We Laughed, Then We Cried – Yehdahm Kweon and Rebecca Kim

Our last few days in Korea have been bittersweet. There have been many goodbyes, hugs, and well wishes. It is hard to believe that two full months have gone by. Looking back, we have come a very long way and made lots of progress. Our last day at KumKang was on Thursday. We had a slideshow of the pictures that were taken over the past two months, and had a small pizza party with the students. It is amazing how close we have gotten with the kids; we were even able to see some students blossom from shy to energetic and excited. There was lots of energy at KumKang School that day. Many of the students do not have much stability or consistency in their day to day lives. Even in the short time that we have been there, we have seen multiple forms of volunteers come in and out of the school. Although a relatively short volunteer program will not solve the entire issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, it is one small step in understanding the situation in depth, and spreading awareness about it. In the case of Kum Kang School, some volunteers place a label on the students as “North Korean Refugee Children” which ultimately sounds like a charity case. However, a big lesson that we all learned during our time here is that these children are just like any other kids. They throw tantrums, play games, and can be better actors than professional athletes.

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And though we’ve said our goodbyes, it certainly doesn’t mean it is the end. What we established in the two months of learning and working with these students is the very first of hopefully many meetings between Duke students and KumKang School. Perhaps the program will develop to have a structure penpal system so that the students and the student-teachers can keep in touch. And maybe the difficulties faced and mistakes made in this first trial will be fixed in joint effort in coming years. We leave with high hopes for the following summer and the incredible experience of learning from the students as much as they learned from us.

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DESK Week 7 – Anna Olekanma

Role Playing!!

Throughout our time at Kumgang school, we’ve noticed that our students, like any other kids their age, tend to play a little rough. So with only two weeks left here, Team A decided to try something new. While writing up our lesson plans for the last two weeks of class, we added a new activity called role playing. We designed our role playing to consist of different situations that the students come across in their daily lives. We would then describe the situations to the students and then ask them what they should do and what they should not do in that situation. After answering correctly, the teachers would then act out a short version of the situation with polite language and then after that we would allow the students to act out the scenes as well. For example, we used situations such as what to do when one student accidentally pushes/hits another student, how to say please and thank you, how to ask for help in certain situations etc. When we tried out role playing for the first time, it worked out better than we thought. The students were actively engaged and they understood that it was better to handle a situation politely rather than angrily. They definitely had the most fun acting out the situations and even asked for more scenes! However,as the teachers, we were worried that the children were just having fun with the acting and not actually incorporating them into their behavior. However, one day we happened to be doing role playing and while acting, a student accidentally hurt another student. Surprisingly, the student apologized and the injured student quietly accepting without retaliating, as they would have done before. After seeing the peaceful resolution of that real life situation and the change in the children’s behavior since we starting role playing, it feels especially good to know that as teachers we are able to leave small life lessons behind for the students. We also found a better way in getting the students to actually participate in class!

National Museum of Korea

From the large site of the National Museum of Korea

From the large site of the National Museum of Korea


For this Friday’s excursion, we had the opportunity to meet the very talented fresco painter Jin Young-Sun, who also taught two art classes at Duke last semester. After a brief introduction into different art styles found in Korea from ancient times to the present, we were able to explore the exhibits at the National Museum of Korea, which holds many of Korea’s national treasures. On a guided tour through the museum we were taken through the astounding art of the first ancient three kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula, then introduced to art from the neighboring regions in China and Southeast Asia, which included the magnificent 6th-century statue of the Pensive Bodhisattva and many other ­Buddha statues. Beside each section in the museum, there were tutorials placed nearby that showed the long processes that took to make each ceramic bowl, or Buddha statue, or painting, etc. So while walking through these wonderful exhibits of gold statues, delicate ceramics and calligraphy, we were able to learn to really appreciate the hard work and time that was put into each piece and every little intricate detail. Surprisingly we also learned that it was not Johannes Gutenberg who first created the movable metal type printing press! China invented the first movable type printing technology, while Korea then invented the first movable metal type printing technology and then Gutenberg invented the improved movable metal printing press in Europe nearly 80 years later. For Professor Jin, this is an important clarification that she is currently trying to spread. This trip was definitely as nice detour from the topic of unification and just more about the history of Korea through its art over time.

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A golden crown from the Silla exhibit at the museum

A golden crown from the Silla exhibit at the museum

Professor Jin Young-Sun

Professor Jin Young-Sun

A painting from Professor Jin

A painting from Professor Jin

Gaining insight into Korean art history from Professor Jin

Gaining insight into Korean art history from Professor Jin

Checking out some exhibits at the National Museum of Korea

Checking out some exhibits at the National Museum of Korea

Dialogues. – Won-Ji Lee

The progress with most of the Chinese-speaking students is continuing at a steady pace. However, one of the students was in a bad mood and completely shut down on Monday morning. After multiple attempts to get her to start her work, we left her alone for most of the morning; however, towards the afternoon, she bounced back and whizzed through her reading. I realize that even this late into the program, these kinds of phases can happen and that the best thing to do is just leave her be until she is ready to learn.

With the older 4th and 6th grade students, we continued to review the English alphabet, as many of them still get confused over certain ones. Playing games like Bingo and fly swatter, we are hoping to fill in these holes in their English knowledge in a fun and interactive way. We are also gravitating toward a more artistic direction with the students to give them a physical final product before we leave them at the end of our program. We mentioned that we will be leaving them in less than two weeks, and were greeted by some a variety of responses. Half of the class gave us blank stares and the other half were cracking jokes about it with a laugh. I am personally conflicted about this reaction. It is relieving to see the students who were laughing about it, as it hopefully means that saying goodbye will not be as hard. But it is simultaneously saddening because perhaps it means that we as teachers, did not make enough of an effort to reach out and connect with these students. For the kids who gave us blank stares, although we do not know what was going on in their minds, I am also hoping that saying goodbye to them will not be difficult. Towards the end of the day, we had to confront one of the older students about bullying his classmate. As we were playing a game he suddenly threw a younger classmate on the ground for being in his space. After class, we lectured him on the principles of treating others with respect and how important that will be later on in life. The brashly confident 6th grader was a different person when being lectured. His head was down, would not make eye contact, and was dead silent. Although he did not say a word, we are hoping that our words reached him at least a little bit. Even approaching the final days of the program, we are still faced with both new and old problems.

On Wednesday evening, our group attended Dialogue in the Dark. Though unrelated to our work at the school, this was a surprisingly powerful experience. We were able to catch a glimpse of what it means to be blind. For a 90-minute walking tour, we were accompanied by a blind “roadmaster” through pitch blackness. We navigated through simulations of a forest, a busy road, a food market, rode a “motorboat,” and tasted some soft drinks in the absolute darkness. We tried to guess what our soft drinks were, but were corrected by our roadmaster, who could tell the differences between soft drinks by their smell and the size and shape of the can! When we first entered the tour, many of us were nervous and scared, but by the end, our roadmaster’s hearty laugh and reassuring voice made the darkness into something comforting.

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark

Progress. – Won-Ji Lee

We had gone into Tuesday with the same openness and optimism to teach the kids, but were a bit disappointed to see that all but the Chinese-speaking students had not come in until around 4:30. The rest of the students apparently have a new after-school program arranged by the Kumgang School and the public school to attend, that helps with their homework. Although the timing of the start of this new program is unfortunate, we have discussed it with the Kumgang teachers, Professor Kim, and Professor Kwon and are hoping to sort out what we can do to maximize the use of our skills. It would be a disappointment if any of the potential manpower of each of our DukeEngage members, goes wasted. With the Chinese-speaking students, however, every period seemed to flow regularly and with relative consistency. It is amazing to think of just how close we have gotten to these kids after just a short week. The sheltered body language and cold, disapproving looks some of us experienced on the first day with the kids, have now dissolved into an openness. We are at the point now where we know the students’ temperaments, natural inclinations, tics, and the best ways to reach them. With every funny face we make, every word taught, and every goading scold, these relationships are becoming more and more real by each day. After continued lessons in English, and even singing One Direction songs, we said our goodbyes for another day. But as we were leaving, we were followed by one of the younger students who came to us in tears. As we picked her up, she explained that she was crying because she missed her mother. We wiped her tears and assured that everything was going to be okay. Personally, it was a hard reminder of just how real these students’ situations and our relationships to them are.

Later that day, we traveled to Ewha University and separated into four different groups to continue our Korean studies with Ewha University students, courtesy of Professor Kim’s “connections.” Our teacher was another Professor Kim, who was a very friendly Ph. D student. We learned some basic grammar and held some basic conversations. In the next weeks, we will be meeting in a classroom at Ewha, learning more Korean, travelling to the Han River, and even trying to learn some different Korean dialects.

Thursday, half of our group went to teach the Chinese-speaking kids for the morning and early afternoon. As I was reading a Korean text along with one of the students about Christopher Columbus, I had one of those mind-boggling moments, pondering the situation I was in. Here I was, a Korean American, translating a Korean text into English, so it could be translated into Chinese, about European history of the colonization of America, to a North Korean student raised in China, now learning in a school in South Korea. It’s amazing how our unthinkably convoluted paths can align for a couple moments in our lives. Other than these kinds of cliché thoughts popping into my mind, the rest of the day consisted of several fights breaking out between the students, ending up with one bursting out the door with tears. After attempting to comfort her in Korean and wiping her tears, we sent her off and had lunch. Later in the afternoon, the Chinese-speaking students continued their curriculum with the other half of our group and we worked on math with a handful of sixth grade students, as all of the other students went to the hospital to receive vaccine shots. With the help of one of the regular math teachers at Kumgang, we were able to help the sixth grade students really focus and hone their skills in long multiplication, long division, and mixed fraction addition.

Later that night, at the group reflection session, we discussed our thoughts this week. We have made great progress with the Chinese-speaking students, as they are consistently at the school when we are, but we are hoping to get the same kind of consistency with the rest of the students next week!

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Week 3: Fist Bumps and a Surprise Twist – Anna Olekanma

At 9 o’clock Monday morning, Team A started off our second week of teaching at the Kumgang school. Our morning proceeded on as usual, as we went through Korean languages exercises with the Chinese-speaking students. However the afternoon greeted us with quite a surprise. 2:40 pm hit and Team B arrived on time, however none of the students had returned from school. 3:00 passed, then 3:30 pm and in that time only two students had returned from the local public school. At 4:00 pm, we figured that rather than waiting for them, it would be better to ask the principal about the students’ whereabouts. Turns out, that she was also surprised that the students had not yet returned from school and so she decided to give the school a call. After inquiring about the situation, the principal explained that the school had started a new program for the North Korean students and that they would be returning late from school throughout the week due to testing. Throughout the week, the students trickled in little by little starting from 3:00 pm, which caused our classes to be overstaffed, often having 2 or 3 teachers to one student, which definitely helped in terms of being able to cater exclusively to each student and controlling the class atmosphere. This week we didn’t end up strictly sticking to our intended lesson plans because of the lack of students, however we found that the lessons that we were able to do, were very successful and were really able to get the kids engaged. It could be that our lessons were particularly good this week or that the students are now starting to feel more comfortable with their new foreign teachers. This week there was a noticeable increase in participation by the students and even in our relationships with the students. As you walk down the main hallway of the school, it’s encouraging to see several animated conversations and inside jokes between students and teachers and the occasional creative handshakes and high fives. In just two weeks, we, as teachers, have learned how to get the kids to pay attention and how to balance serious class time with fun activities. It has also become easier to deal with the random surprises that seem to pop up each day and adjust our plans when necessary. We have been able to learn from the students and the school administration just as much as they are learning from us.

On Friday, for our weekly excursion, we were the granted the opportunity to go to Seoul National University (SNU). It is comprised of sixteen colleges and six professional schools and is considered to be the top university in South Korea and approximately the fourth highest university in all of Asia. The university maintains several undergraduate exchange programs with foreign universities including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford, UPenn, MIT, and Peking University. As we walked through the campus, I was taken aback by the size and beauty of the campus. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking and includes the Gwanaksan mountain as a lovely backdrop, with several ponds and innovative architecture. For the first couple of hours of our trip, we were hosted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University (IPUS). The Institute primarily focuses on peace studies around the world and conducts many research projects that will ultimately provide insight into unification issues on the Korean Peninsula. According to SNU, IPUS concentrates on three dimensions: peace through inter-Korean reconciliation, peace through the promotion of cultural and human rights, and peace through ecological civilization. We were able to listen to lectures by three professors that work with IPUS. The first lecture by Professor Philo Kim, a Humanities professor at SNU, talked about Inter-Korean relations. That was followed by Professor Young Hoon Song, a Senior Researcher at IPUS, who discussed the lives of refugees, including their travel routes from North Korea, assimilation into South Korean societies and the status of North Korean refugees in other countries outside of the Korean Peninsula. The last lecture was by Professor Byung-Yeon Kim, Deputy Director and Professor of Economics at SNU (and also the father of one of our classmates at Duke!), who looked at the prospect of unification from an economic viewpoint. We found that all of the lectures provided facts and ideas from a fresh neutral viewpoint, in contrast to the more South Korea-centric lectures that we heard at the Ministry of Unification Education. At the end of the lectures we were able to visit the famous Kyujanggak Archives, which was the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty starting from 1776. Inside were several old documents written by scholars of the Joseon period, on topics ranging from astrology and maps to tools and language studies. We ended the day with a quick trip to Gangnam, a well-known part of Seoul (thanks to the song Gangnam Style by Psy) where we picked up some refreshing bubble teas.

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The Adventure at Kumgang Begins – Drew Korschun and Jina Yun

We said goodbye to our first few days of freedom that we had in simply exploring our new home for the summer, and we also said goodbye to our fascinating journey to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification and the DMZ. It was our first week at Kumgang School (금강 학교) our purpose for traveling to Seoul in the first place. We would no longer be explorers, but residents. No longer passive learners, but active participants.

The only taste of the school we had gotten was a very brief visit to the school we had made the day before (we’re talking ten minutes), where we got to simply look at the campus, greet the principal, and see a group of smiling kids standing in the large room they had to do activities in.

On the first morning, we took the subway early just for precaution, going from Hongdae Station across the Han River to Shindorim Station, transferring to another line and finally ending up at Gaebong Station. By this time we were already accustomed to the subway, so we didn’t end up making fools of ourselves by falling or swaying due to the speed. Dressed up in business casual style, we rode clustered together, anticipating how our first day plans would turn out.

When we arrived at the school, we met one of the teachers at the school, Ms. Ko (Ko seonsaengnim) for the first forty-minute period of the day in order to get better acquainted with the school’s operation before we met the students and in order to ask some of the pressing questions we had. How were we to address them? Were we to use chondetmal (formal language) or panmal (informal language)? What exactly was she and the other people who run the school exactly expecting of us during this seven-week engagement? Ms. Ko let us know that we could speak to the kids informally and address them by their given names. She also said that first things first, we should help the kids with the homework they brought from their regular South Korean public schools, and after that, focus quite a bit on English, Math, and when possible Korean (especially for the kids who know more Chinese than Korean). We took all of this in, and a handful of the group got ready to work with the kids who stay at the school in the morning.

There were only two students at Kumgang in the morning, though there were usually four who stayed back at the school so that they could catch up in learning Korean so that they could soon join regular Korean public schools. As we were told earlier in the year, most of these North Korean refugees have come to South Korea by route of China, so many of them have spent the majority of their lives in China, speaking Chinese the most fluently and sometimes even feeling nationally Chinese rather than Korean. Since Michelle speaks Chinese fluently and I can get by in conversational Chinese, we both went into the reading room where two Chinese-speaking boys, one eleven years old and the other, fourteen, were sitting expectantly. Jina also accompanied us, and later as did most of the other DESKalators (a self-chosen denomyn for those in Duke Engage South Korea). We mainly worked on Korean passages with the boys, and so we were equally dependent on the Korean-speaking DESKalators for understanding the material and on the Chinese speakers for conveying the information to them so they’d understand. It was not easy material for the students, and it wasn’t easy material to teach either. I hope that we were an encouraging force for them though, able to make them excited about learning new things (or even the same things but with a different language-paradigm). Since these students are now residents of South Korea, and by some strange twist of fate, China can no longer be their country and they must adopt this new one and become familiar with its ways. I’m never against encouraging foreign languages, but it does seem quite a pity that foreign language learning for countless refugees and migrants around the world has to come in the context of being thrown into the unfamiliar and having to unlearn what they’ve already spent their lives learning and making progress in. I hope that these students all learn to love the Korean language for its beauty, complex and simple, as well as the peninsula that language is spoken in, and I will do by best to speak to them in Korean when possible. But of course, it is priceless to see little eyes widen in wonder and joy when they learn that some of their new teachers can converse with them in their heart language.

After working in a very individual-focused manner until around 2:30, the rest of the kids at Kumgang came back from their public schools, and for the rest of the day, it was, to be quite frank, chaotic. The students, I’m sure, were wary of us as outsiders coming in to volunteer for the summer (as many have already experienced South Korean and American students coming in to volunteer before), but they were also very excited to meet us, and we DESKalators were more than excited to meet all of them. In that first period, we did an ice breaker game in the large upstairs room, which was certainly a way for the kids to channel their abundant energy. In the game, everyone made a circle and someone had to say “I love [something],” and if other people in the circle love that something, they had to switch places, and whoever didn’t have a pair of shoes to stand in front of had to go next and say something they love.

I think the energy levels were certainly a surprise for most of us. Some kids would slam the door and say “Merong” (a kind of “nanny nanny boo boo”), run and yell, and on the other hand, some would choose not to participate in activities. There were also a lot of violent tendencies that we noted: hair-pulling, casual pretending to choke each other, and sometimes slapping. We wonder how much of their past trauma in the family realm and in the realm of international migration has affection their lives today – their mood, outlook, levels of trust with certain people, and their need for attention. Kumgang is essentially a boarding school, and while majority of the kids seemingly get to see their parents on the weekend, some of the kids rarely have the opportunity to see their parents (some only get to see them two days out of the year). Learning facts like this is tough, but it also puts things into perspective when it comes to dealing with behavioral issues and giving them the attention that they need and deserve. Throughout the days, we also wondered what exactly was the purpose of our volunteering at the school. Is learning material like English and Math really the big take-away for these kids this summer? It would definitely be great if the students were able to have a portfolio or a project to explore their identities and their dreams, and I’m sure that would be a great thing, created by the students themselves, to leave behind But maybe the attention we give them during the school week will be equally important.

Some things about us as the teachers, though, inevitably threw up some barriers. First and foremost, language greatly affected our interactions with the kids. Only two of us speak Chinese, and most of us speak Korean on a very wide spectrum of ability. But honestly, a lot of the time, speaking feels like bumbling around, especially for me. I’m trying my best to communicate, but sometimes the language ability barrier makes me sound awkward and unconfident – something I will have to improve on through the weeks, and which I am sure will naturally get better by just interacting with the students every day.

Secondly, for many students, people of different races was a huge novelty. For example, when Anna walked into one classroom, one boy asked her if she had eaten too much chocolate, and if that was why her skin looked different. A lot of the students are also very eager to feel my arm hair and ask if my legs look the same (since white people tend to have more body hair…). All of the students are really sweet and are very accepting of us, however, despite some differences. I think that it’s an exciting experience for them, but it’s equally exciting for us teachers to learn from all of the kids, who vary a lot in personality, age, language, interests, and more.

A difficulty we encountered on this first day was that it seemed that none of the kids had any homework that they had brought from their public Korean schools. As well, many of the kids different greatly in level, and we found out that age does not necessarily correspond with grade level. We would have to come up with ways to engage everybody’s interest and learning while also catering to different levels. A balancing act between group learning and one-on-one help would be necessary.

Overall, the second day went much more smoothly than the first. We were starting to remember a majority of the students’ names, and we were much more confident in what we were to expect from the school day. We had prepared concrete lessons and worksheets for the students, and we found that doling out very specific assignments was a great way to keep the students engaged, diligent, and free from rowdiness. However, we also started to learn that balancing the more fun subjects with the harder, not as dynamic ones was important for keeping the students engaged and channeling their energy when it started to show up more.

We also learned that the students are in love with certain K-pop groups (*cough* EXO *cough*) as well as American animation (*cough* Frozen *cough*), so engaging them in their own interests, we found, was crucial. We had a great time teaching some of the English lyrics to “Let it Go” from Frozen, and letting them partake in creative assignments such as one in which they were able to create and draw their very own animal and tell the class about where it lives, what it eats, and why they wanted to create it. However, the week at Kumgang teaching and getting to know these students has definitely shown the flaws of the glitzy world of Hallyu (the Korean pop culture wave) in not being representative with the reality of Korea’s people of diverse backgrounds. While fun to engage in music and culture, it is always a good idea to question what kind of image of Korea it props up and what type of Korean person it promotes (in terms of beauty, wealth, ethnicity, language, and so on). I am beyond excited to keep on moving throughout the weeks here in Seoul, on the streets and in the school. I know that there are great plans ahead of us, even if they are foggy at the moment, and we DESKalators will do our best to carpe the diem and live haru-haru (day by day).

Similar to Tuesday, we only taught in the afternoon on Wednesday. We used the same teaching strategies from the day before and tried to plan a lesson or an activity for each period while separating into two smaller classes. Even though the kids were willing to participate and pay attention on Tuesday, they were oddly in a bad mood on Wednesday. It seemed as though that if one of them was in a bad mood, it brought down the mood of all the other kids in the class. This really heightened their slightly violent behavior and most of them had a harder time focusing and staying motivated to learn. A lot of the kids tried to either leave or sleep instead of participating in class. We were a bit confused and unsure about the source of this mood swing, but we suspect that a lot of this is because they are not allowed to leave the school during most of the day. Furthermore, we made the grand mistake of having the two classes play at different times. When one class was playing, the other class that was having a lesson was chaotic because the kids were complaining that they did not get to play as well. We definitely learned it the hard way that playtime should be at the same time for both classes.

We faced another obstacle later in the day when the principal brought in two new students who cannot speak a word of Korean. We were quite unprepared because we were never told about these new students, but we handled the situation with grace by separating one of the classes into two smaller classes and having one class that focused on learning Korean for these Chinese-speaking students. We quickly got a sense of their skill levels and made worksheets for them on the spot for them to start learning with the other students.
It was pretty clear during the past couple days that communication with the principal was lacking and inefficient. In order to solve this problem, a couple of us went to speak to her about our concerns regarding this issue. Even though we expected some positive responses, we were disappointed by her reaction. It was clear that they had numerous administrative difficulties, confusion about details, lack of knowledge about the kids. But despite this incident, we continued to remain professional and positive towards our relation with them, because in the end, we are here for the kids.

Besides a couple difficulties throughout the day, it was definitely clear that we were all improving in controlling the kids in the class, teaching the classes, and handling unexpected situations. The kids also seemed to be growing fonder of all of us. There was definitely a gap between the kids and us on the first day of teaching, but the kids were now hanging on our arms, playing with our hair, and giving us drawings of us. Even though it was only our third day with the kids, it was amazing how much we were able to reach out to them.

For Thursday, our last teaching day of the week, Professor Kim joined us! It was initially very confusing because we thought that we would only be teaching the Chinese-speaking kids in the morning and the regular class in the afternoon, we found out that all the kids were going to be in the school all day. We split up the morning into two classes where a group of us taught the Chinese-speaking kids Korean and the other kids played together and worked on the computer. For the Chinese-speaking kids, we focused on more one-on-one time for personal attention and help, which we found to be very valuable. The kids not only were more open to learning, but also were able to focus better. In the afternoon, we had regular lessons like we did before. The kids seemed to be a lot better about paying attention, maybe because they were able to release a lot of their energy by playing in the morning. We tried to teach them English by singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. The class was quite successful! The kids really loved it and were mostly willing to participate. Through this class, the kids opened up more even more to us and some were even sad that we were not going to be coming on Friday.

We started our Friday with a North Korean food workshop. We learned how to make potato dumplings (감자 만두) and tofu rice (두부밥). Potato dumplings are famous in 함경도, a region in North Korea while tofu rice is a traditional food, in some ways North Korean version of South Korea’s 떡볶이. We had the chance to learn about the foods, learn how to make them, and even make it ourselves! After our food workshop, we headed to 인사동where we walked around and explored the streets. Next, we went to 남산타워 by taking a cable car to the top of the mountain. We were able to see the locks that people put on the fences and saw beautiful night lights once the sun set. It was a busy and a tiring day, but a valuable experience filled with exciting events where we were able to learn more about the Korean culture.