Wars, Spas, and Shopping

After a fun night at the local noraebang with another MIT team, Emily Damato and I decided that we wanted a more relaxing day. Here’s a couple of photos that we took then. I’ll spare you the videos of us singing.

We got back pretty late–around 1 am–and I woke up around 7 the next day to go to the War History Museum with Shine and Kelsey. We stopped by our favorite breakfast place, Paris Baguette, and then took the subway to the museum.

Breakfast at Paris Baguette

The War Museum serves as both a museum and a memorial for soldiers who lost their lives during the Korean War. The outside of the museum was really majestic, consisting of rows of columns between black slabs with the names of soldiers, Korean and foreign. I was surprised that this museum was free, and, even though technically it’s winter break here, we ran into several groups of school kids on field trips.

The majority of the museum was dedicated to the Korean War. Many of the exhibits contained stories of individuals who lived through the war, either as military personnel or civilians. Listening to those stories really made me feel grateful that I live in a period of time and in a place where my life is not affected by war. It’s hard to imagine the terror that those individuals must have gone through.

On a lighter note, there were many photo opportunities both inside and outside the museum. Inside the museum was a construction of an old Korean turtle boat. It was a covered boat used during the Joseon dynasty against the Japanese. According to Shine, it was to prevent the Japanese from boarding the ship since the Korean army was so outnumbered.

Shine in front of the Korean turtle boat

We also took photos at specific photo op places inside the museum. One of these photo op places was a reconstruction of Dokdo Island, a point of contention between Korea and Japan even today. Both countries claim the island as their own although it is currently under South Korean control. Shine told us that on all South Korean maps, Dokdo is specifically drawn in, even though it’s not to scale.

Outside the museum were replicas of different tanks, boats, and planes. We explored the inside of a naval ship and took some pictures in some tanks.

After the museum, we were quite hungry and so we went to a very traditional Korean diner for lunch. According to Shine, it’s customary in Korea to know what you want to eat before you even leave home. Restaurants tend to specialize in different types of dishes and tend to be clustered based on dish. We were on a street that specialized in stews and noodle dishes and so we had some really good stews for lunch. Shine ate a very traditional dish that contained a blood clot.

After lunch, we split up again. I went back to the apartment, Kelsey went to spend some time with her family before they flew back to the US, and Shine went to search for some more traditional Korean dishes (ask her about it). Emily had woken up by this point and we decided to go to a Korean spa, a jjimjilbang, for the afternoon.

Jjimjilbangs are gender-segregated spas that are common in Korea. We went to Dragon Hills Spa, which is a more tourist-y spa. It was seven stories tall and contained outdoor pools, restaurants, and an arcade area. These spas are actually a very popular place amongst young Korean couples. Since couples aren’t allowed to go to each other’s homes, the gender neutral sleeping areas consisted of hundreds of cuddling couples. Emily also tried a traditional charcoal egg and rice drink.

The gender segregated areas of jjimjilbangs are nude. Last year, for me, that was definitely something that I felt very uncomfortable with initially. I think though, that after my experience, it actually made me more comfortable with my body. In that environment, since no one else is awkward or embarrassed or uncomfortable, you become less so as well.

Emily and I also both did body scrubs and hair masks, in which you get the outer layer of your skin scrubbed off by a lady at the spa. Afterwards, we felt like new humans. To top off the experience, we did some face masks that we picked up on the way. I would totally recommend checking out a jjimjilbang on any future visit and we are definitely planning on coming again.

After the jjimjilbang, Emily and I headed to downtown Myeongdong to do some shopping. We learned that downtown Myeongdong is a super popular place in general on a Saturday. We ate some street food while browsing and I’m leaving some pictures for your enjoyment below.

The crowning moment was probably when we purchased some bing-su, Korean shaved ice, before heading home. I’m salivating right now just thinking about it. Our bing-su had caramelized mangos, sweet cheese and vanilla shaved ice topped off with a scoop of frozen yogurt. Boston should get on this ASAP.

Mango and cheese bing-su

At around 10, we were pretty tired and so Emily and I headed back for an early evening. Sunday will probably be mostly prepping for teaching on Monday. I can’t wait!

‘Twas the Night Before Teaching

…and somewhere in Seoul,

Four women are wandering on a winter stroll,

We’ve liked jimjilbangs, jjimdak, bingsu, and daiso, 

But we all know the real fun begins tomorrow!

Tomorrow begins my third and final year of GTL Korea. I’ll save some sentimental ramblings for another day, but before we start teaching I want to give a (quick!) reflection on the last few years of MIT’s science camp at Yeomyung School.

Global Teaching Labs (GTL) sends MIT students to teach in a bunch of countries around the world. The programs vary in more ways than just the country: some target prep schools, some focus on STEM, some teach English, etc. What originally drew me to GTL Korea was that we would not only teach, but we had the freedom to completely decide and design our curriculum. I was extremely excited to write my own biology lessons, and the fact that I knew nothing about Korea somehow did not cross my mind.

So maybe I originally stumbled into Korea by chance, but I am so grateful I did. Learning to live and teach in Korea has been an amazing, unforgettable experience.

I have spent my last three Januarys teaching at Yeomyung, a specialized school for North Korean defectors living in Seoul. The first year I taught at Yeomyung was the second year MIT worked with the school. In most ways, MIT still knew very little about Yeomyung. We were told to expect troubled students with a difficult past. We were warned they may have no background at all in science. While we were told to teach in English, their English ability was described as “low”.

With a vision of distant, disengaged students with no prior science experience, we designed an introductory STEM curriculum full of hands on activities and demos. We were blind-sided when, on the first day of class, our students finished three days of material.


In 2016 we scrambled to put together more material every night. Every morning, we watched the students soak up the lessons and finish projects faster than we ever expected. It was a fantastic year, but it has been rewarding watch this program grow and change since then.

We teach students from a difficult past. We are aware that they have suffered tragedies we cannot imagine. But in 99 out of 100 ways, their history does not show. There will always be the class clown that distracts everyone. There will always be the stubborn kid that refuses to listen (but refuses to give up). The young girls will always be eager to know if you have a boyfriend, and the young boys will always be too shy to work with the young girls. They are (for middle school students!) happy, engaged, excited, and bright.

However, our greatest challenge teaching this group is the variation in age, language, and science background. Over the years, age has ranged from 14 to 30. Language has been “select at least one” from Chinese, Korean, and English. In 2016, several students only spoke Chinese. In 2017, one student was fluent in English but another could not write the latin alphabet. Science background has generally been stronger than we were first led to believe. At its lowest it is elementary school, and at its highest it was college-level. But all of these students in one classroom is a challenge to say the least.

The variation is mostly a result of how and when the student defected from North Korea. Some who were in the elite society in North Korea may have been able to defect directly to South Korea. Some others first escaped to China, where they may have lived for some time. This explains the Chinese shouted across our classroom (and why this year two members of our team speak Chinese). But every story is unique–and they are not my stories to tell.

In 2017 we broke the camp into modules: food science, material science, forensic science, and robotics. We found that everything hands-on was a blast, and that anything “lecture style” is hard when there is no one language everyone shares.

This year we are trying to transform the classroom into a mini maker space. Every morning we will teach a new skill through activities and demos. Every afternoon they will work on a Raspberry Pi project in teams. In the last week, they will all ideate, design, and build an individual project (shout out to MIT’s 2.009).

Every year has been great, but I am hoping this intensively project-based curriculum will work well for these students. Kelsey, Shine, and Emu have been incredible to work with as we have prepared, and I’m excited to teach with them!


These next two weeks will go by in a blur — but hopefully I will get in another post. If not, I’m sure Kelsey will be on-point with updates on the students, embarrassing photos of me, and selfies of us eating 😉

Here we go!



Efficiency and the Honor System

Our team split up in the morning so that we could purchase supplies from different stores in parallel. Shine and I were in charge of electronics, so we made another trip to Yongsan Electronics Market to buy extension cords. We’re starting to become usual customers…

Day 2 Breakfast at Paris Baguette

On the way to the market, Shine shared more of her Korean culture knowledge with me. Here are a few selected tidbits:

Hanja: Chinese characters in the Korean language. Before Sejong the Great created Hangul, most Korean documents were written in Hanja. When Shine was growing up, students learned how to read Chinese characters starting in the first grade. Learning Hanja is useful for understanding the etymology of Korean words that are based on Chinese words. Also, Hanja is sometimes used instead of Hangul when it is more convenient. For instance, sometimes 男 (“boy” in Hanja) is used in place of 소년 (“boy” in Hangul) because it is assumed that most Koreans can read the Chinese character. There is a many-to-one mapping of Chinese characters to Hangul (because Korean lacks a tonal system), so Hanja is often added to clarify meaning. There are also instances in which Hanja is always used. For example, when 故 (“dead” in Hanja) is used to precede the names of deceased individuals, Hanja is always used to show respect to them.

Lightly chilled subway cars. Some subway cars have signs that indicate that they are lightly chilled (as opposed to fully chilled), which I thought was really interesting. Part of the reason is to save energy, and part of the reason is that some people prefer not to have air conditioning on full blast during summer months.

Couple rings. A girl was sitting across from us on the subway when a guy walked in front of her and started touching one of her hands. At first, I was confused because I didn’t realize the two people knew each other, but Shine explained everything to me afterward. In Korea, when a couple starts dating, the boyfriend will buy the girlfriend a ring. The girl and guy we saw had just broken up, so the guy was trying to take the ring off her finger. Eventually, the girl just took the ring off herself and gave it to him. He got off the train at the next station. Everything happened in silence because in Korea, making a scene in public is frowned upon.

Honor system for trains. The newer turnstiles in the subway stations don’t have a physical barrier. In other words, you technically don’t have to swipe your T money card in order to board the train, but the collective society expects that people will swipe their cards anyway. The honor system works pretty well in Korea.

Our next stop was emart. We were greeted by an employee who bowed to us as we entered the store. Apparently, that is his sole job: to greet every single customer. It must be tiring, but at least he had a standing mat.

In order to use a shopping cart, you need to insert 100 won into the panel on the handle. This is the brilliant part: when you return the shopping cart back in line and re-attach the chain, you get your deposit of 100 won back. It incentivizes people to return their shopping carts in an orderly fashion. What a concept. Whoever came up with this idea is a genius.

Also, emart has a bunch of sloped sliding platforms for the shopping carts. The best part is that the wheels automatically lock once they’re on the moving platform. Again, genius.

We managed to find a lot of items we needed, which was great. I also noticed they were selling batches of plastic fake bananas and was equally confused and amused.

Afterward, I learned that emart has packing stations, where you can pick up free cardboard boxes and use them to carry your purchased goods. They even provide clear tape and packaging ribbon for you to use! Now, this is what I call effective recycling and reusing, not to mention the machines are pretty fun to use.

Shine and I lugged our morning’s purchases all the way to the school where we met up with Emily and Emu. We were pretty sweaty by the time we made it up the hill, but at least we were rewarded with a filling lunch at the school. I think I have a new favorite dish: dakgangjeong (닭강정). It’s a deep-fried crispy chicken dish with sweet potatoes, and it tasted delicious. 10 out of 10 would recommend.

Graduation was that day, so we got to see a bunch of students and teachers throughout the building. Some students who had participated in the workshop last January stopped by to say hi to Emily and Emu. It was great to hear that a lot of them were going on to attend university. Some are even planning on studying STEM subjects!

Our reunited team spent the afternoon setting up supply kits for the students. Everything is packed to perfection.

All packed up and ready to go for Monday

We celebrated by eating manju at the Myeongdong station. Yum!


In the evening, we had a wonderful mixer with another MIT GTL Korea team. We ate at a restaurant near Gangnam, and I ordered rice cake and dumpling soup (tteok-manduguk). It was cool to hear about the other team’s challenges with their schools, especially because MIT has never worked with their schools before.

Shine and I went back to the apartment pretty soon after dinner, but Emily or Emu might post about their adventures post-dinner 🙂 Stay tuned!

Touchdown in Korea

As of yesterday, our entire team has landed safely in Seoul and moved into our Airbnb apartment! For our first team dinner, we had garlic fried chicken—more flavor than generic fried chicken but not too spicy either—and complimentary corn pops (unofficial name).

Day 0 Dinner: Garlic fried chicken and corn pops

Today was our first full day together in Korea, and I’m super proud of how productive we were. We left the apartment around 9 AM and grabbed breakfast on the way to the train station.

Day 1 Breakfast: Paris Baguette

Up until today, our biggest concern was purchasing 9 sets of computer monitors, keyboards, and mice for under $900. A significant portion of our curriculum involves working with Raspberry Pis, which meant that finding or not finding these monitors would make or break our workshop. After browsing online, we quickly realized that computer monitors under $100 are pretty difficult to come by, so we weren’t sure how successful we would be. In hindsight, we could have done a better job with risk assessment…

Fortunately, we learned about the Yongsan Electronics Market and took the subway there first thing after breakfast. This place is like paradise for any computer geek. There are thousands of shops that sell various electronics, including computer hard drives, GPUs, and gaming keyboards, all at wholesale prices.

Not only did we find great deals for wireless keyboards and mice, but we also found some ridiculously cheap used monitors, which were perfect for our use case.

We managed to purchase all 9 monitors for 250,000 won total. If that’s not a great deal, then I don’t know what is. Rest assured, every one of the monitors works perfectly (we checked).

The best part of the trip to the electronics store besides getting awesome deals on everything was probably seeing the confused looks on the shopkeepers’ faces. We were the only females shopping at the electronics market, so I guess people took notice. I must say we did look pretty badass lugging around boxes and a suitcase full of electronics, though.

We didn’t have much time for lunch before our meeting with the science teacher, so we enjoyed some Korean pizza while lounging on the bedroom floor.

Day 1 Lunch: Korean pizza

Shine was our main channel of communication with the science teacher during the semester, and both Emily and Emu taught at the school in previous years, which meant that I was the only person who had never spoken to the science teacher. Although I don’t speak a word of Korean, and the science teacher has limited English ability, I could tell by the way he talked about his students—thanks to Shine’s amazing translations—that he knows a lot about and cares a lot about his students.

I got to see the inside of the classroom and the computer lab for the first time, and it was all very exciting. This was the first school I’ve been to that requires people to take off their shoes and wear indoor slippers. We learned that our students are a bit older than we expected (between the ages of 17 and 30) and that their English ability is limited to the alphabet and basic words. I have a decent amount of experience teaching different audiences, but I’ve never had to teach a group of students who didn’t speak English, so that’s probably going to be my biggest challenge. Let’s hope that my carefully crafted slides with lots of animated pictures will help me get the main ideas across. In the worst case scenario, we have Naver translations.

Quick side story: I learned yesterday that even Google Translate can be a bit rough. Shine was looking through my slides and laughing at some of the improperly translated Korean, which I copied from Google Translate. She was kind enough to help me fix everything, though 🙂

My team and I have put a lot of time and effort into prepping all our activities for our STEM workshop. After talking with the science teacher, I’m even more excited to meet our students on Monday. We’re going to have a blast during these next few weeks!

Shopping for supplies resumed immediately after our meeting. Our next stop was the eight-story Daiso in Myungdong. Yes, that’s right. I said eight stories.

We spent a few hours at Daiso and bought more than 150,000 won worth of stuff. The lady at the cashier definitely gave us some weird looks, but according to Emu, they spent even more money at Daiso last year.

After bringing all the supplies back to the apartment, I decided to do a test run of the Expeditions virtual reality app for Google Cardboard with Emu and Shine. They seemed to get a real kick out of it, so I think the students will enjoy it, too. The nice thing is that you don’t have to know English in order to enjoy VR.

Testing out Expeditions using Google Cardboard

Emu and Emily were craving chicken and cheese, so we ended up going to 내가찜한닭 동국대점 for jjimdak.

The food was delicious (probably my favorite meal in Korea so far) but also spicier than anticipated. We went through at least 4 jugs of water, which got us some confused looks from the waitress. Perhaps it was because we had ordered one spicy jjimdak (for Shine and me) and one non-spicy jjimdak (for Emily and Emu), yet we were all low key dying from the hotness level. The waitresses’ facial expression was priceless when she told Shine that the non-spicy jjimdak had nothing but soy sauce and thus should not be spicy at all. My favorite quote from the night was from Emu: “We’re all eating food that we think is spicy.” Indeed, there has never been a truer statement. I cannot imagine how spicy the extra hot jjimdak would have been…

I’m super happy with how much we accomplished today. I think we’re definitely coming together as a team, and sharing personal stories about each other while chugging water has definitely added to our growing collection of shared team memories.


Conflict of interest in levels of formality. During our meeting with the science teacher, we learned that a decent number of our students are older than we are. In many cultures, this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but when speaking a language like Korean, which has different politeness levels, sometimes there are conflicts of interest in determining which level of formality to use. In general, the older person is higher in the hierarchy, which means the younger person should speak to the older person with greater formality. However, students must also speak to their teachers with greater formality, which makes this situation more complicated. Here the student is older than the teacher. Shine mentioned that a similar conflict of interest occurs with army rank versus age, which is why men are encouraged to join the army at the same age as everyone else to avoid frustrations of reporting to a higher official who is also younger.

Recycling. My family dropped me off at the apartment yesterday, and Shine picked us up from outside the building. As we were walking in, however, the security guard stopped us and lectured Shine for a solid 3 minutes or so. I thought it was an issue of bringing in outside people into the apartment, but apparently, the security guard was just concerned about making sure that all the guests recycled properly. Foreigners don’t have a great track record of recycling, and as an American, I can see why. Korea, unlike America, is big on recycling, and people can actually get in trouble for doing a poor job of recycling. Apparently, our apartment building has been called out for it in the past, so we’re all trying our best to recycle properly.

Black dogs. Our apartment is located near a street full of pet stores selling puppies. We saw two adorable black dogs (sorry, I’m bad with dog breeds) from outside the window, but Shine explained that they would probably never get adopted by Koreans because there is a stigma against black dogs in Korea. She mentioned, however, that South Korea’s new president actually adopted a black rescue dog, which was a departure from the tradition of adopting a pure-bred white Jindo dog to be the “First Pet.” Times are a-changin’.