Christmas/New Years in Seoul

Since Christmas isn’t celebrated (although I kinda did celebrate it with my host family) we decided to celebrate together. Of course any meetup usually happens in Seoul. Most of my friends from Orientation are spread to all four corners: as far north as Hwacheon (it actually lies above the 38th parallel) and as far south as Busan. So it’s difficult for us all to meet up. Difficult and expensive… View full post »

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Ending a Semester: Yeosu and Odongdo Island

Today was the last day of the “normal” semester. This past week of teaching has been crazy. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the finals aren’t the last week of school. There’s still 1-2 weeks after finals that students need to attend. During this time, the graduating 3rd students prepare watch movies, play games, practice dance for the festival and competition, and are supposed to be doing an English lessons (if I can even keep them in the classroom, let alone in their seats!) It’s not just my school. The majority of schools in Korea seem to run this way. It’s been a real struggle to get anyone to focus on anything, and I’m not allowed to play movies for my students… But it’s finally over!

The last day of school is a teacher’s outing. The destination was voted on (of course, I didn’t have a clue what I was voting for, but I liked where we ended up going). Today we went to Odongdo Island (오동도) in Yeosu. It’s the southern tip of South Korea, 2 hours away from Gwangju.

Eat Your Live Octopus

It was an all-day excursion. We ate lunch and dinner together. Jellanam-do province is known for its food, especially its seafood. Lunch was raw seafood (clams, oysters, muscles, fish, etc.). Dinner was even more raw… It was alive. Today, I ate my first “live” octopus, better known as sannakji (산낙지). Sometimes it’s a whole baby octopus, but here the method is to take a live octopus, cut it’s legs off and serve it while they’re still moving. Hence, “live”. I felt really bad about it, but I thought this would be a good opportunity. I was surprised, and slightly disgusted, to realize how good it tasted. Hmm. (Video below is from my Instagram). View full post »

That Middle School Teacher Life » Cara Mooney Photography - […] For reasons beyond me, not only does school not end after finals, but graduation is an entire month after the normal school year ends. This is the norm for most Korean schools. The last day of “normal” class was the 1st week of December. Then there was two weeks of final exams, followed by a random week of school with random half-day lessons for 3rd grade and full days for everyone else. Then the last day of school before winter break we had our teacher outing. […]

Dad - I so enjoy reading your blogs and seeing the pictures. I think I caught up on them all.keep them coming . These will be great to look back on 20 years from now.

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A Ki-Family Christmas


Similar to Thanksgiving, Christmas is celebrated really in South Korea. Since it is a religious holiday, it has not gained the secular-celebration as it has in the U.S. Except in the shopping centers, there was very little sign of Christmas. The only neighborhood decoration was the hanging of a star below the church behind our house (see above).

The holidays have been tough to do alone. But I did end up celebrating Christmas… in a very Ki (surname of my host family) tradition. Last Sunday, I was lying in bed about to go to sleep. The clock read almost 11:00pm. My host family had left for the weekend for a short trip. I hear the door open and see Hyundo and Hyejong carry in the two kids, sound asleep. I get up to help unpack. Hyejong turns to me, “Let’s go!”
Me: “Um, what?”
Hyejong: “Downstairs. Decorate. 크리스마스!”
Turns out that they had bought some Christmas decorations. I spent the better part of an hour putting together a fake tree and helping my host eonni cut window decals.

My host family were planning on going skiing (for the first time!!!) for Christmas weekend, so Christmas was actually celebrated on December 24th. It was all very impromptu. My parents had sent a few gifts for my host family, but I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to give it to them. That night after the kids went to bed, I brought out the gifts I had. We decided to set up some gifts that my host “parents” (eonni and oppa) had bought for the kids and exchange our gifts. By the time we sat down it was almost midnight. Part of my care package from my parents was craft Mac and Cheese, pirates booty, and peach rings. They asked to try some, so I made a box for us to share. We also ended up getting out the beef jerky that halmoni made, a box of Jeju clementines… for an unforgetable midnight Christmas dinner.


Christmas care package from mom and dad


Christmas in Seoul » Cara Mooney Photography - […] Christmas isn’t celebrated (although I kinda did celebrate it with my host family) we decided to celebrate together. Of course any meetup usually happens in […]

Dad - Great story and a Christmas you will always remember. What a wonderful host family. You are very lucky🇺🇸😄😄

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Pen Pal Project: Success

I have wanted to do a pen pal project with my students since the beginning, so early on, so I reached out to my old middle school, but no one responded to my emails. I’m guessing my emails went to the spam folder. So I posted on my college alumni page and thankfully was able to get in touch with two interested junior high school teachers.

The schedules are very different and the fall has numerous small breaks, or in my case, lack there of. We also were against the calendar. My students finish school December 30 and then graduate Feb 12, where the winter break finished December 18. It was very tight for my students to write their pen pal letters then send them and wait for a reply. There were many other challenges involved with this project:

Problem 1:

Too many students volunteered. Due to what I had to teach, there was no time to incorporate this into a lesson, and it was impossible to do it for an entire class of students. I also had to consider interest and level, so I opened it up to every student who was interested. I originally had over 130 students sign up. In the end there were about 90 who write letters. But still, 90!!! It was very difficult to deal with this many students and all their letters.

Problem 2:

It took so much time. I really wanted my students to learn how to write a letter and feel confident in their letters. So I gave 25 minute lectures during six 1-hour lunch breaks on writing their letters. I also asked students write one draft that I would edit and offer advice. Many students, especially my 1st graders, wrote more than one draft. I didn’t say no, because I saw this as more practice for them. Then there was that students who wrote four different drafts…

Problem 3:

Poor pen pal responses. On both sides there were students who went the extra mile and those who did the minimum. However, the majority of my students, since it was voluntary, were super into the project. Many went and bought stationary or decorate their letters. I even had one student buy beautiful rice paper and write an old Korean poem!!! I told her I was too big to fit in the letter envelope, but I made it work. I was worried that it wouldn’t get there. A number of students told me they rather send their letters separately. Out of the six who did this, only one letter made it. The American responses were a mixed bag. Where my side was voluntary, the teacher in NY did it was a homework assignment. Some of the American students didn’t do it and others gave a minimal effort. I had a number of very disappointed students to handle and it broke my heart after knowing they had invested so much into their letters.

Despite all the issues that arose, I think it was still very meaningful for the students. I have continued to get great feedback from the students who participated. After I sent off the letters, I kept getting asked when I would get the responses. It took almost a full month for the letters to be written and sent out to South Korea. When I announced that I had finally gotten the responses, the excitement was electric. Thankfully, I had the insight to do this at the end of class, or I would’ve lost my class. I love the photos that came from this project too. Some great candid shots and photos with my students. A number of students did get fabulous responses from their American pen pal and contact info to stay in touch. One student came in to the office the other day and told me about her Skype conversation with her pen pal and how happy she was that I put the two of them in touch. This is what makes it all worth it. I would do this again, but many lessons learned.

South Korea and Japan » Cara Mooney Photography - […] a pen pal project that I’m doing with a number of students, I had one student hand me his draft to his pen pal. […]

minci - You appear like a very wonderful teacher. Perhaps later when you decide to run this project again – I can write a letter to your class and tell them about Malaysia and Islam. Or merely a glimpse into my life as a working mother. Ha ha..
keep up the good work AND pictures!!

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Snow in Gwangju


My morning walk to school

South Korea has similar weather as New York. Seoul is probably just as cold as Upstate, where NYC is more moderate (usually) and similar to Gwangju. We’ve had only two “snow days”. The first snow fall had students going scraping together bits of snow to toss in each others faces and running outside (no coats!) in their indoor sandals…


Dad - Good to see you writing again

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School Festival at Bongsung

It’s normal in South Korea to have school festivals. I believe there’s one every semester. This week we had our school festival. It has been pretty crazy all week, with students staying after to rehearse for their dance or to prepare for Friday’s festival.

From Homerooms to Game Rooms

Every homeroom and or club was assigned to host an event or game. The events ranged from traditional games like darts and limbo to traditional Korean games like gomoku (like 5 in a row tick-tack-toe on a go board, or if I’m using the Korean name, baduk board), kongi nori (공기 노리, Korean jacks), yut nori (윷놀이), and ttakji (딱지치기). Small snacks and candies could be won. Some classes were more unique; there was a haunted room, a norebang (karaoke), a trivia contest, face painting and nail painting. We had two hours to go around and check out all the games. There were also games set up outside and an ongoing soccer game, which I totally got in on. There were also snack vendors


Masked students singing like King of Mask Singer (미스터리 음악쇼 복면가왕)

K-Pop Concerts

What was most surprising was the end of the day finale. Students had been preparing for a “talent” show. What I wasn’t ready for was the quality of the lighting and sound systems brought in for the festival. I found out after that this was actually low-key compared to what other schools rent. One private school school that my friend works at had rented pyrotechnics for their school festival!

I was blown away by how well done everything was done. Some were duets while others were full groups or bands. There was also a traditional Korean drumming group. They also did a play on the Korean singing contest show, Mystery Music Show: King of Mask Singer (Korean: 미스터리 음악쇼 복면가왕) where singers come out wearing elaborate masks to hide from the audience. I was also startled at the promiscuity of the dances that were allowed at this school function. K-pop dances aren’t as sexual as American pop dances, however, between the ridiculously short skirts that are in fashion and the dances, I had to palm-face. No one seemed to be bothered by it though, so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

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An Embassy Thanksgiving


I usually don’t take photos of my food, but when I do it’s of Thanksgiving food in South Korea

The closest Korea gets to Thanksgiving is Chuseok, which was celebrated earlier this fall. You can check out my previous posts on this here and here. This was the first Thanksgiving that I have missed and haven’t been with my family. It’s been difficult with all of these holidays and being so far from home, but the U.S Embassy took over in the Thanksgiving foods department. They invite the Fulbright office and fellow grantees to join Ambassador Mark Lippert and his family for Thanksgiving, so this year, I spent Thanksgiving on the U.S. military base in Seoul, hosted by the U.S. Embassy. It was nice to get a taste of all the “traditional” foods, although it didn’t compare to what I get at home, it’d be the best I could get in South Korea.


Most people make a weekend out of it, after coming from every corner of the country. With a few friends, we spent Sunday exploring more of Seoul and visiting Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁과 후원). It was the second royal palace that I’ve visited. The weather was fabulous too. View full post »

A Ki-Family Christmas » Cara Mooney Photography - […] to Thanksgiving, Christmas is celebrated really in South Korea. Since it is a religious holiday, it has not gained […]

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Campaign for Class President

I never remember the campaigning for class president being so competitive when I was in middle school. For the past month students have been coming to school at least a half an hour early to greet students and teachers with cheers and bright-colored posters.

Every spare moment is used to campaign. Friends hold posters and tout banners splayed across their chests. I’m amused by their enthusiasm. As soon as the bell for lunch rings, they sprint out of the class with their posters and banners to stand in front of the cafeteria to continue. In the 15 minutes that each student has to eat lunch (as the cafeteria isn’t large enough to support all 750+ students all at once, so there’s a schedule) the campaign never falters.

A co-worker pointed out that usually it isn’t this cut-throat and that the 7th graders (1st grade middle schoolers in Korea) were extra zealous and similar to how the U.S. Presidential Campaign is, there’s a large number of candidates. A 1st grader will be voted in for school Vice President, while a 2nd grader will be voted in for school President. There’s no partnership between the two and each is President of their year. I’ll just have to see who wins. Voting takes place next week.

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