Tag Archives: uijeongbu

How to Stay Sane Until Spring (Korean Winter, we’re through.)

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I wrote recently about finding a summer-ish oasis hidden on a side street in my Korean city. Writing that post made me ponder a few other remedies that have helped me cope with winter in Korea. Because, like I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of you, winter. I didn’t even really realize I was in a winter funk until a week or so ago when I was walking to work and caught a whiff of that Spring smell. I think it’s made of one part melting snow and two parts bright sunshine. Oh, and there were birds singing, I swear. Although snow did fall a few days later, this morning commute added a bounce to my step and placed not-too-distant and pleasant visions of biking along the Han River and wearing cute skirts in my head. So, if you’re like me and need that final push to blast through the rest of Winter into Spring, here are 10 things I am doing or plan to do asap:

1) YOGA

I wrote about my love of yoga awhile back. Then my membership expired and I neglected to go back to my studio to pay for 3 more months. I told myself I would do yoga at home but I missed the hot studio, the disciplined yet nurturing instructor, the sense of class camaraderie and most importantly the elated and endorphin filled walk home after each class. I plan to return to my studio later this week and get back to improving my Triangle Pose.

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2) EAT HEALTHY

Just like your mom always told you: Winter is all about staying healthy! Go stock up on fresh veggies and fruits at the supermarket. I like to shop at Homeplus in the evening after work because I usually find discounted produce (for smoothies!) at that time of day. Also, if you haven’t already checked out iHerb you should. I like to order my favorite gluten free breakfast bars and coconut water from this website. The prices are reasonable and the products arrive 1 or 2 days later.

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3) SEOUL TOWER

Although it made for a cold afternoon, I recommend checking out Seoul Tower in the winter. With less foliage you can see for miles and the view is amazing.

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photo credit: my awesome friend James

4) GET ACTIVE OUTSIDE

Sometimes you just need to get outside and be active. Bundle up and go for a walk. I promise you will feel better upon your return.

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5) SOCIALIZE

Your apartment may seem tempting for a night-in, but get out and be social with friends. Find a favorite coffee shop or bar and enjoy each other. *bring playing cards*

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6) MUSEUMS

Winter is a great time to check out the many museums Seoul has to offer. In the past month I visited the MOCA, the National War Memorial and Museum and the Anish Kapoor Seoul Exhibition at the Leeum Samsung Museum. 2 of the 3 were free and the exhibits were fabulous.

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 7) COFFEE SHOPS

Spend a cold day in a coffee shop and study up on your Korean.

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8) STUDENTS

The winter months don’t seem to bother my students one bit. They burst into class each day excited to tell me about their time at school. They are always happy and so full of energy. They make me smile and laugh at the smallest things and just that can turn around a day.

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9) PLAN FOR SUMMER

Start planning that awesome summer trip now. Although Mud Fest is a few months away who says you can’t start taking notes for an epic trip. I also love outdoor music festivals, so I can get lost on the Internet searching for the summer line-up of acts coming to Korea.

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10) WINTER FASHION

When all else fails, throw on a cute fluffy animal hat and count how many strangers smile at you as you walk around feeling warm and fashionable.

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photo credit

How do you deal with Winter? Or maybe Winter is your best friend, and in that case, please let him know I’m ready to break-up.

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Filed under cuter in korea, devan teacher, food, seoul, travel, uijeongbu, yoga

Jimjilbanging: It’s kind of like eating kimchi, but you’ve got to get naked.

ktfacphoto credit

Korea is lovingly known as The Land of Kimchi, but I argue the slogan could lose kimchi and replace it with jimjilbang and no one would throw a fit. Kimchi and jimjilbangs are both well-known elements of Korean culture. Jimjilbangs are large public bath houses (mostly gender-segregated) and can be found on almost every street in Korea. Some are more fancy than others, but most have a handful of hot baths, showers, saunas, massage tables, lockers, sleeping areas and social meeting spaces. Jimjilbangs are usually open 24 hours a day and many people visit them to bathe, relax and sleep. Most rooms, including the saunas, have special minerals, woods and stones to create a soothing sanctuary and provide elements of traditional Korean medicine. The Korean jimjilbang is a familiar and calming oasis for all Koreans. Each is a mini spa that caters to your every need. They are more prevalent than Starbucks shops and you can spend a day in one for the cost of a latte and a snack. They sound perfect, right?

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photo credit

Kimchi is also found on every Korean street and it sneaks onto most breakfast, lunch and dinner plates. I bought a jar of kimchi back in NH a week before I left for Korea. I thought if I mastered the spicy fermented vegetable dish I would slide seamlessly into the role of ‘expat in Korea’. The jar’s pungent smell intimidated me and I reluctantly left the snack in my mom’s fridge for her to enjoy as she wept over my departure. After some time in Korea I learned to love kimchi. Some kinds are tastier than others and I prefer grilled kimchi over the cold stuff. It didn’t happen overnight, but I mastered kimchi and I figured the jimjilbang was next up. I could do this. I could adapt. I could be brave. The only thing is, I didn’t have to get naked in public to eat kimchi.

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photo credit (Yes, that’s me on the right feeling super comfortable.)

Last month I agreed to a Thursday night jimjilbang date after a few too many drinks the weekend before. My friends promised I could not leave Korea without a famous jimjilbang ajumma scrub. Although I was terrified of the ‘naked party’ they continuously cheered to that night, I lightly penciled it into my planner and mentally prepared a list of excuses to furnish a polite cancellation. Monday came and went and I forgot to decline the invite. In the midst of teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday I thought of cancelling and told myself I would get to it later that night. Then it was Thursday and it’s just not classy to cancel so late in the game. I was hungry but I couldn’t eat dinner. I nervously plastered a smile on my face and left work that night wondering if I would be a different person when I returned the next morning.

“It’s kind of like skydiving or bungee jumping.” My friend reassured me as we descended in the elevator toward the basement floor jimjilbang. She wasn’t helping. “The scariest moment is the first one and after that it’s just what it is.” Did she know she was giving a pep-talk to a life-long swimmer and lifeguard who, forget extreme jumping, was afraid to do a simple dive off the high dive? I spent a decent portion of each summer as a teenager disappointing the pool patrons who always watched in awe as the lifeguards enjoyed their 5 minute breaks. My male co-workers would bring the laughs with failed attempts at double flips. Others would gracefully dive through the air and slide into the depths of the deep-end headfirst with ease. I climbed the ladder as well, but once at the top I took a big breath and did a boring pencil dive into the icy blueness. I tried more than once to dive from the 1 meter ledge, but my brain just wouldn’t allow it. I liked the excitement of the jump, but I preferred the feeling of being right-side-up on my own two feet. I was in control somewhat, even while falling through the air.

As I stripped down and shoved my belongings into a locker at the jimjilbang I realized something about the scenario playing in my head. I knew one day I would dive from that high dive in NH. It would happen because I knew in my mind I could always return to my hometown pool. I could take my time and practice elsewhere. In other words, I could be lazy about it. A few months ago I jumped from a pretty huge rock in Jeju. Maybe this summer when I’m stateside again I will make that dive. I really hope this is true.

But here’s the amazing thing about living abroad in Korea: You don’t have time to cultivate fears here. If there’s something you want to try, taste or see you have to do it in a timely fashion. I know I won’t be in Korea forever and because I have so many other places to visit I don’t know if I will be back soon. It’s one thing to read those feel-good quotes about ‘Living in the Moment’, but it’s another to have no other choice.

I got naked that Thursday night and tip-toed from the lockers out to the bath and sauna room holding nothing but a hand towel. I found my friends and submerged in a steaming hot bath as I awaited my scrub appointment. In one corner of the room a maze of showers and stools held a dozen or so older women who meticulously scrubbed and bathed each other while chatting. Small children clutching goggles splashed around in the biggest bath. Single bathers who wished to relax and avoid the social hour could be found in baths with their hair in a towel, their eyes closed and their heads resting on the stone side. As our skin began to prune our moods softened as well. Our eyes stopped darting around the room at all the nakedness and we relaxed. The water was deliciously warm and we hopped from one bath to the next.

When the ajumma called me over for my scrub there was nowhere to hide. As she threw buckets of water over my body and signaled for me to roll over onto my back for the next round of scrubbing I simply did it. Maybe my friend was right, the scariest moment had already passed and the rest was just whatever would be. I walked home that night with baby soft skin and wet hair that reminded me of my swimming years, 3 friends who would always and forever be my ‘naked party’ girls, a new determination to make that summer dive, an item to cross off my Korea Bucket List and a craving for some grilled kimchi (I skipped dinner, remember?).

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Just say “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice” to escape the Korean winter.

As I’ve said before, I’m not crazy about the cold. Yes, I’m from New England, but no, I don’t really ski, so winter for me is about the first magical snow (just one please, that’s enough) and then of course the oh so mature Christmas countdown. Sometimes January and February can leave me in a kind of funk. But this really hasn’t been the case in Korea.

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This year I didn’t dread January. Maybe it’s because I spent the beginning of the month on the beach in Thailand. Or perhaps it’s my Korea bucket list I am excited to complete before leaving in May. (I was supposed to leave in March…but I have decided to stay a touch longer.) It might also be the awesomely optimistic and adventurous people I have met in my travels.

A few Sundays ago I pulled myself out of my cozy apartment and rallied a few friends to meet downtown and try a ‘healing bar’ I had eyed advertisements for a few nights before while waiting for the bus. I couldn’t think of anything better to scare away the gloomy and cold end-of-weekend-blues. The funky cafe was tucked away on the top floor of a quiet building. The name intrigued me most. “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice!” My friends giggled as we ascended the stairs toward a sunny and healthier state.

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Although the cafe was empty and one lone worker eyed us curiously, we made ourselves at home and took time carefully deciding which fruity/vegetable concoction to try. I chose a pomegranate based drink while my friends chose mango and avocado. We ooed and awed as the juice bar worker simultaneously produced all three drinks at once. As the blenders purred and spun brightly colored liquids around it instantly felt like a summer day in Uijeongbu.

Sometimes you have to get creative. Winter is here to stay, and I know I don’t love it but it also makes me appreciate summer that much more. You have to stay curious during the winter months. And make sure you recruit outgoing companions to stick with you throughout. Plus, having my two friends with me at Beetlejuice allowed me to try two other delicious juices. Who knew avocado could make a fantastic beverage?

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smoothies in korea

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Preparing for a Korean Goodbye: Don’t leave my friends out of this.

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Time is running out, so please stop saying, “Yeah, we will have to do that some weekend.” I have exactly 6 weekends left in Korea and each is pretty much full from 8pm on Friday until late Sunday afternoon. I am lucky in that many of my friends in Korea are also leaving close to my departure date. Most of us are in a rush to eat lots of kimchi, find Psy socks to bring home and most importantly soak up each others awesomeness before some depart for homes scattered all over the globe and others remain in Korea. And oh yeah, I still have to find the confidence to make a jjimjilbang date. Umm, a little help please?

So, here is my list. I believe if I write it, it will happen. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Please comment with other things I must do, see, taste, try or buy before I leave this fantastic country I have loved calling home.

I hope to…

1) tour the MOCA. I recently learned that Seoul’s National Museum of Contemporary Art offers free admission for select exhibits on the 4th weekend of each month. See you there?

2) have one more epic weekend adventure with my favorite SHG guide. If you are moving to Korea or are here already I strongly suggest you check them out. But only if you like to have fun. Otherwise, forget I mentioned it.

3) stock up on my favorite Korean cosmetics. Great timing Sheryll, I was getting worried I would leave before you shared this.

4) finally suck it up, strip down and visit a jjimjilbang. If this story doesn’t make you want to visit one, I’m sorry.

5) get lost at the Korean War Memorial and Museum for an entire day. I am proud to say I am related to the late Captain Joseph McConnell Jr. who was a leading jet ace of the Korean War. I hope to learn more about him and the war.

6) norebang with my favorite girlfriends in Uijeongbu one last time. The first night my friend voluntarily put on Call Me Maybe I knew I was going to be just fine in Korea.

7) pretend to know something about electronics and peruse the Yongsan Electronics Market.

8) Stuff my face with one (or two?) Casablanca Moroccan chicken sandwiches. I visited HBC a few weeks ago and almost cried (like real tears) when I found the storefront dark and closed for renovations. A Twitter friend swears they are reopening before I leave. She better not be throwing fake promises around the Internet. You know who you are, and I know your Twitter handle.

9) finally make it to a Hongdae Silent Disco. Check it out.

10) dress super classy and do it up Korea Style.

11) successfully order takeout to my apartment.

12) not go overboard, but add a few more key pieces to my arsenal of Korean fashion. I can’t help myself, I WANT EVERYTHING.

13) You tell me.

I have a lot to do, but I am grateful to spend these next weekends with friends who have kicked it with me in Korea for the past 11 months and have put up with me and my geeky love of planning. Last week we had an early Saturday morning outing scheduled and more sites to see in the afternoon. Friday night rolled around and we found ourselves at a favorite local bar enjoying cheap drinks, stories of teaching mishaps, college card games and a few sloppy rounds of darts. As you can guess, we didn’t make it to bed until the early morning and our plans were scratched in exchange for recovery rest. My Saturday was spent sleeping and Sunday was also quiet with a friendly coffee shop session and a long walk in the evening. Our lazy weekend meant I had to rearrange my planner notes, but I promise, no one is freaking out.

I am impressed with my long list of Korean adventures accomplished in the past year, but just like “감사합니다”  and “안녕하세요” will disappear from my daily routine come March, so will my friends who quickly became family in early 2012. So please, recommend your ‘Korea must-do-see-taste-try-buy’ item for my list, but if my friends aren’t down then I may give it a miss.

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Filed under cuter in korea, departure, food, seoul, travel, uijeongbu

“Call Me Maybe, Teacher?” -Phone Teaching with Korean Students-

Tonight I skipped out of work with a smile plastered across my face. I stayed an extra hour and missed my 9pm yoga class because I needed to call a long list of students and administer Phone Teaching. I call all of my students once a month and have a mini conversation with them while their proud parents listen (hopefully) in the background and come away from the call impressed (hopefully) with their child’s English skills. I practice for the monthly calls at the beginning of each class. The students groan when I pick up my fake phone, I usually use the projector remote, and dial ‘their number’ with a series of animated beep sounds and exaggerated button pushing actions. All of my students have mastered the standard conversation greeting and can convey how they are feeling. Common responses include, “I am very good today.” or “I am super happy.” Most will remember to politely ask the same of Teacher (me) and I praise them for doing so. Those who sit silently with blank stares after answering my first question are quickly reminded when I paint a disappointed look on my face. “And you, Teacher?” They quickly stumble to correct their mistake.

The rest of the conversation casually moves past the greeting to simple questions about today’s date, weather, birthdays, lunch time delicacies, favorite movies and seasons, daily fashion (“What are you wearing today?”) or lesson related questions. We chat for about 3 minutes or until I have completely stumped the child and I can sense his or her anxiety through the phone line.

I’ve never been a great phone person. I couldn’t understand the girls in middle school who could chat for hours on the phone. I am always stumbling over my words and talking too fast when I should be listening. I prefer to text about a plan and then meet and talk in person. Or Skype. During my first few months in Korea I dreaded the teaching calls. First there were the dreaded parent answers and immediate hang-ups. The parents would answer in Korean and I would quickly mention my name and school and ask to speak to their ‘Justin’ or ‘Amy’. Some parents wouldn’t recognize their child’s given English name or would be confused by my new foreign voice and I would hear the dial tone before I reached a student. When I did hear a child’s quiet “Hello…” on the other line sometimes the conversation would do downhill from there and I would be left to ask and answer my own questions while the student nervously listened.

Most students are eager to say their goodbyes and get back to whatever I interrupted them from in the first place, but some have come to gain confidence as the conversation proceeds and I have trouble finding the appropriate place to squeeze in my closing, “Great job, I will see you in class tomorrow!” Tonight one student warned me, as soon as he found his way to the phone, that our call would not follow standard procedure. The boy’s heavy breathing told me he had raced from his room to the family phone. Before I could jump in and guide the conversation he loudly interrupted my thoughts, “Hello Devan Teacher. How are you today?” I was speechless and immensely proud all at the same moment. He caught me off guard and I let him lead the conversation for a minute or so before I took back the reigns, although it wasn’t before he told me, “Devan Teacher, I have much time tonight for talk.” 8 minutes later I managed to say goodbye.

The monthly phone conversations have become a fantastic tool for measuring the increasing levels of confidence and understanding in my classroom. Many of my 7-year-olds are far from mastering English and my Korean is pathetic, but we have come to understand each other. I sometimes still hear the occasional annoyed sigh from a student as a parent hands her the phone, but for the most part my students know the routine. They know what I will ask and more importantly they know me. They know my personality on the phone. They understand my silence when I am waiting for them to expand their answer. They gladly accept my clues and helpful jump-starts (“The weather today is…”) when they are stumped. And most importantly, together we have mastered the most critical phone skill: having a sense of humor. My students have picked up on my sarcastic tendencies in the classroom and many have learned to laugh during our monthly calls. I left work tonight smiling  not because a student aced a phone call with perfect English, but because he outright failed to tell me his birthday day and month. The call had started like all the others. He mastered the greeting, told me about the rainy, cold and cloudy day that we had experienced and informed me of his kimchi (surprise!), rice (surprise!) and soup intake at lunchtime. Everything was moving along as expected until I asked the 4th question. “Can you tell me when your birthday is?” I asked routinely. “TEACHERRRRRR. YOU KNOW IT.  IT’S ON THE BIRTHDAY BOARD!” There was a moment of silence and then he broke into a fit of laughter and I did the same. “That is true,” I answered when my giggles had subsided. “Let’s move on.”

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“Like, what should we do this weekend?”

As an English teacher in South Korea, when Thursday rolls around each week I usually itch for my upcoming weekend plans. I have learned to take full advantage of my weekend time in Korea and I hope to continue with this new approach to my free time when I return home. I love the tired yet accomplished feeling of a Sunday night following a jam-packed weekend of experiencing new things and people in Korea. When I find myself without plans midweek, I use the following 5 resources to find inspiration for weekend outings. I hope you find them helpful and please feel free to comment with alternative ideas. I promise, armed with these resources you won’t find yourself uttering the annoying answer to a friend looking to have a memorable weekend, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

1) Expat Websites and News Sources: Some of my favorites include Groove Korea, Seoulistic, Chincha and 10 Magazine Korea, but there are many more. This past weekend I attended a rocking block party in Hongdae that was hosted by Chincha. I had a blast: I met some interesting people, enjoyed great live bands and had a bit too much fun with the prop-packed photo center. Today in 10 Magazine Korea I read about all the Halloween events happening in Seoul.

2) Twitter: Many of my friends continue to make fun of my Twitter obsession, but it has proved to be a helpful tool in Korea. Even if you don’t want to Tweet, if you follow the right people you can stay informed about events going on in Korea. I can thank Twitter for letting me know about the free Psy concert I attended a few weeks ago. Thanks Twitter.

3) Travel Groups: Before coming to Korea I remember how comforted I was to find a Facebook page for Adventure Korea. Because Korea is a popular place for foreigners, there are a handful of companies that focus on planning excursions for this demographic. I have gone on three trips with Seoul Hiking Group and I can not speak highly enough of these mini vacations. After a week of teaching it is lovely to go on a trip that is completely organized for you. Who didn’t love field trips when they were younger? I have seen some great places in Korea, including Jeju, and I have also met some great friends from all over Korea. When In Korea (winK) is another great website.

4) Personal Blogs: I did extensive research before making the decision to move to Korea to teach and I believe a majority of the helpful information came from personal blogs. I felt reassured reading about real experiences from real people living and teaching in Korea. I know each person has a different story to tell of their time in Korea, but there are many shared experiences that I have encountered in blogs. I remember finding an extremely helpful diagram of a Korean heating panel on a blog back in February when I was shivering and baffled by the 4 buttons near my light switch. I have a list of about 10 blogs that I check weekly. There are some talented bloggers in Korea who are informative and also put a creative and comedic spin on the Expat experience.

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5)  Facebook (of course!): Facebook is not just for procrastinating. Facebook has helped me stay in touch with other Chungdahm teachers who live in different parts of Korea. With the help of Facebook I was able to plan a Busan beach weekend to visit a few friends from teacher training. I can also thank Facebook for a handful of friends in my city of Uijeongbu. In the first few weeks in my new city I came across a Facebook group for foreigners. I joined the on-line community, attended a weekly ‘Waegook’ dinner that was advertised on the group page and walked away from the first dinner with new friends. The Facebook group is also a place where people post event invitations and community information.

These are just a few resources I use. Where do you go for answers when someone asks, “What should we do this weekend?”

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wish you were here – snail mail love

When was the last time your mailbox actually had a letter in it: handwritten and addressed to you from a real live person you know? The newest J Crew catalog does not count, although I know how exciting its arrival can be.

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 I have really come to love snail mail in Korea – receiving and sending mail – it is my new favorite thing. During my first few weeks in Korea as I unpacked and settled into my new life of teaching and finding my way around a foreign country, I stayed in touch with friends and family through Facebook, Skype and email, but it was when I received a postcard from my aunt that I got emotional (in a good way, of course). I think I startled the Koreans who work at my school. I have my mail sent directly to my school, so if I get any mail I am greeted with it when I walk into the Chungdahm building at the beginning of my work day. One day I stopped by the front desk to greet the staff and they curiously handed me 3 postcards from my aunt. I giggled loudly like a child and skipped off to my classroom only after proudly showing my Korean friends the postcard pictures. I don’t know what it is about getting personal mail sent to you…it is just wonderful. Maybe it is the thought, time and effort that you know the person on the sending end went through to get the mail to you. Who even knows anyone’s mailing address anymore? I can barely remember my new Korean cell phone number…

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 My friends and family have continued to send postcards and odd pieces of mail and each delivery to my school has made my day. My aunt continues to send me postcards weekly and my students eagerly await each new snapshot of life in the United States. Postcards from Washington D.C., New Hampshire, Colorado, Florida and New York have helped to spark many classroom conversations and curiosities. Another aunt who lives in Florida sent me a dozen or so postcards of animals who reside in the southern state. It is fantastic to be able to point to a postcard picture of a dolphin while I am teaching a lesson on ‘Animal Communication’, or refer to the postcards depicting the White House when my students ask questions about Obama and the United States. Each postcard includes a small note on the back that gives me a peek into family life that I am missing during my year abroad and the picture on the front is enjoyed by all of my students.

Snail mail seems to make its way into your life when you need it most. One rainy and gloomy Monday morning I was tickled to open a letter from my cousins. They had enclosed a take-out menu from one of our favorite pizza places in New Hampshire. On Memorial Day, when I was picturing all my friends at home celebrating the start of summer with cold beers, hot dogs and bonfires, I was handed a card from a close college friend – the cover: “ME? MISS YOU? the inside: “ONLY ALL THE TIME.”

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The unspoken rule of snail mail is that you must send if you receive. I reciprocate the communication with postcards and cute Korean stationery that I enjoy picking out each time I visit the streets of Seoul or my favorite store, Artbox. I look forward to keeping the lines of communication from Uijeongbu to my friends and family back home in the US open and active. I recommend snail mailing it when you can, I promise it beats a Facebook ‘LIKE’ any day.

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