Attention Followers: All blogs posts are moving to www.gritsandrice.com

Hello Readers! I have decided to delete this blog and keep all my articles on Grits and Rice. Grits and Rice is focussed on traveling all over Asia, rather than being centralized on just Korea. I felt it was better to move all the traffic to one site, rather than dividing the entries between the two.

If you are a follower of “Adventures of the Seoul”, I hope you will continue to read my articles at www.gritsandrice.com 

Thanks so much!

-Caroline

One Year Reflection– Teaching in Korea

Hello readers. Sorry I have been MIA for a while. With the new year coming soon, I am making a resolution to write more. I  finally have my first DSLR camera (thanks Dad), so I am excited to start sharing some better quality photos as well. Since I have not been writing much I want to catch everyone up on what its been like teaching in Korea.

 

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In Korea,  modern society is focused on extreme competition, and its foundation starts in the school system. Korean students are some of the most hard working and ambitious in the world.  When I first moved here, I expected English teaching to be more hands on with activities and games. A lot of my friends had taught in schools in Thailand, Taiwan, and China, and I heard that teaching was a breeze. Well Korea is a different ball game. Korean society thrives off competition. There is pressure from every aspect of life to be the best. This pressure comes with a price, as Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, with many of them being high school students. Students start learning English in kindergarden, and sometimes even before that if the parents are wealthy enough. Once children are in elementary school, parents enroll them into various academies, so students can study subjects such as math or English.

I worked at a franchise academy that focused on teaching a debate and an integrated English curriculum. Each student studied at my academy for 6 hours a week, and most of them attended at least one or two other academies on top of that. My work hours were from 2-10pm. When I first heard that, I figured I stayed late for office work, but students actually come until 10pm. Honestly I think they would stay later if Korean law did not enforce academies to close by 10. Many of my students did not want to be at Topia, which caused a lot more behavioral problems than I had anticipated. But how can you blame them? I remember when I was forced to do ballet for a few years, I would sometimes pitch a fit too. Observing these children’s work ethic is heartbreaking. Many of them hardly get a chance to just imagine and play freely, and this intense and methodic way of living will continue into the rest of their lives.

There is one moment that really demonstrated how intense the daily life of a Korean child can be. There was this one student in particular, that I admired because of his hard work and dedication.  I remember I was checking homework and I got to this student’s desk, in a very embarrassed and ashamed voice he told me, ” Teacher I am so tired, so please forgive me, I do not have my homework”.  I looked at his face, and it looked like he had not slept at all. I asked him, “Teddy, why can’t you sleep?” And he told me that he was attending two academies a day, then had to go home to finish homework. He then told me his mother would be angry that he did not do his Topia homework and he was very worried to show her his bad word test score. As I saw the anxiety on this 11 year olds face, I did not even know what to say to him. I told him not to worry about it, and that I was not angry at him, but that did not cure the fear he had of disappointing his mother.  Eventually this student somehow broke his collar bone, which may have been the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was able to take a break and rest for once.

 

 

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As I got to know my students, my heart ached for them. I knew they hated being forced to learn English. I felt as if I was trapped between the expectations of my boss and the emotional needs of my students. Instead of letting this pressure get to me, I decided to be creative. I found ways to put on a show for my boss, while still creating a more fun and relaxed environment for my students. Unfortunately I was watched like a hawk on CCTV monitors in every classroom, so I had to be cautious.  One way I decided to connect with my students was having them teach me Korean. They would laugh at my foolish attempts to try to pronounce words, and they were so proud to make me say it correctly. I showed them my vulnerable side and that I was not “all knowledgeable”. I felt they appreciated the fact that I was willing to learn as much from them as they learned from me.

I decided to leave Topia, because I don’t agree with the academy system. Forcing children to study English until 10:00 at night is impractical and just absurd. Though I am not fond of the academy system, I am thankful for my experience. I think it was exactly where I needed to be, because it helped me understand Korean culture on an intrinsic level.  Next year I will fortunately be working day time hours in a really fun and interactive camp program. I am very excited about my new opportunity, because the program emphasizes creativity, and I will also have a lot more freedom to teach as I choose.

I already miss my students. One of them has even been calling me every time he is at Topia, asking me if I will come back. Many students send me cute text messages and left me notes on my last days.  Here are some photos of some of my classes . . .

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I want to conclude this entry with one more thought. When I was first considered teaching I was inspired by this particular quote from Emerson:

“The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.”

As the time my aspirations was to be this type of teacher, however I think Emerson forgot to mention how the teacher also grows and changes from the students as well. I hope that as a teacher I can play a positive role and guide my students to be the best they can be, but I also want to acknowledge that they do the same for me. I am so grateful that I found where I need to be, and I look forward to the lessons that lay ahead.

 

Innertrip Festival — A Korean Music Festival Experience

As summer arrived in Korea, I got my first real feelings of homesickness. As my facebook news feed got flooded with posts about upcoming shows and festival line-ups, I began to notice the distance between myself and best friends back home. It truly has been amazing to be so connected through skype  and social networking, but as my friends statuses showed excitement for the festival season, I finally began to feel the distance between myself and home.

I am a jam band fanatic (or maybe I should say phanatic haha), so generally during the summer I meet up with friends and hit up various shows and festivals. Last summer (summer 2011) my best friends and I did the North Carolina Phish shows in Charlotte and Raleigh.

At this time I was just finishing my TEFL course and was submitting all my documents for jobs in Korea. I knew that once I went abroad, I would have to temporarily close the door on this part of my life. Well that was what I thought until .  . .

I discovered a music scene in Korea!!!!

Facebook really has been my saving grace in Korea. It has not only connected me to my friends and family back home, but it has allowed me to establish so many connections here in Korea as well. I have been able to find hiking groups, volunteering, and then best of all … A music scene!!!

The Electronic scene is booming in Seoul. Seoul hosts “The world DJ Festival” and “Ultra Music Festival Korea”. Acts such as Tiesto and Skrillex headlined in some of the festivals in Seoul this summer. Also, Korea hosted Jisan Festival with headliners such as Radiohead, James Blake, and the Stone Roses. Unfortunately due to money and my lack of days off, I was not able to attend any of these three festivals. I was beginning to get bummed out that I missed my only chance of actually embracing a music scene abroad, but then I suddenly found one last glimmer of hope . . . Innertrip festival!

Innertrip festival is a small festival held in Chuncheon right on the Sinyeongang River. It was a beautiful location tucked right along the river next to beautiful luscious green mountains.

To get there I took the subway to the Gyeonchun Line which takes you East out of Seoul. Since I live in the North East part of Seoul, the trip only took about an hour and a half. At first I traveled alone, but as soon as I transferred to the Geyonchun line I found a fellow hippie chick from England to accompany me on the train ride. We both could immediately tell we were heading in the same direction, as she was dressed in tie-dye, and I was carting my hula hoops. Finding her reminded me of the times that my friends and I would travel to a show or festival, and see cars that were obviously going in the same direction. We would get excited when we saw a car covered in grateful dead and peace stickers, and we would always honk and wave. Seeing other friendly faces only made the anticipation and excitement of seeing the show that much greater.

After we arrived at Gangchon station, we instantly saw other festival attendees waiting for the next shuttle. The organizers of the festival generously provided an hourly free shuttle to take people from the train station to the festival. This definitely made the trip there simple and painless.

As the shuttle dropped us off at the festival entrance, bass notes filled the air. My heart began to beat fast with excitement. There is nothing I love more than losing myself in the energy of a dancing crowd.

When I first arrived I had no tent or anything to set up. My plan was to meet a friend of a friend of mine to camp with. While I waited for her to arrive, some hilarious guys from England and Canada let me stash my bags in their tent, so I could go dance without worrying about my things.

The girl who I was meeting (Tessa) and her friends arrived about an hour later. Tessa is a friend of my friend Kara, who I know from Charleston and some music friends back in Atlanta. Tessa also lived in Charleston, so it was really cool to connect with her for the first time at this festival, when all along we had been running in the same circles back home.  She came with some other awesome folks who graciously shared their tents and soju drinks with me. I instantly felt like I was friends and part of their crew.

As the sun went down the craziness began. The festival had two stages that were placed back to back. One stage was designated for only electronic DJ’s while the other one hosted Reggae bands. At first I was confused and thought the stages sounds would clash being so close together, but it actually worked perfectly.Generally festival goers have to trek from one stage to another at festivals back home, so having them back to back made it very easy and convenient.

The last part of the festival that made me feel whole again was being able to hula hoop dance and spin fire.  Though I am able to occasionally break out my hoops at parks in Korea, hooping alone is not the same as sharing and appreciating it with others. I miss teaching people tricks and sharing ideas with fellow hoopers; but most of all, I miss being able to lose myself. There is something magical about stage lights, heavy bass beats, and just completely losing all thought while dancing in a hoop. It makes all distractions and worries disappear. It is my favorite way to dip into a meditative trance. 

Also at the festival, I decided to invest in my first set of LED poi. There are not very many hoopers in Seoul, but there is a poi scene. I had not spun poi in a long time, but I guess the movements are like riding a bike, because as soon as I picked them up, the moves came back to me. I was even allowed to play with the fire poi which made me VERY excited! I wish I could articulate the feeling I receive when spinning fire. Its almost like nothing else exists except you and the fire. The light of the fire makes everything else around you a faded blur. The whooshing sound of the fire balls moving sends a rush of excitement through every bone in your body, and the slight fear of burning yourself sends adrenaline that just leaves you feeling energized. It is an amazing experience that I have greatly missed. Now if I can only find a fire hula hoop, my life in Korea will be complete . . .

Buddha’s Birthday and the Lotus Lantern Festival

Buddha’s Birthday is a national holiday in Seoul, where most of the population gets to take a relaxing break from work, school, and daily pressures. Many temples invite guests to visit and learn about Buddhist traditions. The temples invite visitors to attend tea and lunch ceremonies. There is also a Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend before the holiday to kick off the festivities.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is a must see event for anyone who is interested in traveling through Seoul. The streets are adorned with vibrant lanterns and the city is bustling with exciting exhibits and chances to experience Buddhist culture. It truly is a spectacular sight to see! The lighting of the lotus lanterns is a significant Buddhist tradition, because it symbolizes a devotion to performing good deeds. It also represents bringing light to areas of the world that are filled with agony and despair.

Thousands of foreigners and Seoul natives gather for the festival’s events. The main events include an opening ceremony, an exhibition of traditional lanterns, a lotus lantern parade, a post parade party and celebration, and a street festival filled with cultural exhibits and events. A second smaller parade is held on Sunday evening to end the festivities.

The lantern parade is the highlight of the festivals activities. The parade route starts in Jongno in front of the Dongdaemun gate to the Jogyesa temple. To arrive in Jongno you can take subway line 1 to Jonggak station, or Jongno 5-ga station. You can also take lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno3-ga station. The parade runs from Dongdaeumun History and Culture Park, through Jongno, and then ends back at the Jogyesa temple. The parade lasts approximately 2 ½ hours.

One other option is to arrive in Insadong by taking line 3 to Anguk station. If you arrive early in the day, Insadong is one of the most famous traditional neighborhoods to explore. It is filled with tons of shopping, amazing food, traditional architecture, and two famous palaces. It is my favorite district in Seoul to spend the day walking around.

Each temple is represented by various costumes and floats. As soon as the sun goes down, the streets become alive with music and tens of thousands of unique lantern designs. Each temple is dressed in distinctive costumes and robes. Korean traditional music and drums fill the air.

At Bonguensa Temple there is an exhibition of traditional lanterns. The lanterns are handcrafted from silk and traditional Korean paper (Hanji). The lanterns take many shapes such as animals, fruits, flowers, or anything you can imagine! Each shape and pattern is symbolic for different wishes such as health, longevity, and a bountiful harvest.

On the last day of the festival, a street festival is held right in the heart of the Insadong district. If you have an interest in Buddhist traditions and culture, this is definitely a great opportunity to dive right in. The entire street is divided into stages, booths, and tents. They are exhibits that represent each Buddhist tradition from various countries all over the world, guided meditations, lotus lantern making, buddhist monk sand art sculptures, and dance and music performances.

My favorite exhibit at the street festival was being able to watch the Buddhist monks create spectacular sand mandalas. Creating sand mandalas is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition where monks create ornate detailed artwork from colored sand. Every grain of sand is meticulously placed to create a beautiful and perfectly symmetrical art piece. When the monks finish the art piece, they ritualistically destroy  it to symbolize the transitory and impermanent nature of human life. Watching these monks brought back memories from my University. The Dali Lama is a presidential distinguished professor at Emory University , and I was fortunate to have him and fellow Tibetan monks visit while I was a student. I remember watching with utter fascination as the monks created the sand mandalas then dumped them into the creek that flows through campus. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience; so seeing it again in Korea brought not only a sense of admiration and appreciation, but a sense of nostalgia as well.

Hiking in Korea

I have been blessed to be able to get back into hiking while here in Korea, though unfortunately I will be taking a hiatus while my ankle heals. Luckily I have found some kayaking and beach trips to occupy my adventurous spirit for a while! Here are some photos and stories from some of my hiking adventures so far!

Korea’s landscape is approximately 70% mountainous terrain. Seoul’s geography is actually a basin, and it is surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Most mountains have arranged trails with stairs and maps, so it is very easy to find your way.  So far I have done four hikes in Korea: Inwangson, Bukhansan, Jagged Ridge at Sa Rayang Do Island, and a local backyard hike in my district.

Inwangsan was my first hike, which I did on Christmas Eve, right after arriving in Korea. Inwangsan is a fairly easy hike. It  has well arranged trails and only takes about three hours. It is located in the north western part of Seoul, so it has great views of the city, and you can even see the presidents house! (Check the January 2012 archive for the full story on this hiking adventure)

Mount Bukhansan was a very fun adventure! My friend Rachel and I joined this hike through Seoul Hiking Group. There are many different adventure groups in Korea that help foreigners organize trips and hikes. It is a fantastic way to meet likeminded people, and also get some quality time outdoors!

The Mount Bukhansan hike started in Dongdaemun, which is in a busy shopping district in Seoul. The trail followed the Seoul Fortress. The Seoul fortress was originally built in 1396 during the Joseon Dynasty. As you walk along the wall, you can tell from the size and shape of the stones which era in which it was built. The original walls, built in the late 14th century, were constructed of medium-sized round stones held together by mud. The next major expansion, which took place during King Sejong the Great’s reign in the mid 15th century, are marked by rectangular stones closely fit together. Another major restoration in 1704 was when King Sukjong rebuilt sections of the wall using large, uniform stone slabs.

The last hiking adventure I want to share is my trip to Sa Ryang Do Island on the southern western coast of Korea. I found this particular trip through a group called “When In Korea”. Spring time was just emerging so I was hunting for either a  beach trip or an interesting hike outside of Seoul. As I perused facebook, I suddenly found a trip that encompassed both! The trip advertised an island hike with ocean views the entire time.  As soon as I saw it I was hooked! Little did I know that this would be the most challenging hike of my life, as nowhere in the advertisement warned be about what would lay ahead.

After an all night bus ride we arrived at the harbor, just as the sun was rising over the mountains. Even though I did not get much sleep on the bus, I was filled with a rush of energy and excitement as soon as I breathed in the fresh air. It was quite refreshing after constantly being burdened by the pollution in Seoul. We then took a 30 minute ferry ride to Sa Ryang Do Island.

As we arrived at the island, our guide started making comments that this hike was going to be a challenge, and that we may hate him at the end of the day. Of course no warning of any kind was given until we were 20 minutes from starting our hike. I looked at my friend Rachel apprehensively, and wondered what her thoughts were about our guides comments. She assured me I would be be fine, but I still began to get slightly nervous.

As we began the hike, I found it to be a steep climb, but nothing that I could not handle. I was relieved and thought to myself, Oh this is not bad at all . . . Let’s just say I was quite unprepared for what was coming next!

All of the sudden, the rocks became very jagged and steep. Maneuvering began to get very tricky. In order to descend, I literally had to slide down in a crab walk position, so I would not go tumbling down.  I was very nervous, but I was glad to meet two other people that were feeling the same as I was. As we crabbed walked down the rocks dug into my hands and was slightly painful, but the stunning views and our comic attitude made the pain less intense. As we carefully maneuvered each ledge with great caution, I kept thinking to myself, “well it can’t get any more challenging than this . . .”

All of the sudden an enormous boulder emerged at the peak. People were using a rope to scale up the rock. I could feel my heart sink into the depths of my stomach.  I honestly considered giving up. There was no way I was going to scale a mountain on a rope! Even in my younger days, rock-climbing was never really my thing. My guide guaranteed, that once I got closer I would see that it was not as intimidating as it looked. I took a deep breath and decided, “alright, it’s now or never”. I said a prayer to myself and began the ascent. Half way up, I accidentally looked down, and had a small internal panic attack. My breathing began to get rapid, as fear shot through every vein in my body. I took a deep breath, and then I continued the climb. Reaching the top was the most exhilarating feeling. I was full of adrenalin and had an incredible sense of accomplishment. I thought that I had conquered the most challenging feat of my life, but then I remembered, “Uh-oh, I have to climb down”.  Luckily my adrenalin rush had not subsided, so I was able to use this newfound energy to conquer the rest of the hike.

After the epic rock climb, the hike continued to be a challenge, but the beauty that surrounded me distracted any negative thinking.  After coming home from this hike I was filled with a new energy, that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.

Emergency Room Experience

So I had a little accident recently. Let’s just say the sidewalks in South Korea are vicious! You would think with all the hiking and adventures I have been on, I would have earned this battle wound with some dignity.

It was just a normal day. I threw on some cute black boots and took off for work. The walk to work only takes about 5-10 minutes, but of course I always choose to leave at the last minute possible. I was rushing to work when all of the sudden, BAM, I wiped out on the sidewalk. I did not trip on anything, and I was wearing flat shoes. I guess the sidewalk must have pulled a sneak attack or something! I gathered myself as quickly as possible and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I could tell the Korean people  did not know how to react. They shyly gave me a nod, and I gave them a thumbs up to let them know I was all good. I started walking again, and I realized I had twisted my ankle pretty bad during the fall, then the stinging in my knee started to kick in. I took a deep breath and knew I did not have time to process what had just happened.

When I got to work, I took off my boot, and my ankle was already starting to swell up pretty bad. It did not matter, this is Korea, there is NO getting out of work! I put on my tough face and convinced myself it would be fine. As the day progressed, the pain intensified. Once I got home, I could barely take off my boots, because my ankle was so swollen.

I decided to call my Korean friend for advice on what to do. She advised I go to the emergency room right away. If you know me, then you know that I avoid doctors like the plague. Add a language barrier into the mix, and lets just say I was loaded with anxiety. I tried to debate the issue, but my friend would not let me put this off. I texted my friend Eric, who is a Korean-American, to help me on this journey.

When we got to the hospital, there were a ton of police officers at the entrance. I found out later there was a protest/riot at the hospital (Sketch! ). Most of the time I feel Seoul is very safe, especially when comparing it to Atlanta, but my area is not the nicest part of the city. I am not sure what the protest was about, but whatever it was required about 10-20 police officers to stand guard.

The hospital was very old, and it was not very busy. We checked in, then I immediately saw the doctor. I am so thankful I had Eric with me. After Eric explained my situation, the doctor directed the nurse to go somewhere. All the sudden she came back with a needle in her hand. I joked to Eric saying, “What if that is for me,”, then unfortunately my joke became reality. She motioned me over, and took me behind the curtain. She gestured for me to lower my pants, and then she gave me a shot in my hip/upper butt area.

After the useless shot in the butt, we waited for the doctor to come back with further directions. Suddenly, I noticed a repulsive smell. Then a stretcher came through with what I am guessing was a homeless man. I am not sure what happened to him, but seeing him on the stretcher really freaked me out. He smelt of Urine and filth. It was disgusting.  I could tell I was not the only person bothered by the smell. Everyone there, was turning their heads with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. There was not much privacy in the ER.  This particular hospital seemed very old. Also, I do not live in a very nice area, but apparently hospitals in the southern and newer parts of Seoul are super high-tech and fancy. The room was lined with beds and stations from end to end, and some of the beds were separated by curtains.

I began to get nauseous from the smell of the man, so I was very relieved when it was time to get my X-ray. As we waited for the results, the doctor called for my foot to be splinted. I assumed they would give me a small brace or ankle splint, but instead they wrapped up my entire leg! I was convinced my leg was broken. Eric talked to the doctor about my X-Ray results. Luckily the doctor did not think it was broken, but because of the amount of swelling, I was told to come back the following day.

My friend Heewon was there to take me the following day. The routine was the same. Check in, get a shot in the but, x-ray , then receive a ridiculously huge splinted cast. At least the second time there were no stinky homeless people!

Currently I am still recovering. I am slightly limited in what I can do. Looks like no hiking for a about a month, and I need to take it easy going dancing until the wee hours of the night. Luckily the weather is absolutely beautiful, so I am going to check out a beach close to Inchon this weekend. More blogs will be coming soon!

St Patricks Day in Seoul

Being from Savannah, Georgia, I have spent my whole life celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  For those of you who don’t know, Savannah has one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the entire world. This year, it was projected that a million tourists visited Savannah for the parade and festivities this year. As a young girl I marched in the parade with my father, and throughout my university years I was always excited to come home  and celebrate with old friends.

Horse @ St. Patrick'S Day in Savannah, Georgia

In Savannah everything is dyed green, from the fountains, to parts of the Savannah River, to the beer, and even to the animals! Traditionally the day starts with mass at St. John’s Cathedral. After church, bars start opening as early as 6:00am. Many people have to guarantee a spot to see the parade the night before. Many locals claim the squares where they set up tents for family and friends to gather and enjoy the festivities. As March turned its corner, facebook and other social networks were full of statuses and updates about this years festivities. My nostalgia began to kick in, and for the first time I was slightly homesick. I never once thought that I would have the chance to celebrate St. Patricks day here in Seoul.

 

 

 

As March 17th drew closer, I kept looking for an activity to fill my void. Believe it or not, Seoul has a ton of Irish pubs, so I figured I would  at least enjoy a Guinness, or possibly some Irish Car Bombs, to get into the  holiday spirit. As I perused facebook two events caught my eye. One was a St Patrick’s Day Booze Cruise, and the other an actual Irish festival!

Originally I was going to sign up for the booze cruise, but I missed the early bird special; when I went to sign up, it was 60,000 won (roughly $55.00 USD). The Irish Festival was free so I figured it was a better choice. I am very glad with my decision because the Irish Festival was a blast.

 

St. Patrick’s Day Seoul 2012 Schedule:

12:30-13:00 US 8th Army Band
13:00-13:20 Introductory speeches by Irish Ambassador, Dr. Eamonn McKee and IAK chair Conor O’Reilly
13:20-13:50 Banu (traditional Irish group)
13:50-14:20 Tap Pung dancers (audience encouraged to join the Irish dancing)
14:20-15:00 Have No Name (Korean U2 tribute band)
15:00-15:30 Bard (Korean traditional Irish band)
15:30-15:45 Rince Dancers
15:45-16:00 Bard (Korean traditional Irish band)
16:00-16:30 Tap Pung dancers (audience encouraged to join the Irish dancing)
16:30-16:45 Banu (traditional Irish group)
16:45-17:20 Dara Sheehan (Irish contemporary)
17:20-18:00 Sweet Murphy’s Fancy (contemporary rock band)

 


My friend David and I arrived at the festival around 3:00pm. I met with my old college roommate, Heewon and her boyfriend. It was fun to watch my Korean friends’ reactions to all the shenanigans. I think they were just as shocked as I was that an Irish Festival was happening in Seoul. Most of the people at the festival were westerners, and it seemed a majority of the crowd was from Ireland or Canada. Everyone was festive in their green attire, and there was plenty of dancing and merriment all around!
After the festival, my friends and I headed to Itaewon (the international district) for dinner and late night debauchery. We enjoyed a delicious Korean BBQ meal, then headed to Rocky Mountain Tavern to join the after party. The bar was jam packed, and there were separate Irish bands playing on each floor of the bar! It was wild. After a while, it got a bit too crowded so my friends and I wandered elsewhere. The rest of our night was spent dancing the night away in the Itaewon district.
I definitely would say that St. Patrick’s Day in Seoul was a success. I think one of the most amazing parts was being able to share it with the international community. In Savannah, most of the people who come to celebrate are from the states, but in Seoul, I was able so share this experience with people from all over the world! That aspect definitely contributed to this unique and incredible experience.