8 Hours in Athens, Greece | January 2017

Excited at the prospects of being a multilingual 5th grade spy, I turned to my best friend, using her heritage as a spring board for my career: “Teach me Greek.”

I didn’t get farther than the alphabet, and since then, although I’ve only done some Duolingo and gone to a few sessions of an informal class at my university, Greek has always been a language close to my heart. It was my first step into the next decade and counting of polyglot aspirations, of Foreign Service dreams, of who I am.

So imagine my elation when, while booking an unexpected trip to Cairo, the cheapest flight option happened to have an 8 hour layover in Athens, the city whose language started it all for me!

The flight alone was already enough for me. I was on Aegean Air and finally got to flex the (tiny, almost nonexistent) Greek-speaking muscles I’d scraped together throughout the year. “Coffee with sugar and no milk. Thank you,” was about as far as I made it, but it still felt sweet to use what I’d studied. A kind man next to me helped me with more vocabulary and pronunciation. As we descended, we were surrounded by a swirl of hazy mountain islands nestled into the blue sea. Hong Kong? I wondered. No, Athens.


It was simple buying a bus ticket into town, where we were dropped off in a square still sporting Christmas lights. Uneven stone paths gave way to standard European roads. Apartment blocks stood next to ancient architecture. It wasn’t like what I’d seen in pictures. I liked it that much more.

On my walk up to the Acropolis, I stopped to pet a cat who immediately greeted me with purrs and rubs. Not that I believe in superstitions anyway, but crossing this black cat didn’t bring about doom. I had no understanding of the city’s layout and didn’t look up what there was to do in town, but as luck would have it, a Greek couple with limited English abilities found me alone, talking to my only (furry) companion, and took me under their wing.

We walked around the Acropolis area and passed through outdoor markets selling jewelry and trinkets. My new friend held up some earrings to her head, glancing at me for my opinion. “ωραίος” was my official assessment. Beautiful. Did I want to swing by a bookstore so she could buy some Astérix comics? “καλά” I affirmed. Okay.

Sandwiches and coffee were on me at a busy restaurant on a side street off Monastraki, a lively square full of teenagers and adults alike. My salmon flatbread ended up being too sweet, but I hope their coffee was just right. I was tempted to ask them for their social media or emails, but something held me back. Maybe I don’t need to stay in contact with everyone in the world I meet. Maybe some people are just there for the moment, but stay forever in your memory. And that’s enough.


I took the subway back to the airport, feeling all proud of myself for being able to navigate public transportation on my own. That feeling never gets old.

I was hoping to spend the couple hours before my flight resting and reflecting, but I ended up meeting a talkative German girl who also spoke fluent English, Italian, Arabic, and Spanish. What brought her to Cairo? “Oh, I intern at the UN office there,” she explained, before engaging in an Italian-Arabic conversation with her friend, code-switching so rapidly between the two languages that I could barely keep up. I hope I didn’t catch too many flies gawking at her. As she scribbled down for me places to see and restaurants to eat at in Cairo, I decided I wanted to be like her someday. A multilingual badass who can code-switch seamlessly while kicking ass and taking names [by names, I mean notes on the most delicious Lebanese food she could recommend to me].


I boarded my flight, surprised to find an exit row all to myself. More leg room than someone of my height needed, but I wasn’t complaining. Ευχαριστώ, Aθήνα!

And could I get a little extra ζάχαρη with my coffee? Perfect, thanks!


Age is just a number, but is 정?

“What do you think will be the most difficult aspect of your host culture to adapt to?” I reread the question, wanting to put down something thoughtful, something I would actively work to understand during my time abroad. I put my fingers to the keyboard. “The age-based hierarchy.”

Experiencing a country for yourself really does make all the difference in gaining insight into its culture, even more so than learning its language in a classroom or talking to a heritage friend. Before going to Gwangju this summer, my image of the Korean honorifics system was skewed. As an idealistic egalitarian, I couldn’t imagine myself being comfortable with the idea that someone should be more respected than you purely for their age, for the year in which they happened to be born.

At the same time, I was grappling with the concept of 정 jeong, an untranslatable word that denotes senses of loyalty, support, care, kinship, compassion. I wondered if I would experience it myself in Korea and figure out what it meant and how I could convey its feelings into action and words.

My time this summer showed me that the honorifics in Korean culture may well facilitate 정 for the fact that it creates the structure for people of all age groups to talk to each other. Talking leads to connecting, which leads to bonding, which eventually leads to a sense of camaraderie, of 정. Freshmen bonding with seniors. Children bonding with adults. In many Western countries, I’ve noticed there’s a discomfort with the idea that friendships can be made across ages, that as a college senior, it’s weird I could be equally as close to a high school freshman as I could my friend’s mother or grandmother. I wonder if that’s because this set of honorifics isn’t built into our languages, that there simply isn’t a linguistic skeleton that facilitates cross-age friendships.

As I saw this taking form around me, I realized terms like 오빠 oppa (older brother) and 언니 eonni (older sister) didn’t feel so bizarre to me anymore. They slipped out naturally and just seemed appropriate as my friendships with older Korean friends developed. When you are someone’s 언니 or 오빠, etc., you aren’t just commanding them around because as the older one in the relationship, you have all the power. You look after them. You buy them food. You act as a role model for them because you genuinely care about them. And isn’t that what 정 is all about?

My language partner took to heart my jokes about how the only food I can handle is bland food and packed me the most flavorless rice cakes and cereal pieces she could find so I wouldn’t go hungry. She handed them to me, beaming.

I smiled back. “Thanks, 언니.”

Bye CLS :( 나중에 봐요, 친구들!

This all happened very suddenly. One minute we were goofing off in class, another normal day, and the next we were shuffling onto our flight back to America. Didn’t we just arrive in DC for PDO??

Much to everyone’s displeasure, even though our graduation ceremony on Friday wasn’t until 10:30am, we still had to get to school at our normal time to wrap up classes. My teachers made personalized stickers for everyone, and mine says “SNS 여황 파울라” – Social Media Queen Paula :,) Aksha got 동가리 (“club”) because she’s obsessed with “making” them out of every common interest she shares with someone, and Liza got “리자 ❤ 브라인,” in reference to her boyfriend. A few of us may or may not have teared up.

The graduation ceremony was a lot of fun. Janelle’s language partner and Moira’s host mother spoke about what the experience was like for them, which was so sweet. It made me regret not being a better language partner and host daughter… I gave a speech in Korean about the importance of CLS and language learning, a speech I worked hard on to be as powerful as it could be. 🙂 I may post it and its translation on this blog at some point. I also performed Taekwondo with some of my friends from that class, but I messed up on the black belt forms I was doing with Kaitlin, embarrassing myself in front of everyone. It wasn’t one mistake, either – I barely knew any of it! But if CLS has taught me anything, it’s that you roll with the punches and don’t let your errors get to you, or else you will be stuck in the mud the rest of your time, accomplishing nothing and unable to move forward. Other classes also had hilarious, well-planned performances, and Zay, Janelle, and Jonathan made a Korean rap music video that had the entire room cracking up the entire time. Aksha put together a “Day in the Life” style video of CLS for Youtube, which she showed during graduation. It’s one of those videos that I know if I watch from this point on, it will just make me cry.

That afternoon, my class and our teachers got together at a super cute cafe, Grunmind Cafe, right by my homestay apartment. We all talked as friends, which is what we did during class anyway, but this time there were no learning objectives or new grammar points to teach. We were just chatting and getting to know each other as people and as friends, and it was refreshing and made me wish I’d had more time with all of them. (And that I’d visited Grunmind earlier! They were the first cafe in Gwangju that I’d visited that had soy milk lol. You’re welcome, intestines.)

At night, Peter and his language partner, Alexi and her language partner, Aksha and her language partner, and I (but not Kyeyoung, who was in lab – thanks for dropping the ball, 언니 -.- jk jk) went night hiking, where we got incredible views of Gwangju lit up at night. We also got incredible views of an enormous spider with a web that was like 10 meters long. I hadn’t exercised well in a while, so the hike felt amazing and made me want to get back into working out.

Aksha came directly over to my house afterward, and my little host sister read us (frightening) children’s’ books. Aksha was a hit with both her and my host mom because she’s so funny, outgoing, and good at Korean, and it made me feel really bad about myself. It made me wish I was all of the above, that I’d talked to my family more, that I could tolerate eating Korean food, that I was good with kids. But didn’t I tell you that if nothing else, CLS has taught me to move forward past mistakes? The old me of the beginning of CLS would have let that ruin my mood for the rest of the night, withdrawing into and hating myself for who I am. But instead, I was just happy that Aksha and my host family were having a good time with each other, and I was motivated to improve my interactions with others. Turning my negativity toward myself into inspiration to improve used to be something that I had a hard time doing but that I had to learn how to do in order to stay afloat during CLS, and I couldn’t be more thankful about finally learning to accept myself.

Speaking of things Aksha is good at, I was stressed out about packing, just throwing my things haphazardly into my suitcase and freaking out when they quickly filled to the brim of my bags. She swooped in to the rescue, rolling up my clothes and showing me where I should fit each item so that I would actually have room for everything. By the time she was done, my bags were fully packed, and I had room left over in all of them. Superhero, honestly.

The next morning, several of us attended a workshop organized by Korean high school at the Gwangju International Center. We learned Korean slang and had little competitions, both with traditional Korean games and more “worldwide” phenomena like the water bottle flip challenge. 😛 It was a great way to meet more locals closer to our own age, and I was really touched when I found out they’d spent 3 weeks preparing that day for us!

In Korea, there’s a 방 (room) or cafe for pretty much anything you can think of. Justin and I went to a room cafe so we could take a nap. Typical.

Then we headed over to Syejeong’s mother’s home for tea time, along with Yeji, Echo, and Riona! Syejeong’s mom went all out, loading the coffee table with an enormous fruit platter, chilled tea in a rainbow of colors, and homemade desserts. She didn’t end up talking to us much, but we did get to thank her heartily before we left. We also got to meet and chat with Syejeong’s sister, who has also spent significant time in English-speaking countries and therefore showed up our Korean with her fluidity in English. I’m really grateful they put together that tea for us, which was a chance for us to practice our Korean with locals who are close to our beloved RD (lol).

That night, I went to the arcade with my host mom and host sisters. I think it’s generous to say that we were all atrocious at the games, so the older one and I ended up collaborating on different games, splitting the buttons between us. We also took funny photo booth pictures together that I’m excited to frame in my room. It was my attempt to spend some last moments together, to be a better older sister to the girls and a better daughter to the mom. Dessert afterward was on me, the least I could do after a summer of them providing me dinner every day, not an obligation under the CLS program.

Goodbyes on Sunday were difficult for most, but I felt better knowing that I’m going back to Korea next week and will certainly visit Gwangju again on a free weekend. 🙂 Walking through check-in, security, and boarding at Incheon was surreal, and I was disappointed to find that I was sitting with two strangers, somewhat far from any other CLS students. The flight was less than 10 hours long, and before I knew it, we were landing back in San Francisco, back in America. Thankfully, I got to say proper goodbyes to almost everyone, but unfortunately, despite thinking all summer that Justin and I were on the same flight to Chicago, we weren’t. 😦

And now I’m home, and it’s weird how normal it feels. NSLIY was certainly a lot more dramatic than this. NSLIY was full of crying and numbing sadness, as dramatic as that sounds. But being back home after CLS, it feels like I never even left. I do miss my friends so much, though, but I know it’ll be easy to stay in good contact with them. To my surprise, our cohort’s group chat has been popping, which I didn’t expect. I guess I assumed everyone would want to leave the chat at the end of the program, but it’s been the opposite! I also went to Chicago today to apply for my Korean visa, and it felt so good to be dunked back into a Korean-speaking world at the consulate, if only for 20 minutes.

I mentioned this on Facebook, but going into CLS, I really didn’t think I’d gain anything out of it (besides language skills of course) that I hadn’t already acquired from past study abroad experiences that changed my life. And for a good chunk of the program, that was mostly true. I was self-loathing, withdrawn, and wondering if I should just go home. But it was because of all the struggles, both personal and academic, that I was forced to face during those two intense months that I grew more than I ever have. After years and years of being the most sensitive person ever, CLS finally made me start growing the thicker skin that I desperately need. If I let negativity from myself and others affect me all program long, I wouldn’t have walked out of it with the amazing friends and enhanced Korean skills that I did. All of my goals – social, professional, personal, academic – feel so much more attainable now with these realizations and these experiences. But most importantly, I feel more comfortable with my flaws, my mistakes, myself.

So although my CLS summer wasn’t the earth-shattering trip that programs like NSLIY and my high school French exchange were for me, it’s certainly something that I’ll be talking about in my personal writings, to my friends, and on application essays for years and years to come. I couldn’t be more thankful to everyone involved. Not just the individual people that I interacted with on program, but also the entities, like the State Department, American Councils, and Chonnam National University. I know I’m a broken record, but I believe so much in the peace-building potential of language learning and State Department exchange programs, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to participate on CLS this summer.

CLS Instagram hunt #15 – What you’ll miss most about your CLS program: The people. I don’t know where I’d be without everyone involved in putting together this program, from my dedicated RD who stayed up with me till 5am until she knew I’d be okay to the teachers that supported me even as I felt my abilities were lacking. I’ll miss so much the friends I made, people who have similar interests, values, and senses of humor as me but also couldn’t be more different from me – people I can learn from. I can’t wait to reunite this semester with my host family and language partner, who welcomed me warmly into their country and made it a home. I hope I can be that person for others someday. I hope I am that person to others.

CLS Week 9: You can’t get rid of us that quickly!

I have a million things to do for graduation tomorrow, which is why I’m blogging now.

It’s the last week of CLS, and we’re leaving for America on Sunday 😦 It’s really sad realizing that we may not see each other for a while, and that the program is coming to an end, but I’m also excited to go home and do all that that entails, including but not limited to eating Portillo’s.

I think I’ve finally found a home of sorts here, though. I have a cafe I always go to, friends I always want to see, and a host family and language partner I love. Aksha’s apartment complex has a rooftop, so over the weekend we spent a couple late nights up there, just gazing at the stars and talking about everything, from the time her mango got confiscated at an airport a few years ago (“can’t you just let this man-go??!!”) to how we’ve grown during this program. It’s been nice, but the flooring leaves both of us stained with green. I thought I’d gotten bitten by a poisonous spider, and it took the bathtub turning green after I showered for me to realize the relieving truth!

On Monday, I met up with my friend Sejin, whom I hadn’t seen in 3 years! If you know me, this story of how we met won’t be surprising: she’s the second cousin of the hometown best friend of one of my best friends from my NSLIY program. XD We met while I was in Seoul for NSLIY, and it turns out she’s spending the summer near Gwangju, so we hung out! I love reunions. ❤

Wednesday was a really fun day. We played a board game for speaking review, watched a funny Korean sitcom, and had a 윷놀이 match with 4반! 윷놀이 is a popular Korean “board” game that involves throwing marked sticks and yelling at your teammates over strategy. Whenever people propose playing a game that doesn’t involve a screen of some kind (phone screen, computer screen, TV screen…) I always assume I’m going to not like it and be bored, but then I end up getting really into it. (Settlers of Catan, anyone?) Also because I used to be in 4반, I didn’t quite know where my loyalties were. 😉

Because all Justin and I do in our lives is take naps, we went to a study room, pushed some desks together, and napped on top of them. Eventually a knock came on the door, and I opened it to some confused looking CNU stuff who were like, “모른 외국인들이 여기서 자고 있대요…” (“I heard some unknown foreigners were sleeping in here”) When they saw it was just us, though, they hurriedly told us we could get back to sleep LOL.

Everyone was dreading the 2-hour re-entry orientation that would replace our usual 1-hour RD meeting, but I was actually looking forward to it all week lolll typical Paula. Moments like that, I know I truly am fit for a career in international exchange, especially State Department programs. :p Our RD came up with a hilarious line graph describing her mood throughout this program, with one point being called “I used to like OPI as a nail polish brand” in reference to the Oral Proficiency Interviews we all need to take in order to measure how effective CLS is for future State Department funding. We also did a lot of ~self-reflection~ and ~goal-setting~ and we talked about reverse culture shock. My entire life is just reverse culture shock so it was good to know that I’m not alone in suffering through it.

That night, I got dinner at an Italian restaurant with my host mom and sisters. The restaurant is called “La Conne”… I don’t know if “conne” means anything in Italian but it means “bitch” in French so I feel uncomfortable whenever I see it. Anyway, I had good talks with my host mom about Korean-Japanese relations, especially in regards to islands they both claim to have sovereignty over and the Korean comfort women of the war, which Japan still has not apologized for. It’s interesting because my host mom is a Japanese translator and clearly loves the language and country, but she’s also not blind to the issues her country and her “adopted” country face with each other. I also got to teach them all a bit about English and French grammar/vocab and how they differ from Korean! 🙂 It was fun explaining to them that French only has 천대말 (formal speech used with those older than you) with the tu/vous pronouns, and that English doesn’t have it at all. So ever since I really got into French in high school, I’ve always felt weird addressing people older than me in English as just “you.” I feel even weirder now with Korean because Korean doesn’t even use pronouns that often, especially not “너” (“you”).

Today we had our final exams, which I think went well. 🙂 I spent hours the night before writing cards for everyone and finishing up my graduation speech, so I didn’t end up studying much, but I guess putting the grammar and vocab to practice through my writing is studying enough, right? 😉 Later my classmates and I met up to get flowers for our teachers. After a lot of arguing about which ones would be best, we settled on simple bouquets plus cute potted succulents!

And now Aksha and I have been “working” at each other’s houses for many, many hours, and by working I mean I took a 3 hour nap on the couch. (I woke up panicked because she told me it was 10pm, but it turned out she’d just read the 20:00 on my military timed phone wrong…) We’ve been friends since we first “met” through the CLS hashtag on Instagram about a year ago, and it’s been surreal actually getting to experience this program with her. I don’t know what I’ll do without her in a few days. 😥

But this isn’t over. The friendships made, language skills gained, and lives changed through this program will continue showing themselves through how we carry forward in our futures, applying what we’ve learned and felt to the decisions we make. Graduation may be tomorrow, but this is only the beginning of a journey that will continue the rest of our lives. 🙂

But first, I need to memorize some black belt forms for Taekwondo if I don’t want to make a fool of myself tomorrow at graduation.

CLS Instagram hunt #15: A piece of advice for future CLS students – It’s so hard to pick just one. In fact it’s hard to even come up with one because everyone has vastly different backgrounds, goals, and experiences. Maybe that’ll be my advice, to keep an open mind to the people and happenings around you. I think I went into the program with expectations that were too firm. I expected everything to be like NSLIY, and I expected too many things of myself without taking into account that CLS is not NSLIY, and I am a human being with flaws and insecurities and needs. I finally started to make the most progress on all fronts, social and academic and emotional, when I let go of those expectations.

Like the expectation that I wouldn’t pass out for hours every day.


Blogging Inspiration + Foreign Service Thoughts

My good friend Alexi is also into the Foreign Service and passed me a couple links to FSO blogs she really likes. How did I not think of this earlier?! I spend all my time these days on people’s blogs, so I’m surprised it didn’t cross my mind to find some foreign service blogs to binge read.

For those of you don’t know, the Foreign Service is the corps of diplomats (Foreign Service Officers, ambassadors, etc) that performs services at embassies and consulates all around the world. These tasks can range from visa issuance to emergency response. You get rotated to a new city every 1-4 years, oftentimes with language training to complement your technical training! 🙂 Ever since I stepped into the Chinese consulate to get my visa 5 years ago, I’ve been determined to join the Foreign Service because it aligns with everything I love: helping and getting to know people from all over the world, learning languages, living in different countries, and serving my country. I know this sounds extremely idealistic, but now that I’ve met so many FSOs in several different countries, I can see that it’s not some far off dream. It’s something that I can actually make happen.

Of course, there are several steps to pass along the way. There’s the dreaded FSOT (a written exam that has questions ranging from US foreign policy to American pop culture), the even more dreaded personal narratives, and the most dreaded group interviews, where you need to show that you are a leader who also cooperates well with others. Contrary to popular belief, being a diplomat doesn’t just require language skills. In fact, that’s not even counted until you’ve passed those other 3 steps. Since I’m 21, I can now officially start taking the FSOT until I pass, which I hope I do one day.

But enough technical stuff! These are all things you can read all about with a quick Google search. Reading these Foreign Service blogs invigorated my desire to someday be a diplomat while also reaffirming my passion for blogging. I love how the internet has made it so easy to gain insight into others’ lives and the cultures, histories, and politics of places near and far. Of course, if you’re not a social media person, it’s totally fine to not be sharing your perspectives and experiences. But I personally find that doing so helps open a new world to others, just as it has for me. I keep up with a lot of study/working abroad blogs, especially State Department programs, and they’ve taught me about countries and languages that I didn’t even think about until I was exposed to them through social media. Not everything being posted online is going to be profound or academic, but I think that’s better because people are more likely to connect with daily life and small victories.

I was never good at updating this blog until I came on CLS, when I realized that talking about my experiences was a good way for me to self-reflect and for others to learn about Korea, Korean, and the CLS program. 🙂 I’m really excited to keep this blog going through my experiences abroad this year, and someday, if I get CLS again, Fulbright, Peace Corps, and/or the Foreign Service, I would love to continue to share my experiences through this platform. I’ve read books and articles about the Foreign Service, but it was devouring the aforementioned blogs that made me really get an idea of what being in a diplomat is like. 🙂

Speaking of all this State Department stuff, I recently received my informal offers to work at the US embassies in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Abu Dhabi (UAE)! Of course, I still need to receive my official offer and security clearance, but even just getting to this point makes me happy because this was my third time applying to a State Department internship. 🙂 (Maybe fourth??) If I do end up getting to work in Abu Dhabi, I will certainly blog about my work and what life is like as an intern at an embassy! I was in correspondence with someone at the embassy in Bishkek, who recommended I apply for a virtual internship with them since I cannot physically be there. I did apply to the Virtual Student Foreign Service, but for other projects, so I’m not sure how I could go about applying to something in Bishkek now that the application has closed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, though, because a chance to work with that embassy in addition to Abu Dhabi would be amazing! I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

And you guys all know that I’m very open about things I’m applying to because I have no shame in rejections. So I’m currently applying for Fulbright ETA in Kyrgyzstan, CLS Azerbaijani, and Peace Corps, though I have yet to decide on a country. I’m thinking somewhere in Central Asia or Eastern Europe. If any of you are in the same boat as me with applying to any of these programs, let me know so we can help each other out and give each other some moral support!

I have no idea where this post is going or why I’m even writing it. I guess it’s because my CLS posts have been very focused on my CLS experiences, when really I’m constantly bursting with excitement about the State Department and its programs in general. So it’s been nice to just word vomit about all the things I care about for a moment. 😉 Now back to the scheduled programming.

CLS Week 8: Finally hitting my stride

Okay has anyone noticed that it isn’t till you’re about to leave an experience that you finally start to make huge improvements and grow into yourself? What’s up with that? The good thing is, the end of CLS doesn’t mean the end of opportunities for me to learn Korean, to experience new things, etc.

Speaking of growing, in some ways my CLS cohort has “regressed,” in the best way possible. So in Korea, there are claw machines on every block stuffed with high-quality, authentic plushes, many of them Pokemon! A few guys on our program have gotten really good at catching them without spending too much money, and I myself have amassed a sizable collection of Pokemon dolls at a fraction of the retail price thanks to Cody’s mastery of the 인형 뽑기 ^^ So basically every day, a bunch of us walk into class cradling stuffed animals, just like back in the day in, like, kindergarten. I’m not complaining, though. It’s oddly comforting, especially in the stress of an intensive language environment, and my teacher even let me borrow the Squirtle that Luke got for her to hold while I took my OPI! hahaha I feel crazy even typing this.

On Monday, during office hours, I practiced for the OPI with my teacher. I was so nervous that I kept psyching myself out, and I ended up crying, telling her repeatedly that I sounded like an idiot. She was so kind about it and told me I was doing great, and she even wrapped me into a hug and wiped my tears away lol. I’m telling this story because I’m constantly blown away by how teachers (not just on CLS but across all educational institutions) go above and beyond their duties to make sure students succeed not only academically but also emotionally. Since I’m applying to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant right now, I’ve been trying to soak up as much from my teachers and “authority” figures as I can, learning how I can in turn be an effective teacher and positive role model/trusted authority figure for my own students, if I were to be accepted. These are also things I want to apply to my own life in general so I can be a better friend and mentor to others, whether I become a teacher or not.

Later that day, I was really excited about my host family’s new whiteboard and drew some pictures, then wrote my name and my host sisters’ names with a red marker. I had learned just a couple weeks before that it’s bad luck in Korea to write people’s names in red, but I completely forgot! I came out of my room later to find my host sisters looking sternly at me, and one of them hesitantly said in Korean, “In our country, you can’t write people’s names in red.” They were totally cool with it and understanding of my mistake, but it just goes to show that even if you feel comfortable in a new country, something will come up, usually a mistake of yours. 😛 Also, can I just say how dang cute it was to see them looking so solemn and nervous about telling me off?? They are the cutest humans I’ve ever met.

On Wednesday, I got lunch with Emily so we could practice our French together. 🙂 Peter was supposed to come too, but I misheard what he said and ended up accidentally ditching him while he was in the bathroom lol whoops sorry Pee Teoh. It was refreshing to speak French again, and I was relieved to find that I do still speak French at the same level I always have, that I haven’t lost any despite being in Korea. 🙂 I think the other day was just an anomaly because I made myself nervous and overthought it.

Also that day, a few of us got “interviewed” for a video being put together for graduation! We had to talk in Korean about our host families, language partners, excursions, etc., and I’m really proud of myself for volunteering to do it despite my weak speaking skills. It did take a couple takes for me to answer each question, but I did it and had fun in the process! 🙂 And the other people who did it (Aksha, Emily, Echo) killed it, so I’m excited to see the finished video!

Thursday was my OPI. I already did a whole blog post on it so I’m not going to talk about it here. But I feel like I’ve been peaking after the confidence I gained from it, which I never expected to say about an OPI in my life!!! There’s a first time for everything, right?

After our weekly test on Friday, we did some calligraphy, ate chocolate cake, and took Polaroid pictures with both our grammar and our speaking teachers! 🙂 it was so much fun, even though we were all a little lacking in the calligraphy department. We were all pros in the devouring cake department, though.

After class, Yeji, Liza, and I got together with Syejeong and a teacher from an elementary school to practice the presentation we were giving to Korean children the next day. I had spent an afternoon at a cafe preparing a pretty thorough, “academic” script, making sure to use solid grammar and good vocab because I’m a noob and didn’t realize that complex themes and impressive grammatical structures are not what’s gonna knock kids’ socks off. So when it came time to practice, I ended up scrapping the script and just coming up with things off the top of my head, prioritizing energy and audience engagement over content. Even better? I was told it was better NOT to use hard grammar and vocab, which took so much pressure off my shoulders.

That night, Aksha, her language partner Eunseon, Peter, Justin, Liza’s language partner, a French girl named Tiphanie, and I went to a free youth music festival in downtown Gwangju! 🙂 At the festival, I met exchange students from Paraguay, France, and Turkey (she’s from the same city where a lot of my friends did their NSLIY Turkish programs, Bursa!!), and I even chatted with a half-Jamaican, half-Venezuelan food vendor!! I made a status about this on Facebook, but I was really uncharacteristically outgoing that night and spoke so much Korean, French, and Spanish that night, switching easily between the three, something I’d NEVER been able to do before. Like I said, code-switching between an “easy” language and a “hard” language without compromising fluidity has been one of my top linguistic goals for a while, and I actually achieved it that night, far sooner than I expected to. What really helped me with this was just blurting things out and not thinking about what I was saying. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s what Aksha did to get from knowing no Korean to speaking at the same level as some of us that have studied Korean for years. I tested it out that night as I switched between different languages, and it’s so true. Basically, if you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say, you won’t get languages confused because your brain doesn’t have time to clump them together. And the best way to not overthink? Just go up to people and start talking, giving yourself no time to get nervous or jumble languages in your head as you try to plan what you’re going to say. 😉

I was already pretty high off the success of my OPI, so this just really solidified my confidence and pushed me to keep having a positive attitude and actually using Korean without getting angry at myself for sounding dumb. And my friends and my RD have noticed too and have been surprised by but happy for my gains. 🙂 This is such a far cry from how reserved and quite honestly depressed I was in the beginning of the program, thinking that I sucked at Korean and was incapable of making friends and was a loser in every way. I know that sounds super dramatic, but it was how I felt, and since this blog is all about being honest about my feelings, I’m putting that out there. Which is why these successes feel even sweeter!

On Saturday, Yeji, Liza, and I gave our presentations at the Gwangju International Center! We talked about American culture (culture everything from hamburgers to a diverse population), as well as our identities as Korean-American, Ukrainian/Russian-American, and Chinese-American, respectively. So normally I don’t know how to talk to kids, like it’s to the point where I don’t have much of a relationship with my host sisters because I straight up don’t know what to say to them. But I became a new person this day lmao. I was talking to the kids in a way that was actually engaging for them, using voices and enthusiasm I didn’t even know I had. And best of all, it was all in improvised Korean, and it was actually a lot of fun! Maybe I can talk to kids, it just can’t be in English haha. We also baked chocolate chip cookies with them and colored American flags with them because, after all, this was a lesson about American culture. 😉

This sounds kind of dumb, but what really blew me away was listening to the kids speak Korean. Like, all these grammar points and vocab words that my friends and I have spent hours trying to perfect in a sterile classroom setting and been tested on in the form of a piece of paper just slipped easily out of these kids’ mouths. It reaffirms for me 1) how amazing language is, and 2) how miraculous human life and the human mind are. Another thing is that I learned so much about my own American culture by hearing it explained to the kids. The adults in the room would give hints to the kids whenever we asked questions or explain stuff to them when they were confused, and it was honestly kind of wild to hear my own culture explained in simple terms, the same way their culture has been explained to me in simple terms in a classroom. This isn’t a judgment, by the way. I’m wording this kind of negative but I actually was really positively amazed by it all and just seeing myself in a different lens. Like this kid was asking us if we were married and how old we were, and his mom gently reminded him, “In our country this is normal, but in America it’s very rude to say these things!” Then she asked us, “But if you get close to someone, can you ask them?” I don’t know, it was just really interesting for me.

And the chocolate chip cookies were heavenly.

CLS Instagram Hunt:

5. An intercultural exchange – Sharing our love of America, chocolate chip cookies, and picture-taking with the Korean youth 🙂


16. Your favorite phrase in host language – “산 넘어 산” basically means that once you cross one mountain, there’s another one waiting for you. Since every challenge presents new opportunities, I don’t see this as “with every challenge you overcome, there’s another one waiting for you,” but rather “for every opportunity you take, there’s another one waiting for you.” This couldn’t have been truer this summer because I honestly can’t think of many other times in my life when I felt so low so consistently, yet at the same time surmounted so much, challenged myself to try new things, and eventually overcame and really started ~blossoming~




I just took my OPI today, which is what the State Department uses to judge how effective CLS is. We will not receive our pre- and post-program scores until after we get back to America, which I actually think is strategic because it prevents us from seeing ourselves as scores and rankings to be obsessed over all program. I don’t believe that one 20-minute test that only examines speaking capabilities can convey all the nuances of one’s language abilities, but I do think it’s important to prepare well for it if only to show the State Department that programs like CLS are worth investing in!

This was the 4th OPI I’d taken in my life. The first was after NSLIY in 2014 (Novice High), the second was after my Beginner II class at NYU December 2016 (Intermediate Low), and the third was in April for my CLS pre-program preparation. I read through descriptions for the different scores and couldn’t quite figure out where I fit in today, but I don’t think it matters because something more important came up during the OPI.

All program, one of my biggest struggles has been not speaking Korean. I get so angry with myself for sounding like an idiot that I usually resort to clamming up when I make a ton of mistakes, and I’m just generally shy to practice Korean, even with other Americans. This is such a change from how I usually am with languages! I’ve interrupted conversations on subways before and inserted myself into cafe hangouts in my eagerness to practice Russian, French, etc. XD

But during my OPI, I suddenly opened up in a way I barely had all program. I was talking so much that my interviewer kept having to interrupt me, and she was laughing at the jokes and stories I told. I was also able to convey to her how difficult this program was for me because of my lack of confidence in my Korean as well as explain to her that I like to make friends on the internet. 😛 These are things that I think I had the ability to do all program, but was just too hard on myself and didn’t allow myself to open up in these ways to people, or even open my mouth at all. Although I’m a little sad that it took until my OPI to get to a point where I was suddenly spewing words left and right, I’m really glad it happened because now going forward, I know I am capable and can do it again. 🙂

Several weeks ago, our RD gave us slips of paper from the pre-program prep, when we wrote down our goals and strategies. I wanted to write them down here and reflect on them, seeing how well I ended up achieving them.

  1. Strategy 1: “Using Korean everywhere and not being shy, even if I make mistakes.” Well, about that…. 😦
  2. Strategy 2: “Finding some Korean shows to watch and music to listen to.” I didn’t find shows, but I’ve been keeping up with Talk to Me in Korean videos specifically made for listening practice. And thanks to Peter and Aksha, I’ve found some non-Kpop Korean artists I really like, Beenzino and I.U. 🙂 Check and check!
  3. Strategy 3: “Journaling in Korean.” Check! I didn’t journal every day in Korean, nor did I write more than a paragraph or two in my Korean entries, but I did do this, and I’m really happy about it because my diary is an important part of my life. There were also moments when I was really struggling on program but because I was in class, I couldn’t just leave. So instead I grabbed my notebook and wrote about my feelings in Korean, on the spot, expressing myself in the moment. Just like a real journal! 🙂
  4. Short term (summer) goal: “Using complex grammar naturally in conversation without thinking too hard.” I definitely think I accomplished this! All the grammar I learned during college that I struggled to employ during the school year, I used easily all summer long. The grammar I learned this summer was more of a work in progress, but I still think I pulled it off pretty well and made an effort to incorporate them whenever I could.
  5. Long term goal: “Talking about politics, social justice, and my goals and passions.” I didn’t think I accomplished this because my vocabulary on these topics is seriously lacking, but I think I’ve done the best I could. I talked about why the May 18 democratic uprising was important through both writing and speaking, gave an interview about my studies and career aspirations for an article, and talked my OPI interviewer’s ear off about the languages I’m studying and countries I’ve visited. This weekend I’m giving a presentation to an elementary school about my language-learning journey as a Chinese-American, and next week for graduation I am giving a speech about the importance of language learning in both diplomacy and everyday life. Sure, these are topics that I need help from others talking about, and I need a dictionary by my side when I’m writing. But I’ve been trying to say yes to every opportunity I get to flex my (linguistic) muscles when it comes to them because they’re things that are important to me and that I talk often about in English.

Goals are fun to make and are important in measuring progress and having something concrete to work towards, but I think it’s equally important not to spend too much time obsessing over the details of them. Sometimes you may surprise yourself by reaching your goal without realizing, or reaching your goal in a different way than you had anticipated. Sometimes you may not reach your goal at all, but you gained something else in the process, like confidence or inner peace or heightened self-awareness. And sometimes it’s just kind of an all-around bust, in which case you learn from your mistakes and either find new strategies or new goals.

I’m really fortunate that I’m immediately returning to Korea after CLS, so everything that I regretted not doing during this program, I can work on for another semester and really improve my grasp of Korean. As with most things in life, language learning will always be a work in progress. Hell, I’m still struggling with English. Through my blog and diary, I’m constantly trying to figure out ways I can strengthen my command of my native language, wielding it in a way that is succinct yet conveys the nuances of my thoughts and experiences. Because of this, I don’t usually use the word “fluent” to describe anyone’s language abilities, as I believe it’s important to constantly seek to improve, to be open to learning even more and gaining all kinds of different knowledge.

It’s hard to believe CLS is almost over, but I think these next 1.5 weeks are going to be crammed with more opportunities to practice Korean, soak up as much as I can, and engage with both locals and my fellow classmates, so I’m looking forward to taking advantage of all these opportunities.

During Taekwondo and Cross Country, there was one thing I learned that applies to all aspects of my life. For Taekwondo, when you’re breaking a board, you always want to pretend there’s another board far under the one you’re actually breaking so that you don’t stop when you get to the board, you continue to go through it with all your strength. If you don’t do that, you might not have the strength geared up in your fist to break the board. At the end of a Cross Country/track race, you never want to slow down as you near the finish line. You SPEED UP, accelerating through the finish line faster than before so you can shave off those last few seconds, because they can make all the difference. I see life and in particular the last week of this program much the same way. Just because I struggled a lot with myself and my linguistic capabilities during CLS doesn’t mean that I should just give up during this last week, thinking it doesn’t matter either way and that one last week won’t make a difference.

After all, some of the most unexpected strength, speed, and breakthroughs come at the end, giving you the courage and affirmation to keep going past the board, the finish line, the program that will continue to make a difference in your life long after its conclusion.