A Day in Paris Part 1

Essays, France, Paris, Uncategorized

With two full days in Paris and two half days— and on one of those days, I wouldn’t even be in Paris but instead trotting along the coast of Normandy—we really had one day to “do Paris.” One rather cold, windy, rainy day smack dab in the middle of summer. But we were nothing if not determined.

We woke up bright and early to leave our hostel at 8 am. And when I say that we woke up bright and early, the struggle was real. My eyes hardly wanted to open. I wanted to huddle in my bed forever. Outside looked grim at best, scaring at worst. I threw on what I hastily referred to as my Paris Dress, a dress I purchased ten years before as a high schooler in the city. Made from cotton with an open back that haltered around my neck, it was completely inappropriate for the day. I wore it anyway and threw a jacket over it.

A steady drizzle greeted us when we reached the Arc de Triomphe at 8:20 am. A steady drizzle and no one in the area, so a win some, lose some. A few cars whipped around the roundabout surrounding the tall war memorial, enough to warn people not to cross the street. After a few shots across the street with umbrella whipping through the air, a Chinese tour group of no less than fifty people surrounded us.

“Let’s go before they cross the street,” I said to Reese. Beat the crowd, is what I always say.


We passed through the underground tunnel and walked up the stairs to the center of the roundabout. Only a few police officers stood in the center. The wind continued to pick up and I tightened my zipper as I gazed 90 degrees in the air to look at the intricate detailing of the Arc. Napolean must have had some cash to commission this piece at the time. There’s something strange about the giant Roman-inspired structure surrounded by the emptiness of the roundabout and the modernity of the restaurants and shopping just beyond.

Across the street, we saw the Chinese tour group begin to disappear into the underground pass. Quickly, we snapped pictures of each other among the arches, trying our best to look natural as the wind whipped our clothing and hair around in uncomfortable ways and droplets of cold rain hit our skin.


As soon as the first of the tour came up, we dashed back under to the safety of the tunnel and decided to walk down the Champs-Elysees. We made it about five minutes down the street, sometimes veering down side streets to take pictures of interesting architecture before heading back to the subway station and finding our way to the Eiffel Tower.

By the time we arrived, the drizzle became sparse enough that the use of an umbrella became questionable. We managed to get there a bit early, so we waited in line for the 9:30 elevator booths to open. They moved us quickly through, putting us on a packed elevator and shooting us up one of the legs of the tower.

We arrived at the top, were ushered off onto the first platform and scrambled to the railways.

“I’m going up,” I realized, motioning towards the stairs leading to the next deck. A cool breeze made me shutter.

“Okay,” my friend said as she drew closer to the anti-falling fencing to take pictures.

I shuffled past a couple awkwardly on the stairs, got my camera ready, and was promptly blown back by a sudden gust of wind and rain whomping me in the face. “Argh!” I cried and struggled to open my umbrella in one hand while holding my camera in the other.

I didn’t want to miss a single moment, clearly.

Heavy rain fell. Wind tour through my thin cotton dress. I stumbled down the stairs to find Reese. No luck. Among the miserable, soaked tourists, she was gone. I dashed around the first platform, then the second.

A strike of bad luck hit me on the stairs—a sudden gust of wind tore my skirts up. I yelped and attempted to push them down whilst still carrying my umbrella against the wind and my camera in the other hand. I stumbled down the steps still yelling and trying to get my skirts under control only to turn back and see a young family of five staring at me open-mouthed.

“Ahh,” I said smartly before attempting to disappear into the crowds.
Good luck with my white dress.


Another horror of the oncoming rain.

After twenty minutes of searching, I decided to make my way to the top to find her. No luck. One last time checking the beginning platform, and I gave up and headed down to the ground level.

I hastily wiped off a bench near one of the concession stands and sat down at a perfect angle to see between the two working elevators. If she came out, I would find her.

Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty.

Every crowd that came out made a rise of hope bubble in my chest then promptly squashed it. I suddenly couldn’t remember what she was wearing. What if she came out, but I missed her?
With a breath of relief, I saw her come out of one of the elevators and rose to meet her.

“I looked for you everywhere!” she said.

“I looked for you too,” I said.

I think it struck both of us at the same time that we couldn’t argue over who looked harder. The rain had stopped, the wind wasn’t quite so fearsome as it was from three stories up. We both seemed to decide that exploring some of the streets around us was the next best option, and took our time trying to find the perfect place to get the Eiffel Tower in the background.


At one point, while we were messing around trying to get crossing-the-street pictures, I called out, “Did you get it?”

“No, she didn’t,” an older French gentleman yelled back. “You better walk again.”

He made me walk another four times without even seeing what the camera pictures looked like. After, he explained to us that particular street was used in many movies over the years. We thanked him and walked away. On to the next adventure.

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The Hostel Guide

Travel Tips, Uncategorized

“I stayed in hostels,” I said as I described how I afforded a month in Europe.

My friend looked at me aghast, “You stayed where? Weren’t you scared?”

Now it was my turn to look baffled. Scared of what? I thought. A hostel was basically no different than a college dorm.

I must admit my initial idea of the word hostel was… colored by the movie Hostel… I was thinking more along the lines of hostile. The first time I stayed in a hostel, a coworker invited me to come out with her boyfriend and her to see a concert, then informed me we wouldn’t make the journey back to Suwon that night. Every other hostel was full except a new one just on the outskirts of Hongdae. I put on the game face of not being afraid of anything and agreed to do so. After all, they were the worldly ones who told me they stayed in hostels every weekend.


How bad could it be?

Not bad at all.

We checked in, me in a 4-person dorm, which I ended up having all to myself. Went down for the free breakfast in the morning, unsure of the ettiquette, and left soon after.

The second time, I was in charge of the booking. A group of friends was visiting me from China and we wanted to stay the night in Seoul together. Feeling especially leery of staying in a larger dorm room, we ended up renting out a 6-person bed dorm, leaving one of the beds unfilled and just paying a few extra won each for the price. The staff was friendly, as were the others staying there, who promptly offered us chicken as we checked in.

Soon after, on a trip to Busan, we lucked out to find a three-person private room. It wasn’t until the following year, in another hostel just outside of Hongdae, that I stayed in a dorm room that had… dun, dun, dun strangers.

The hostel owner, a man whose head practically brushed the ceiling with thick dreads falling all the way to his waist introduced himself as King.

“King?” I questioned, not sure if I heard that correctly.

“King.” He confirmed.

That was a new one. As I mulled over his name, he showed me the four-person dorm and explained, “The fourth person hasn’t checked in yet. The other two girls are from China. I don’t think they speak English, but they shop during the day and stay out every night until three or four am.”

His prediction was true enough. When I walked in later that night, they were just getting spruced up to go out, shopping bags from Tony Moly, Innisfree, and Etude House littering their beds. They looked up when I entered the room and we did the awkward smile-greeting before I climbed into bed and they walked out the door.


Fears tend to disappear after your first interactions with people. After that, I had no problem booking dorm beds wherever I was, whether that was in India, Korea, or Europe. The only exception to my rule of traveling in hostels was using airbnb in Tokyo (because have you seen their hostel bed prices?!) and a hotel room cheaper than get-out in the small, hostel-less town of Ronda in southern Spain.

I’ve stayed in good hostels and some awful ones that I would never stay in again. When looking for a hostel, it’s all about choosing something that goes with your style of travel. For myself, that means I look for some very specific things.

Here’s what I look for:

What is the hostel’s rating?

Whether you found the hostel on hostelworld.com or stumbled upon it from a hotel-searching website, almost every site has a rating. And if it doesn’t have a rating on one website, a swift google search will surely yield results. I generally stay in the range of 3.8 stars or above on hostel-exclusive websites, but that rating drops a little bit on hotel websites (since, y’know, it has to compete with places like the Four Seasons).

How many people gave a rating?

This is highly connected to the first question. Maybe a hostel has a five star rating… but if it only has two reviews, does that even matter? I’ll give you that some hostels are new and therefore don’t have many reviews, but usually hostels with a low number of reviewers don’t stand in the same ballpark as hostels with 1,000+ reviewers and over a 3.8 rating. That means the hostel is good because a lot of people gave it a high rating.

What do the reviews say?

Maybe all the reviewers loved the social atmosphere of the hostel, but the showers were nasty enough they needed a shower from their shower. For some, that might not be a draw for choosing the hostel, but for others, it might be the drawing line. Take every review with a grain of salt. If most reviews are great and there’s a single bad egg, acknowledge that might just be a bad experience among a sea of plenty. But also, if there are a lot of bad to mediocre reviews and one stellar one… take that stellar one with a grain of salt. Because it probably won’t be that great.

What’s the atmosphere like?

I like social hostels, but I also want the hard-partiers to take it outside after a certain time (preferably 11 o’clock). I don’t need to hear thumping music and people throwing up in the bathroom at 3 a.m. But this might be what you want. Check the description of the hostel, read reviews, and look at pictures. One give-away that you’re at a quieter hostel is if it allows families to stay in private rooms. I also look to see if there are any sort of activities the hostel has, particularly if I’m traveling solo such as: dinners, walking tours, day trips, pub crawls, yoga classes, etc. to help meet more people.


How much does it cost?

I have a budget I set before I look at hostels, and I stick to it. The more beds in a room, the cheaper the price will be, but also the more unlikely you will be to sleep. Women-only rooms tend to be more expensive than mixed dorm rooms. I tend to stay in 4-8 bed women-only rooms, but it’s completely up to your preference. Country also tends to play a huge role here. You’re going to pay a lot more in London than in New Delhi. That’s just a fact. Don’t go to London expecting to find a ten pound dorm bed that’s not going to be the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

What type of room do I want to stay in?

Hostels aren’t just dorm rooms. There are private rooms from one-people up to a complete plethora. There are huge dorm rooms and small ones. There are all women-rooms and mixed ones. The more people in the room, usually the less it costs. Private rooms can be at least 3-6x more expensive than a dorm room. Some hostels operate more like hotels. Decide what you would feel more comfortable in and test it out.

Some random hostels I liked and why:

Granada Inn Backpackers in Granada, Spain

Beautiful hostel located in one of the old mansions in the city. The center of the hostel is completely open. They really made it easy to check in early and leave your baggage while you wait for your room to be ready (and also to shower, if you want). They also offer quite a few activities, including a dinner and they direct you to the free walking tours of the city (which I would highly recommend).

The location is pretty great, just a short walk from everywhere in Granada with a lot of restaurants around. Staff was really helpful. The dinner made everything really social. While I didn’t eat the first night, I did come by the tail end and ended up meeting a lot of people. I also really liked the rooms. The particular room I stayed in was a six-bed, but it was split into two rooms with four beds in one room, and two beds in the other (I, of course, chose the two-bed room).


The Madpackers Hostel in New Delhi, India

I was really suitably impressed by this hostel. And this is considering that the rooms had that slightly-musty smell and damp feeling that comes with being in such a humid climate. And that the front-desk workers and cleaners had a habit of busting into the rooms without knocking at any time they liked. For one, it was really social. They had a huge open space filled with couches and beanbags for people to hang out, watch a movie, or work on stuff in. The desk staff worked hard to make it social, too, and would take the time to have at least brief conversations with everyone.

The staff was also always ready to give recommendations on where to go and help you uber your way to your next destination. On top of this, they had so many activities. They did trips to Agra, walking tours through different Delhi districts, picnics, basically anything. The breakfast included for free was also pretty legit and people tended to be social around the large table in the dining room. They have a lot of reviews and a high rating to go with them.

Generator Hostel Paris in Paris, France

Generator is a huge chain of hostels that is all over Europe, so they’re really not hard to find. This is a great hostel to start off at if you’ve never been in a hostel because it’s just like a hotel… with dorm beds. After staying in some okay hostels, this one was like a breath of fresh air. The beds are nice and supplied with linens, outlets, shelving space. There were arm chairs, a vanity, and in-room bathrooms along with bathrooms outside.

The location was pretty central, not directly next to any tourist attractions, but in a good place to get to them. Also, if you walked just a little down the street over the canal, there was an amazing block full of food. Some of the best food I ate in Europe was in that random little smattering of buildings. Here, though, I’d have to say that how social your hostel is greatly depends on who is in your room. We had a social room, but you could be in a room where people aren’t so quick to want to hang out.

There are a ton of hostels out there. I’d give them a try if you’re traveling solo or with some friends as a way to save some money and not have to worry about splitting things. Some hostels are great, some are not so great, but the same could be said with hotels. Be aware, watch your stuff, but don’t live in fear of the dorm rooms. They really aren’t that bad at all.

*Note: None of these pictures are of the hotels. I never think to take pictures of where I’m staying. So here are some random street images that, uh, could be hostels. Really.

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A Week in Tokyo

A Week In, Japan, Tokyo, Uncategorized

There are two major holidays in Korea: Chuseok and Seollal. Chuseok usually falls in September or October and is considered “Korean Thanksgiving,” where many Koreans journey home to eat tons of food spend time with family. For non-Koreans, this traditionally means vacation time. Finding airline tickets becomes a race against time against the ever-rising prices. People everywhere debate where to go. A few of my friends locked me in a battle: I wanted warm sandy beaches and time frolicking in the sea. They wanted a mix of Taiwon, Singapore, and Japan. After much debate and disappointment over the cost of flights to Cebu, I decided to go to Tokyo with a friend.

Boseong Green Tea Plantation

Boseong, South Korea, Uncategorized


Where: This is a bit tricky, since I went here on a day tour on a private bus (and we went from Damyang to Boseong, so it wasn’t a direct drive either). You can take the KTX or a bus to Gwangju, then take another bus to the Boseong Bus Terminal.

Namsan Tower (North Seoul Tower)

Seoul, South Korea, Uncategorized


Where: When I’ve went before, we’ve either just walked in the direction of tower until we got to the cable car landing. Or if you head from Myeongdong Station towards the Shinsagae Department Store, and turn left and eventually you come to a free elevator up to the cable car landing, though it can take time. There’s also quite a few shuttles that go there depending on where you are in Seoul.

Teaching in South Korea: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Essays, Living in South Korea, South Korea, Uncategorized

Hot off the press from college (always referred to as university in South Korea by the way), I headed to South Korea in an attempt to quench my desires for adventure and travel in a teaching job before settling down in an office job… almost three years ago.

Teaching in South Korea is relatively popular as far as international jobs go: it’s one of the countries with the highest pay, to get a job you don’t need to be a licensed teacher, and it’s a good jumping point to see other spots in Asia.

With thousands of English teachers hailing from around the world over the past decade, it’s easy to find teaching horror stories with a quick google search. Teachers not being paid. Teachers forced to work obscenely long hours. Teachers not given time off when they were sick. Every teacher enters a job in Korea with trepidation—who knows who their boss will be outside of the interview?

My entire time in Korea, I’ve been at the same job, which is highly unusual for teachers. Most finish their first year contract (or not) and try to move to a different job. Substantial careers in teaching aren’t really a thing in Korea, and the reason for that is the teaching system.

There are four main kinds of schools in Korea: kindergartens, hagwons, public schools, and universities. There is also a small scattering of international schools and private schools, but those are few and far in between.

A kindergarten usually has working hours somewhere between 9-6. They work with kindergarteners, and usually teachers from other countries teach at English kindergartens, where the children will learn and communicate completely in English. After the kindergarten finishes at around 2, after school programs are offered to young elementary school children. One of the big pros of working at a kindergarten is that they usually have slightly more vacation time than a hagwon.

A hagwon is an after school academy. Usually hagwons have a special focus: English, math, jump rope. Some hagwons do multiple subjects within the academy. Hagwons are geared towards elementary-high school students and usually run from 2-10 pm (any later is illegal in Korea). It’s from these schools many of the horror stories come from. There are thousands of hagwons in Korea and they don’t operate on a single educational standard. The goal of a hagwon, ultimately, is to make money, and to do so, they must please the parents who pay them obscene amounts of cash. At a hagwon, the focus foreign teachers have is usually on conversational English and it’s standard to teach somewhere from 25-30 hours a week (not counting prep time).

A good public school is a holy grail job: you actually need to have some teaching credentials to work at one. Public schools have longer and more vacations and also far less teaching hours (usually under 20). Classes are shorter, but much larger. Where a hagwon generally only has six students in a class, at a public school you will have around 30 students. You work general school hours from 8-4. They also expect a lot from their teachers, particularly in the Seoul area.

University jobs can really only be gotten if you have a Masters degree. If a public school job is the holy grail, then a university job is like a unicorn. They are highly sought after because of the benefits (so much vacation time!), the relatively low working hours, and the pay. It’s difficult to find universities in need of teachers and even harder to fit the requirements they are looking for, so most teachers in Korea tend to work at the first three institutions.

My job is a hagwon job, which I was incredibly nervous about taking after reading what people said about their schools. Some of the stories I heard were:

  • Teachers either completely not getting paid or getting paid late.
  • Teachers fired a month before their contract finished so the school wouldn’t pay severance.
  • Teachers having to work well over 12 hours and having no personal time.
  • Bosses acting crazy about their employees and taking things too personally.

One important tip I have is that during the interview process, ask to speak with other foreign teachers, either the one your replacing or another teacher. If the school flat-out refuses to let you speak to anyone, it’s a good indication you might be headed to a school with things to hide. Speaking to a non-Korean about their experience at the school can help you get a better picture of what the school will be like and also shows the school is confident that they manage their teachers well.

For me, in some ways, boss crossed the line a bit with the fourth option, but the first three were never anything I experienced.  And, to be honest, my boss getting somewhat crazy was in part my own fault so she can’t take all the blame.

The Good

Around a year into my contract, I made a deal with a pesky group of middle school students with notoriously bad grades on spelling tests: If they all got above a 70%, I would buy them chicken for dinner one night. Nearly two years later and closing the end of my second contract, I thought I was home free. They had a few close calls. One in which a girl broke down in tears because she was just one word short of the score where the worst speller in the class managed to pull a 70%. But, they hadn’t managed and for a brief period of time, they switched teachers.

Come one cold winter day, each of the students came into class with smiles. I gave them three minutes to study for the test before delivering it to them. As I graded, their smiles grew. A couple of the girls and one of the buys always did at least relatively well. It was when I got to Harry and Christine’s tests that I was sure this would be another chicken-less test. But Christine passed with a 90%. But Harry, Harry who only once in the past six months got above a 50% (with an average of 20%) surely wouldn’t make the cut. With shock, I graded his test carefully. Eighty percent. Not only did the class meet my expectations, they went above it.


Might be random, but I didn’t want to include pictures of my students’ faces. So here’s a birthday cake one class bought me! It was so sweet (although I think they ate more of it than I did).

When I handed his notebook back, he said with a smirk, “I studied at home.”

All of them had a gleam in their eyes as they started yelling, “Chicken! Chicken!”

It was one of those strange moments when I felt strangely proud despite the fact my pocket would be emptier. A class I had my entire time in Korea, one that when I first started I didn’t learn liked me until almost a year and half in, exceeded my expectations in many ways. I looked at them and saw students who weren’t perfect, but confident in their abilities and comfortable to be who they were in my classroom.

That’s one of the good things about working at a school, though I’d say it could be a school anywhere. You see your students grow and change over time. In some hagwons, such as mine, you could have your students for years. They can be like a leech you just want to pick off—until you realize that you actually enjoy your time with them.

I never had a desire to teach before coming to Korea. It was the furthest thing from my mind. But my students helped change that.

Another helpful thing was my place of work.

Unlike many hagwons, my boss was more relaxed as long as you were teaching well. We work significantly less hours than other hagwons. The 30 contracted teaching hours foreign hagwon teachers have are just that. Teaching hours. Many other schools have office and prep hours in addition to that, often giving them a schedule anywhere from 12 pm to 9 pm or 1 pm to 10 pm. My boss only required us to be at the school 30 minutes before class to prep. And when our classes finished, we could go home. If you happened to have a break hour (which she tried not to do so that we could be home faster), you were welcome to leave and go get a snack or coffee.

On top of this, my boss wanted us to do things together but didn’t press for it. Many hagwons have required activities outside of work they must do together (such as dinner). In Korean culture, if your boss asks you to do something, you do it. But, within my hagwon, my boss was understanding of the fact we were tired, some teachers had families, and we didn’t always want to socialize and would invite us out with no expectations. It led to doing some fun things, such as many barbecue nights and even a ski trip (with a rafting trip being talked about).

And of course, there’s the benefit of having roundtrip airfare, a decent paycheck, and my apartment paid for that definitely falls into the benefits category. There are some teachers who live relatively frugally for a year or two and manage to pay off their student loans. On top of that, after completion of your contract you get one month’s worth of salary as severance pay. That’s a major benefit.

The Bad

The most obvious one is the working hours. Even at my school, where our total working hours are far less than most schools, teaching 25-30 hours a week can be extremely draining. English-speaking teachers are also holding conversation classes. This means for 4-6 hours straight, you are doing nothing but talking. And that can be draining to anyone who hasn’t had to do it before.

My first eight months of teaching was very rough (with a few other rough patches coming later). I had no idea what I was doing—much like most teachers that come to Korea. Here’s the thing about teaching here: if you teach at a hagwon, you don’t really need to have any sort of teaching certification to do it. Speaking English was good enough.

Those first months were filled with unhappy parents, students quitting, and me miserable with classes filled with problematic students. It didn’t help that the previous teacher was forced to leave primarily because she didn’t do anything she was supposed to do in classes. So basically, classes could run ragamuffin.


Halloween last year and my classroom. 

There were multiple conversations with my boss over things I was doing wrong. In fact, it seemed that I did everything wrong. I wasn’t teaching right, my classes weren’t enough fun, my classes were too fun, my students didn’t feel as though I cared about them enough. It was rough. It resulted in a lot of lost nights sleeping and wondering if I should just pack up and head home because this clearly didn’t seem like the job for me. While the job should have been easy to leave at work, I found myself worrying on the weekends, trying to glean any advice I could from people on how to manage a classroom and how to teach.

(Add into this the fact that my apartment building had a cockroach problem. Shudder.)

Thankfully, my teaching style has greatly improved, though I’m not sure how or why. I’ve gained far more confidence in a classroom setting, though the thought of a full-sized class of thirty still terrifies me.

The Ugly

The ugly came towards the end of my first year at my school, in the summer time. My boss purchased a kindergarten because a well-running one is known to make the big bucks. The kindergarten was understaffed for the classes and she asked another teacher and myself if we would want to work there in the mornings for a good chunk of extra pay. Despite my initially misgivings—at the time, I was rather terrified of my boss because of all those conversations of how I failed as a teacher and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue to see her more and thus have more conversations—the lure of the money was far greater than my apprehension.

So I agreed.

There were promises made. My boss kept saying one thing over and over, which I should have taken more seriously: once you start, you can’t quit. So I assured her that I was sure I’d be able to work the two jobs—six hours teaching at the hagwon, four hours teaching at the kindergarten. And those hours didn’t include prep time.


I figured Scream fit the bill here… and you can’t exactly see his face…

I was wrong.

As soon as I started my first full week, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep this up. I brought it up to my boss how hard the schedule was and she expressed some disappointment. Then the MERS virus hit Korea. All the schools in Suwon were required to shut down for a week. A week that the kindergarten would have to make up on Saturdays.

This was too much for me. I was teaching ten hours a day, plus an additional four on Saturdays. I was breaking. So I carefully worded an email quitting the kindergarten because it was too much for me and had a teacher check it over before sending it.

That was where the craziness really started.

There are two things I should mention at this point: 1) I never signed a contract to work at the kindergarten. After the MERS hit, I tried to negotiate two points on the unsigned contract. One was that in future events like MERS, instead of making up the hours, I would take a pay hit. The second I can’t even remember at this point. However, my boss refused to budge on any of the points. 2) The kindergarten was all the way across the city from my hagwon. This meant that I rode either with my boss or my boss’s mom for 30-45 minutes in a car each day to get to and from work.

Car rides with my boss were filled with her telling me how I was a promise-breaker, how I was leaving her in a really bad position (which I both was and I wasn’t at the same time), and even one point how much she hated me. This was almost a daily thing for months. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t just transport myself, it was because of time and money. While in the beginning, my boss told me that if I had to get my own ride to either school, she would pay half, after I quit, she refused. So I sucked it up and dealt with it.

You could imagine this made me extremely unhappy. This was also combined with the fact that all of the kindergarten teachers were very unhappy with my boss. Extremely unhappy. The negativity was overwhelming and I got caught up in it. I hated it when we would have activities and the Korean teachers would only speak and give instructions in Korean because we were an English Kindergarten. There were many extra things I had to do that I wasn’t informed about. All this showed in my face and attitude during special activities.

I wasn’t perfect in this situation, clearly, by far. It got so bad at one point that I considered doing a night run to get out of the country.

Eventually I quit the kindergarten completely and stayed working at the hagwon (the lure of the severance pay drew me and I didn’t have to see my boss since she was always at the kindergarten).

My classes got better. My students became actually good. And they liked me. Eventually, things settled down completely and when my two year contract was up, to my utter shock, my boss asked me to renew again and also offered to find me a new apartment. And even as this contract is coming to a close, she’s asked me again if I would like to come back after a two-month vacation and she’d hold my (very nice) apartment for me.

I’ve only had a single teaching job for my entire time in Korea. Most teachers have far more if they make it past the one-year point on their contracts. I’ve gone through it all at my job: I’ve had good, I’ve had bad, and I’ve had downright nasty. But I definitely don’t regret this time here. I would encourage people who want to teach in Korea to do so. But I would also tell them that it isn’t a perfect job and that there will be times they will fail. They’ll fail hard, and they’ll fail miserably. But, they’ll also learn a lot about themselves through it.

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Three Weddings and No Funeral: American, Korean, and Indian

Essays, India, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

An American Wedding

We arrived in a packed van donning pressed shirts and slacks, colorful dresses and heels. My brothers and father shoved their way out of the car after the three-hour trip while I managed to wedge my feet into a pair of heels.

In the parking lot, the men all whipped their ties around their necks with near-expert skills. People stumbling out from other vehicles did the same.

“Carry me,” I urged one of my brothers as we walked past manicured lawns and gardens in a strange pseudo-colonial village dotted with white-washed buildings bearing cute names such as: the tavern and the restaurant. We made our way to the chapel.

A scant seventy-odd people packed their way into the pews of the tiny buildings. Some stood against the wall when it became clear no more seats were to be had.

The groom stood stock-still at the front of the room as guests shuffled in.

Everyone glanced around, waiting for the wedding march to start up. Nothing.

“It’s hot,” one of my brothers groaned as he played a game on his phone.

Finally, twenty minutes later, the cadence started up. The groomsmen escorted lilac-colored bridesmaids (the brides sisters and future daughter-in-law), up to the podium. The music changed, and the bride revealed herself at the double door opening.

As soon as she entered, everyone in the chapel stood to watch her pass by, a beautiful, tall model-type draped in white.

Together, the bride and groom stood together grinning as the presider over the wedding recited the vows and they repeated along.

A short 15-minute ceremony led the crowd onto the grass for rounds of group pictures in the dwindling sunlight. Family reunited with giant hugs and exclamations over how everyone looked while family friends lingered and mingled. A man dressed in a smart suit came out and announced it was time to move to the next location: a private room with a giant carousel with an open bar.


Everyone shuffled and wobbled on heels over to the room and grabbed a drink and h’ors dourves from passing waiters.
“Come on,” my mom said and pointed to the line of people waiting to get on the working carousel.

Reluctantly, I gave my drink to my brother, never to see it again and chose a horse to ride side-saddle with all the volume of my skirts.


With a kick, we were off, winding round and round in a circle. I giggled and pulled faces for my brothers, ready with their cameras. This, I thought, was definitely one of the the most interesting weddings I’d ever been to. It nearly beat out the one in a castle with wedding crashers, life-sized chess board, and a ukele-playing bridesmaid.

And the interest continued as we were ushered from the cocktail room into another building down the hallway, dimly lit with long tables brandishing sturdy hardware. Family style dishes were passed from person to person as gobs of food hit plates, a plethora of homemade breads, fish, stews, and vegetables.

A new open bar opened in one corner bearing Michigan craft beers while another stood opposite with classic drinks. The quiet room began to murmur as guests settled into their food and make conversation.

The maids of honor stood and made speeches about how much they loved their sister but were happy that she found the right man. The best man also stood, stumbled over a speech rift with sexual undertones that at once was funny and awkward for everyone involved.

Then the dance floor opened with the DJ blazing classic rock songs—“You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me”—along with recent pop songs.

Everyone hit the dance floor, showing off the best and worst of their moves for hours.

Finally, with throbbing feet, my family ushered me off the dance floor and to the car to head to the destination I would see my next wedding: Korea.
A Korean Wedding

One day, my boss asked if I would like to see a Korean wedding. After weighing the options in my head, I decided sure, for it would be a disappointment to me if I never partook in one during my time in the country.

So one Saturday, I found myself donning the same pair of heels and a nice, lacy green skater dress with a cardigan to suit Korean shoulder-modesty.

“It’s at a university,” my boss explained as she drove us in her sporty little car to a city thirty minutes away. “Most weddings are either in wedding halls or universities on weekends to fit everyone in. Don’t worry about giving them money, I’ve covered you as my guest.”

Gifts at Korean weddings are rarely given. Instead, each guest gives money to “pay for their meal” so to speak. After the wedding, the money is usually divided three ways: the bride gets her friend’s money, the groom gets his friend’s money, and the parents take what their friends gave since usually parents are the ones who pay for the wedding.

We arrived early as my boss was a close friend of the bride’s—they usually show up an hour or so early to see the bridge get ready and take pictures with the photographer. So we marched around the five-story building with a gorgeous ex-newscaster bride wearing a gown that looked like something from a cake-topper.

In an alcove off the side of the venue, the bride took pictures with her family, the groom, and her friends as they waited for the ceremony before theirs to wrap up. I sat on a plush, red settee off to the side watching people clamor for their own pictures and feeling unsure of what to do with myself, a picture of awkward in my own skin.

“Come on,” the bride—whom I had never met called to me in one group photo.

I stammered a no, but she refused to take no for an answer and made me get into pictures that included her four closest friends—all gorgeous women who in some way, shape, or form were involved in the TV industry.

Red-faced from embarrassment, I was happy to make my way into the venue, where tables were set up circling around a long, t-shape stage. My boss snagged a table with some of her childhood friends and I watched as they chatted about their lives in Korean before the lights dimmed and the ceremony started—but the talking did not.

The dimmed lights darkened complete except for the ones focused on the stage. Then, in the back, a spotlight shone on a hand-built tower with a stairwell leading down to the main stage. The bride appeared in one of the open windows of the tower, smiling brightly to her guests before elegantly descending the stairs and making her way across the quite long stage.

In the US, I was used to the focus being on the bride, but this took the cake for me. Every eye and light in the room was focused on her as she slowly walked to her groom. When she finally got to him, they stopped and listened to the commencer—a very famous Korean judge—began to speak on love and the joining together of two people.

“Isn’t she so much prettier than him?” My boss leaned over from her conversation with her friends to ask me. “He’s a lawyer and rich.”

“Oh,” I said, connecting mental dots in her mind, “Is that why she’s marrying him?”

My boss shrugged. “She used to be a newscaster before she was let go for a younger, prettier girl.” My mouth dropped because the bride was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. “But her family has money—they bought her a new sports car. Her brother—he’s handsome but jobless. She doesn’t need the money but… being a lawyer has some weight to it here because it’s so difficult to pass the exam.”

If any thought of money and status ran through the bride’s own head, though, I couldn’t tell. She looked happy to be joining together with this man. It reminded me of jokes I would make with my friends of trying to hang out in the law school on campus to meet future lawyers, but I didn’t want to ascribe the enchanting bride this hidden agenda.

People continued to talk and play games as the rings were exchanged. The maid of honor came forward to catch the bouquet—an interesting twist on the throwing of it in Korea is that only the maid of honor comes forward to catch the bouquet. Usually a girl who is in a very serious relationship or is engaged is chosen as the maid of honor because there is a superstition that one must get married in six months after catching it or they’ll never get married at all.

The husband’s band came forward and sang them a cute song about love before the lights blinked back on and everyone made their way downstairs for the meal so the next wedding party could have their ceremony.

People sat at banquet-style tables with an array of fish, meats, and drinks already in place before them. People already sitting dug straight into the food.

“People judge a wedding by how good the food is,” my boss told me as we ate. “The older people tend to get angry if the food isn’t good because, in their minds, they paid for it with the wedding gift.”

Luckily for this couple, the food was good. By the time the wedding couple made their entrances—changed from wedding outfits into a smart suit and a cocktail dress—most of the older guests already ate their fill and left. Another wedding party waited at the entrance of the restaurant to be let in.

We thanked the couple, cooed over how beautiful the bride looked, before heading to grab a coffee and go home for the night— a far cry from the nights of dancing I was used to.
An Indian Wedding

“You should wear a sari,” my friend—the bride—told me over message, “You would look good in pink, red or orange.”

Buying the sari was a struggle in itself, finding the right colors and getting blouses made, story enough for another time. Finally, my friend and I landed on hot pink and a pale yellow. But the saris wouldn’t come until later.

By the time we arrived in Kolkata, various wedding festivities had been held over the course of the week, from nights where close friends performed for the bride and groom to informal receptions. We arrived in time for the main festivities, beginning on the bride’s side.

On Friday morning, we were woken from our extremely late flight and dinner to don casual clothes—jeans and blouses for both of us—to make our way to the wedding venue. Girls clad in yellow saris ran around shooting pictures and getting things ready. Old friends and new ones came to greet us in a swarm. No less than three photographers paced the inside of a room with red couches surrounding it and two thrones on a stage in the middle. Later, this would be where the wedding couple received their guests.

For now, it was just some family and close friends. Outside in the courtyard, men worked hard to string up lights and flowers as caterers rushed around to figure out where to put pots and pans. White chairs circled large tables, all centered around a brightly-draped gazebo.

During this two-hour interlude, we chatted and talked until finally a vehicle arrive. Inside were fancily-wrapped gifts for the bride’s family from the groom’s family, including saris, shoes, suits, and a fish. All the girls in their bright yellow saris dashed to help unload the car and tuck the gifts in a safe spot. Then, we had a light brunch provided by the family.

Almost immediately after, in the courtyard, four short poles were propped up with string wrapped around them. We watched in wonder as the bride stepped inside.


“It’s supposed to represent breaking free of her parents house,” one of the guests informed us as the bride crashed through them, “or something like that.”

Everyone yelled and laughed as turmeric powder was dashed across everyone’s faces.

“It’s supposed to be good luck for getting a husband,” one girl said as she approached me with fingers poised to brush the spice across my face.

“Then I think I’m going to need more,” I told her, half-joking, half-serious as she touched it to my forehead, chin, and nose.

She laughed and danced away to cover the next person.

My friend and I exchanged grins and posed for selfies before being ushered for a multi-course lunch despite our complete lack of appetite—the family must provide food for those in attendance to the ceremonies.

Afterwards, we were dashed back home for a brief period of rest before being draped in our saris and scampering through the city of Kolkata to pick up friends and family.

By the time our car arrived, the wedding already started. People gathered around the gateway entering into the courtyard and throne room dancing in a circle—most of them young people who came early. The wedding would go well into the night, so some people chose to come much later.
Something cut off the celebration and ushered everyone inside, where a friend grabbed my friend to lead me into a back room where the bride put the finishing touches on her gown.

“She’s so unusual, in a good way,” a cousin whispered to me. “Usually the family picks out the bride’s sari, but she designed hers herself. The whole family was very supportive.”

And the bride looked resplendent in a shining blue blouse perfectly offset with the red sari and a purple underskirt. The gold of her layers of jewelry shone brightly against her skin and the material, her eyes were lined with alluring black kohl.

Earlier, the bride had confessed to me that so far she felt nothing different but hoped the ceremony would add weight to this big change in her life. Looking at her confident stature as she moved her bridesmaids around like a commander weilding an army, I thought that even if she felt nothing, she would be fine. She looked happy.


Somehow, we all ended up ushered outside into the courtyard to mingle with guests as the bride and groom went through ceremonies on the stage involving the elders of the bride’s family. On the night of the bride’s wedding, it is only the bride’s family and friends. The groom is allowed to invite his immediate family and closest friends only to the ceremony and vice versa for the night at his home.

Waiters walked around bearing trays with food—brothy soups, friend chicken and vegetables, coffees and teas. No alcohol inside—it was explained that for drinking, once the ceremonies were finished, people would head outside to set up drinks near their cars in makeshift bars.

The bride’s younger sister reserved a verbal lashing to any waiter getting the details wrong. “I’m making sure everything is right,” she said. She was young, not even out of high school yet, but began to show some of that inner confidence that marked her sister apart.


At certain points of the ceremony, people gathered around to take pictures, at others people milled about in groups talking and catching up on life. Many were high school friends of the bride’s and it was like a reunion. The ceremonies stretched hours of bowing and talking.

“It’s hard,” my friend and I lamented at one point as we tried to catch a moment of sitting. “Talking to people for so long.”

Indeed, it was the most social event I had ever been to. I couldn’t imagine ever having to network in India—the amount of talking involved would have been astronomical.

I grabbed a piece of chicken just as the bride and groom were ushered into chairs and lifted up by a few brave groomsmen and toted in a circle. The bride clutched at her chair both laughing and terrified until they had to lei each other with a flower garland. Everyone gathered around to watch the jilting movements with trepidation: would one of them fall?
“I saw someone fall once,” a guy told me with a wince, “No one was gathered around that side, either, so she just hit the ground.”

This bride was lucky. People gathered in a complete circle around her, ready to catch her if she slipped. Finally they managed the feat of circling a flower garland around their necks and the robust male friends lowered them to the ground, each slick with sweat.

A few more ceremonies, and the bride and groom went inside to take their places on the thrones and to greet each guest who came to them with a smile and a glamorous photograph while accepting gifts from each one.

Exhausted, I clutched my friend for a hug behind and congratulated her very lucky husband before being whisked back off home.

The next day was a day of rest as the bride and groom settled into their home, but the following day brought another flurry of activity.

My friend returned home on a late flight and I was ushered to the bride’s home to witness the last of the presents for the groom’s family being wrapped and found from various nooks and crannies around the house. A detailed list of more than eighty names and exactly what gift should be included kept everything in line.

As soon as the last of the gifts was loaded into the vehicle, we set off again, this time to the newlyweds home to eat snacks and chat before the next ceremonies. Everyone lounged around lazily as I took the opportunity to catch up a bit on the life of my friend.


Soon, we were ushered again to the courtyard of the groom’s ceremonies. This time, for the ceremony, the bride made a plate for the elders in the family to eat before everyone dined on fish, dal, and rice.

Another evening ceremony would follow, but for me, I had to catch a late flight back to work.

There were a lot of differences between the three weddings. Each one had pagantry and traditions of its own that are hard to compare.

American Wedding Tips
-For a gift, you can bring either a gift or give money
-Be prepared to dance in comfy shoes
-Dress code varies, but a nice dress or slacks never hurt anyone

Korean Wedding Tips
-Gifts are uncommon. Usually you would give money to “pay for your meal”—and give it directly to whoever is collecting the bride or groom’s money because otherwise it’ll go straight to the parents.
-The way people dress varies—usually smart casual

Indian Wedding Tips
-A gift is more common to give than money
-Most of the wedding is a social event—be prepared to talk
-Dress glam. Everyone will be in their best saris and you don’t want to be the odd one out

Unfortunately, I lost my photos from the last American wedding (it’s been almost 3 years since I’ve been in America) and Korean wedding I went to about a year ago.

Do you have any interesting cultural wedding experiences? Or any more tips?

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Getting Sari Blouses Made in India: The Strange Situation

Essays, India, Jaipur, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

It was the exact type of experience in India I knew to steer far clear of.

But it’s amazing what little sleep, just wanting to get a job done, and wanting to get on with things will do to someone. I’m still not sure if it’s an experience I regret doing… it’s just something that happened.

On our last day in Delhi, my friend and I spent hours shopping for saris but didn’t have enough time to get blouses made before jetting off to Jaipur for the next few days. Our hostel sent a rickshaw to pick us up at the airport and when he heard that we needed sari blouses, he was all for helping us out.