middle school.

After learning the English names of different foods and matching pictures and words: it was time to make sandwiches. My students were down with ham and cheese with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. That’s the Korean sandwich way. What they weren’t down with was, wait for it, peanut butter and jelly. 

After telling my students that in the USA, not only do we love bald eagles, apple pie, and burgers with glazed doughnuts as the bun, but also PBandJ sandwiches, they were floored.

“You eat peanut butter and jam…together?!” one student exclaimed with a twisted face of disgust, as if I had eaten a case of anchovies in class. “Oh my gosh.” 

Other students just made sounds of disbelief. They would believe that I could fly before they believed I ate peanut butter and jelly together. It was almost unreal, unfathomable that I would eat such a thing. Ham and cheese, that’s natural. But peanut butter with jelly? Wait, woah, hold the phone and call the operator. We’ve got a problem. You can’t put two things like that together. 

Oh, but you can. And we did.

After reviewing English sandwich terms like “bread,” “mayo,” and “spread,” I showed my students how to go through line and make their meal in an orderly fashion. The students went through like the well-behaved participants they are and almost all of them chose ham and cheese with various veggies. It wasn’t until round two until peanut butter heck broke loose and the Peanut Butter Genesis began. Image

My wonderful co-teacher had brought her toaster in for students to make “toast.” CULTURAL NOTE: In Korea, “toast” is another word for a sandwich with toasted bread. For example, my host sister handed me a piece of wrapped toast, and it was an egg and bacon sandwich. After the students went through the line, she made peanut butter and jelly toast, and proceeded to share it with a student. 

The same student, the one who was appalled that I would eat PBandJ, had what I believe to be an out-of-body experience. She tried PBandJ toast, and the rest is history. 


Students then started making their own unique creations with the peanut butter and jelly. I saw a PBandJ with ham. I saw PBandJ with ham, lettuce, and tomatoes. I saw things that would make your stomach turn. I saw new flavors of toast being born before my eyes, conceived in the moment of peanut butter experimentation. I saw the Peanut Butter Genesis. 

And it was good.

Monday Short: Letting go of perfect.

So, I’ll confess. I have a serious problem with perfectionism. Everything has to be perfect. My last semester of college, I was so pulled between having the 4.0 Senior Year and trying to relax that I often found myself staring at the dorm ceiling in awkward despair.

I can’t say that I’ve really grown out the problem since I walked across the graduation stage after a 4.0 senior year. Now, as a teacher, the problem still lingers. When I introduce a new lesson, I expect it to go swimmingly. I expect the students to be engaged and to pick up on everything the first time.

Beginner’s optimism? Possibly.

I went through the 2.5-year certification program in my college’s Department of Education. The State of Kentucky has issued me a license to teach. I received all A’s in my student teaching semester. I’m now teaching in Korea. Apparently, somebody somewhere thinks I’m capable of teaching.

However, sometimes I’m not so sure of my own abilities. When students are looking out the window or having side conversations, I get frustrated. Does that I mean I dislike my students? Absolutely not. It just means that I feel as if I’m not a good teacher. I’m not interesting enough. My lesson is the lamest. My own doubt is something I fight against each and everyday as a teacher, especially in a foreign country where I’m the language minority.

Regardless, I’m still a teacher at heart. I love school. I love the books. I love students. And because of this, I’m slowly letting go of perfect.

Geon bae from a different kind of south,



Wednesday Short: As it turns out, my students don’t hate me.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

– The Jesus Prayer

Today, I was ten seconds from making a whole class be completely silent and put their heads down. I was that close.  However, I decided to just keep teaching my lesson and eventually, everyone focused. Sometimes you just have to plow through and hope for the best.

I gave this particular class a stern stare and told them to be quiet. I was sure that after this class, they would all hate me. All my Wednesday classes were going to hate me. I was the worst teacher ever. Everybody (read: students) hates me. I was already modifying The Jesus Prayer to fit my own needs by saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the worst ETA to ever set foot on Korean soil.”

As it turns out, my students don’t really hate me. They’re still saying “Hello!” to me in the hallway and still stopping by to chat at my cubicle. Even after stern looks and reminders of “If you’re talking, you’re not listening,” students still think I’m kind of neat.

Am I in the profession to be liked? No. Not all teachers will be loved by all of their students. However, today, in the midst of nine kinds of chaos, I realized that actually, my students don’t hate me at all.

Geon bae from a different kind of school in a different kind of South,


The Land of No Expectation

Tomorrow, August 3rd at 7p.m. (Korea time), one month after my departure from the United States, the ceremony to reveal my placement school will begin.

Now, let’s go back in time.

St. Therese
Courtesy of

Over 100 years ago, in 1800s France, there was a girl named Therese. You may recognize her as St. Therese of Lisieux, or the Little Flower of Jesus. At the age of three, she realized her calling to consecrated religious life. Finally, at the age of 15, after throwing herself in front of the Pope, annoying the heck out of the Bishop, and pestering the local Carmelite convent, Therese entered religious life as a Carmelite nun. With persistence, she willed to live out her calling as a consecrated service to Our Lord.

You may be wondering: “But Sarah, you’re not even Catholic. You’re not even a cloistered nun. You live in the 2000s. What’s Therese got to do anything with you?”

In her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul,  published after her death at age 24, Therese thanked God for not allowing her to have wild expectations for the consecrated life. She didn’t have ideas that life in a convent would be fanciful, overly holy, or even peaceful at all times. Rather, Therese found that consecrated life was sometimes dull and tedious – such as the real world. This cloistered haven didn’t shield her from the world, it was often an extension of tedious, daily living.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been informed that living abroad is an exotic experience, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, as long as I live, and probably into all of eternity. This is true, South Korea is exotic in its own right, a place where heaven literally meets earth with the high mountains and copious fog. But Korea after all, isn’t an escape from the real world, it is the real world. It’s the land of everything beautiful, but it’s also the land of no expectation.

I pray that like St. Therese, I won’t have over-the-top expectations for my future school placement, home stay, and life in general beyond August 22nd. After 8p.m. tomorrow, I’ll know where I’ll be for the rest of the year. For now, I’m choosing to stay in the land of no expectation. It would be wrong-headed of me to believe that a perfect school, placement, or family is out there, waiting for me to drop my bags and burrow in for the remainder of the academic year. We’re in the land of no expectation my friends, and I expect it to remain that way.

Good early morning America and geon bae from a different kind of south,