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!




Eleven months ago today, I boarded an itty bitty US Airways plane bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, then to LA, and eventually to Seoul-Incheon. A year ago this month, I was giving little talks about Korea to various groups, thinking that the year couldn’t possibly go by this fast.

Now, here I am with 40-ish days remaining in Korea. Life has slowed down to a normal pace here in Korea. It seems more like everyday living, yet at the same time, my life in the USA is beginning to start. I’ve got a job and new apartment awaiting me when I get home. It will be like a new adventure, only on home turf.

But now is not the time to wax reminiscent for Korea. I haven’t even left yet! Instead, I’ll give you tidbits of life so far here in the ROK.

  • Lots of tests are on the horizon for my students. Between achievement tests and finals in July, they’re testing up to their eyeballs.
  • This week I think a member of the Jeju Board of Education is coming to observe. I’m not sure who s/he is observing, but that’s all I know.
  • I’m really proud of my lunch club students. They ask great questions, and as a result, expect great answers.
  • More now than ever, my students are obsessed with my relationship status.
  • I’m learning how to say goodbye. I realize that this is the beginning of my final full month in Korea. I’m not sure how to accept it.
  • The weather has went from cold to blazing hot with 100% humidity to just right. That’s the way I like it. Just right.
  • There’s a few more restaurants in town I’d like to try before I leave. I better hop on it!
  • Memorial Day is this Thursday in Korea. That means no school, among other things.

Lots of things happening. However, there are a few things I’m looking forward to upon my return to the USA. A few examples are:

  • Mexican food. Oh, the Mexican food. The enchiladas, the fajitas, the cheese, the salsa, oh the south of the border fiesta that is Mexican food.
  • Open spaces. Korea is a compact country with buildings stacked on one another with little openness. Back home in Kentucky, it’s greenery as far as the eyes could see. I thought I’d never miss it, but you never know until it’s gone.
  • The libraries.
  • Speaking English on a regular basis.

geon bae!


Little children of the world.

“Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” 

If you grew up in church, you might remember this song from Sunday School. Though it’s been a while since I sang this song, it rang out to me yesterday during a discussion with a student.

At my new English Lunch Club, a handful of some of my most eager students joined me for lunch, The objective? Just speak in English while we eating yum-yum chicken and rice. Some of the students have a very good control of the English language, while some know very little. Regardless of their ability, my students love learning English and practicing with me.

Towards the end of the lunch period, one of my students said that she was on a diet. This is not unusual in Korea. There’s plastic surgery on every corner. But this student was talking about how she wanted to take medicine so she would be skinny. She wants to visit the United States, but she said she was afraid she would be laughed at because she was short and Korean.

I’m not too easily moved, but this broke my heart.

I quickly told the student that she was not fat and that she didn’t need a diet. I told her that the United States has Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, Black, European, African, fat, skinny, tall, and short people. You name it. We’ve got it. I even told her that in the USA, if two people of different colors love one another, they can get married. My student was shocked at the diversity in the United States. She even asked “Really?!” at the thought of there being so many kinds of people in one country.

If you didn’t already know, Korea is a homogeneous nation. Around 97-99% of people born in Korea are ethnically Korean. So, when a foreigner comes around, it might be easy for a Korean student to assume that all Americans (for example) are tall, with pale skin, and blue eyes. This is even easier to believe if their teacher fits this example.

So when I told my student that the USA has lots of kinds of people, it possibly changed her view of the world. I told her that because she was Korean, that lots of people would want to get to know and learn more about her. The USA is not just a far-away land of pale, blue-eyed people, but a wonderful mixture of almost every nation on the planet.

Yesterday, I think I may have made a difference.

That’s why I became a teacher.

One Year

Below is text from the email that rocked my world:

Dear Miss Carey,

Congratulations!  We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected for a US Student Fulbright award for 2012-2013 to Korea, South.  Shortly you will receive a letter from the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board with further details of the award.

Today is a special day for me. A year ago today, on March 28, 2012, at 5:01 pm, I was informed of my status as a Fulbright grantee. Actually, the email came exactly one minute after I closed out of my email while working at the campus writing center. It was probably good thing, as I would have never been able to concentrate through my Irish Literature class. Instead, I would have thrown paper confetti everywhere as we read Ulysses. 

Yes, this year has been crazy, thrilling, and all-around a brand new thing. It’s been a fast year. I specifically remember thinking last year that “Oh, this time next year, I’ll almost be finished with my year in Korea. But I don’t have to worry, that’s a long time from now.”

Well, it wasn’t so long. I only have 108 days left in my contract. That’s just  little over three months. With my remaining time in Korea, I want to embrace as much as I can. Time is not only short, it’s blazing fast and will whip right by you in a second.

However, in this brief time, I’ve become a teacher, I’ve reevaluated my life path, and I’ve made brave new leaps in ways I could never imagine. I’ve learned a bit of Korean, learned to communicate with charades, went to Japan, flown on airplanes alone, and learned to respect the beauty of nature.

It’s funny what a year can do. It’s going to be great to see what the next 108 days hold.

Here’s to the year that was and the year that will be.

geon bae!


An Absolutely True Story About An Absolutely Normal Friday

This an absolutely true story of an absolutely normal Friday.

This afternoon, I am certain that I slipped into an alternate universe after climbing the large hill that would take me into town so I could catch the bus home. Allow me to explain in the only way I know how.

After conquering the hill that takes  me into central Seogwipo, I heard a faint “Excuse me! Excuse me!” coming from a car along the street. I stopped to find a woman in her late 40s, early 50s calling out to me. Honestly, I thought she was another one of my coteachers; I have been meeting new people all week. Instead, the woman asked if I was a teacher and if I had a moment so she could practice English. Before my brain could process anything, I said that I had about 30 minutes. The woman then took me inside a coffee shop where we had peach iced tea. As it turns out, her daughter-in-law owned the coffee shop, her husband is on the Jeju Island Council, and she learned English on her own. If I remember correctly, she said that she learned English by listening to recordings of the Bible being read in English. She said that she has a group of women that practice English and that she had many English conversation partners in the past who were English teachers. Do I usually take offers from strangers? Absolutely not. My mother didn’t raise an idiot. However, I was glad I stopped for tea. 

After the strange tea incident, I went to the post office and then boarded a bus for home. Feeling a bit frisky, I took a different bus, which would go the long way around town. As soon as I stepped on the bus, an elderly Korean man noticed me. The dialogue was as follows:

HELLO! I LIKE FOREIGNERS! (This is from the front to the back of the bus). THE UNITED STATES IS SO GREAT! I LOVE THE UNITED STATES!

May I mention to my readers that this was not in coherent English. After the bus pulls away and everybody is aware of the presence of a waygook (foreigner) on the bus, the man ceases to speak. However, when he rings the bell to get off the bus, the man stops, and in brilliantly loud English says WELCOME TO SEOGWIPO! IT WAS NICE TO MEET YOU! (SOMETHING ABOUT THE UNITED STATES)! The man did not say this while getting off the bus, but he was standing there as the bus door was open, holding up the whole route. I will be forever known as the foreigner that held up the bus route.

I thought I was now out of the way of awkward situations. Now it was time to ride the bus back to where I needed to go.

I was wrong.

Before long, I am the only one left on the bus and the bus driver stops at the “Loyal Souls Cemetery” bus stop for his 20-minute break. He asked where I needed to go, and then he got off, made a phone call, and smoked a cigarette. Now I’m by myself at the Loyal Souls Cemetery terminal end of a bus route with a smoking bus driver who speaks a bit of English. This has happened before; I’m no stranger to riding a full bus route. However, the time at Loyal Souls was eerily wonderful. I’m not one to feel sentimental about nature or secluded places, but the Loyal Souls 20-minute stop made me feel strangely welcome and warm.

I eventually made it back to the Jungang Rotary, where I caught my bus home, and slipped back into the familiar. This may be a normal Friday for most people: encountering English language learners and non-American USA enthusiasts while riding to a cemetery.  However, today will be the day I believe I slipped into a stranger world, a different plane of existence, if but for two hours (Okay, not really. But you get my point).

Today is the day I lived an absolutely true story about an absolutely normal Friday.

geon bae!


Walk of Shame and other adventures in teaching.

Today was the opening ceremony for new first grade middle school students. Like the dutiful teacher I am, I went to be introduced to the new students by the vice principal. Long story short: I walked up on stage at the wrong time and had to walk off in front of 150-200 people. In other words: a packed, Korean middle school gym. I did the walk of shame, only there wasn’t much to be ashamed of after the fact. Just Sarah Teacher being a foreigner. In the words of eloquent Black Eyed Peas front man,, “I gotta stay as fly as I can be.”

In other news:

The school year has been going well. It’s only day two, but everything has gone off without a hitch. I’ve decided to be more purposeful in my teaching this semester. It’s hard to explain what I mean, but I’m going to have more purpose. At the end of the semester last winter, I was thinking, “Hey, let’s just play a rad round of speed quiz.”  Maybe I was a bit exhausted.

Here’s to a great Tuesday!

geon bae,



Friday Tidbits

Tidbits. Because if I wrote a full post with big girl paragraphs, I’d collapse from exhaustion.

  • Winter Camp. I finished my next-to-last day of my 5-day English camp at my all-girls’ middle school. I initially dreading having to do a winter camp, as I thought all we would be able to do is English drills. However, my coteacher encouraged me to have fun with it and this week has been a blast. It’s funny how you think they things you don’t want to do turn out to be great. I was also on the receiving end of a few Valentines yesterday, and that’s never bad.
  • Renewing. Earlier this week, the Fulbright office emailed all of us, asking if we were interested in renewing our grants. I have been immersed in thought about this for weeks, no, months. I submitted the survey, noting that I was interested in renewing as a last resort. It was then a few days later that I made my decision: I will be leaving South Korea in July when my contract ends. This was not an easy decision, and I went back and forth in my mind for a long, long time. However, one of my dreams is to be a teacher in the USA, and I’d like to begin the next phase of my life. South Korea has treated me well, and though I still have a little under 5 months remaining in my grant term, I feel as if closure has already begun. It will be sad to leave my school, my co-teacher, and especially my wonderful host family, but I plan on making these 5 months count. I honestly believe that I may be back in Korea to teach again someday, so I know this book is not fully closed. 
  • Seoul Next Week! Next week, I’m going to Seoul for a few days of relaxation before the new semester begins. I really would like to visit a few museums. Girls like museums.

geon bae!