Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

It wasn’t until last year that I failed to make it home for Thanksgiving for the first time. I spent the whole Thursday (illogically) mopey, sad that my Korean and Canadian friends wouldn’t ask me about why Thanksgiving is so important to me. I had one of my favorite dinners, samgyeopsal, with a big group of coworkers, followed by a tinder date, and still nothing seemed to fill the gaping hole in my chest where usually I had an overfull heart at this time.

A few weeks ago, I was skyping my mom, and she seemed genuinely shocked as to why Thanksgiving is so important to my brother and I. Why some arbitrarily chosen holiday, Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas, or Easter, or the Fourth of July? Why did we seem to choose this one to stake all of our fondest childhood memories on this one holiday? Just go shell out for some overpriced Thanksgiving banquet, my mom agreed, since I had told her there were many such events at American-owned restaurants in Seoul.

But, of course, it’s not about the food, is it? (I’m already sad enough to miss my mom’s cooking, but that’s not the point.)

It’s not about that p r o b l e m a t i c history of the holiday, tied into all sorts of Americana and patriotism. I know for a lot of Americans there is not a lot to celebrate, either because their rights and lands are being actively undermined, or because there isn’t much to celebrate in the way of family.

My family, then, is a superb rarity. Where everyone actually wants to see each other, there aren’t any blood feuds or big arguments, and everyone on both sides of the family comes together over food and tradition.  Thanksgiving is about family, really, about spending time with those who you love. It hit me right in the heart last year to see all the pictures of all the family members I was missing.

It’s not just a meal. We wake up early to do a “turkey trot” race, at least half of the family do. It’s only a 5k, but it makes you feel better about all the food you’re about to consume. After everyone is showered and in warm clothes, and usually after we’ve consumed a few gallons of salad between us all for lunch, that’s when the real work begins. Mom and the aunts prepare the food, and it’s my job to set the table. Or at least, it was. The last year I was there for Thanksgiving, I tried to teach my brother how to do it. I doubt he retained any of the information, just passing the duty along to one of the aunts or cousins instead. Dinner begins at 3 or 4, depending on when all of the family members arrive, and there’s a brief interlude in the middle where some dishes are cleared away and everyone rests their stomachs for dessert. Dessert is, after all, my mom’s favorite part of the meal. There are often up to 20 people who come to each Thanksgiving, and nobody goes away hungry. The best part, during and after all of this, is the talk. We almost never get to see so many family members at one time, except for at Thanksgiving. After long chats, some family members leave that night, some leave the next morning, and some might stay until sometime in the weekend. In past years, I would have to get up early to work or go to swim practice, but I even enjoyed this part of the experience, getting ready quietly to make my triumphant return later when most of the family members had only just woken up.

That was home. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime during my time at university, the feeling when I came home became more and more temporary. This is not a lack of feeling welcome, to be clear. Like Frodo and the Fellowship staying over at Rivendell, they wanted to stay forever but the feeling was the same: “You cannot stay here. Your destination is farther on. You must move on.” That Rivendell feeling accompanied me every time I went home after that, no matter how long or how brief the stay.

What is home? Is it merely a place to rest your head and keep your stuff? Is it, as my fellow millennials say, “the place where the wi-fi connects automatically”? (If so, then I have scores of “homes.”) Is it the place where you don’t have to explain yourself to others? I’m still exploring this, even now. I’m not sure whether my home for 22 years feels more real and tangible than my home for the past 2, even though I’ve fought so fiercely for the past few to keep it and keep on living here.

After all of those negative emotions surrounding my favorite holiday, I was fully prepared to have another horrifically sad Thanksgiving this year. Instead, I had a good little dinner with my best friends here, went to bed early, woke up early and cleaned my house, grabbed Starbucks for breakfast, and skyped my family over breakfast on Black Friday morning (in my time). It was right in the middle of dinner, and my heart was so full seeing all my family gathered there, so normal. You almost expect, when your own world is so different from what it was before, that everyone else’s lives are irreparably changed, too. So it’s at once jarring and comforting to see everyone in the same old way, gathering in the way they always have, and hopefully continuing to do so when I get back, too.

A toast, to continuity.

(Homeworld 2: Seoul, what is home, or beginner’s guide to Seoul).


on the other side of the desk

on the other side of the desk

It’s become the dead of fall, giant leaves crowding the sidewalks and crunching underfoot. Winter is nearly here. But there’s still one more experience to recount from this eventful summer, full of beach getaways, international vacations, and smaller things like hikes and Pride. That’s not what colored the atmosphere for most of the summer for me, though. What really occupied most of my thoughts during this time was my Korean class at Yonsei University. While I learned a lot of words and grammar forms, I learned some more valuable things from my time there, which can apply to more places than just the Korean-speaking world.

Let’s take it from the top.

We started with a placement exam. When the results came out, I was floored by getting put in level 5 out of 8 levels (I was hoping for a solid level 2 or 3 after a year of study and a year of living here). So yeah. I was shook.  And throughout the entire class, while the other kids (I say kids, I was the youngest in the class by 5-10-20 years) seemed to have learned most of the grammar before, I was scrambling to pick up the pieces. I communicated mostly through jokes and baby sentences, but I was able to communicate.

We got to talk about such awesome things! Like ethics and politics and attitudes towards a lot of things. This isn’t the baby class in university going over things like “What is your name?” “I’m an American.” “I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years,” kind of things. This kind of class, we were talking about friends with benefits or sugar mama situations (no sugar daddies, luckily), alcohol tolerances, and regional differences.  This class was so fun and so challenging that I would definitely say it was the best decision I made this year.

Not only learning Korean, I learned a lot about teaching a second language from our professor. It was my first time being “on the other side of the desk” since I had started to teach, after all.

1. Anything that’s worth doing, it’s worth doing again.

Your entire grade is based on the results of the final exam. While I was most nervous for the speaking (as within the context of the class, my speaking was decidedly the worst), I should have been more nervous about listening. Listening has never been my strong suit. That was the only section I failed. A month later, I headed back for a retest (side story: I sat in the auditorium with all the other kids thinking they were all there for a retest. But in reality, they were coming to take the placement test for the next semester. So much wasted time.) I did pass the second time, and it felt more rewarding to go back and do it right than just let that failing grade stick with me forever. I don’t get a certificate or put any kind of certification on my transcript because of this, but it feels good to “do it right.” In addition, I promised myself that I could only buy that Yonsei letterman jacket if I passed. So.

2. Put good in, get good out.

In a language learning setting, both routine and good attitude are key. One of our classmates would always come in late, and then stopped coming to class altogether. I suspect it was the lack of regularity that got to him. Especially in an adult language learning setting where you can’t really get the students to do homework, the routine of going to class is all you’ve got. In addition, good attitude is the other half of the equation. If you’re not interested in the class, it will be hard to do well and learn anything, but reframing it with better intentions will put you in the right mood to jump in constructively to the conversation.

3. Don’t be a Matthew

A parable: I have a student named Matthew (I always refer to him by name because the contrast between him and my friend Matt, an insanely gifted language learner, is intensely ironic to me) who never listens in class. All of the other girls in his fourth-grade class make an effort, or will ask questions when they don’t understand. They are willing to talk about anything if I can open up the conversation in a constructive way. Matthew listens intently perhaps 10% of the class, therefore learning and absorbing way less. It’s not possible to pay attention all the time, but many times listening and following along in the book are half the battle to understanding what the teacher is saying.

I learned the same thing in Korean class. You will understand more if you’re dedicatedly listening and paying attention as much as possible in class than if you’re zoning out. You can’t get back that lost time of not listening, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up the thread of a conversation that has taken a new turn in such a fast-paced class. Thus, just listen and a lot more things will come naturally, like learning and understanding. (NOT easily, just more naturally.)

4. You don’t have to understand every word.

Another pitfall I learned to avoid is not getting hung up on understanding every word of every sentence, or even every sentence. Many times, I might get hung up on a word and lose the meaning of the whole rest of the sentence, or even more as I frantically tried to look it up. (Sometimes our professor would write the word on the board to make that easier). Instead, much like looking into binoculars, you must focus a little wider on the meaning and feel of the sentence as a whole, how it fits into what the person is saying. I also did not understand a lot of the grammar forms that were being used, but again this zooming out really helped me to get the gist of things.

It turns out, in communication (which is kind of what learning languages is all about, after all), you just have to understand “enough,” to make an appropriate response and show the speaker that you’re listening and understanding. It doesn’t matter that the professor is a fluent speaker basically talking to a third-grader-level speaker like myself, if you have a mind to express those ideas and you have a willing listener, try your best.

5. Different learning philosophies are not necessarily or better or worse than one another.

In our class, we had 2 Taiwanese students, a Japanese guy, our Korean professor, and 2 Americans including myself. This often led to lively discussions about cultural differences, but one day our professor commented on the different ways that Eastern and Western students learn. I’ve also encountered this divide teaching ESL for the past almost-2-years here in Korea.

In the U.S, the focus is on understanding and applying the knowledge. This sounds stuck-up, but the exact grammar forms aren’t as important as being able to get your ideas across, as being able to manipulate the equation to be able to do what you want it to do, or being able to explain something. It’s teaching bigger concepts rather than individual points. There’s a lot more focus on explaining, elaborating, and discussing things than getting everything exactly correct.

In Korea and the East, it’s all about memorization. My little students last year had a speech that was a couple minutes long, that they would memorize word-for-word from reading and listening to my voice recording, together with adding carefully choreographed gestures and expressions. At a college level, this leads to the students taking diligent notes or taking pictures of the board or powerpoint slides and feverishly studying a stack of notecards ahead of the exam.

This is not to say that one style is better than the other, just different. Western students may come across as less smart than their Eastern counterparts because they have less-correct answers, perhaps, when their understanding is better suited to essay tests than their Eastern counterparts. Perhaps a little bit of both sides would make for the best language learner.

6. Talking is just as beneficial as “real” instruction.

While you buy a book to participate in the class and hope to learn most of the material from it, often jokes and real-life talks are better than strictly sticking to the book. I don’t remember the days where we just practiced grammar forms and new vocabulary words. I don’t really remember the grammar from those days, either. Instead, the days that were more fun and really stuck with me are the days where we talked about our actual lives, our homelands, where the professor would listen to the details of our drinking escapades or dating lives with all the relish of a saucy aunt. So I can say from real experience that talking about things that students actually care about and getting interested in their lives really gets them excited to talk.

(On the subject of jokes, I’ve also learned that not being afraid to make fun of yourself as a teacher is incredibly valuable and humanizes you to the students in the best possible way).

7. Gestures, sound effects, expressions are more than half of communication.

You don’t come to a class setting to only learn from a book. You don’t come to a class to listen to a CD recording. Communication is about a lot more than reading and listening, even more than just talking. Real communication is kind of messy, as I’ve learned from my bilingual attempts to talk with my first graders. It involves a lot of dramatic, mime-like gestures, sound effects (seriously considering starting a podcast or radio show I like my sound effects so much), and silly facial expressions convey almost more than the words themselves. You pick up other people’s expressions, too. From talking with my coteacher, Miss Tiffany, last year I’ve picked up a lot of facial expressions, and I learned a great deal more from the Korean professor, too. It’s a delicate art and a big joke at the same time, communicating, but there’s no one right answer.

8. Load on the examples.

The more examples, the better. This is also a function of comedic timing. When explaining a new concept, it’s so important to have as many examples as possible, and writing them down so that the students can follow the pattern is incredibly important, too. When my fourth graders and I played “Fannee Doolee” last year, we filled an entire whiteboard with the things Fannee Doolee likes before the students caught on that it was a spelling thing rather than a spoken thing. The humorous frustration when learning a language is all part of the game, but providing enough background knowledge for the kids to form their own connections is also important.

9. You get what you pay for.

Let’s say these days I work for a significantly cheaper hagwon then I did before. Now, the best students can learn from bad instruction, but the middling to struggling students won’t be able to learn in these ineffective settings. In the same way, at the college level instruction you will also reap the rewards from less-effective instructors. Perhaps you’re paying for the name, but perhaps you’re paying for more effective instructors who better know what they’re doing, and better materials to boot. If you want to go to a free language exchange, it might help, but having the formal direction of a class is more useful to guide your studies and learning, at the very least.

10. Any learning is better than no learning.

That being said, any effort towards learning a language is commendable. I know people who have lived here for a long time who, so far from being fluent, can barely string together a single sentence. Much of the Western world insists that immigrants learn English when moving to our countries, when in reality we are not willing to do the same when the reverse applies. I’m not saying you have to be government-level proficient in whatever your current country’s language is; any effort to learn and better yourself is commendable, no matter how small it may seem. Any way you choose to learn is also good. If you learn best from listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, magazines, or twitter, whatever is best for you is good. I don’t want to cast aspersions on different learning styles, but just that you should do it earnestly and be a good listener or reader, whatever you do to learn it.


Anyhow, I’m indebted to this class. I can’t necessarily say I’m miles better than when I started, but I’m more confident. I learned so much. It’s the badge of a language learner to realize how little you know, and I’m still discovering the gaps even now, doing my best to patch them up.

A toast to language learning, teaching, and communication, with all of their twists and turns.

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

I’ve gotten a bunch of worried comments from various adults in my life expressing their concern about this incident, so I’ve got to set the record straight.

Let me paint you a scene: young Simba has just returned after being rescued from the elephant graveyard that he has expressly been forbidden going to. His uncle (who definitely does not have his best interests at heart) was the one who told him about the elephant graveyard, so it’s really trusting one grown-up’s word over another. In tears, Simba explains to his father, Mufasa, “I was just trying to be brave like you!”

Mufasa replies, “I’m only brave when I have to be.  Simba…  Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.”

I use this analogy all the time to illustrate what I call the “Simba Complex.” I didn’t invent this idea, but I use it quite often to describe my boneheaded approach to life. When adults or other people have your best interests at heart and then you kind of… disregard that because you decide it doesn’t apply to you. This is one of the less-than-savory parts of my personality. I’m not proud of it. But I’m here today to say that it’s not 100% a bad thing, especially when traveling.

I got a lot of comments saying that the Daoist cult experience was “scary,” that it could have ended badly. I’m not dumb. I read articles all the time of women getting assaulted, killed, or mugged. It could happen to anyone. I’m not an entirely dumb, helpless child out in the world (contrary to what my stories may make it seem like.) It may seem like I get into crazy situations all the time, but I tell these stories (the getting-rescued-by-the-Korean-army story also comes to mind) not to illustrate their scary nature but rather because I’m a storyteller. I like to tell these stories to show how crazy and unpredictable this life is, not how frightening and tragic it can be. For those kind of stories, turn on your TV set or log on to twitter.

When traveling, of course, it is important to have a healthy amount of skepticism. Have your wits about you, one hand always on your bag, and eyes always looking around. You should be wary of talking to strangers. I understand this. But when you are traveling or living in a city you weren’t born in, your life will be considerably duller. How many of the best stories are made from chance encounters? How many amazing friends can you make that were once strangers? How many once-in-a-lifetime experiences can be made when you say “yes?” How dull of a trip to Vietnam would I have had if I didn’t take chances and go with my gut?

What I’m trying to say is, there’s room for both. If you follow your parents’ advice to a T and never talk to a single stranger, plan the ever-living hell out of your trip to leave no room for chance encounters and improvisation, or never leave your comfort zone, you will be safer. You can eliminate more of the variables from your experience. You can never control all of your experience, though. You can’t guarantee total safety. So improvise, talk to strangers, go off the grid and off-schedule, within reason. There’s a balance to be found. I haven’t really found it yet. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, my time is yet to come.

A toast to being dumb and lucky.

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

When this story was still fresh, I was actively prohibited from talking about it. once the prohibition had been lifted, I kind of forgot about it, except for referring to it as “that time I got recruited into a daoist cult.” They (being parents, teachers, anonymous travel blogs) often tell you about being careful in any of the big cities in the world: don’t get too drunk, don’t lose your money or your credit cards, don’t get into scuffles with the police, don’t leave your stuff unattended in a public place. Has anyone ever told you “be careful of who you talk to because they might conn you into joining a cult!”

This is that story.

I spend a lot of time in the city alone. I’m not dating anyone, I live alone, and it’s easier to get one person to go out to a cafe or restaurant than coordinating a lot of people from various places all over Seoul. As such, I spend a lot of time walking through crowded Hongdae streets alone. This works out mostly fine for me, except for after this incident. I had brought my laptop around and had intended to find a cafe to set up shop and write in. It was maybe 9:30 or 10 at night, so the cafe options are more limited, but still plentiful. The one I had wanted to go to, which I call “fern cafe” (that’s not its name), was too full or was having a staff meeting that night.

I was waiting for the stoplight to change when a boy and girl of about college age came up to me and started asking me questions. I’m immediately thrown off when somebody isn’t carrying flyers or hasn’t directly emerged from a store or outdoor table. (I must add at this point that I had just come from Vietnam, where talking to and befriending strangers had ((mostly)) yielded wonderful results). They seemed pretty genuine, and didn’t ask any of the leading questions that church people tend to ask you when getting you to join their church (yes, that even happens in Seoul). So, I was lulled into a false sense of security.

They asked me if I had ever worn a hanbok (traditional Korean dress), which I hadn’t for a myriad of reasons: fear of cultural appropriation, fear it wouldn’t fit me, too expensive, friends won’t do it with me, et cetera. They offered me a chance to wear one. I had heard of this sort of thing in Japan, where they had opportunities for foreigners to try on a kimono at a museum, to some backlash. They also said it was free. Free is my favorite word. I thought, these must be some college kids and they’re putting on some kind of event for their school club and they’re eager to get some more foreign faces for their promotional photo. So, stupid human that I am, I agreed.

w h y . . .

First of all, what they failed to mention is that their “studio” was not in Hongdae as I originally expected. They were not Hongik University students as I originally expected. We had to go way farther down the subway line and make a transfer. I didn’t notice this originally because the conversation flowed so nicely and I was so at ease throughout the ride.

We got to the studio and I got to choose my hanbok. I settled on an American-flag-colored one because I’m tacky and uncreative. Second of all, it wasn’t just taking pictures, it was a full-blown bowing to the ancestors ceremony. (This is apparently what the younger family members do at Chuseok or Seollal when they bow to the grandparents and ask for money.) This is damn hard work, and with no understanding of the old Korean chant that is being said, there’s no way to gauge how much time has passed.  There were other foreigners at the ceremony but I seemed to be the only one having trouble remembering the movements, trying to perform them fast enough, and struggling to not tear the skirts of my hanbok in half. I was sweating buckets by the end.

But wait! That wasn’t all. Then we cut up the fruits and other food offerings at the altar and got to eat them, washing them down with a shot of soju. (The boys assembled at the table were impressed with how quickly I downed the shot, as if I don’t do more than that every weekend). This is where things started to deteriorate. The boy of the couple launched into a detailed explanation of all the mythology of the event. In short: maybe some of my ancestors had done some bad things, so instead of going straight to heaven, they were stuck as ghosts in limbo on Earth. They would be stuck there forever unless somebody with good karma (paraphrasing here) could open the door to heaven with their good deeds. Apparently – allegedly – I’m the sole representative of my family who could perform this ceremony and accrue enough good karma to get all of my family members into heaven. We wrote down wish-prayers and then burnt them to “”send them up to god””, but I was also told I wasn’t allowed to talk about the ceremony for 100 days or the prayers wouldn’t work (I think the secret is that you’ve thoroughly forgotten what you wished for in 100 days’ time, but they don’t tell you that).

My second mistake is that another way of accruing “”good karma”” is donating to their project, which seemed to be some kind of mission/meals on wheels/old folks’ home type of thing. I couldn’t really ascertain what the purpose of this group was. Even now, I still don’t know. So 10,000 won gone to that, and nearly missed the last train, and I was done, right?

My third mistake is not immediately deleting the boy of the pair’s number as soon as I’d texted him I’d arrived home. My judgement is constantly muddied by a business-school fog of “”networking”” for both friend, professional, and dating purposes. So I don’t like to delete friends unless they’re actively annoying or threatening me. Usually this doesn’t bother me much.

“So that’s that, right? You never saw him again, right?” people usually ask at this juncture. These people really underestimate the depth of my stupidity.

A week later, boy from the cult texts again. I need a few “follow-up” appointments, as he explained. “It’s like a surgery, the ceremony, so we need a few follow-ups to sort of check up on you,” he explained. I wasn’t too sure that they weren’t going to keep taking my green 10,000 won bills each time. But I a g r e e d, again, because I’m incredibly stupid. (Mistake number 4? 5? infinity?)

“You actually went back?????” the people continue, incredulously. Unfortunately, yes.

This second visit, I was more wary. I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. I still don’t know what the group is called, what religion they’re actually affiliated with, or anything. The second visit the boy just explained more thoroughly what the mythology of the ceremony and whatever religion sort of thing he was preaching. Out of academic curiosity I continued on, but at the end he asked something to the effect of “so do you believe it?” as if he’d converted me with all this. I straight-up told him no, or something even more ambivalent. We had dinner at the sort-of cafeteria in the “studio,” and the other foreigners grilled me about this and that. I couldn’t really figure out why the other foreigners were there, either. Did they really subscribe to these beliefs or were they just here to language exchange? Were they here for the “”free”” food?

“Sounds like a cult,” my friend Stephanie said after I told her the story, breaking the rule of 100 days’ silence after only 3 days. My family is now cursed, probably (sorry, family).

Since then, I read other expats’ posts about similar experiences. Nobody was able to identify what the name of the group was, but it was deemed to not be of a nefarious nature. Just some fundraising for a college or religious group. That’s a long time and a lot of effort for just a measly 10,000 won, is what I think.

After dinner, I bowed out with a promise of returning back for my third and final visit. I still have yet to make that visit. I still have yet to delete cultboy’s number.  And this remains one of my most mysterious and confusing, yet most entertaining to tell of my experiences in Seoul.

A toast to weird chance encounters that only seem to happen to me.

Update: after lots of worried comments from older relatives/ adult people, I offer this as a rebuttal/ defense, flimsy though it may be.