My 37 Hour Birthday

I woke up to the loud thud of thunder and torrential rain.  I’d take waking up this way to a blaring alarm clock any day!  We’re in the middle of monsoon season here, so it is very reminiscent of the rainy days in the Netherlands but I’ll probably never get used to this intense heat and humidity.

I had bought myself a pastry from Paris Baguette yesterday so that I’d have something to look forward to since I do not have any sort of coffee maker yet (it’s on my list of “must-buy” as soon as I get paid).

I was about halfway down the stairs of my apartment building when I realized it was still down pouring outside, so I ran back up the stairs hoping Monica hadn’t left for work yet so we might be able to share an umbrella (another thing that is on my “must-buy” list).  And so we marched to work arm in arm while the rain pelted down on us only to arrive soaked, I think I also need to  invest in a rain jacket.

We had a half day today and my first two tutoring classes flew by.  During my break, some of my co-teachers walked into the teachers’ office carrying a basket of pink roses and daisies and curiously telling me to open up the card attached to the lovely bouquet.  I opened the card to find “Happy Birthday Alissa Middendorf” scribbled but no sign of any signature.  Four hours later, I’m still perplexed…there’s only a handful of people who have my address, but no one has fessed up to it yet.

We also welcomed a new teacher today, she’s also from Michigan – Lansing area.  So that makes three of us now: Monica, myself, and the new teacher – Emily!  She brought all the teachers a slice of Mackinaw Island fudge!  It was probably the nicest and most welcome surprise, literally a small slice of home!

After work, I bought some ramen noodles and treated myself to some orange soda for my birthday dinner.  I then settled into my bed to read Indian in the Cupboard for my tutoring class on Tuesday.  One of the perks of this job is brushing up on all the great childhood novels!

A whole 24 hours later, I still haven’t figured out who sent me the flowers…


A Standard Saturday

My body is quickly setting into the routine of waking up early and going to bed at a somewhat decent time.  I’m extremely thankful that it wasn’t a huge transition into waking up early because for the longest time I was anything but a morning person.

I woke up Saturday morning around 9ish am.  I spent the morning rearranging my apartment so I could plug my television into cable.  Fortunately, the Discovery Channel is in English and there are occasional movie channels like Fox and a few others.  I’m not much of a tv person and never really have been, but it’s nice just to have it on, it makes my room seem lived in.

Around noon Monica and I headed downtown to explore and get out of our apartments for a while, but it’s always an adventure and we didn’t even make it on the subway without a little excitement.  We made it to the subway station, just in time to hear people unloading from the subway we needed to take to the Cultural Center subway stop, so we ran down several flights of stairs as fast as our feet could take us in hopes that we wouldn’t miss the subway.  If it wasn’t for Monica’s superwoman powers, we would have been separated right then and there!  Let me explain, Monica is awesome at running down flights of stairs, me on the other hand…not so much.   She made it on the subway as it began closing, in my mind I thought I was wasn’t going to make it…I’d have to take the next subway.  Monica wouldn’t have it, as the doors were closing, and almost shut, she pulled them open just enough for a small person to fit through.  I hesitated for a few seconds, then acted.  I made the jump and squeezed my body through a small opening in the doors as Monica held them open.  As all this happened, a subway full of Koreans were on high alert, some were even shouting stuff…probably something along the lines of “Don’t do it” or “Wait for the next subway”.  Either way, I entered the subway to a bunch of wide eyed people and I couldn’t help but giggle.  The look in Monica’s eyes when she held the sliding subway doors open was priceless.  And our adventure began complete with a huge adrenaline rush.


The door that almost sliced me in half

We explored downtown for the majority of the day.  Weaving in and out of shops, alley ways, and people.  I discovered so many great stores, if only I had money!!  We have an H&M and several stores that remind of forever 21, but my favorites were the tiny boutiques the size of a small walk-in closet.  Everywhere you looked, vendors lined the streets with cheap food, knock off souvenirs, even baby bunnies for sale!  We went down one alley way lined with tiny tents, I guess they are all used for palm readers and fortune tellers.  We also decided to visit an arcade because I guess those are pretty popular here and took the infamous Korean version of Glamour Shots, there’s a whole part of the arcade designated just for small photo booths.  The booth we used was called “I Love Princess” and had editing tools to make yourself and background all cutesy.


Korean Glamour Shots


Fake glasses are all the rage here!

We ended the evening at the Alleyway, a restaurant that offers a western style menu.  The cheese pizza we had was absolutely delicious and I will be back for another one soon!  The restaurant itself was packed with foreigners and gave me a vibe of a large coffee shop as it had the option to play board games and simply hang out.  We also discovered one can purchase a HUGE block of REAL cheddar cheese for about 16,000 won or about $16.  Not bad considering my only cheese choices around my apartment are ultra processed pieces of plastic that come in prepackaged slices.

We then wandered over to Speakeasy, a bar owned by two Irishmen.  I’m already becoming a regular here because every Thursday Natalie and head down there for trivia.  I’ve discovered I love English cider and that’s become my drink of choice at Speakeasy and tastes especially refreshing during this crazy hot and humid weather.

We took the subway back to our apartments and managed to make it on the subway without any sliding door chaos.   We meandered over to the coffee shop below our school to grab some coffee and indulge in some carbs.  Instead of a birthday cake, I treated myself to some honey toast and David decorated it so perfectly!


My yummy birthday toast!

We then headed up to Natalie’s apartment to share some Soju and stories.  It really was a great Saturday.  This week we have a shortened school week, so I’m sensing more adventures in my near future!

Living the Dream …Teacher Style

One week of teaching down and three weeks of living in Korea…

and I really couldn’t be happier with my life.  I’d be lying if I said it was all unicorns and cupcakes.  Actually, it’s cats and kimchi. 😉

While walking off the subway today, I realized I am truly living my dream.  I’ve always fantasized about living in a studio apartment, in the middle of the city, with a subway and easy public transportation and here I am, in South Korea working with children and finally putting my degree to use!  I honestly think that I soared beyond my wildest dreams.  Moral of the story, never limit yourself to settling for a comfortable lifestyle, follow those absolutely ridiculous dreams, even when they seem down right impossible, because you never know where you’ll eventually end up!  I never would have pictured myself living the city life in Asia a year ago, and here I am…in awe about how far I’ve come and all I still want to accomplish.

My first week of teaching was a little hectic, but for the majority of the week the kids were extremely helpful and considerate of my “new teacher” status.  I teach and tutor kindergarten through middle school aged children.  I’m already discovering there will be good days and there will be bad days with certain students and not to take the bad days personally.  I’m particularly excited to tutor a girl for a reading and essay writing class.  

What’s crazy is I’m not only teaching students, but I’m learning from them everyday!  Everyday I leave school acquiring knowledge about the Korean culture, how to better run a classroom, or simply what Mcfly song the kindergartners like best.  Everyday is always something new and the children always keep me on my toes.


July birthday celebration at school!

One of the most rewarding things is walking the halls of the school and hearing the children excitedly running to hug you, screaming “Alissa Teacher, Alissa Teacher!”.  Not only are they excited to see you, they’re excited to learn!  Everyday, I’m astonished at how much these small children absorb and how passionate they are about learning more.  It’s weird, but I think the children have opened me up.  I think they’ve already shown me that it’s okay to be silly and enjoy the little things in life.  Most jobs are stressful, and this job has it’s moments, but I’ve never experienced a job that really makes me reflect and appreciate my life more than working with these children.

Rooftop Celebrations and Porridge Adventures

“Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people- and finally I did- on the open road. We have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore- except to make our lives into a work of art.”

-Lana Del Rey

I woke up this morning completely exhausted, trying to recall the adventures of only a few hours before, I only had a few seconds to gather my thoughts when my doorbell rang and Monica was at my door to help piece together our wild story…our night went something like this:

In honor of Amelia, one of co-teachers leaving, the school threw a going-away party on the roof of the building complete with an abundance of grilled meats, lettuce wraps, WATERMELON (which is basically a delicacy here because it’s so expensive), and beer and soju.   The scene will always be one to remember: all of the staff gathered around playing games and chatting on a beautiful rooftop terrace surrounded by mountains and city as far as the eye could see.

After the festivities dwindled down, we decided to hit up a bar in the city for one last hurrah.  It turned into an epic night of darts, shots, and many goodbye hugs.  The ladies I work with are absolutely awesome, each teacher is so unique yet we have strange common interests that bring us together and for the first time in a while I truly feel like I can be who I want to be here without being judged or scrutinized.


After the crazy night, Monica and I decided to head to the coffee shop our school owns to get some tea and coffee to recover.  Still feeling under the weather, as 25 year old bodies do not recover as fast as 21 year old bodies, we decided to hunt down some soup or porridge…and before we knew it, we found ourselves in a whole new adventure.

We hopped into a cab and showed the cab driver what someone had typed into Monica’s phone, we assumed it was the name of a porridge restaurant.   Long story short, it was not and we had ourselves one really confused cab driver as he did not speak any English and we spoke very little Korean.  Luckily, he was patient enough with us to pull off to the side of the road as Monica called a friend who speaks Korean to tell the cab driver what we needed.  After about 5 minutes of passing the phone back and forth, the cab driver made a few phone calls and put an address into his GPS, within a matter of minutes we were in front of a cute little shop with pictures of various types of porridge proudly displayed outside.

The meal at this little restaurant was an adventure in itself.  When our meal arrived on two separate trays, Monica and I were perplexed as to how to properly eat it so it turned into a series of educated guesses and trying to uncreepishly as possible watch the people next to us as they meticulously mixed their meal.Image

  We ended up in a whole new part of town, I’m realizing Gwangju is seriously HUGE and it’s divided into districts, kind of like NYC.  We explored the area after lunch and found a bus back to our school.  I’m slowly acquiring a mental map of the city and where things are located.  I really enjoy the feeling of traveling to a new foreign city and discovering it for myself; simply making sense of the city and how it’s set up is a feat in itself.

Monday morning I officially begin my teaching career!  Wish me luck!

Yoga in Korea

After daring to take on taekwondo in Korea, I was seriously having second thoughts about delving into the yoga world, but yoga was much needed after a major butt kicking and lugging two huge bags through multiple airports.

The yoga room was humid, just like all of South Korea right now.  The mats were provided (major plus since I reluctantly left mine back home in the US) and it was only about $5 for one session!  The instructor sat on a little stage, which I thought was genius because people like me in the back could actually see her poses.

The yoga experience itself was absolutely incredible.  Granted, I couldn’t understand a word the instructor said, she made an effort to come correct my poses and I mainly eyed the Korean girl next to me.  At one point, I completely ended up in my own pose because I did not know what I was doing so the instructor tried to come over and correct me (lift my entire body) and show me what I was doing wrong and we ended up laughing at each other…something was lost in translation, so she demonstrated on the empty mat next to me.  During the meditation portion, I knew I was supposed to be inhaling and exhaling, but I didn’t know what word meant “exhale” and what meant “inhale” and I couldn’t tell by watching the girl next to me so the instructor set her hand on my stomach to show me when to inhale.  It was a really cool moment because I finally understood what she was trying to say.

I also discovered what was considered awful posture when I was young, actually is a yoga pose (sitting with your knees bent and legs facing outwards at both sides, the bottoms of your feet facing inwards).  My mom used to claim I was going to kill my knees.  Either way, the yoga instructor actually said she was really impressed that I could do that sitting pose (or at least that’s what one of my co-teachers translated)!

The session ended with me red in the face and drenched in sweat, yet absolutely refreshed!


Grateful to be in Gwangju

The plane ride to Korea was absolutely wonderful, I really cannot say enough good things about Asiana Air and I hope to fly with the again in the near future.

I had two dinners aboard the flight, talk about complete immersion into Korean culture:

  • my first dinner consisted of the famous Korean dish of Bibimbap, basically bowl of pure goodness (steamed rice, various veggies, minced beef), some sort of soup, and kimchi.
  • my second dinner consisted of spicy octopus with steamed rice and fresh fruit.
  • Breakfast consisted of some ultra processed cheese (think velveeta) and a bread roll, I ended up taking the cheese off and just eating bread.

I really didn’t know the protocol for eating any of these meals, so I ended up following the little Korean girl’s lead who sat next to me (I tried to make conversation with her beforehand but she seemed very uninterested in interacting).

My seat was in the farthest back row of the plane and in the aisle.  Little did I know how fortunate I was to arrive in one piece at Seoul.  For those who do not know, this was the exact plane that made the  ill-fated journey back to San Francisco only a few hours later.  The crash occurred rear first, tearing the tail from the plane.  My seat, only hours before, was in the last row of that plane.  Words cannot describe the horrific shock I felt and still feel to this day.

I arrived at the airport completely exhausted because the people in front of me talked the entire 14 hour plane ride and so loudly that I couldn’t even drown out their chatter by blasting Hans Zimmer.

Going through security and immigration was a breeze, they scanned my finger prints and my eyes.  I then proceeded to claim my bags, which ended up taking a good portion of time.  I honestly began to freak out as I was only one of about a handful of travelers left waiting for my bags to drop into the baggage claim.  Finally they appeared and I transferred my money into Korean Won.  The sliding doors to the public portion of the airport were loaded with people anxiously awaiting the arrival of loved ones.  To my complete surprise, I frantically lugged my bags through the doors to find my name written on a sign and my dear friend Kang excitedly waving!  It was such a relief to see a familiar face after 18 plus hours of travel, especially considering I hadn’t even thought through where and how I was going to buy my bus ticket to Gwangju.

Kang and I had about an hour to catch up over much needed bottles of water before I was off again on a 3 hour bus ride to Gwangju.  The bus was much more comfortable than the plane, and quieter too.  The ride through the countryside made me think back to my first train ride to Tilburg and how it made me reminisce of home.  Again, I did not sleep on the bus for fear of missing my bus stop.

Gwangju bus stop is in the center of the city and the bus stop itself seemed like a huge shopping mall!  At this point, I was beyond tired but no one was at the station waiting for me.  Luckily, I was able to send a few emails out to my recruiter to let them know I made it and was waiting for someone from my school (Korea has excellent public wifi).  About a half hour of  receiving questioning looks from passersby and pinching myself to stay awake, Michael arrived to pick me up.  We drove back to the school and during the entire drive I was completely awestruck with the lights and buildings of the city I was about to call home.  I’m not in Michigan anymore…

I arrived at my apartment and at this point I had lost all track of time because my watch was still in USA eastern time and my phone was just a complete and utter failure at everything.  We lugged my bags up four flights of stairs (there is no elevator…took me back to the days in Verbs) where I ran into one of my co-teachers hosting a house warming party because she arrived only a few weeks before me.  We were only in my apartment for a few seconds when Michael said he wanted to take me to the school.   I was a sweaty mess still in yoga pants and a sweatshirt I had worn  for almost 24 hours, so much for making good first impressions.

Michael and I drove to the school, which is only a block away from my apartment, where I met the school’s director and a few others.  The director invited us all out for an authentic Korean meal.  I felt awful because I was so exhausted that I was struggling to make conversation, but the meal was fantastic!  We sat on the ground and cooked what looked like thick strips of bacon on grills set into the table and then wrapped them in lettuce and added a few vegetables.

I finally was led back to my apartment where I unpacked a few things and passed out only to awaken seven hours later completely refreshed…needless to say, I’m still feeling the effects of jetlag.

It’s only been about five days since my arrival, but I can honestly say I love this city and the people I work with.  I am so fortunate and grateful to start this new chapter of my life in Gwangju, South Korea and will not take any moment of this adventure for granted.  Life is beautiful.

Go with all your heart and curious eyes!

Go with all your heart and curious eyes!

Exhaust yourself in the glorious pursuit of life.

-Lawrence K. Fish

Let your Seoul Wander

I’m currently sitting in O’hare International airport, surrounded by people speaking so many different languages.  Next stop: Seoul, South Korea. I spent my first 20 minutes circling terminal one trying to find the exit to the international terminal.  Apparently, “LL” does not stand for “lowest level” on an airport elevator, it took me right back to the same floor….what I would give to be the guy who saw me walk in and walk back out of the elevator with a completely confused look on my face. ha.

Already, in pre-flight with Asiana air I’ve got so many good things to say!  They actually let me check my huge Vera duffle (that weighs more than 35 pounds!) so that took some weight of my shoulders 😉  They also uniformly entered the kiosks as one team and greeted all of the customers waiting in line!  It was so professional and well done!

Going through security a second time was a breeze and for some reason I was the only person going through, I guess it was my perpetual earliness.  I ended up chatting with the security officers who were really interested in my “travels” to Korea and when they discovered I’m actually moving there for a year to work, they became even more fascinated.  One of the guys actually asked how the teaching process works and seemed genuinely interested in searching out this journey for himself!  I love airports for this reason – hundreds of complete strangers cross your path, all with stories to tell and journeys to embark on.

My plane just pulled up and it’s got a big flag South Korea on the back wing.  It’s finally hit me, I’m moving to Korea!

This is so crazy.  I’m crazy. You have to be crazy.  …if you really want to follow your dreams!


Unpacking the Packed Bags: An Impromptu Road Trip

This past week has been one perpetual night before Christmas.  You know, that feeling where you just can’t sleep because you’re so anxious/excited for the following day to begin?  (I would be lying if I didn’t say I am somewhat nervous too)

Just when I thought my going-away festivities couldn’t get any better, my sister tells me of her insane idea to make a random seven hour drive to Pittsburgh, my favorite city in America one last time.  She couldn’t have been more right, I needed this trip – to get out and see the beauty of our country one last time before I leave.

Pittsburgh from the incline.

Pittsburgh from the incline.

Pittsburgh will always hold a special spot in my heart as it has huge significance to going out and accomplishing the craziest of dreams.  Long story short, I picked up and left Michigan to live in Pittsburgh during the summer of 2011….subleased and apartment, found a couple jobs, met amazing people along the way, and pushed myself to live in a random and new city for a few months.


When you’re in your 20’s you should totally do crazy stuff like that.  It doesn’t necessarily mean randomly moving to a city for a summer.  It could simply be a small unplanned 24 hour road trip with family!  There’s so much to see and do and we really don’t get enough time to see it all so be absolutely spontaneous and appreciate the time you do have.