how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It’s become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it’s probably one worth savoring.

Pretty much ever since I was born (maybe a little bit after), I’ve always wanted to go to China. I had books about China as a kid; Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies. I’ve already planned to go to China when my contract here is up, but I reasoned that it has to be for a long time to justify the hassle and cost of getting the visa, and in order to see everything. I’d been hearing lots of good things about Taiwan, and I had a Taiwanese friend in my Korean class at Yonsei this summer. For Chuseok vacation, a historically long vacation in early October, I decided to go to Taiwan. (The only other place that remains on my list for this continent is Thailand, but I promised to go there with my younger brother when he graduates from uni.)

I had a very ambitious plan for getting there, attempting to knock out two of my goal-trips in one fell swoop. The plan was to take the bus down to Wando, on the southern coast, to visit a café whose owner followed me on Instagram all the way back when I was in America and I’d always intended to visit. From there, I would take the ferry to Jeju Island, check into a hostel, find a beach to chill on and dinner. The next morning, I would climb Hallasan, shower, ship out, and somehow fly out of Busan Airport the next morning at 8am. Busan and Wando are not close. Busan does not have a ferry to Jeju. There are already flaws in this plan, as you can see.

There was a second plan to try to salvage this weekend. I would take an early morning bus (or midnight bus) to Seoraksan so that I could reattempt the mountain, and then bus home that very day.

Neither of these plans were followed out. In actuality, the weekend was filled by Netflix and getting my house cleaned before leaving. I also started Inktober, which is a illustration challenge where the goal is to draw one new ink drawing each day for the month of October. I’d done it for the previous two years, and it just so happened that the first week of this Inktober fell during the time when I was in Taiwan. That night at 10pm, I headed for the Dong Seoul bus terminal. I had to bus still to Busan, because the plane ticket was booked from Busan. From the midnight bus, I hopped right into a taxi because it was pouring buckets. It was an expensive-ass taxi. The airport wasn’t even open yet, so a relatively big crowd of people were waiting outside for the airport to open up at 5am. The check-in counters opened a half-hour later, and soon after that I was sitting in a Holly’s coffee listening to One Direction (a good omen) and charging my phone. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to non-American airlines actually treating you right on a flight; even if it’s only a few hours, they feed you a full meal and have the option to watch movies.

.

I landed in Taipei Monday, October 2nd and procured my transportation card to get into town with relative ease. On the way, I saw an advert of Kris Wu that kind of derailed my whole day, but continued on. I dropped my stuff at the hostel and took a wander around my “neighborhood” Ximen. I was starving, so I stopped in at the first café that caught my interest, a bear café which had those 3D lattes. I didn’t succeed in ordering one of those lattes, but I did get a Gudetama lemon tart and some milk tea. It didn’t do much to keep me from starving to death, though, so I kept wandering, eventually stumbling on a cool café in an old wheelhouse, Belle Epoch (it reminded me of a café in Sydney called The Grounds of Alexandria), where I had eggs benedict and a rose latte. I saw lots of street art, perhaps from the yearly Pow-Wow Taiwan street art festival. I wandered through cinema street too, gawking at the huge standalone cinemas (movie theaters in Korea are often located in shopping malls).

The nearby historical district Bopilao was closed that day, so I eventually found myself at Longshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the area. Temples in Taiwan (and I’m sure, by extension, China) are much more ornate than in Korea. Whereas most of the decorations in Korea are rough-hewn from wood, perhaps constructed more quickly, the temples in Taiwan are extremely detailed, finely carved and painted elements on every possible surface. Longshan Temple is huge and I’m sure I could have spent ages there. As it is, I always get nervous taking photos near temples (the same goes for churches, by the way) and never know what is acceptable to buy or offer for gifts to the altar, especially not being able to speak Chinese at all.

I trekked back, still trying to orient myself within my neighborhood and the city at large. After I checked in and napped, I had intended to go roughly north to a night market for dinner; however, I accidentally went south, thinking it was north, ending up right back down next to Longshan again, in the night market on Guangzhou street instead. Nothing looked appetizing, it was darker and scarier than the night markets in Hong Kong, and I was sick with a cold and also really lonely, full of despair and regret for taking the trip by myself. In defeat, I finally settled on a banh mi, picked up some toiletries at a Daiso-like store, and walked home to eat dinner. It was so spicy that in my sick state I could barely eat half of it. I was not optimistic for this trip, seeing as it had such a disappointing start.

I was partially able to be more optimistic about Tuesday, October 3rd, the next day, because I planned to fill it by going to the National Palace Museum. I ate the other half of the banh mi for breakfast, heading to Shilin station. At Shilin, I dallied in Starbucks while I pondered the bus situation to get to the museum. From the bus, we waited in a huge block-like formation of a line to get tickets. This is what confused me the most about Taiwan: there are so many things which require lines, and there are never the rope dividers. Everyone somehow wraps themselves into orderly folding lines and somehow there is minimal line-cutting. If that were in Korea or the United States, utter chaos would ensue. It was heartwarming to hear Korean people in that line who were somehow following that system without starting any fistfights.

Once in the museum, touted artwork to see was a small jade cabbage. We had to wait for even longer to get into the room to see it and other jade masterpieces. I concluded that the cabbage isn’t the most impressive thing in the museum, or even the most impressive jade work in that gallery; but I did my time so that I could see it. It was cool and everything, but me being 5’2”, I can’t see much when there’s a huge crowd around this tiny detailed object. So, no pictures were taken by me of the jade cabbage.

Other exhibits proved infinitely more interesting: a gallery detailing the history of ceramics, especially the different glazes and firing techniques favored in different eras, an exhibit showing not only the different Chinese scripts but also the evolution of the Chinese characters from their ancient pictograms to modern characters, landscape paintings, bronzes, and even two full living room/study furniture sets from one of the kings of ancient times. I was hoping for a museum least rivaling the size of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, but it was not nearly as big. Perhaps the other buildings of the complex might have added more, but overall it was not a massive museum. It was disproportionately crowded, though, and I had to force myself to calm down when people took ages to take fingerprint-covered-glass pictures of the artworks instead of, you know, buying the museum collection book. (No picture you take will be better than the museum’s own photos of the artwork.)

After finishing the indoor collection, I strolled through the museum garden, one of those well-manicured gardens with ponds, trees, and pavilions. The pavilions were important because it was threatening to rain the whole time I was in the garden. There were the most remarkable solid-wood stools and chairs; I could picture them in Korea with a bunch of old ahjusshis sat around and sharing makgeolli.

The museum café was on the way out, but when I went in to investigate everything I asked after they had run out of for the day. Beef noodles? Sold out. Coffee bubble tea? Sold out? Iced Americano? (Literally if you have water and espresso beans you can make this drink) Sold out. I headed back to Shilin with my stomach grumbling but generally satisfied with my museum adventure. I was well and truly starving by this time, and I found a pork wonton noodles place where I got a huge bowl of noodles which saved my life. (Not that I was able to read that, but rather I saw somebody with them through the window and it looked delicious). I also got some lotus seed paste mooncakes for dessert, a matcha coffee (this drink combination will always speak to my soul, it seems), and headed back to the hostel, feeling a little too smug.

Opening up my prize in the hostel kitchen/lounge area, I discovered that the mooncakes were not lotus seed paste after all (these ones, in my experience, are usually marked with sesame seeds on top), but pork floss instead. Abominable. I was pondering my dilemma (not wanting to eat the dreadful salty cakes anymore), when some lady began loudly chewing on something or other, making the decision crystal-clear for me. I went back into Ximending and found a bubble tea place. The Korean beauty products store next door was playing EXO and I remarked that this second day was infinitely better than the first. What changed? Maybe more planning, more sleep, and a better attitude going into it.

I woke up late on Wednesday, October 4th. I had scouted some places the night before in Ximending, and I found a rather popular noodle place (it’s apparently very famous among Hong Kong tourists) where you slurp up the noodles right there on the street. They were hot, salty, and delightful. Next door was a very aesthetically-pleasing ombre juice place. I never managed to get a good picture of the juice, but it was still satisfying to see and drink it.

I walked up Dihua Street, which was a traditional shopping street for lots of traditional medicine and crafts, and while it retains the air of the traditional markets, there are also lots of cool little single-product shops, (like one store solely dedicated to rice harvested in Taiwan??), new cafes, and boutiques. I was particularly taken by the basket and wood kitchenware shops. I thought about buying a mooncake mold, but I thought it would be far too heavy and too silly to buy it now. I’d rather buy something practical which I can use immediately, like some wooden plates, cups, or bowls. I thought about buying those little unfurling flower teas for my brother, but chickened out that day. I bought taro pastries and pineapple cakes for my co-teacher and stopped in a café called “Mimosa” (very on-brand for me) for a brown sugar latte and an “American cookie” (that’s a chocolate chip cookie, apparently). I’d read that coffee is a big deal in Taiwan, and that there were many cool little cafes to visit. While I thought it unlikely that there were more cool cafes than in Korea, I still dutifully went in any café that caught my fancy while in Taipei.

Also on Dihua Street was a museum called the Ama Museum, after the colloquial Chinese name for “mother.” I only went into the building because the entrance was through a café, and the café looked really cool. I “came for the coffee, stayed for the museum.” It was a museum dedicated to finding justice for Taiwanese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. It was a soberingly thought-provoking place, but remarkably well-done. According to the museum, the Japanese still have not apologized to the survivors of these atrocities, even though all of them constantly carry the heavy weight of what they were forced to endure. This also happened to many Korean women at that time; Japan hasn’t apologized to them, either.

From Dihua street, I headed to Dadaocheng Wharf, which was promised to be a scenic place. There were no inspiring vistas to be found, honestly not a beautiful river (I’m perhaps very biased by our own Han River), but I also did not have the benefit of visiting on a sunny day. Perhaps, in the right sun, it could be a nice place to take a run through and enjoy the breeze.

I stopped at a tiny shrine temple to draw some flowers and then walked on, eventually crossing a giant overpass to get to the other side of the wall. I found the Confucius temple and the Baoan temple, a buddhist temple, two neighboring temples with vastly different purposes. The Confucius temple was an auspicious place to visit at certain life events, like before starting a new job or graduations, but not necessarily a place of religion. Traditionally, it was more like a philosophical school. The Baoan Temple was a beautiful complex, with hundreds of offerings placed on the red tables, people burning prayers and incense, and praying to huge illuminated pillars studded with name placards that looked like dragon scales. After the temples, I took a breather in a café called Norma Café and got a delightful panini and an iced coffee and waited out the rain.

I ventured over to the Expo Park, which was first made for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but there was a nice food court and some boutiques, and it seemed like a good place for music festivals these days.

I headed down the line to Daan Park, which ultimately turned out not to be a wonderful place to visit on a rainy night. However, it was peaceful, so I wasn’t resentful that there wasn’t much to see. Nearby was the Taipei 101 Tower. As I entered the basement to investigate going to the observatory, the crush of people immediately overwhelmed me. Walking through the overly swanky mall, I mused that for NT$50 I could get 5 coffees or bowls of noodles instead, and that I’d rather get a view of the tower than from the tower. I decided against staying in the food court and shipped back to Ximen where it was less crowded and I knew the area better. I planned my Thursday adventures on the train back. I finally got the promised beef noodles, as well as chowing down on the taro cakes and bubble tea back at the hostel. These taro pastries were what I was hoping for from the horrific pork floss mooncakes the day before. In the small illuminated cube of my hostel bed, I listened to youtube and caught up on social media as I let sleep hit me.

On Thursday, October 5th, I woke up early because one of the roommates in the hostel had an annoying case of the sniffles and seemed to refuse to blow his nose under any circumstances. I ate some taro cakes for breakfast and proceeded to look for coffee. For whatever reason, all that I found was Starbucks because I’m an incorrigible American.

I took the train to Jiantan station and then proceeded to wait ages for a bus. The plan was to go to hike to the top of a mountain for a nice view and then go to the Yangmingshan hot springs, which were apparently free to whoever was willing to trek up there. Taiwan is also apparently famous for hot springs. I met two girls, an American and a German, Fiona and Susanna, on the bus, and we all somehow convinced each other that we should get off too early by mistake. We waited for the next bus, and from there took another shuttle up the mountain. From the shuttle bus, it’s still a bit of a walk to actually get to the hot springs. It’s always nice to have somebody to talk to. The craziest thing was that both of the friends had also come from Korea. Fiona, from Los Angeles, was not much of a hiker, so she continued straight onto the hot springs, while Susanna and I got a bit turned around but made it to the small waterfall that we wanted to see. I stopped for a water and ice cream (the Taiwanese strawberry shortcake ice cream is better than American, and that’s saying a lot).

After the hike, we felt like we really “earned” going to the hot springs. I had expected the hot springs to be similar to Japan (I didn’t go to any hot springs in Japan, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures), big ponds with pearly mineral water and mists floating all around. In reality, they were just very small indoor nude baths with coppery-colored water. It wasn’t even worth getting undressed for. Disappointed, I resolved to go to the famed hot spring area Beitou a few days later.

After another series of busses, we found ourselves back in Shilin, where there is apparently the most famous night market in Taipei. I finally got my xiaolongbao soup dumplings, along with lots of other food, like lamb skewers which Fiona swore by, a mysterious (but apparently famous) “cake within a cake”, popsicles, and iced tea. I intended to get the iconic Taiwanese roll ice cream, but none of the stands were open when I passed by. I took a snack run back at the hostel after my shower. The Doritos were so salty, but welcome after eating a year’s worth of Korea’s sweet Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by those and the green tea yogurt drink that I picked up. Good snacks all around.

The next day, Friday, October 6th, I woke up much later because Sniffles had checked out. Getting ready quickly, I headed to that Ximen noodle place, got another rose latte, and met with Susanna from the day before. We had planned to meet and go to Maokong, where there were apparently lots of tea houses in the area. Fiona was uninterested and had a very dogmatic list of aesthetic cafes and food-blogger-recommended restaurants she needed to check off. I personally find that kind of travel exhausting.

We took the train to the Taipei Zoo area, then the gondola from there. I was expecting the kind of soul-crushing long lines that we found at the Hong Kong gondola, so being able to get on the gondola within even a half hour of arriving was an unexpected blessing. I was expecting it to be far harder than it was.

Halfway up, there’s the impressive Zhinan Temple, so we stopped there. I “bought” a wish that you can write on a little gold tag with a red tassle. You’re supposed to hang it on one of the trees or bushes around the temple. I stopped to sketch a particularly scenic pavilion and take a rubbing (Taiwan has old-school kinds of souvenirs), then got back on the gondola. There was this delightful ubiquitous black tea and green tea ice cream swirl, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it. It was delicious! Susanna got a grass jelly tea, which doesn’t taste terrible, but would never be something I would select from a menu.

The goal was to find a cool teahouse with a good view. It was hard to find one that had both a decent view but wasn’t backbreakingly expensive. I could tell Susanna was getting frustrated with me, but I wasn’t looking to spend $300 on a hot tea ceremony on a hot day. Finally we found a place that seemed to be kind of famous and had a great view, but more importantly had iced tea and dishes that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. We got tea fried rice, tea fried egg, something called “nest fern” salad, and iced tea. I made the mistake of assuming that Susanna was with me for the day, but when I wanted to stop at some little shed of a café on the way back, she continued back to Taipei without me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she had no reason to stick with me after that.

I returned to the hostel for a nap, Doritos, and more tea, briefly emerged for beef noodles and bubble tea, then went back to do laundry and read. It’s worth noting that, while the caffeine in tea usually doesn’t have any effect on me, on that day I drank enough tea to keep me up and buzzing late into the night.

Saturday, October 7th was my last full day in Taiwan. I had those HK-famous noodles and juice mix for breakfast and got the train to Xinbeitou. The Beitou area is warm and misty, as if the ground itself is beckoning you into the hot springs. The trees themselves bend and sway down to the ground like melted candles and the water in the stream seems to have an otherworldly color. My goal was the Longnaitang hot springs, which were the cheapest but also the oldest. Many hot springs are in more upscale hotels located in the area, but I was going for authenticity. Longnaitan hotsprings were actually so inconspicuous that I initially walked right past them. It was a nude bath and I forgot to bring soap to wash up before, and I spent all the time in the “cold” (45C) tub, never actually succeeding in getting into the hotter tub. It was relaxing, but not all that exciting. The tubs weren’t very big, and there’s not much place to go, unlike in the Korean jjimjilbang, where you can wander among the rooms for hours.

I had Taiwanese McDonald’s for lunch, too starving to find any place else, then headed back to the city proper. I “hiked” up Xiangshan, “Elephant Mountain,” to get a good view of the city and the nearby Taipei 101 Tower. I was glad I expended a little sweat for the much better view from there. The walk was only about 20 minutes straight up a series of stairs.

I finally visited Bopilao district after that. At one point it was a school, and the better part of the building seemed to tell about the history of Taiwan’s school system. It was a really cool area architecturally and aesthetically speaking, which is why I’d wanted to go inside originally. I went a little “stamp crazy” on this day. stopped at a café called Dante Café on the way back. I took a nap in the hostel and then went to that café that I’d been intending to go to all week, which turned out to be called “Now Coffee.” (The name of the café on the outside was only written in Chinese, but it looked like some hipster aesthetic kind of café that would serve a good coffee. I was not wrong). I got beef noodle-flavored ramen from the corner store, read, and chilled. The awesome ramen just further underscored how shitty ramen is in the United States and how wonderful it is, well, everywhere else.

Sunday, October 8th was my last day in Taiwan. There was apparently a beef noodles and jaozi dumplings place directly under my hostel, that I never went to for one reason or another, so I went there for breakfast. I got too ambitious and ordered too much, but it was all delicious. At the end, I told the ahjumma running the store 감사합니다, or thank you in Korean, as if that was my brain trying to tell me, “It’s time to go home.” I walked back up to Dihua Street for gifts, buying wooden cups, dried mango, tea accoutrements, and Gudetama mooncakes. I returned to my hostel for the last time to rearrange myself and then headed to the airport.

Lots of bad things happened on my way out of the Taipei airport: I went to the wrong terminal. I didn’t pay attention to which airline was at which terminal, so I had to take the long route to the other, costing me precious minutes when I was on a tight enough schedule to begin with. At check-in, they demanded to see my full itinerary, so even though I had everything written down nicely: flight numbers, airlines, times, and all—and they should’ve be able to look this up with my passport—they demanded to see the actual email, which was buried deep under months of other emails. I couldn’t get my phone to connect to the airport wifi no matter what I tried, and nearly had a crying breakdown over it, finally resulting in my opening up my data in order to download the email so I could show them. I believe that 5 or so minutes on data from another country might have cost me up to $40 USD but I’m not sure. It was not pretty, and not worth it.

I ran to the gate, thinking I had less than 10 minutes to get there until the gate closed. I arrived to a long line which didn’t move for more than 30 minutes. I needn’t have run, and standing in the line was exhausting. At least they fed us on this flight, because I didn’t eat at all in Nanjing.

The third shitty part of this returning-home saga was at Nanjing. I had originally planned to stay in the city, even booked a hostel if I could manage it. My layover was 12 hours, so it was technically possible. But I was warned by my friend that the hassle in procuring the visa and using the transport would make even getting in and out of the airport not worth it. That being said, since I didn’t ever leave the confines of the airport, logic dictates that the “visa” process should be easy, right? Nope. I was shuttled to various desks by scary-looking Chinese TSA/police-like guys for about half an hour, just to receive a scary-looking giant stamp in my passport saying that I was indeed allowed to stay the night in the airport. But hey, at least this visa was free.

I stayed up reading, first just on the floor next to a wall outlet so that I could charge my phone (until the lights turned off), and then in the seeming waiting-area as more and more of the airport shut down. At around 2am, new flights stopped arriving, so at that point it became clear that everyone there at that time was there until morning. At around 3am, I got too sleepy to keep my eyes open, and curled up in a massage chair to catch some Zs. This was hard with the angry little massage fixtures digging into my spine and every 15 minutes the chair yelling at the sleeping people in Chinese to put more money into the chair if they wanted to operate it. It wasn’t a comfortable night, but I felt very backpacker-y. Maybe it was foreshadowing to my China trip this year. That night, I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 and also counted, inaccurately, how many times Vonnegut uses the words “so it goes” in that story.

The airport opened up again a few hours later, Monday, October 9th, maybe around 5 or 6. It was strange that on this trip I witnessed two different instances of closed airports starting up for the day in two different countries. I may be happy if I never have to again, but as they say, “It was a moment.”

 

I think I benefited so much from that trip. I learned to be more okay spending time on my own, more okay to look like an idiot, and became even better at asking help when I need it or following others’ leads. I also learned how to read small phrases in Chinese so that I wouldn’t starve to death, things like “noodles,” “meat,” “coffee,” or “dumplings.” Knowing those, as well as memorizing the Chinese characters for my destinations each day proved to be invaluable. I think it was good preparation for the China trip, which I’m starting to prepare for now that we’ve reached the new year. It’s scary to think that this trip I’ve been looking forward to for almost my whole life is approaching in only a few months. I hope I can make the most of it, as RuPaul says, “and don’t fuck it up.”

 

Advertisements

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.

Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

Image result for seoul map

My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

Image result for samgyeopsal

Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

Image result for 닭갈비

Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

Image result for 연어무한리필

Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

Image result for bulgogi

Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

Image result for 김밥천국

Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

Image result for 부대찌개

Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

Image result for samgyetang

Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

Image result for 만두

Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

Image result for ddeokbokki

Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

Image result for hoddeok

Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

Image result for seoul cafes

Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

Image result for makgeolli

Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

Image result for soju

Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

Image result for 소맥

Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

Image result for noraebang

Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

Image result for jjimjilbang

Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

Image result for hike korea

Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

Image result for changdeokgung palace

Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

Image result for korean arcade shopping mall

Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

Image result for library at coex mall

Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

Image result for lotte world tower

Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

Image result for namsan tower

Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

Image result for movie theaters in korea

Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

Image result for dmz tour

DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

Image result for arario museum in space

Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

Image result for hongdae street

Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

Image result for samcheongdong

Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

Image result for gangnam

Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

Image result for wolfhound pub itaewon seoul

Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

Image result for ddp seoul

DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

Image result for myeongdong

Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

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.