Don’t sweat the big stuff

Don’t sweat the big stuff

I’m just now clearing the backlog of all the travelling posts I’ve collected in the past 3 months but haven’t written. I understand what my cousin, Susanna, meant when she said she always made blogging out to be a big thing, and I totally get that now. I’m always collecting events and topics to write about but rarely actually sit down to write about them.

Ever since I was little, I’ve always been excited about my birthday. From birthday parties at the YMCA to going to the movies and out to dinner in middle school, to hiking trips and samgyeopsal the last two years, it’s always been a winning combination of comforting things and demanding fanfare. The day before my birthday, I had a language exchange with my old co-teacher, Miss Tiffany. We’ve long since strayed from the original purpose of the language exchange, but the camaraderie remains. Miss Tiffany very sneakily bought me a cake for my birthday!!! It was a lovely time. This was also shortly before I started the Korean classes at Yonsei which quickly ate up all my free time commuting and studying.

The next night, which was a weeknight so we couldn’t go too crazy, I met friends from my old school, Maxine and Stephanie, for samgyeopsal (as is the way) and drinking. We got too caught up in talking and arrived late to the bar where my friend Haru had been waiting for us for nearly an hour (!! I’m a bad friend..) Haru had brought a gift of a baby cactus which I’m still trying my best to keep alive, against all the odds. As we left the bar, I was trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to persuade my friends to come noraebang with me when Winner’s song, “Really, Really,” came on in the arcade across the street. That was enough to persuade all of the friends. There’s almost nothing in this country I love more than noraebang. After we had put Maxine in a taxi and seen Haru off to her house, I made Steph come back to mine and eat some cake, even though it was 3am and staying up that late is wildly out of character for her.

The next day was Friday. It was a really fun night, right? No. With impending open class, I stayed in the café to work on things for class. Moreover, I had class the next day, on Saturday, so there wasn’t any gallivanting to be had that Friday night. After Saturday class, I got lunch at a place near my work called American Factory, which I feel like they opened just for me, as I’m the only American in the area, and then convinced Steph to get some black ice cream that I had found in Hongdae area. We had to wait a long time but it was worth it “for the insta” and to find out exactly what flavor it would be. (With the black food dye, we figured it could be any flavor at all.) That evening we went out drinking with the Geoje lads and got up to some hijinks in the club.

Open class was the following week. To say I was terrified was an understatement. Last year, we submitted the lesson plans a month ahead. I had to re-write the plans several times. You have to rehearse the class ahead of times so that all of the students perform perfectly. It has to be “fun and exciting” (read: we have to create all-new games and materials for only this class) for the parents even though they have ostensibly come to see a regular, everyday class. My first open class, vice director (even though she had seen, tweaked, and eventually approved this lesson plan weeks in advance) took me aside right as I was going into class to try to add something else to the plan. We did not improvise in the practice and I was not prepared. She was right, of course, that I had not prepared enough material and I would have 10 minutes of extra time at the end, but she could have addressed this concern at any time in the previous weeks. That was enough to set the flustered and frustrated tone for the rest of the day. I went into the class, where 20 parents are crammed into a tiny room of about 12′ X 8′ and judging everything about you, from your teaching style to your outfit, and filming you for posterity. They are judging your teaching as well as how much you praise their child. It’s the toughest crowd I’ve ever seen, even though theoretically the parents are all there to see their children be happy and succeed. (theoretically) Since we had already practiced the game a few days before, the kids became bored quickly. Andy, our class’s resident troublemaker and notoriously ill-behaved (this kid once punched me in the face in the middle of a screaming fit, where I had to carry him out of the classroom so that the principal could talk to him) student, decided that he wanted the card Daniel had. A regular student would have used words: even “that one!!” would have been sufficient, or even gestures, but instead Andy decided the right thing to do would be to reach out and sock Daniel and take the card, thus starting a veritable fistfight in the middle of my open class. In the second class, preschool class, set in the gym, all the kids were sitting on the floor for a game which combined running and phonics, when to my horror I see Kyle has pulled his dick out of his shorts and is playing with it like it’s the most fascinating toy in the world. He had never done that before open class day. Luckily, none of the parents saw. Second open class, while nothing went wrong during the class itself, I had to rewrite my open class lesson plan more than everyone else combined. Even one rewrite is too many, in my book.

I love telling these stories to the incoming teachers and watching their eyes get really big. “What have I gotten myself into?” they think. I was really prepared for the worst with this open class. I had 4 50-minute classes to teach instead of 2 20-minute classes. The classes in this school are considerably worse-behaved than in the last school. There’s a lot less interesting material in these books and a lot more time to fill. So much can go wrong! Plus, class sizes can be much bigger at this school, so I was prepared to be watched by scores of parents. Instead, less than half of the parents came. They were mildly interested at best, playing on their phones the whole time at worst. (I also got a bit of a flash-forward to when/if I have kids and I’m forced to attend unending back-to-school nights.) After all that preparation, it turned out for once I really had worried too much. This is a recurring theme in my life.

And then, everything went to shit.

Briefly.

It’s still a little tenuous in this department. I’ll explain.

I was having a movie night a few days after open class (Steph and I had a standing promise to watch Riverdale together), scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I came across a post on the women’s expat in korea group. There are so many posts each day that it’s a wonder any given one will catch my eye. But I just happened to read this one. The long and short of it is that people with E2 visas (me) are apparently legally not allowed to work at after school programs (also me) or they will get deported immediately. I immediately spiraled into panic mode. The comments and suggestions off of that post and other related post fed my frenzy. Quit immediately, seemed to be the advice, go get a D10 visa, hire a lawyer, be prepared for the worst. Quit immediately, quit immediately, quit immediately.

I emailed my boss to ask for clarification (he hasn’t ever responded to that or subsequent emails on that particular subject…) The next day, I called him. It’s never fun calling my boss, not because he’s not perfectly nice, but rather because it’s so hard to understand him. His English is fine, but he’s a fast talker and is usually on speaker phone. He’s a busy guy. So it’s hard to tell if what I heard in this call is real or not. The essence of this call was thus: you shouldn’t worry because that law is coming after international schools and after school programs, but since we are registered as a hagwon (cram school) and only teach conversational English, it’s okay. The law is targeted at people teaching other subjects like science, math, social studies, and gym in English under E2 visas at places like international schools and after school programs. Only F-series visas are apparently allowed to work at these kind of places. I went through several really long spirals of logic to become okay with this situation. I haven’t been deported yet (If I do, my only plan is to get my hair dyed an insane rainbow color before I leave) and I’ll continue working hard for my school and keeping my head down, hoping that it stays that way.

That was my month of May in a 1500-word nutshell. During this time, I was really excited because it looked like hyung Aidan could make his ill-fated return trip at the beginning of June! It was not to be. A week out, he had to cancel the plans for the trip. I decided to still go on the hike that I had planned to take him on, climbing the highest mountain in mainland Korea, Jirisan. When faced between taking a slightly earlier bus down to the trailhead and having to find a pension in the dark and taking the midnight bus, sleeping on the bus, and hiking straight off the bus, I obviously chose the latter because I’m batshit insane, clearly. The “plan” follows:

  • Nambu Terminal midnight bus
  • Start at 2ish
  • Summit by noon
  • Cheonwangbong Peak
  • Descent by 2-3
  • Bus to Jinju to visit (Geoje friend) Hilary, if it’s too late to go back home at this point, then stay the night with her in Sacheon.

Prior to the bus’s departure, I chilled out in a Tom & Tom’s charging my phone and drinking a latte. You’ll find this was my first mistake. Second mistake was that I had neglected to buy a headlamp or flashlight prior to this time, even though I was pretty damn sure I was going to be starting the climb in the pitch dark. Because of the coffee, I barely slept on the bus. The seats were reclined and comfy, but I just couldn’t fall asleep. All the thoughts of the unknown were too busy swimming through my head. I had hoped that it would take until 3 or 4 am to get to the trailhead, so we would only be hiking an hour or two before sunrise. Unfortunately, almost on the dot at 3am we arrived. I was the youngest person on that bus by 20 years, the only solo female, and the only foreigner of any kind. All the grunting and stretching and people gathering into groups only served to remind me of how alone I was, how stupid a venture this had been. Why am I trying to climb a mountain alone at 3am nowhere near Seoul? At least, if I decided to quit and sit on the side of the road until the sun came up, I rationalized, I only had to wait 2 hours until I could see again.

For some fool reason, I decided to try to head up the trail. I ended up following some groups of ahjusshis up to the mountain. Trying to maintain a not-creepy distance while still seeing which way they took was a distinctly difficult challenge. It was threatening to rain and I was very sad about that, as I was using my phone flashlight held up to my chest like Iron Man. After a branch in the way, it seemed like the original group I had been following was thinning out. I was alone, in the threatening rain, with only my phone as a flashlight, in the dark. Great job, go me. As with all hikes, I couldn’t really confirm I was on the trail until I saw other people go that way. There were people behind me, so I was trying to reverse-follow them, as in making sure that they were still following me to make sure I was going the right way. It’s at least a kilometer, I’d say, walking on the road to even get to the start of the trailhead. I passed so many minbaks and pensions I really wished I’d booked one of those instead. But I forged on. At the trailhead, a pair of ahjusshis, Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, stopped for water and a chocolate bar as I studied the map. It was my intention to keep studying the map for as long as possible so that they could go ahead. It turns out, the ahjusshis had decided they would adopt me and I should go with them, as it’s dangerous to go alone.

You know that feeling when you’re offended somebody thinks you need help but you really do need the help so you’re also secretly grateful? That’s how I was feeling. It was nice to receive confirmation that I was going the right way, though, and let go of the reins for a bit. I’d initially thought that Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim were way better hikers than me, but we all averaged out to be kind of the same, going up the mountain. At our first stop for water, it had become light enough to turn the headlamps off. My phone was suffering.  The hiking itself was really quite easy, all the way to the top. It can be a far distance, and it requires advance planning, but the Jirisan hike that I chose was really not all that hard. At Rotary shelter, we stopped again. It was probably only 7am at this point, but we had been walking for hours. I was woefully unprepared, food and drink-wise. I had extra clothes and water that I needed, but Mr. Kim (I’d taken to calling him Himchan-ahjusshi because of his resemblance to B.A.P’s Himchan) had a few boxes of food that his wife had packed and he and Mr. Choi, he insisted, could not eat it all by themselves. It was just garlic bread and cherry tomatoes but it certainly took the edge off my hunger. To be sure I didn’t really like cherry tomatoes until then.

The flowered trees were beautiful and I seemed to gain strength as the sun rose. After climbing for hours, we made the summit by 9 or 10. My phone chose this time to die, as it often gives up early when it’s cold outside and it was considerably colder at the top of the mountain. Mr. Kim lent me his phone charger for long enough to charge my phone to get that selfie, and then we headed down the mountain again. The way down was both faster and much slower. We took more stops because the ahjusshis’ knees were getting really sore. There were also scores of school kids on some kind of hiking field trip/ scavenger hunt clogging up the works.

When we reached town again, I thought that it would be nice for me to buy lunch for Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, but I had mentioned something about buying a bus ticket to Jinju to visit my friend, and so when we stopped into the convenience store to buy one, we found that there was a bus there leaving in only 10 minutes. Barely enough time for a bathroom break, let alone a lunch. So, I said goodbye to the ahjusshis who adopted me and went on my way.

In Jinju, I got changed in the bus stop. I was “earthy but not unpleasant,” as my aunt once told my parents after they’d completed a long bike trip. The dirt clinging to my ankles and the sweat on my bag was unmistakeable, though. I went for a bagel and coffee at Ediya first, and then a burger at Lotteria, where I was chilled to the core by the fan. Geoje friend, Hilary, and I met and we got ice cream, coffee, and walked around. To Hilary, going into Jinju is “going into town,” but Jinju is a pretty small place compared to Seoul. After a really nice visit, I got the bus home. The subway ended early so I thought, “why not walk some more?” and walked the 3 stops back to my house. I’m not one to measure steps but I’m sure I walked like 50,000 steps that day.

As for some conclusions of this time in my life?

I think that everyone should try to travel alone like this at some point in their lives. Accept help when you need it, even if you think you don’t. Take time out for friends. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t sweat the big stuff. Everything will sort itself out in the end. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.

 

A toast to planning, even though you know you’ll end up winging it anyway.

 

these are a few of my favorite things,

these are a few of my favorite things,

This weekend, I woke up early, and after my customary slow-starting morning where I spend an hour dicking around on social media, I tied on my running shoes and headed down to Han River park for a Saturday morning run.  As soon as I got into the park, however, I found that there was some kind of huge running race, like a marathon, and the trails were off-limits for a while.  Discouraged, I turned back.  It was the perfect kind of day for a run, the kind of weather that we have in the beginning of swimming season right when the pool opens for the summer (as in, nice to be outside, not so nice to swim in fresh-from-the-fire-hydrant water kind of weather).

I had a change of heart a block later.  It was about 9am, why not try to run on the streets?  You’ll find that foreigner women rarely, if ever, run in Seoul, and certainly not on the streets.  It’s useful to shake up the monotony of running with different things.  As it is, since I’m right next to the river, I usually just choose one of two directions and do a quick out-and-back.  Sprinting between blocks and dodging the few other pedestrians waiting for their brunch restaurants to open was a welcome break from that usual grind.  I ran out to my favorite café in Hongdae, but as I didn’t bring any money, I couldn’t have stopped for coffee even if I’d wanted to.  On the way back, the run through the main drag of Hongdae showed me walk-of-shamers returning from long nights out now that it was full daylight, and I also discovered the diligent cleanup crews responsible for making the disaster areas around the clubs look clean and presentable again.  I was refreshed and buoyed up with renewed enthusiasm for my city.  Afterwards, I got to show some of my favorite areas in Samcheong-dong and Insadong to my Irish friend who lives nearly in Incheon and went out drinking in Itaewon.  The next morning, catching hungover brunch with my friend Kevin, the feeling of “I love this city” luckily didn’t diminish all weekend.

As I’ve often discussed, it can be therapeutic to talk shit about people or places, but that’s no way to live your life all the time.  I just finished reading a book about happiness called “The Happiness Project,” written by Gretchen Rubin.  My thoughts on the book itself aside, it gave me a lot to think about, but especially considering the oft-cited quote by G.K. Chesterton, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.”  It is easier to complain and be critical of your surroundings, especially when they’re different from that which you grew up with.  It’s much harder to find delight and charm, and furthermore logic in the illogical things people do in other countries.  As they used to say when I studied abroad in Oz, “It’s not wrong, it’s different.”  There’s a lot more different coming from the U.S. to South Korea than to Australia.  But honestly, most of it is for the better and not for the worse.

Dwelling on the negative makes me stressed, angry, and snappish.  I don’t want to be this selfish asshole who only blames her surroundings for her bad moods.  I want to be grateful and appreciative and strive to be happy, because honestly, being here gives me such joy that I can’t properly comprehend until I leave the country and then return.  I can’t imagine having to leave for good, but I suspect I’ll be taking trips back here for the rest of my life.  It’s enthralling and addictive and life-giving being here, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

What follows is the rebuttal to my drag post of last week.  I wanted to follow it quickly before the karma gods could get me too badly.

  1. Korean food

There’s so much variety here that it’s almost too much to put into a single category, but certainly I’ll write a blog post about all my favorite foods here one day.  Until then, know that there’s a jaw-dropping variety, from grilled meats to soups to poke-like rice and vegetable dish bibimbap, after which my twitter handle is named.  There are certain foods you must eat when it rains.  There are certain foods you must eat when it’s summer.  There are certain foods that you must eat after hiking.  I love all the traditions and the spices and colors.  I think that will be the hardest thing to leave when coming back to the states.  It’s easy enough to find Korean barbeque in the States (although it’s prohibitively expensive unless you live in L.A. Koreatown), but it’s harder to find the perilla seed sujebi soup, the cheesy and spicy chicken dish duk galbi, and the winter treat hoddeok, a delicious honey-filled pancake.  Whatever you happen to be craving, you can find it in this city, whether it’s western food or sushi or Indian food.  My mom has threatened me that I must learn Korean cooking from a proper grandma before I come back, but so far that hasn’t happened yet.

  1. Out until the sun comes up

Everything here is open late.  If you want coffee after a certain time in the United States, you’d better be prepared to make it yourself.  If you want food after a certain time, you’d be best to content yourself to gas-station or diner food.  As for entertainment, after a certain time, you’re out of luck.  Nothing is open.

Not so here.  Time runs a little later here, so you head out to drinking later and stay out until the trains start running again.  Restaurants are open late, cafes don’t close until 11 or midnight, and if you don’t want to go clubbing to stay out all night, the possibilities at arcades and noraebang, one of my favorite hobbies here, are a sure way to pass the time.  If you get hungry, you can get some food at a stall or get some Lotteria (Korea’s version of McDonald’s), which also never closes.  It’s an insomniac’s country here, and this, rather than New York City, is truly the city that never sleeps.

  1. Cafes

It was a struggle not to put this at #1 in the list.  Korea is nearly as famous as Japan for its scores of cutesy theme cafes, and I’ve been to many of them (including the Insadong poop café which I visited last weekend), but that’s only part of the story.  There’s a café for every kind of interest here.  You like animals?  They have not only cat and dog cafes, but also raccoon, sheep, and meerkat cafes.  You like a certain kind of color #aesthetic?  There are pink and purple cafes to satisfy your needs.  Whether you like cacti or ferns, you can find cafes crawling with them.  If you like camping or naps or fishing or nice views, there are cafes catered towards those interests.  There are scores of studying cafes centered around creating a focused environment for Seoul’s many students.  There are beautiful desserts, Instagram-worthy scenes, and quality coffee almost anywhere you go.  In the states, you would be lucky to find even one independent coffee shop as cute as any given café in Seoul, but here, every single café is super cute. (I would cite the website of each of these examples, but that will be for another post).

  1. Hiking culture

In the past, I’ve talked about hiking.  I really think that it sums up all the best things about Korean society in one activity.  Hiking, unlike in the United States, is a hobby for anybody, just hop on the train and get out in front of the mountain and make your way to the top.  It’s a hobby for old and young, sunny and rainy weather.  Instead of everyone’s athleisure in the States being running gear or yoga gear, the go-to athleisure here is hiking gear.  Everyone’s mood is better on the mountain, and many are eager to say “hi” to you (sometimes even in English!!!) and point the way if you’re lost.  Once you’ve reached the top, gotten your selfie, and made your way back down, you can kick back in the little shikdangs (small restaurants) and get some ramen, jeon pancakes, or bibimbap, washing it all down with some makgeolli, as is the way of eating “mountain food” after a hike.  While not everybody is well-versed in exercise culture here, hiking is a pastime that everyone can enjoy.

  1. Service

Koreans adopted the English word “service,” said in the Korean accent much more like “seobiseu,” to describe taking care of your customers so that they will return again.  Not just a sound business practice, it’s also a relationship builder and a really feel-good aspect of living here in Korea.  It often comes in the form of giving free things to customers who are being nice and behaving themselves.  Once, my friend Chris told the story where he was in a little eatery and he mentioned to the lady running the shop that he’d like to buy one of the shot glasses so he could take it home.  He could have easily stolen it, but his good manners prompted the store owner to give him an entire case of the shot glasses, which wasn’t too big of an ask, as she received crates and crates of them as free promotional items, but still a cool gesture nonetheless.  I get free extra time in noraebang all the time and it never goes unnoticed.  Often, the proprietor will plunk down extra drinks or food on your table and announce “service!” automatically lifting the mood of everyone at the table.

  1. General feeling of safety

I’ve done some dumb things in my short, 23-year life, and many of those dumb things revolve around what I like to call the “Simba Complex.”  Remember in The Lion King when King Mufasa tells young Simba, “being brave means you don’t go looking for trouble”?  And then immediately after, Simba decides that that advice doesn’t apply to him and does something reckless anyway?  It’s like that.  That’s why I often find myself doing just slightly dangerous things like walking alone at night in Pittsburgh when lesser humans have gotten shot to death on the same streets.

I contrast that with life here in Seoul.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I never feel unsafe in Seoul.  Or, at least, the times I feel unsafe can be counted on one hand with several fingers to spare.  The only times I truly feel unsafe is when I’m in the foreigner district of Itaewon, to be honest.  You can walk down the street at any time of day or night and count on reasonable safety of your person.

The same goes for your belongings.  Once, I was writing a blog in a café when I got a call from my brother.  He doesn’t call often, so I went outside to receive the call so as not to bother the other patrons.  We talked for over an hour, as is the way with us, and my wallet and laptop sat out on my table in the middle of the café for that hour and nobody touched them.  Even things you want to lose you can’t get rid of.  I had a friend who was trying to quit smoking. Every once in a while, she would buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke only one or two. To get rid of them, she would leave them somewhere, like at a bus stop, so that somebody might take them and she wouldn’t feel bad about buying them.  Returning several days later, she could still find that same pack with all the cigarettes untouched.

  1. Trains!

I’m obsessed with public transport.  When my parents went to Paris this summer, they exclaimed to me, “We used the Metro!! We thought you would be so proud!”  While public transport is partially a cheap young people way to get around in the U.S., it’s pretty much the only way here in Seoul (taxis don’t count, even though they’re far cheaper than in other countries).  The trains here are so effective and reliable, I’ve almost never needed to even use a bus.  But even still, it’s possible to get almost anywhere you want to go without ever renting a car.  You wouldn’t really want to drive here anyway.

  1. WIFI

“Why, why, wi-fi!” the students at my old school would chant, throwing their hands in the air in the shape of a Y.  That really is this country’s lifeblood.  I can’t imagine going back to a place with lesser wi-fi.  In no other place can you survive for months, or even years, without a phone plan.  It’s pretty easy to filch wifi from cafes, restaurants, or even from subway stations as you pass by them on the street.  The phone reception here is insane, too: you can probably FaceTime people from the tops of mountains with absolutely no lag.  (I try to avoid that to keep from sapping all my data at once).  It’s easy to get used to being able to load a whole feature-length movie in seconds, hard to be parted from it.

  1. A culture of creativity

While some things might be a little backward, as far as cultural products go, Korea is on the cutting-edge of the times.  From art to music to fashion, everything here is tightly controlled (for better or worse) and highly branded.  Everyone pays attention to the aesthetic and there is a sharp eye for design in all things, from phone cases to the pencils with coordinating caps that my students use.  My art soul is happy here in Seoul.

  1. Deliver it to me

Anything you want can also be delivered.  If you want McDonald’s or fried chicken, that can easily be delivered to your house at no extra cost (a country that makes their motorcycle delivery boys look like BMX bikers is clearly doing something right).  If you want to buy kitchen appliances or furniture, since almost nobody has large cars, you can get any of that delivered.  If you want to have a picnic with your friends in Han River park, you can easily order the chimaek (chicken and beer, typical summer Han River picnic food) right to your picnic blanket without ever having to lift a finger.

My Korean’s not really up to scratch to order these things, and I still think that for most things that if it’s worth getting, it’s worth me going to get it, but that the possibility exists for anything to be delivered is exciting all on its own.

Honorable mention:

Movie theaters

In my hometown in the U.S., there’s not much to do for fun outside of home.  You can go hang out at the gas station, grocery store, or mall, you can go out to eat, or you can go to a movie.  As such, in my area we see a lot of movies.  This enthusiasm carries on into later life, no matter where you go.  While there aren’t as many western movies to see here, there are enough.  The movie experience in Korea is amazing.  You can go see a show in 4D, which has moving, rumbling seats, flashing lights, spitting water, and wind.  You can get different “couple sets,” like those that feature nachos, hot dogs, coffees, or beers.  Seriously, drinking at the movies is way cool (Koreans turn everything from baseball games to the protests against the former president into drinking events).

Easy-to-read language

It is embarrassingly easy, as a foreigner, to live here for years and never learn much more than you have to of Korean.  But that’s taking for granted the remarkable system of writing, hangul, that King Sejong the Great invented all those years ago.  As far as Eastern languages go, you’re pretty well-off learning to read Korean.  It might not be easy to learn all the different tenses and levels of formality, but to learn to read is remarkably easy, especially compared to Korea’s neighbors, Japan and China.

I don’t think of this often, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the Korean zest for learning languages.  In the United States, unless you happen to be a self-professed “language person,” you probably won’t learn more than one language to any sort of proficiency.  Whereas Koreans love learning and love learning languages in general, even if some of the kids might be salty about having to learn English in particular.  Basically, it’s a pretty good bet that if you’re in trouble someone in the room probably speaks some English, and that’s a huge help.

 

Anyhow, as the song goes, “these are some of my favorite things,” about living here, and why it will be difficult to leave in a little over 10 months.  I’ve already begun my grieving process, starting with a grand to-do list inspired by the one I made when I went to Oz and a 100-day happiness project to keep me positive and appreciative.

wet exhales, happy relief

wet exhales, happy relief

“I suggested to you once before that you should start believing in yourself.  I will suggest it one time more.  We are not always properly equipped to face the difficulties life places in our path. …But we must do the best we can with what we are.

These days, it’s been a long slog through interminable days into weeks with not much to break up the monotony.  I’ve settled into a rhythm, or a rut, depending on how I’m feeling that day.  The kindergarteners are becoming decent readers, I’ve become a good storyteller, I’ve surprised myself in my ability to lecture for days on end about poetry, drama, Dr. Suess, the American Civil War, Beowulf, and map projections.  The recent elections were a blow to everyone, and everyone in the office, Koreans, Canadians, and Americans alike, was depressed that day.  Even the new teachers have settled into teaching.  Everyone is comfortable now.  In the United States, all of the holidays are in the fall and winter, and spring is just a straight shot until the long summer break.  In Korea, all of those breaks are in the spring, mostly, and much of the fall is devoid of any breaks.  It’s especially depressing to see Thanksgiving thursday roll by without so much as a nod of acknowledgement from others.  As such, it’s important to create these little breaks for yourself to keep yourself sane.  Whether it’s a long trip or a short trip, just within the city or a short jaunt outside to clear your head, keeping that peace of mind is important.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in the daily grind and get too bogged down in all of those emotions and forget to come up for air every once in a while.  What follows is a triptych of trips I took in early fall.

In mid-September, my friends convinced me to go on a little adventure to Crocodile Island.  For just a day, we went on a short but challenging hike (in a semi-illegal stretch of country, it seems) to get a really cool view of the island.  My fresh tattoos were complaining about all of the sweating and movement, so I had to be careful to wash them every ten minutes, it seemed.  After descending, we went to a creek for lunch.  It was a bit of a clusterfuck to get everyone their sandwiches but we all had fun drinking makgeolli and putting our feet in the water.  I was promised swimming but I’m glad I didn’t jeopardize the new tattoos for the all-of-two-foot-deep water.  Not worth it.  It was a pretty picturesque spot to stop for lunch, though.  After lunch, we got to explore a fort, hanok village, and a cave.  Every cave is different, and this one was cool (I thought so, at least) because it required you to edge around on your knees at some points because the ceiling is so low.  I like that kind of interaction.  I don’t think Koreans understand the don’t-touch-the-cave-walls concept though.  In the end, it was a long day but a satisfying day-trip.

Approaching Chuseok, Korean thanksgiving, which is in mid-September, I had so many big plans.  Hong Kong?  Taiwan?  Thailand?  It ended up being too short planning-wise (since I can only plan one trip at a time, and the trip before that was Becca’s trip here to Seoul).  So, I ended up going on a group tour to Jeju Island, sometimes called the “Hawaii of Korea.”   It’s the same style of hyperbole as calling Busan the “San Francisco of Korea,” but it succeeds in capturing the sense that Jeju is very different from the mainland of Korea.

We didn’t leave until late night on the Wednesday of Chuseok week.  This should have meant that I had plenty of time to pack and get my house in order.  Naturally, this was not the case.  Instead, I decided to while away the time breaking out the watercolor paints.  This was a huge tour group this time, 120 strong spread across 4 busses.  It was the first time taking an overnight bus and it was not exactly pleasant.  In short, I’m not built for long bus journeys, even though I tend to fall asleep on any sort of moving vehicle.  We arrive in the port to depart for Jeju at like 7am.  Deplorable.

We take the ferry to Jeju.  Everyone is jockeying for space in the 2 power outlets so that they can charge their phones.  Meanwhile, I give up on sleep and take in the vistas going past.  It’s been a while since I was on a boat.  When we arrive on Jeju, it’s still early in the morning.  We hike a mountain, Seongsan, which is a little volcanic tuff cone with a big crater in the middle filled with greenery.  I love rocks so it’s really cool climbing up through all the rock formations.  It’s not a very tall mountain but the views of Jeju from the side of the mountain are worth it.  The black sand beaches are intriguing but we don’t have time to explore them, unfortunately.  We head across the island to the Manjanggul lava tube, a long, straight cave.  At this point I’d been in two different caves in a week and I was excited to compare a volcanic cave with a sedimentary limestone cave like the ones I’m used to.  The only thing I didn’t like about the cave is it definitely felt like we were in a movie where we’re going to have to escape the cave as some more lava comes shooting out, either that or a rocket.  (I should probably stop watching so many action movies.)

After that, we went to the Osulloc Green Tea Plantation.  I’d already been to a green tea plantation so the actual tea bush rows weren’t as remarkable, and I knew how tea is harvested and roasted from that previous trip, but it was also a tea museum (which we either missed most of or was not very big, as it seemed to consist only of a collection of teapots) and an Innisfree beauty store.  There are Osulloc and Innisfree stores everywhere, but the design and picturesque location of these make it a destination.  At any rate, the Korean style of tours is pile on the locations and only spend 40 minutes at each one, just some more checks off the list.

On Friday, we saw these beautiful volcanic cliffs as we took a walk along the cliffsides, Jusangjeollidae.  I’d deluded myself into thinking that this would be like the Sydney beachwalk.  If you do this, you will be sorely disappointed.  However, it was a very nice walk.  It did kind of remind me of Hawaii.  There are some parts of the trip that I’d like to have spend ages longer at, and others where the allotted 20 minutes was enough.  The cliff walk is one that could have easily taken a day if you let yourself be diverted on all the little paths and cafes and photo ops along the way.  As it was, we had an hour.  It was really peaceful watching the crystal-clear water break on the black hexagonal rocks.  (I agonized for a long time, without the aid of google to remind me, to remember what the similar rock formations in Ireland are.  That’s the Giants’ Causeway, in case you were wondering.)  The next stop was a waterfall, Cheonjiyeon Falls.  While it was lovely, you definitely expect if it’s a separate trip, this waterfall is going to be like Niagara Falls.  It was not.

The last stop in our day’s travels is perhaps one of the most famous in Jeju, which is Loveland.  Started as a way to convince honeymooning couples to have more sex, it’s pretty playfully foul.  Everything is dick-shaped.  At least, I was impressed at first at how sex-positive the park seemed.  It seems to take jabs at men and portray both men and women as sexual beings.  But as you move through the park, it becomes clear that women are only worth anything if they’re svelte and athletic, but men can be loved at any shape and size.  Less-positive as you go on, and I’m sure that the park is set up in such a way that the less-savory sculptures are near the end so as not to scare the clientele away.  Anyways, I think Loveland could do with a bit of updating and bring it into the 21st century.  Some same-sex couples here, a little more body positivity there would do wonders for everyone’s psyche.

The actual last thing we did on Friday was eat samgyetang, which is a chicken-and-ginseng soup that is eaten almost exclusively in the summer.  Out of 120 tour members, only a small handful were vegetarian.  Those who got samgyetang got to eat a full hour earlier than those who ordered the vegetable mandu.  Our soup was awesome, though.  Every night when we returned to the hotel, people were trying to go out drinking or stay in drinking, but I had to sleep in that night because I was planning on hiking the mountain the next day and you have to wake up early to get up the mountain by a certain time.  It ended up being very relaxing and not at all unpleasant.

Saturday I wake up early and gather all my things.  Out of 120 people in the tour group, only 6 actually agreed to go hike Hallasan, the mountain that takes up most of Jeju Island.  There was a group of Nepalese dockworkers who had initially wanted to hike but ended up backing out.  They didn’t want to go with us and instead wanted to go separately.

The reason, of course, that they didn’t want to go is that Saturday was an actual typhoon.  I’m sure the ascent would have been fun if not for this fact.  As it was, it turned into more of a challenge than a fun outing.  Rain does that to you.  Whereas we could have taken our time to smell the roses, it became a challenge to battle against ourselves, against the swishing ponchos impeding our movement, against the slipperiness of the rocks.  We couldn’t make it to the top.  Not because of any of us, but rather that we were simply not allowed to go any further up the mountain than 2/3.  There was a guard and a chained fence and everything.  They are serious about you not summiting the mountain in a typhoon.

There’s a serious sense of camaraderie at the shelter at the farthest point.  Everyone squelching around in ponchos, wet exhales, happy relief to have reached that point.  The only food that is sold at this point is cup ramyeon.  Some have stuff they have brought from the valley floor,  like us, some a little more exotic than others.  Some have full-on sushi lunches packed.  There is the ever-present makgeolli.  If we can’t reach the top, we can at least share this drink with one another before we have to head back.  Normally, this is the stop.  If you don’t reach this point by 12:30, you will not be allowed to continue to the top.  We reach this point by 11, stay for a bit and share our food with others.  When the sweat starts to cool and we get chilly, it’s time to put the ponchos back on and head out.  The wind and rain even from this point is unreal, so I understand why we are not allowed to go to the top.  Nevertheless, a little farther down is the stairs up to the observation point, and we are faced with the sheer power of the typhoon winds, whipping our faces with hail and such force that it could rip us right of the mountain if we’re not careful.

We get back and are showered by 4.  The descent was trickier, as the rocks are fully slippery and wobbly, and my already wobbly ankles are so ready to give out that my tired legs can barely handle it.  Naps were very welcome, as was the pizza that we consumed half at the pizzeria and half back at the hotel.  I was too sleepy to go out that night, too.  I think something like Captain America: Civil War was on and I could not have been bothered to leave my bed and stop watching the movie.

Sunday was  the day we had to go back.  We took a different ferry, one where it was just a big carpeted room for everyone to sleep on.  Very strange.  The bus seemed shorter, and living in Seoul is nice because you get to see all the other passengers peel off and be comforted that you’re not going to miss your stop, because you’re the last.

A few weeks later, two coworker friends approached me about going “glamping” with them.  That’s a portmanteau of “glamorous” and “camping,” so you can pretty much guess what it entails.  After a subway, and then a bus, and then a taxi, through picturesque valleys and sunflower fields, we arrive in the middle of nowhere where it looks like some aliens dumped space pods in the middle of a cornfield.  We bought just enough supplies to make mimosas, have sausages over the fire, and eat copious amounts of cheese puffs and pretzels.  Not a very balanced meal, but it’s fine for a day.  There was a cute puppy roaming the grounds and it was so nice to have grass underfoot again.  The pods are really mod inside and certainly nicer than our apartments here in Seoul.  The best part, though?  It’s so quiet in the countryside.  It would have been nice to go for longer than a single night, but a small escape was fine enough.   It’s the little escapes that help us get through the months.

A toast to fresh air, both literal and metaphorical.

Go there, do that

Go there, do that

Let’s think structurally.  The quest consists of five things: (a) the quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there.  Item (a) is easy; a quester is just a person who goes on a quest, whether or not he knows it’s a quest.  In fact, usually he doesn’t know.  Items (b) and (c) should be considered together: someone tells our protagonist, our hero, who need not look very heroic, to go somewhere and do something.  Go in search of the Holy Grail.  Go to the store for bread.  Go to Vegas and whack a guy.  Tasks of varying nobility, to be sure, but structurally all the same.  Go there, do that.  Note that I said the stated reason for the quest.  That’s because of item (e).

The real reason for the quest never involves the stated reason.  In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task.  So why do they go and why do we care?  They go because of the stated task … but we know that their quest is educational. … The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.

A few weeks back, I made a string of very bad decisions.  To be clear, as a recently-minted “”””adult,”””” I make relatively bad decisions all the time.  It’s not uncommon in my life.  But these were some particularly cringeworthy ones, ones thatwould make your parents want to come right out on the next flight to Incheon and ship you and  your stuff all back stateside.  First, I thought it’d be a cute idea to go hiking far away from where I live in Seoul, hiking in Bukhansan National Park, which I’d heard was beautiful.  It’s about an hour train ride there.  But I also thought it’d be really cute to go alone.  And at dusk.  The coincidence of all these things?  Well, it had the potential to be disastrous.

This very same weekend, a solo female hiker was murdered in Seoraksan National Park (I do not include this beautiful tidbit when I call my parents later).  The stakes—which seemed very trivial for me—were actually quite high.

I get into the town at about 6pm.  Even in summer, this unfortunately only gives me 1-2 hours to summit and get back down before sunset, a bit more before it’s truly dark.  But from dusk-runs in the park with hyung I remembered that it’s scary being in the forest at sunset because the full dark sets in fast.  The hike started out innocently enough.  It was pleasant being alone and having only my thoughts to accompany me.  I should probably mention that my sense of direction is about as awful as it can get.  I followed the trail signs and it was fun at first.

As the light started to die, I decided that I had to get to the top of something before I returned home.  I only met one person on the trail, and he was on his way down from the top as I was still making my way up (not a good sign).  At the top of something (I think it was one of the lower mountains of the ridge, but it was the tallest summit I could reach), I took all the requisite selfies and scenic panorama shots and then proceeded to basically bolt down the mountain.  I love trail running, but this was a bit scary because I was literally chasing daylight.  When I get lost, I get frustrated and cry.  This is about the worst defense mechanism a person can have and rarely ever works to my advantage.

Finally, a car drove by and after a bit of deliberation I decided to follow it on the road.  I have a phone, but there are barely any trails or roads on the map and I don’t want it to die if I need to call for help (there’s phone service even at the top of those mountains).  I’m heading toward what I think is a road, and after it seems to be the town so that I can find my way to a subway station.

I’m about to go through this tunnel, after which I think is the town, only to get stopped… by a Korean army guy.  He asks me what I’m doing, and at this point I’m tired and sad and frustrated and scared… all of my Korean speaking ability just goes up in smoke and all I can say is that I was walking, the name of the station, Mangweolsa, and “Sorry!!!” and basically “How did this happen?”  I have apparently tried to wander into a Korean army base.  He sits me down on a rock.  I try to look appropriately contrite (I really do feel bad about the imposition, but he was not about to send me back into the forest to walk the 3km back to the station) and unobtrusive.  He goes in the outpost to talk to his supervisor.  They radio to their supervisor.  20 minutes later, an army jeep pulls up and they drive me back to the station.  No reprimand on their end, copious amount of thanks on my end.  (it was really, really cool, riding in the jeep)

Things like this don’t happen to me.  I never get saved from my mistakes.  I’d still be wandering in the forest and having missed weeks of work without them.  People are always telling me to distrust people because they’re dangerous and out to hurt you but… when you have times like those… the kindness of strangers always bolsters my faith in humanity.

In America, hiking is not really something that you do very casually.  You might bike casually, go swimming at your neighborhood casually, go to the gym on occasion, play pickup soccer or basketball.  Hiking is not for the faint of heart in America.  You’ve gotta plan a lot, drive there, know the trails, be prepared with all the stuff in your bag.  Hiking is for serious “”””athletes”””” only.

In Korea, everyone hikes.  It’s the national pastime here.  I didn’t really know that I liked hiking until coming here and getting to go all the time, but it’s really a wonderful thing to have as a national pastime.  All the ahjummas and ahjusshis are always gathered of a Friday afternoon in the subway station in their full-on hiking gear, head-to-toe with the poles and big backpacks and everything (this is Korea’s version of “athleisure”) and I’m always so jealous that they get to be up on the mountain instead of working.  It’s a very common weekend activity, even more common than going to Han Gang (Han River) with some chimaek (chicken and beer) and a blanket on a weekend evening.

You take the subway out the mountain town.  The crowds of the train peel off  the farther you go out.  At the approach to the mountain, there are lots of the little stalls selling the mountain food like pajeon (green onion pancakes), bibimbap (mountain vegetables and rice and fried egg with a spicy sauce), ramyeon, and copious amounts of makgeolli (Korean rice wine).  The stalls thin out as you get closer to the trail head.  There is usually a temple at the base of the mountain, so you stop to pay your respects, sit and relax, and have a drink on the way up or down.  The way up is steep, but the people you meet on the way are good natured and love to say hi to everybody and make conversation.  Everybody is in a good mood on the trail.  At the top, you pause for selfies and another drink of the makgeolli.  After, you eat a ton and drink some more (not that Koreans aren’t drinking all weekend anyway).

But anyone can hike in Korea.  There are girls in wedge heels and carrying an umbrella for shade in one hand and a cup of iced Americano coffee in the other and they’re on the same trail as the die-hard ahjusshis with the 20-kilo hiking pack.  It’s hard to take the girls seriously, but that’s the way it is.  Hiking is far more accessible here.  It’s more egalitarian, and I really like the way that everyone smiles and greets each other on the trail.

It’s really easy for foreigners to dismiss what the natives do as “wrong” or “stupid” or “weird.”  But I find this hard to believe when I see the ahjummas smile so easily and so kindly when somebody greets them, when I see how nice the moms are when I wave and play hide-and-seek with their child from the back of the train compartment where I’m sitting, when the shop owner gives us seobiseu (free stuff just for being nice customers).  This one friend here is always preaching not to trust strangers because they are always up to no good, but I find I’m just the exact opposite.  How can you just automatically distrust so many well-meaning humans?  You burn so many bridges that way.

I’m learning how to work nicely with a lot of different people.  The coworkers and I have formed a nice rapport and I seem to have fallen in well without even meaning to.  Between “girls night” with board nights, monthly chimaek dates, language exchange with my Korean co-teacher, and a fierce Duolingo language competition, the atmosphere is really nice these days.  I was pursuing this boy at the butcher shop in the supermarket on the way home from work, but he’s stubbornly refusing to text me after many weeks.  Luckily my university friend, Sam-sshi is on his way out as the Yonsei University friends are on their way out.  Tag-team.  I’m trying to make lots of friends as that seems to be the key to happiness here.  It is a kind country but only to people who are with friends or love interests.  It’s not a very kind country to the perpetually single.  But we’ll work on that.

We learn that all trips, all quests teach us something, whether it’s about love or life or friendship or not to go hiking alone at dusk in a park you’ve never been in before.

A toast to hiking, new friends, and hiking with new friends.