Week 8: Goodbyes

The goodbyes at Mulmancho were quite different than at Jiguchon. I didn’t really have any specific expectations for them, but was still startled by just how distinct the experiences were. Part of this was because of how close-knit Mulmangcho is as a community, I think. For example, two nights before we left, instead of our normal dinner there was a school wide cook out under the sunset near the treehouse that last year’s duke engage team had built, followed by a talent show! None of it was very sad or focused on the fact that we were  leaving soon, and everyone was really excited and focused on supporting each other in the talent show. It was pretty magical, I have to say. The next night after dinner we were given some huge poster boards and told that we should all make some goodbye cards together (students and volunteers), and I expected it to be pretty sad and emotional, but the majority of the kids just wanted to spend their last bit of dedicated time with us drawing funny things on the cards and messing around (we all made sure to get our mushy messages for the kids written down amidst the cartoons). It was pretty touching actually. A few of the older ones, however, were a little more openly emotional about it. One that I had gotten to know particularly well kept surprise hugging me and telling me that he already missed me, which I had not expected from him. The next morning all the kids woke up a little bit early to take a group picture and wave goodbye as we drove off, and that was that. Few tears were shed, although sad smiles were passed around a plenty. It didn’t hit me ’til later that night how much our leaving must mean for the older kids. There are only six kids above the age of fifteen, two boys and four girls. The girls are mostly preparing for college entrance exams and are a few years older than the boys, who themselves are a few years apart. I can’t imagine going through such a formative period of life with no one of your own age to talk to, and having finally had friends of a similar age to talk to, the isolation must feel pretty intense.

After we left we spent a few days in Busan, which is a port city in the south east, and it was beautiful! Busan has it all, lemme tell ya; it’s historically fascinating, it’s got oceans, mountains, temples, markets, and practically anything else you could want (except Pokémon Go). As usual, the professors made sure the field trip included as much educational time as possible, and we visited some amazing museums and cultural sites. I won’t bore you with details that are more eloquently put elsewhere, but here are some pictures!

In order: The view from my hotel window, the former official residence of Syngman Rhee (first president of SK) which has been turned into a museum, Some cool trees outside of the house, Haeundae Beach before dinner, Haeundae Beach after dinner, the view from Busan tower, Gamcheon Culture Village (a colorful village set into the mountain that has been pretty well preserved for decades), Beomeosa Temple, a cool bell at the temple, and two pictures of the river near the temple that reminded me of the appalachians.






Week 6: Welcome to Mulmangcho, and The Misty Mountains

This week was pretty wonderful for me. I quite right in thinking that the fresh air and green-ness would do me some good, and I have very much enjoyed the chance to do some farm work. Besides being a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of city life, it feels great to do some physical labor after not having time to exercise much in Seoul, as had running around with the kids everyday playing sports. Here are some (rather unsatisfying) attempts to capture the wonderful place we get to live in for the next few weeks.


I have also enjoyed teaching english in a more casual, tutoring style setting as opposed to the classroom style we taught at Jiguchon. Of the sixteen students currently living at the school, only the six eldest are not attending local elementary school during the day and so available to attend English lessons in the mornings, so we have four one on one classes and two two on one classes. The students are all preparing to take either college entrance exams or a GED equivalent, so their english requirements are all pretty nebulous. Their prior experience differs greatly as well. One student converses with her teacher about the recent Supreme Court affirmative action case and the Kanye – Taylor beef, while others work on how to form questions. Whatever the level, we have all found this type of teaching to allow us a much closer relationship with our students, and enjoy it greatly.

Although we’ve not had nearly as much free time as our professors warned us we would have, it has been relaxing to have at least some, and to not feel rushed the rest of the time. Other than english class, so far our daily schedule has gone something like this:

  • Breakfast that includes both traditional Korean fair as well as toast and cereal (about 3 hours earlier than I woke up during the semester, but I’m adapting much better than I expected to)
  • “School Cleaning,” a two-hour period which has ranged from weeding rows of egg-plant and peppers, to sweeping and organizing the gym, to cleaning out and re-bedding the chicken coop
  • English lessons, as described above.
  • Lunch/nap time
  • Conversation with refugees, POWs, or other people who have spent time in North Korea; viewing of relevant movie; or group meeting
  • Group activity time (arts, games, or recreation with the kids, or cooking a meal for them as a team)
  • Dinner
  • Sports or music time for the last hour ’til 8:00 pm

It’s been wonderful to get to know the kids during all of the non-academic activity time. They are so much more excited and willing to converse with us than we expected (we were told that they would be very shy and probably a little bit scared of us, or at the very least a little reserved), and with the exception of just a few, they have been very active in getting to know us, and a few have even delved into their some of their past and family stories, which are quite painful and which we did not expect to be privy to this early in our time here. I was also a bit surprised at how eager the Korean soldier that we talked to, who had spent over 50 years as a POW in North Korea, was to share his quite harrowing experience with a group of foreign college kids he had never met. After telling us a basic outline of his life story we opened up a Q&A and after we tested the waters with a few less serious questions he told us, straight up “ask me about my hardship in North Korea” and what the subsequent questions uncovered was not what I expected at all. He said that they did endure the labor camps and the constant surveillance and spying on each other, but the hardest part came after they were released from the camps. Apparently, after a while the POW camp he was in was closed, and he was allowed to live a limited life as a North Korean semi-citizen. When asked what the hardest part was, he said that he guessed that we expected a more detailed story of his physical suffering, but that it was actually to do with the family he was allowed to start once he was released. Everything about the society is based around hierarchy, and because he was a prisoner of war, his children were at the very bottom of the food chain, and at one point his eldest son told him that because of him, he had no chance in life, and asked why he had ever been born. He also recounted the story of one of his compatriots, whose son told him in a fit of helplessness and rage that maybe if he killed himself he would have a chance in life. So he did. I was very touched by how he told these stories, and as absorbed as I was in his telling of them, I did not realize until after how powerful the culture of status must be in North Korea to produce this. The most striking realization that I had however was that for the last half of his time as a POW, he was functionally living as a North Korean citizen, and that by the South Korean government’s logic of illegitimacy of the North, technically every North Korean citizen who did not willingly go has been a prisoner of war since the 50s.

Anyways, besides our incredible experiences at the school this week, we were also given the opportunity to travel to the coast and see the spectacular mountain views, as well as the Eastern most tip of the DMZ. The mountains were like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie, but with the beautiful red-barked pines that only grow in this quarter of the world (and which I am very fond of). Atop one of them, we were able to see a beautiful old Buddhist temple. Sadly, my phone was out of battery so I don’t have any pictures of the temple, but I did manage some low quality shots of the mountains out of the bus window (forgive the reflection of the phone in the window):


The part of the DMZ that we visited, along with the museum dedicated to the whole thing, were some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had here yet outside of teaching. Maybe it’s just that I’m appreciating the full gravity of everything because I am more fully informed, but the beaches of the DMZ especially were quite powerful. Such a beautiful melding of majestic white rock mountains and tranquil blue sea, with greenery everywhere, covered in land mines and barbed wire. It’s such a beautifully sad metaphor for all of the human life that will never be shared or experienced because of this conflict, and all of the potential that lies in the middle of it, untouched by both sides. A particularly heart wrenching moment was a little boy jumping up and down and exclaiming excitedly to his father, motioning something about swimming. His father sat down next to him and said something very somberly that I couldn’t understand, but I had an inkling from the way the boy’s face fell.

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My apologies for the lengthy post, but this week merited one. Thanks again for reading!

Bonus: Picture of the adorable King of the Land, Momi


Week 5: A Goodbye to be Remembered, a Surprisingly Tiring Break, and Another Hospital Visit

I’ll start this post the way my monday began: with another darned hospital visit, this time by yours truly (I’m sure our poor site coordinator knows Yonsei Hospital like the back of her hand at this point). It was for a little infection that was potentially worrying as it showed telltale signs that it might be developing further (a.k.a. the most obnoxiously petty but potentially quite dangerous scenario). I ended up just getting some antibiotics and tests and being sent on my way, soon to improve. The real damage done by the infection was causing me to miss my second to last day at Jiguchon School, which just so happened to be the day that the board had chosen to send donors to evaluate our teaching. I  was more than a bit frustrated by this, but it was entirely overshadowed and mostly forgotten by the next day.


Our last day at Jiguchon was quite a mix of emotions. Sadness at leaving the kids behind, worry about their futures, happiness in getting to share a heartfelt good bye, pride in our students’ performance on the last day, and of the course the usual minor frustrations and annoyances of attempting to run a dress rehearsal (or any rehearsal for that matter) with rowdy elementary schoolers. Their wonderful performances aside, the most memorable part of the day was a pair of speeches given by Joon, a member of our team who is a native Korean speaker, and the founder of the Jiguchon organization. Though I understood neither speech, or perhaps because of this, I was able to glean quite a bit more emotional content from the speakers’ tones and gestures than usual, and it was quite powerful. Tears began to fall, and with impeccable timing the founder signaled for the students to form a huge circle around the gym in order for us each to say good bye to them individually. At first it was a little uncomfortable to say a personal goodbye to a student next to the other students, but we soon gave up on that and went for it. I made my best effort not to take too much time with any one student and to hug or high five all of them, but soon realized that while the second goal was shared by others, the first was not, and I had finished earlier than anyone else and was standing by myself at the edge of the circle while everyone else was still finishing. This gave me a good vantage point to reflect for a minute and watch, but it soon began to feel a little bit lonely, so I went  back to say a few more words to some of the students I had connected with most. I won’t get into the details, of the goodbyes, but I will say that it was quite an interesting experience with only a handful of the students being able to fully understand what I was saying. Afterwards, we all broke off and took pictures (or got mobbed by a half crying half laughing horde of 2nd graders trying to get the last hug, in Justin’s case). We had planned to stay and eat lunch with the kids one last time, however we decided that it would just reopen the floodgates for everyone and disrupt the school day even more, so we left for the guest house early. Getting back that afternoon and realizing that we didn’t have to lesson plan for the first time in what felt like a very long time was quite positive, and lifted everyone’s moods slightly, although we were all still quite subdued.


The next day was quite heavy. We began by joining in one of the famous “Wednesday Protests”, which have been happening for decades outside of the Japanese embassy in Korea (supposedly only a single wednesday has been missed). These protests are meant to address the terrible injustices faced by “Comfort Women” or sexual slaves, used by the Japanese government to keep morale up for their soldiers, and the fact that the Japanese government is doing everything it can to sweep all of this under the rug. I remember being astounded that such a huge human rights issue/war crime that affected so many people had been completely left out of my education. Next we went to the museum centered around the stories of the Comfort Women, which was incredibly powerful, although the english translation of the guide had an overly dramaticized tone that detracted from the gravity of the actual material. I was also surprised not to see any kind of content or trigger warning on the more graphic pieces, such as an animated film that went through the life of several comfort women, including kidnapping, drugging, sexual slavery, and suicide. Over all, we were all incredibly grateful for the learning opportunity, but I left with a little bit less faith in the world.


The main event of the next day was a tour of the Seoul office of Mulmancho School, where we will be working over the next few weeks. It was a wonderful visit, and all of the staff were quite amicable and kind. We got to see some pictures of the kids and here introductions that they wrote for themselves, and well as ask some very important questions about the school’s expectations for us that we had wished we could have asked at Jiguchon. We are all quite excited to begin the transition by this point, and I personally think I will be very glad for the fresh air and green-ness of the rural mountain setting.

On friday we visited KBS headquarters, which was incredible! We were given an insider tour of the studios and multiple different sets, as well as some journalism and production rooms. The best part, however, was a conference/interview with one of the foremost reporters on the relationship between North and South Korean people in the world. He was incredibly insightful, and quite eager to speak with us which made us all feel very special. During the interview, he told the stories of his multiple trips into North Korea, the struggles that reporters are having getting permission from not only the North Korean government, but the South Korean government as well, which he finds quite unjust, especially since the latter is often more strict. One of the main points he gave was that North Korean citizens are often forced to live dual lives, with two separate personas. The public self, which proclaims the Great Leader’s, well, greatness, at every opportunity, and the private self, which he found often included much less politics and much more interest in the daily lives of their South Korean counterparts and popular culture in South Korea and China.


This rounds off the first section of our Duke Engage experience, which I can’t believe I’m saying, so, thank you for reading, and wish us luck with the rest.


Week 4: Looking back and looking forward

This past week began for me with a realization that I had 7 days left with my students. That was it. At first I put it to the side and focused on the day ahead of me, but over the coming days it began to burrow its way into my consciousness more and more. Did they remember anything I had taught them so far? Had I made any kind of personal impact on them? For the kids who I wasn’t close to yet, was it too late to make a connection? Should we review or teach new material? Had I done enough to merit the exorbitant amount of money DukeEngage had spent on me? After a while I began to realize that these thought processes were mostly just preventing me from being present with the kids as much, and I tried to cut down on them, with varying success. Over the course of the week we saw the biggest improvement yet in the kids’ english abilities and in their confidence, although for some it took quite a bit of nudging and encouragement. Along with this general success, however, came a few pretty dismal moments. Once or twice we again overestimated our students’ prior knowledge, and this time the few that were struggling most very quickly became dejected and flat out gave up. Ana and I could only give one on one attention to two at a time, so for half of a period there was always at least one kid at a time with their head on their desk drawing or trying to sleep. We were a little bit at a loss because there was a much bigger gap in the knowledge base this time, and we didn’t want to divert the entire class to an easier activity, because half the class was doing well with the present one.


Extracurriculars followed a similar pattern. In music, we made some large strides as we approached the deadline for the performance, but also had a day where the students flat out did not want to learn (Michelle and I ended up giving up on teaching new material and watching frozen sing-a-long videos with the kids on Youtube). Part of the reason for these strides was idea to spell out the english lyrics for the songs we were teaching using Hangul, the Korean alphabet. This was not perfect, given the lack of certain sounds in Hangul, but it gave the students a much better framework to memorize from. The most difficult task for next week will be choosing which students get to (or have to) sing in the final performance, given that some of the best singers do not want to sing in front of others, and that some of the most enthusiastic singers struggle a great deal with pitch. I think we will end up encouraging everyone to join and pushing the gifted singers especially, but we’ll see how it goes. On wednesday we combined all of the extracurriculars because there were a lot of absences and special activities, and taught the kids the “Cup Song” from Pitch Perfect. This was a blast, and through out the next few days kids were teaching it to their classmates during breaks in almost every classroom. We’ll see how it goes, but hopefully the kids will be performing this on tuesday as well.

Now, here comes the hard part. Thinking about goodbyes on Tuesday. Thinking about whether these kids will make it in a good public school, whether they’ll get a decent job or have an exciting future doing something they love. Henry, a student in the sixth grade and highest level english class, wants to be a robot engineer, and is super intelligent, as is Ji Yeoung, who wants to be a prosecutor. At the meeting on Thursday a few of the team teared up a bit talking about the fact that we’ll probably never know. We came here, took almost a month to get to know these kids and try to provide support and friendship for them, and now we’re leaving, probably without a chance to get back into contact with most of the kids. We threw around the ideas of adding some of the kids on Facebook when we left or asking the school if we could contact them at a later date, but we are not decided on the feasibility/ethics of the former, and because of the quick turnaround the school usually has the latter might not be very useful either. And then we add into the mix the fact that we need to be getting excited about the next school, which seems simple enough given the amazing opportunity that it presents, the relationships we can build, the impact that we could have, and how much past groups have loved it, but can seem kind of bleak in the face of leaving the first. Another challenge will be free time. In Yoju we will apparently have a significant amount more of it, in a place where the nearest grocery store is a 20 minute drive away, which we’ve been told might be a struggle after having so little time here in Seoul, which you could spend years exploring and never run out of exciting things to do.

Anyways, enough of my griping, here’s some pictures of the Secret Garden of Changdeokgung, speaking of the limitless wonders of Seoul! P.s. my apologies for the dense post-this week has left us with a lot to think about. FullSizeRender.jpg


Bonus: amazing house grown mushrooms at the hotpot restaurant we ate at on thursday


Week 2: English camp

Walking into the school on monday was a somewhat surreal experience. School has always been a very familiar place for me, especially any facet of school in which I’ve had any leadership, given that it usually takes some time to build up to such a position. I had never really been cognizant of this until now, however, and attempting to reconcile this brand new place with my position of 선생님, or teacher, was a little bit difficult at first, I have to admit. Even the architectural differences took a little while to get used to – every school I’ve been to has been relatively flat and sprawling, most less that three stories, and all at least wider than they were tall, where as Chiguchon School is six stories tall (only five are used for teaching space), and very narrow. Despite these initial minor difficulties, I fell into the swing of things fairly promptly as the week progressed. The first two days that we were at the school were only meant for observation, which I was incredibly thankful for (I also felt a surge of sympathy for the past groups, who’s struggles in the first few days prompted the instatement of this small grace period this year).IMG_3684 It was wonderful to see the students in action, and also pretty daunting to see the challenges that the school and the students faced on a daily basis.

Wednesday, the first day we began teaching, many of our students were quite shy, and it was a little bit difficult to decipher what level each student was on until they opened up a bit more the second day. Thankfully for Ana and me, who teach the upper level english students, our class is relatively quiet, disciplined, and studious, especially compared to the younger/lower level classes (although this was not achieved without the magic of a seating chart, however). On the second day, our program director observed our class and informed us that even when the kids were speaking to each other in Korean while we were teaching, it was almost always about a question they had with the material, and they worked with each other very well.


I also discovered how gratifying it can be to see a student stay after the bell and ask you to work through problems with them, especially when they make good progress with the 1 on 1 attention.

Music class has been a bit more challenging. All english levels and ages are mixed into the extracurricular classes, and finding a lesson plan that keeps a first grader with very little english and a close to fluent sixth grader occupied and happy at the same time is quite challenging. Also, keeping young boys engaged in learning songs in the first place is quite a challenge. Thankfully, a storage key that had been missing was found, and it turns out that the school has an abundance of plastic instruments available for use, which I think will come in handy this coming week.

I will be interested to see how our plans for the week pan out, and how other classes will handle fair with 3 out of 8 members of the team being sick, and most likely unable to teach on tuesday (today is memorial day in Korea, one week after the US).

Week 1: The Playground and the Fence

Week one of my Duke Engage experience has been pretty wild. Being immersed in a new culture is just as exciting as I expected it to be, and I’ve been learning an immense amount. Hongdae area (the part of Seoul that we’re staying in) is a vibrant quarter surrounding Hongik University (known for its arts programs), and therefore bustling with young, artsy students, and constantly filled with buskers and dance groups of every flavor. The streets are lined with an impressive variety of shops, cafés, and restaurants, some of which reference the famous Hongdae Playground, which is a small park near the university that is a favorite of students and tourists alike. After a day or two of settling in, we headed up into the mountains to the Institute for Unification Education (IUE), which was an incredibly thought provoking experience and showcased the beauty of the Korean mountainside.

IUE sunset

We attended lectures by government officials, academic authorities on the subject, and even North Korean refugees, interspersed with field trips to sites such as the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, one of the four tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea, one of the stations of the currently defunct Trans Korean Railway, and Hanawon, an education and settlement facility for North Korean refugees run by the government.


Over all the team felt the presence of the government a little more than we expected in both the programing and in daily life at the institute. On a surface level, we realized that all of our time in the lecture halls was being filmed, but the thing that struck us the most and that we spent the most time talking about was the overwhelming attitude that of course unification is the only answer, of course it’s feasible, and of course it’s going to happen. Overall, I’m so excited to learn more about this culture and spend more time in this amazing city, and though I’m a bit nervous for our first day at the school tomorrow, I can’t wait to dive in and see how it goes.