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It has been just over two months since Evan and I stepped foot on American soil… and has it been a whirlwind experience adjusting to life back home.

We managed to avoid major roadblocks during our trip home, but did have a small snag in our 24+ hour journey home. After spending a rainy, Fast and Furious-filled night (it was the only thing on) in a clean and inexpensive hotel near Incheon, we awoke with anticipation to begin our trip home. After a beautiful lunch at Bennigans in the airport, we headed through security en route to the international terminal, where I was stopped because my visa had expired.

Visa… expired. WHAT? A week prior to leaving, we learned about this snag at the pension office and our director assured us that she would take care of it, but lines must have gotten crossed with the immigration office. So of course Evan sailed through customs no problem, but I was stopped, tearfully dragged to two different immigration offices before being let go “with a warning.” My visa had expired a week before. I’m not trying to live illegally in Korea people! Anyway, after that the trip was smooth sailing — lounging in the Beijing airport during our long layover, and sleeping through most of the plane ride back to the states.

After an exhausting two days, we finally landed at LAX and were greeted by my happy, sign-bearing family on Monday evening.

Words cannot describe the elation I felt after a year of not seeing my family. We grabbed the west-coast staple In-N-Out for dinner, popped the cork on a pinot noir, and spent the rest of the evening battling in Mario Kart for Wii.

We have really been trying to take advantage of the time and money situation we currently find ourselves in, so we’ve been hopping around the golden coast, enjoying the fruits of spring and beginning of summer in the sunniest place on earth.

From cooking in Los Angeles…

to partying in Santa Barbara…

to wining and dining in San Diego…

and camping in Jalama Beach….

oh — and eating. A lot. Of everything.

Which naturally means I’ve been avoiding the scale. Whateva!

Coming home has made me feel like a library book being put back in its correct place after some serious adventures being loaned out. I fit. Despite that, there has been some serious adjustments made to assimilate nicely back into western culture. For the first few weeks, I felt almost bombarded by stimuli. After walking around a country where I didn’t know what anyone was saying or what most things said, it was sensory overload being in a place where I knew where everything was and what everyone was saying about it. At times I felt overwhelmed, but that was eventually overshadowed by being home with people I love and places I have missed.

As the weeks stretch on, Korea slips slowly from my mind but the things that I learned there — the things that changed me — I know will stay. Going East for a year broadened my horizons, gave me a great amount of patience and really humbled me. I know that I will always look fondly on the experience that helped shape me into the (mostly) competent and happy adult that I am today. I miss my friends, but have kept in contact with people that taught me a lot about living on the other side of the world.

There are days when I truly miss Jeonju — eating mouthwatering food, drinking games with good friends that stretch on through the night, lazy Sunday dinners from Pizza School, snuggling on the futon and watching hours of Criminal Minds, marveling at the cherry blossoms in the spring and soft snow in the winter, early morning dancing and high kick-offs at Radio Star, hugs from teeny tiny students, different sizes and colors of bills (how can I tell a 10 from a 5?), and everything in between.

Still, I find myself soaking in the natural beauty of California that I have never appreciated quite like I do now. The soft sand, gentle waves and scorching heat of the bay; the quiet, lazy mornings on the ranch, bursting with plant life; the peaceful serenity of the central coast. Taking it in — seeing everything in a new light — has made my heart happy.

As the clock ticks on toward the official nine-week mark of our return, I can feel the seeds of restlessness beginning to take hold. The lazy, warm, family-filled days of laughter and spending have been just what I needed these past two months, but as money goes out and job prospects remain in the air, I find myself frequently researching available housing and positions in the Bay Area, getting excited for the next period of my life.

So today, I say goodbye to my friends and readers as this chapter of my life (mostly) comes to an end. I hope for reunions with my friends from Korea in the future, and look forward to the amazing journey in San Francisco that awaits me and my better half later this summer. Until then… there are more golden coast adventures to be had!

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As our time in Korea comes to a close, I decided to honor our profession and our experience abroad with the ABC’s of being an expat teacher in this great peninsula!

A is for Anju, the most amazing drinking concept since beer pong. Never give into a late-night urge for drunchies when you have endless amounts of everything from peanuts and french fries to nachos and rice snacks coming to your table with the beer.

Runner-up: Ajumma

B is for beondegi, the most wretched stench/snack combination ever concocted. Let’s take silk worm pupa, boil them until crunchy and putrid, then serve them with beer! Um… let’s not. Barf.

Runners-up: bibimbap, Busan

C is for Cheonbukdae, where throngs of hip youngsters gather to drink, dance and be merry on the weekends. It is also home to Pick It Pack It, the best burger in the ‘Ju!

D is for dakgalbi — the cheesy, noodley, oh-so-naughty Korean dish that is so comforting and homey that I had to try to recreate it at home!

Runner-up: Deepin and Deepinto

E is for E-Mart, since we couldn’t have survived without this mega-store around the corner.

F is for fan death. There isn’t anything better than an isolated population believing that you could die from leaving a fan on inside of a room and shutting the door. It will suck out all of the oxygen! Or wait… no, no it won’t.

Runner-up: Football

G is for gamjatang, the spicy pork-back soup that takes you straight into the home of (someone’s) Korean grandmother as she slowly stirs the pot, adding spices just so and making the most perfect bowl of stew you could ever dream up. BEST Korean food. Hands down.

Runner-up: Gaegogi

H is for holidays — from the traditional American ones (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day) to the special Korean days (Chu Seok, Solnal, Pepero Day) where we got a taste of real Korean tradition. A rare and wonderful experience.

I is for Itaewon, the “America” away from home and the only place to find hunger-satisfying foreign food, a multi-cultural community and normal-sized clothing all in one place.

J is for Jeonju, forever my home away from home.

K is for kimchi, the national dish of Korea and the star in culinary delights such as kimchi jjigae and kimchi bokumbap!

Runner-up: K-Pop (aka pure musical gold)

L is for Little River Day School, where I had the pleasure of working this past year — it brought me good friends, great memories and taught me a thing or two about teaching (patience. lots of patience.)

M is for the annual Mud Festival in Boryeong! From the rain and the endless amount of mud slides and pits, to the shower-less hotel and the amazing sea food, our experience at this yearly foreigner fun fest was one to remember!

N is for Norebang. Private karaoke room + friends + 24 hours + endless beer and snacks = best time ever. Done.

O is for octopus! I’ve never eaten so much of the sea creatures as I have in Korea — from live and wriggling to boiled nicely in a pan, I can say that I will never eat so much octopus again. Trust.

P is for Pizza School, the one place we could run away to and forget we had limited access to all of the foods we were craving — well, we could forget if we ignored pictures of things like sweet potato paste, corn, hot dogs and crumbled tortilla chips and other blasphemous toppings on the various pizzas.

Runner-up: Pizza Maru

Q is for Quiznos, which saved me from sliding into a deep sandwich-less depression over the past year. Every time we went to Seoul, this little gem was on the itinerary, pumping life into me with every bite of the Italian-style sub. Nom nom.

R is for Radio Star, the rockin’ live music venue that has hosted a multitude of awesome bands, kick-ass parties, fundraisers and general debauchery.

S is for sonsaengniiiim, the never-ending cry for (usually Korean) teachers heard by English hagwon workers around the country. So much for not speaking Korean in the class.

Runner-up: Samgyeupsal

T is for Trailer Park Boys, which is (thanks to our good friend Chris) one of our new favorite shows. You’ll never be the same after you experience the hilarity that is these guys from Nova Scotia (especially if you have real Nova Scotians to compare them to)

U is for the Ulsan Cup 2010, one of the best weekends I had during this experience. Me and my girlfriends (the cheerleaders) spent two days rooting, burger-ing and (trying to) cartwheel as the men of JUFC kicked their way to football victory — without ever conceding a goal!

V is for V-Day, the anti-violence campaign that I, along with other committee members, donated time and energy into from October to April, culminating in performances of one of Eve Ensler’s amazing collection of monologues, and a kick-ass concert.

W is for Wa Bar, our (ex) watering hole where we spent many a night icing each other, playing rounds of kings cup and cheering on the USA team in the World Cup — all while enjoying free baskets of french fries. R.I.P. Seoshin-dong location.

Runner-up: waygook

X is for xenophobia, the interesting phenomenon that I’ve experienced here. In America, people fight to stand out the most, while being “different” is generally shunned and avoided in Korean culture.

Y is for the year that I’ve been away. The longest I’ve ever been away from home, the time it took to build a new home here in Korea, and one of the scariest/best/awe-inspiring years of my life. I’ve grown so much and am going back a better person because of it!

Z is for zero, the number of regrets I have about leaving my life in the States to try my hand at being a teacher. With my best friend/boyfriend by my side, we made a lot of great memories.

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That may have been a little tasteless, but I couldn’t help it. Don’t hate me. Or judge me!

The time had come for us to try bosintang (보신탕), a soup made with gaegogi (개고기) or… dog meat. Yes, the same population that has fully embraced the Paris Hilton trend of parading around toy species in tiny sweaters still happily slurp down a bowl of dog with a side of rice. It’s been a part of Korean cuisine for hundreds of years.

I went to a nearby joint with Evan, Chris and John to pick up some bowls of soup. I had eaten beforehand because I didn’t plan on purchasing my own portion. We sat down and the boys ordered their soup while I opted for a bowl of rice. Even though I didn’t order any myself, I knew I wouldn’t leave the restaurant without trying it.

It tastes like roast beef. It really psyched me out to be eating a puppy, so I could only have two bites. Luckily, the soup came with a large array of side dishes.

Like the über-creepiness of Japanese munching on whale and dolphin as they watch water shows in Taiji in The Cove, I find it strange that bosintang exists in the country of puppy cafes, where you can grab a cup of Joe and play with Fido as you get your caffeine fix. I guess it would be akin to watching a 4-H show and chowing down on a burger or a hot dog, but its the cultural differences that skeeve me out.

It is worth noting that the sale, manufacturing and processing of dog meat have been illegal in Korea since 1984, but it the laws aren’t strictly enforced. The dogs used for consumption are bred and raised in dog farms.

Once was enough.

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Despite having delicious and nutritious lunches prepared for us daily at school, there are times when we need to get away from the workplace (or the fish head soup) and grab a bite to eat at our little neighborhood hole-in-the-wall.

Across the street from mega store E-Mart, there is a tiny Korean joint that serves up amazing food at even more amazing prices. It is our escape from the workday, our little food sanctuary where we can enjoy our company over plates of lovingly prepared food.

Every neighborhood has restaurants akin to this little place, where you can get single servings of food (as opposed to the other barbecue restaurants, where you won’t be served solo). We’ve been to different places, but this is by far our favorite. When we first started dining at this restaurant, I grabbed a take-out menu and spent 2-3 hours trying to translate it. Eventually, I had my Korean teachers help fill in some gaps :)

The menu has a large variety of popular Korean dishes, ranging from rice and noodles to dumplings and meat. Here are some of our favorites:

The kimbap (김밥) here is one of our go-to meals. It is fast, easy and cheap. Large sheets of toasted nori are filled with spinach, carrot, egg, pickled radish and ham, rolled up and sliced.

The tonkatsu (돈까스, fried pork cutlet) is another popular choice. The original and the cheese-filled option are slathered with sauce and served with a small heaping of rice. A hearty lunch for days you need something hot and comforting.

Another winning dish takes the best elements of kimbap and tonkatsu and rolls them up into a piping hot dish of deliciousness. The tonkatsu kimbap features a smaller pork cutlet topped with carrot, spinach, pickled radish and rolled up in rice and nori.

The dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥) is a top pick for me. The mixture of rice, vegetables, sesame powder, egg and red pepper paste served in a sizzling hot pot is the epitome of comfort food. After I’m finished with it, I want to curl up in the fetal position and nap. So good.

Although I’m not a huge fan of kimchi made with napa cabbage, I do quite like dishes that use the fermented favorite. Kimchi bokumbap, a simple plate of rice fried with spicy kimchi and topped with an egg and toasted nori.

I also love kimchi jjigae, a stew filled with tofu, bean sprouts, bits of beef and kimchi, served boiling in a hot pot with a bowl of rice on the side. It is hot and spicy, but has a refreshing, cleansing effect on my head. This is the ideal soup for when you feel congested!

All the dishes come with the standard sides of kimchi, pickled radish, julienne cut greens and (my favorite) daikon radish kimchi (kkakdugi 배추).

Nom. Is it lunch time yet?

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Since we have less than a month left in this lovely country, we decided that the time had come to pack our bags, head past Seoul and say hello to our neighbors in the north.

Well…not say hello exactly, seeing as we weren’t allowed to look, gesture to or converse with soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but you get the picture. Evan and I — along with fellow tourists and hosts from the United Services Organization (USO) — took an amazing and educational journey to the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.

Our journey began early morning in Seoul, where we rolled out of bed and on to a bus at the U.S. Military Base, Camp Kim. After a short, sleepy bus ride, we arrived to our destination, where our tour guide briefed us on the history of the DMZ and the Korean War.

During the tour, we were given explicit instructions as to not draw any negative attention from the North Koran soldiers who were watching us like hawks through the lens of binoculars. Yikes! No bags were allowed off the bus, and there was no holding our coats just in case it looked like we were concealing weapons. Also, as I mentioned above, absolutely no contact, verbal or otherwise, with said military men. Ironically, we were also informed that despite the area’s name, the DMZ is actually one of the most militarized areas in the world.

Here’s the DPRK soldier, staring.

We visited the Joint Security Area (JSA) first, where we toured a conference room in the Military Armistice Commission building. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) runs through the room, separating North and South Korea. ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers guarded the doors as we poked around, standing in Tae Kwon Do ready stance and sporting dark aviators (used to show no emotion). We stepped over the MDL in the room, technically into North Korea! Here’s me with the ROK soldier, on Kim Jong Il’s side of the border.

The outside of the MAC building, showing the concrete slab separating the two countries. The soldiers stood with half of their bodies covered — to make them harder targets if shots were fired, and so that they could give each other hand signals without being seen. ROK soldiers face DRPK soldiers to keep an eye on their enemy, while DRPK soldiers faced each other, so that if one tried to defect to the South, the other could shoot him.

Next, we were able to catch glimpses of the two villages in the DMZ — Taesongdong (Freedom Village) in the South, and Gijungdong (Propaganda Village) in the North. TSD is inhabited by South Korean farmers who abide by a strict set of rules to live in the area — and are well-compensated for their lifestyle by the ROK government. Propaganda Village earned its name by having large loudspeakers set up to blast propaganda glorifying Kim Jung Il at the people of Taesongdong. After a short flagpole-building competition, Propaganda Village, despite being uninhabited, boasts the largest flagpole and flag in the world.

There were lots of observation towers full of people keeping their eyes on us.

We also visited the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged in 1968. The POWs captured by the United States were given a choice of staying in the south or reentering the north, under the rule that they would never be allowed to go back if they crossed the bridge — hence the name.

There was a monument at the scene of the Axe Murder Incident, where the North and South clashed over the trimming of a tree and three soldiers from the South were hacked to death with axes. The circle around the memorial represents where the stump of the tree stood.

An actual piece of the tree trunk remains in a museum at the JSA.

Next, we visited the Third Tunnel, which runs from North Korea to South Korea and was discovered in 1978 with the help of a defector. This is one of four tunnels that have been found to date, that were intended help the North invade the South. N. Korea denied accusations of “aggression” and claimed the tunnel was used to dig up coal, but the UN and South Korea didn’t buy it. We were able to trek down to the actual tunnel (240 ft below ground) and see blockades set up by South Koreans. Pictures were forbidden, but trust — it was super cool and creepy.

After a bulgogi lunch (which was decent) we headed to Dorasan Train Station, the last stop in the South on the tracks that once connected the two Koreas. It was clean (obviously, since it isn’t used) and celebrated the hope for unification in the future.

The thing that resonated with me the most during this amazing journey was that, despite numerous incidents of violence, defectors and continued aggression, the people of Korea hope for and constantly try to work toward unification with the North. At all of these memorial sites, there were monuments that celebrated joining the two countries, broken families and long-lost friends, again. I was really touched by the humanity shown in bits and pieces along the tour.

To Seoul and back in 24 hours is an exhausting mission to say the least, but experiencing one of the most fascinating and memorable tourist visits to date was well worth the trek. Plus, we were able to run by Insa-dong and pick up some souvenirs (in addition to what we bought on the tour) afterward. I highly recommend this tour to anyone and everyone on this peninsula!

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Korea’s answer to Valentine’s Day. You see, that hallmark day for lovers here in the East is reserved especially for females to go gaga over their guys, showering them with candies and chocolates. Now, the day has come for prince charming to woo his women — White Day has arrived!

White Day, a holiday celebrated in Korea and Japan, marks the day when it is the men’s turns to dote on their lady friends. It’s like having V-Day part deux, spinning companies such as Lotte (who runs approximately half of Korea) into a chocolate-pushing frenzy. Only one month after celebrating Valentine’s, the stores are once again chock full of candies and goodies used to make ladies swoon — but the presents don’t stop at treats. Jewelry, lingerie and marshmallows are also popular gifts for Korean men to give today.

Family Mart and GS 25 were fully prepared for the rush of ill-prepared men who are panicking for a last-minute gift to buy their loved ones.

Now, normally I don’t condone these ridiculous, made-up holidays where people feel obligated to buy cheap candy and dote on each other… but since I’m a woman, I will fully embrace this girls-only holiday! :P

At school, a kindergartener named Jin handed out goody bags to the teachers to celebrate. Score! We made out with two lollipops and about 8 packets of instant coffee — which begs the question, is Jin’s mother (who is a constant fixture in the mornings) trying to tell us something? Zombie reference or no, I’ll take it!

My elementary students gave me gifts as well, including a gaggle of lollipops and a delicious truffle-esque candy. Nom nom.

First Pepero Day, then Valentine’s Day, now this? I should move to Korea and start a chocolate manufacturing plant. For real.

Next up is Black Day, where all the sassy singles get together to eat jajangmyeon 짜장면, a delectable Chinese/Korean fusion dish that features thick wheat noodles, meat and vegetables slathered in black soybean paste. Evan and I prefer jajangbap (same dish, just made with rice instead of noodles). Seriously, jajang sauce is so good. SO good. We’ve frequented a Chinese fusion eatery in our ‘hood for months now — for pickup and eat-in. A post with food descriptions and drool-worthy pics to come!

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The babies are all grown up.

Last Friday, my and Evan’s little kid classes donned their adorable cap and gowns, recited their five-sentence speeches about life after kindergarten, and celebrated their transition into elementary school with their teachers, families and fellow students. After weeks of preparation, it was finally their big day!

The school was decked out with lots of blue and white balloons, and a grammatically questionable (but well-intentioned) sign for the graduates.

Even though we had to wear our uniforms, I decided to spruce up the baby blue polo with my fancy headband from Myeongdong. Yoon Jung had to give it a whirl. Perhaps it was slightly pouf-tastic for her tiny dome. She’s such a cutie!

The graduates, along with the babies, sang songs during the ceremony. They did a full run-thru of the show before their parents arrived, all spruced up in their uniforms. The Ants Go Marching, Here We Go Looby Loo and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain were on the play list for the occasion.

Apparently, one of my students decided he wanted to take the stairs to school instead of following directions and riding in the elevator, so he had to stand against the wall, eyes closed with arms in the air for at least fifteen minutes. He is officially ready for Survivor.

After all the singing and speaking and photo ops and flowers, Evan and I retreated to T.G.I. Fridays for our own celebration of the year we’ve had with our babies. We were starving by the time our burgers arrived, and gobbled them down quickly. Evan went for the regular burger with bacon and American cheese, while I opted for the grilled chicken, bacon and Monterey Jack sandwich.

I actually got a bit teary-eyed after the ceremony, taking pictures with the kids and wishing them well before they start elementary school this week. Some of my little ones aren’t coming back for my school’s after-school program, so it was the last day I was seeing some of them. I guess all I can hope is that I made even the smallest difference for the better…

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