Korean Surprise!

Our beautiful, hectic, vibrant, and crazy new home - South Korea.

Our beautiful, hectic, vibrant, and crazy new home - South Korea.

This past month has been a whirlwind. Thirty days of complete and utter chaos, confusion, excitement, frustration and bliss.

There have been moments where I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life; and others where I question my sanity for picking up and leaving the familiar behind.

To call this an overwhelming experience would be an understatement.

There is no way I can sum up the last month in words, but I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with orientation.

After a full 26 hours of flights, airport food, and attempting to sleep on the floor of San Francisco’s international terminal, we finally set foot on Korean soil… err, tiled airport floors.

We were whisked away, not long after, in a bus bound for Daejeon – our home for the next week.

We arrived at the campus just after 10pm and were given keys to our dorm rooms. My eyes shut as soon as my heat hit the straw-filled pillow.


Yes, our pillows were stuffed with bits of plastic straws. Not as uncomfortable as you’d expect.


The next days began and ended with lectures. And when the lectures were done, we had Korean class.

Add a daunting schedule to adjusting to the 14-hour time difference, and combine it with the chaos that ensues when meeting a bajillion new people… We. Were. Exhausted.

While some of the lectures were entertaining and provided us with helpful resources, there were some that were a struggle just to make it through without closing my eyes and drooling.

Because we all know that’s the way to make a good first impression.

Orientation wasn’t all lectures though. EPIK did a really good job of making time for cultural experiences.

In Taekwondo class, we kicked, punched, and broke boards (though it took a few tries for some people… errrmm…me)

We learned basic Korean, and even took a field trip to nearby Jeonju Village where we made traditional fans, learned how to play the Korean drums, and ate the famous bibimbap.

You can't be afraid to share food with strangers because all meals are communal.

Bibimbap at the Jeonju Village

Oh, and I’m almost forgetting the rather odd medical checkup that was required. We gave blood and urine, did vision and hearing tests, had our chests x-rayed, and were at some point supposedly evaluated for our psychological well-being.

(We both passed, in case you’re wondering.)

During orientation, there were two main things I learned about life in Korea.

One of the more insightful lecturers warned us about a phenomenon she amusingly referred to as the “Korean Surprise”.

She explained that in Korea, it was typical to find out things at the very last minute.

Important things.

“Hey, instead of teaching your normal 6th grade students today, you will teach their parents. They will be here in two minutes. Oh, and your lesson better be good.”


“I know you booked your flight to the Philippines for winter vacation months ago, but we are going to need you to teach those days instead.”


The lecturer told us we will all inevitably experience the magic of the “Korean Surprise” many times during our stay here. Her method for coping in these situations is to close her eyes and picture confetti raining down. A practice she suggested we all adopt.

She explained that it wouldn’t necessarily change the situation, but at the very least it may illuminate the humor and help you realize it is beyond our control.

Another common theme throughout the week was “it depends”. It seemed to be the answer to almost every question we asked.

Will we have a co-teacher?

It depends.

When are we able to take vacation?

It depends.

Will we be teaching at more than one school?

It depends.

Will our school serve us dog meat at lunch?

It depends.

I think I actually left orientation more overwhelmed, confused, and well… more

disoriented than when I arrived.

Life After Orientation

During my last months at home, friends and family asked incessantly about where we would be living. We had no answer to give them.

"How are you going there without knowing where you’re living?" They’d ask.

EPIK places nearly 1,500 applicants each year, and we all must be slightly crazy. I say this because we all boarded planes without knowing where we would be living for the 365 days.

We went through all nine days of orientation before finding out our fate.

That final afternoon, we waited nervously to get our contracts and finally get answers to the questions we’d been pondering during the last several months.


This is what we learned:

     1. We would be living Gumi – a city of 400,000 in central Korea.

     2. Both Ben and I would be teaching elementary school children.

We packed our bags nervously that night, preparing to leave our little bubble of other English speakers. We had gotten comfortable.

But that all changed the next morning.

We woke up bright and early and boarded a bus with friends who, just a week before, had been strangers. After a lunch charged with butterflies and nerves, we headed our separate ways with our new co-teachers and principals.

Our last meal together. Bibimbap again!

My first view of Gumi, my new city.

That afternoon was a blur.

My co-teachers shuttled me around from my apartment to school to a gigantic store and stood by my side as they patiently helped me pick out essential items like toilet paper and pots. They even treated Ben and me to dinner before dropping us off at our new home.

Our apartment was completely empty… that is, aside from the huge tube television set (which picks up just two English channels), a shopping bag filled with wooden takeout chopsticks, and two 10 kilogram hang weights.

“Your bed will come tomorrow,” we were told, “so tonight you will have to sleep on the floor.”

Surprise! *confetti falls from sky*

We unfolded a cardboard box and laid out jackets and sweatshirts for padding. It was more or less a dog bed.

Thankfully, our sweatshirt and scarf bed was only for one night.

Let me tell you, the confetti trick works. It made the whole bed situation seem humorous. And I slept like a baby.

Well that last part was a lie.

I woke up every 32 minutes to shake out my sleeping limbs.

However, after learning about the concept of the “Korean Surprise”, I thoroughly expected to sleep on that makeshift bed for the better part of a month; so I was truly ecstatic when our bed really did arrive the next day as planned.

As it turns out, not all “Korean Surprises” are bad ones.