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.

10 things i hate about you

10 things i hate about you

Note: if your name is Bonne DuCharme, or actually if your surname is DuCharme at all, do not read this post.  Or if you do, approach it with the same wariness that you would a giant spider.  For the rest, continue.

I wish I had some cool trips to report, some earth-shattering discoveries about life or living here in Korea that I could share to shed some light on my experience.  As it is, I’m lamenting that I’m already a month and a half into my second year here, with the “fresh start,” and it seems as if I have barely accomplished anything thus far.  I should consider myself lucky, with a stable job, nice apartment, and short working hours, I have absolutely no grounds for complaint.  My best friend Erin always comments after these kind of posts that they’re really dark, but that she appreciates that I’m honest in them.  Sugar-coating and gilding lilies?  That’s Instagram kind of horseshit.  I’m only a truther on here.

Less than 11 months out and I’ve already begun to convince myself and my mother that I’m returning to the states when this contract is up.  I’m pretty sure that I will.  Until then, I have lots of major diversions coming up: a trip to Vietnam in May, a revisit from Aidan hyung in June, a visit or several from high school friend Sylvia also in June, and perhaps vacationing with my family in South Carolina in July (uncertain).  In December, it looks like my family is coming here to visit Seoul (hence the warning at the beginning of the post).

It’s hard to leave, and I know I will miss it, but sometimes it is also hard to stay here.  I’m reminded of this every time I see a post detailing the horrific racism my fellow foreigners experience on a daily basis or I see somebody spit INDOORS in the subway.  There are many great things about living here, especially as a young person in my 20s, but right now, here are the best reasons I have why living here can kind of suck sometimes.

  1. Hygiene

Sometimes Koreans’ hygiene is impressive; they are militant about wearing the face masks when they are or might become sick and they brush their teeth multiple times a day (perhaps to the detriment of their tooth enamel, but).  That’s where the good hygiene ends, though.  There might be many moral failings in this country, but my personal pet peeve is everyone chewing with their mouths open, coughing and spitting and sneezing wherever and whenever they please.  That’s okay in your own home, but in public, it’s just not sanitary or polite to be doing that.  I’d rather leave a little bit of mystery than see every bit of food you’re chewing all the time.  The only thing worse than these habits is the fact that everyone denies that they do these things, which smacks of willful ignorance and denial to me.

  1. Vanity

Every country has an obsession with being pretty, but Korea’s takes it to a new level.  In what country do they give plastic surgery as a graduation present because they think their daughters aren’t pretty enough?  I know the attitudes are different toward plastic surgery here, but it’s something else to hear about fourth and fifth graders talking about plastic surgery as a very real possibility in the near future for them.  Ridiculous.  Once you’ve got the face you wanted, you have to accessorize endlessly with makeup.  While in some ways it’s cool being spoiled for choice, it’s insane how many products the average Korean woman uses to stay young-looking.

You can’t ever go in the sun because you don’t want to become darker.  Because, of course, dark is ugly.  And dark won’t match the 80,000 won foundation you bought in the wintertime.  You must always be ready with a pocket hair straightener in case your bangs go flat when riding on the subway (???).  When out with your friends, no matter what the occasion, be prepared to take literally a million selfies to post across all your social media.  (To be clear: I love social media and I don’t mind selfies, but the amount of selfies here is insane.  And it’s not always in scenic little cafes or at cool events, it’s sometimes in dingy alleyways or in line at Costco.)  While I appreciate the aesthetic that everybody puts up, I’m certain it’s not worth the effort.

  1. Bad parenting

I know that somebody who’s not a parent has no business telling a parent what they should do with their kid, I really do.  But, as a current teacher and former lifeguard, sometimes the blatant negligence with which the parents treat their children pains me to the max.  I’m reminded of a story where a foreigner at Costco saw an unattended child walking out in front of a speeding car in the parking lot (parents were nowhere to be found).  He shouted to get the parents attention and saved the kid, but somehow the parents and grandpa ended up yelling at the foreigner, attacking him and blaming him for the incident when really he saved their kid’s life.

The cycle repeats into infinity.  The parents have to work their asses off to earn enough for a big house and comfortable life, so they put their kids in myriad after school programs and academies.  On the days off the parents aren’t so good at parenting, usually much more content to take selfies together rather than preventing their kid walking off a pier into the Han River.  It’s amazing natural selection hasn’t weeded out every single one of these babies already, honestly.

  1. World-revolves-around-me syndrome

There’s an element of this one that can be good and freeing.  But mostly, this is damaging to all around.  Like the foreigner who thought that he was doing right by trying to help someone else, it’s usually best to leave well enough alone.  You see somebody drop their card or something on the ground?  That’s their problem.  You’re leaving the bank as somebody else is coming in?  Don’t hold the door for them, they will only look at you with confusion and bewilderment, not an ounce of thanks.  Somebody’s taking too long to order or scan in their card to get on the subway?  Push right in front of them, they should have been prepared.

There’s an element of this kind of self-defense that is freeing.  Only looking out for #1, or the people in your clique, that makes it a lot easier.  But it’s a lot more isolating.  This is actually one of my main reasons for not staying for another year, or forever.  I don’t want to absorb this element into my personality.  I don’t want to not care about other people.  I want to be nice and help out others, even if it has no discernible benefit to myself.  I would much rather step out of the way on the street than full-on shoulder-check old ladies because they’re too rude to move even a single inch to the side.  Usually I do step out of the way.  But other days, we have shoulder-checking days where I only walk straight, square my shoulders, and plow through everyone in my way.  It’s shitty and impolite but that’s how things are done here.

  1. Why does everything have to be so hard all the time?

Some things here are easy.  Too easy.  It’s too easy to become a full-blown alcoholic or caffeine addict.  It’s too easy to fuel your insomnia or shitty sleep schedule by going to cafes after 10pm (current life).  It’s too easy to get food and furniture and anything you want delivered right to your door without lifting a finger.

Some things, on the flip side, are infuriatingly hard.  For no reason. (Koreans will tell you there is a reason, but really, don’t listen to them.  There is a better way).  In the United States, you can walk into a bank and say “Hey, I don’t know how to write a check, can you help me?”

“Sure, do you know your account number?”

“Nope.”

“Just give me your card and I’ll figure it out.”

Or:

“Hey, I have a whole bucket of loose change, can you count it for me and put it in my account?”

“It might take a little while, but sure.”

In Korea, banking is a nightmare.  Say you want to pay for your plane tickets online.  First of all, you need to enable your card to be used online.  You need proof of employment and a passport and your Alien Registration Card and a score of other things.  You need to create about 5 unique passwords which you inevitably forget by the time the process is even halfway over, making you start again, of course.  And then, nothing works on Chrome, so you must use Internet Explorer for everything, which is absolute bullshit.  I make almost all of my transactions in cash or in person with my card because I still can’t make purchases online with my Korean card, even after more than a year.  In the U.S., if you have a card, you can immediately use it online, at the store, abroad, whatever.  So easy.

  1. Juke & commit

This one is kind of related to #4, but it’s a lot less self-defense and a lot more idiocy.  In the U.S. and other reasonably intelligent countries, if you see somebody directly in your path far ahead of you, you’ll adjust your path by a couple degrees and never run into them.  If you do this early enough, it will be like you never even made the adjustment at all.  Korean method: don’t look up from your phone ever, or better yet, stare right at the person as you plow right through them, coffee or cake box in hand be damned, because your path is more important than theirs.  Most days, I give benefit of the doubt and think, “Okay, that person is in more of a hurry than me, I’ll let it slide.”  But of course the days when I’m in a hurry, everyone else seems to be on a leisurely Sunday stroll with nowhere to be.

Walking is okay because everyone is roughly going at the same speed.  When biking, it’s important to commit to a direction and keep going that way, not swerving.  Koreans are shitty at biking etiquette, I’ve learned (a gripe that didn’t even make the list).  I’ve seen so many almost-collisions on bikes that it ceases to surprise me.  When I’m running on the trails, the walkers stare you down in the same way.  I think to myself, “Do you really want to play this game?  I’m running, I will bowl you over, no hesitation.  This is not a fight you want to pick.”  Usually the walkers spring out of the way at the last second, even though they saw me coming from 100 yards away, outright resentfulness written plain on their faces.  I’m lumping in with this category the driving on the sidewalk.  For cars, usually it’s only to park, but motorbikes and scooters drive for miles on the sidewalks with absolutely no thought to the pedestrians with whom they’re sharing the path.  I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents.

  1. Everything is sweet

To some, this might be a blessing.  But to a red-blooded American who often just craves a salty-ass snack, it seems like an impossible task to find something that isn’t sweet.  Cheetos?  Sweet.  Doritos?  Sweet.  Cheese popcorn?  Sweet cheese.  Garlic bread?  Sweet. (who the fuck decided garlic bread should be sweet because honestly that’s so offensive to my culinary sensibilities).  I’ve heard that Koreans hate our salty American snacks, but I don’t care.  Sometimes you just want something salty, and those kinds of snacks are very scarce here.

  1. Littering is encouraged

This might be convenient to some, but it stresses me out to the max.  There are barely any public garbage cans in Korea, or at least in Seoul.  (They’re afraid you’ll throw your home trash in the garbage cans because you are supposed to buy special garbage bags from your neighborhood store.  Whatever.)  Say you drink your Starbucks iced cherry blossom latte and you don’t want to carry the empty cup with you anymore.   Should you pop into a convenience store and throw it away there?  No need.  Just leave it on any old corner or in a telephone box or on the curb.  Some little old ahjumma will come by a few hours later or that evening and pick up after you.  I suppose this is good that it gives the retired ladies a job, but really just the normalcy of littering here irks me to no end.  It’s to the point where my students even throw things right on the floor rather than putting them in the trash can because they know that somebody will have to clean up after them later (me. It’s me.)

  1. Treatment of animals

My friend Jenn had a roommate last year who decided to get a puppy.  This roommate had no idea how to take care of a dog, how often you should feed or walk it or bathe it or clean up after it.  She didn’t train it, so eventually the dog, living a life of squalor and neglect in its own filth, became angry and lashed out at anybody who tried to pet him.  At long last, the roommate gave the dog over to her parents, who also lived in Seoul, and they agreed to raise the dog properly.  This is a pretty good allegory for how animals are treated here.  They’re only useful as accessories, but the owners usually don’t understand what is involved in taking care of animals.  I’ve seen far too many animals in this country being hit for not obeying orders.  It’s not the animals’ fault that they were poorly trained and have a shitty owner.  (To be clear: I’m not a dog owner, never have been, but I’d rather stay dogless forever than provide a less-than-adequate home for any kind of pet).

  1. Leaving cars running all the time

Seoulites complain about the terrible air quality all the time.  I know an element of that is the evil yellow dust that comes in from China, but a lot of it is also self-inflicted.  You can’t blame all the smog on China.  People in Seoul are TERRIBLE at turning off their cars when they’re not being driven.  I’ve seen people full-on napping in the driver’s seat of their cars while waiting for their companion to return back from wherever.  My street right now is a hotbed for idling taxis and trucks waiting to be called into service.  I hate how much fuel they’re wasting just on being able to charge their phones and listen to music in the car at the same time.  It’s so irresponsible.

Honorable mention:

Street layout

I know exactly why this came to be, that of course Korean streets are never laid out in a nice grid, usually extending in a sort of spiderweb from the palaces, with the more action-packed streets situated exactly one street back from the main thoroughfares, but it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to navigate if you’re not familiar with the area.

Cheese

Everything is labeled cheese.  Almost nothing actually IS cheese.

Workout culture

Koreans are all really skinny and look really fit, but most of that is just good diet and high metabolism.  When actually in the gym, most are just walking at a leisurely pace on the treadmill or lifting at the plate machines, often with absurdly bad form.  My friend Matt is compiling a video slowly of all the crazy things he has seen weightlifters do at the gyms here.  I’m sure the video can go on and on all day.

Couple culture

Please ignore this as I’m just being a bitter single person here.  But it’s really impossible to be a single person in Seoul.  Not that everyone is trying to hook up all the time, but rather it’s frowned upon to not be part of a couple.  Everyone walking around holding hands, snogging, wearing the matching clothes, talking in whining voices in the café or subway.  Korea is not a friendly place for single people.

 

Take all of this with more than a couple grains of salt.  I really do love being here.  It’s easy to blame my bad days on the place and the people rather than myself, whereas back in the States, with no language barrier, I’d have no one to blame myself usually.  I don’t regret a single ounce staying for the second year.  Most of my sadness stems from this frustration with the place preventing me from getting out more and making the best of my time here.

Immediately following (within a day or so max) is a part 2, of sorts, or 10 things I love about Korea.  I really don’t hate it here, promise.

everything works out

everything works out

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, but it’s definitely not this.

I told someone all of that recently and they said, understandably, “…and you decided to stay?”

Hmm, well.

Yes.

It’s possible that I would be much happier elsewhere, doing some other work.  It’s possible that I’m really not cut out for any of this and by this time next year will regret this a lot.  But it’s equally possible that some other place would be worse.  Or most likely, another place would just be different, with its own ups and downs.  So why not take a chance and really make something of my life here?  Happiness isn’t going to fall into your lap when you change locations.  You’re not going to suddenly find the “right” place where everything works out.  Some places are certainly better than others, but basically you will always have to fight for what you want.

About a week ago, after moving house from my old place to my new place in my favorite neighborhood Hapjeong, I took a break from organizing my things to catch a few drinks at my friend’s favorite bar, which happens to be right across the street from me now.  It’s amazing to live in the cool neighborhood you once had to take a long journey to reach.  At that time, my house was just a big empty furniture-less, wifi-less box.  While it was everything I had wanted, it was more than a little depressing at that stage.  So naturally I went out for drinks.

The bar is literally underground and run by surfer-aesthetic people covered in tattoos with raggedy long hair.  It smells like incense and smoke inside and you’re careful not to speak too loud because you don’t want to interrupt the vibe to be heard.  It is Curtis’s favorite bar, but last time Julia and I went, we got absinthe (and I had forgotten that I don’t actually like the taste of absinthe).  Curtis and Julia used to work with me at the old school, but for different reasons, they both left early.  So here we are celebrating getting out of our kind of toxic work situation and heading in different directions.  Any gathering of this sort requires a great deal of shit-talking about the former job, speculation on what’s going on now with the new coworkers, and what all the old coworkers are going to do after their contracts are up.  At one point, Curtis commented to me something to the effect of, “You know, it’s pretty amazing that you seemed to be pretty unfazed by all the shit that went down.”

All the complaining and shit-talking, I would participate in it, maybe, but overall I didn’t really let it get me down.  Perhaps it was literal ray of sunshine, Maxine, who kept us all afloat.  Perhaps it’s a love for country (here) that the other coworkers lacked.  Perhaps it was the thought of a new job that kept me going on in spite of it all.

It’s been a pretty wild ride this year, and it seems like it’s not likely to calm down in the next year.

Midway through January, I probably took one of the most interesting trips of my experience here.  I had not made any cool, high-flying plans to go to other countries for the Lunar New Year, or Seollal, vacation, which is wise because travel in this part of the world at that time of year is a nightmare.  But I’d had a vision to go to an island.  I found a travel group that was going to Geoje Island, the largest island in Korea after Jeju Island.  I like these travel groups because they take the planning aspect out of the equation, giving you options to do whatever you like or just lounge about or go drinking or whatever.

I almost didn’t go.

I almost missed the bus leaving at 6am from Noksapyeong.  Every other person thought ahead and took a taxi but I thought it would be cute to take the subway.  Luckily, they held the bus.

We arrived in Geoje after traveling for most of the morning on the bus.  I’d entertained thoughts of just letting the bus leave without me and going back to bed, but I’m glad that they held the bus for an extra 20 minutes.  Geoje Island is a starkly beautiful place, even in winter when we went.  We were told it would be much warmer than Seoul, and while it was marginally warmer, it wasn’t, say, shorts weather as I’d expected.  But the warm sun felt good on your face and it was a nice break from the biting seoul winds which rip down the long straightaway streets like a hurricane.  The landscape looks a lot like New England in the states or maybe Nova Scotia, big pine trees and rocky beaches.  We didn’t get to properly enjoy many of the things Geoje is popular for because kayaking and ATVing are more summer pursuits and it was still quite cold when we went.  Nonetheless, it was nice to be able to get out of the city for a while and make some new friends.

On Friday after the rooms were distributed we had South African vetkoek (fat cake), which is basically a fried donut-like roll with curry inside and spicy fries on the side.  I had never expected to learn so much about South Africa on a trip in Korea, but as the tour group owner was South African and my roommate, Hilary, was too, I inadvertently learned a lot about the country from them.  We ate on the bus while we were touring round the island.  We saw a beautiful black-stone beach where all of the stones were polished smooth and flat.  The sound that the waves made as they rushed over the stones was so surreal that I never wanted to leave.  Each stone was a perfect skipping-stone or paving-stone; they didn’t even look real.  Nature is so cool.  After that, we also saw a windmill, which is apparently very famous on the island.  We had the option to “hike” down to that windmill (in all, a 20 minute walk and not at all difficult) and then got to play on the sea cliffs a little.  I met some new friends, and we talked about the struggles of teaching and what we were planning to do for the next year.  Things are a lot less nebulous for you when you like your school and/or are head teacher.

When we returned from the island tour, we had also consented to go on the sunset cruise.  This, too, I almost bowed out of because I’ve been on probably one too many “sunset cruises.”  Again, I’m glad I decided to go anyway.  We took the bus to the marina and then boarded two boats.  To be honest, they were small little fishing boats, but they got the job done.  While a bunch of guys from a Saudi company took the bow of the boat, we made ourselves comfortable at the picnic table at the stern.  It was freezing cold in the wind but we all had concealed soju and beer in our jackets, so that kept us warm.  Our boats darted in and out of sea cliffs and pillars and through huge flocks of seagulls resting in the water.  The sunset was fantastic.   On the boat, we made friends with some Irish teachers, Diarmuid and Rachael, and had lots of laughs.  I’m always a little wary about these kind of trips, that I’m bugging the people I’m with, but these guys seemed pretty genuinely kind, which I feel is rare.  It’s even rarer to open up in the first day of a trip to people you’ve never met.

That, I felt, was the highlight of the trip for me already.  When we returned, it was time to braai (South African for “barbeque”).  It took ages to set up, as there were many people to coordinate and lots of different moving parts, and we were all starving.  We ate all of our sides and drank our convenience store beers in record time, while waiting for the preparations to be complete.  We got mussels and scallops and shrimp, but my problem is I don’t like any of these things.  I made a deal with the Irish friends and still got them (on the offchance that I might actually like them… I didn’t.) and then gave them the shellfish I couldn’t eat (which was all but one of them).  I keep trying and keep hating shellfish.  I consoled myself by telling myself that there was steak coming!  We had pretty big steaks that we were all allowed to grill over the open fire.  We were basically barbequing in one of the minbak (bed and breakfast) garages, all open-air.  It took ages to grill the steaks, as maybe 15 people were vying for space on the small and inefficient grills.  Not to mention, many of our steaks were frozen.  We couldn’t see in the dark, so we took our chances with food poisoning as we ate the steaks.  We kept making trips down to the maejeom (convenience store) for more soju and beer as the night progressed.  The group attempted to teach me how to play “King’s Cup,” a drinking game to which every single player had been taught different house rules.  We also had a ludicrous amount of rum and coke, rum being left over from the enormous orange vat of “jungle juice” the tour group had prepared for the braai.  There were stunning overtures of friendship and promises of future visits to home countries made.  Everybody is so much more earnest and generous when they’re drinking.  As we stood warming our hands over the dying barbeque fires, we watched some fireworks over the beach.  Someone in our tour group was setting them off.

Needless to say, it was a night of far, far too much drinking for me.  I can maybe only do one good night of drinking a week, and that was it for me.   I was really sick the next day, partially from drinking, partially from staying out in the night air cold all night, partially maybe from food poisoning.  Saturday was rough.

Since Saturday was Lunar New Year, we had the traditional breakfast of japchae, sweet potato noodles in a sesame oil and soy sauce dressing, ddeok guk, flat circle rice cake dumpling soup with seaweed and beef, jeon pancakes, and kongnamul bean sprouts.  My stomach was not having any of that.  While the other kids went ATVing or to the spa, I was hoping that a walk in the fresh air would cure my condition.  It took most of the day but it eventually worked.  I walked down the beach and up to the pier, hoping that I could get a climb on some of the cliffs.  In my kind of sick state, though, I didn’t much trust my ability not to fall down and hit my head, so I ended up not climbing anything.  I had been reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons at the time, so while I got a mocha at the sunny and peaceful second floor of Don Quixote Coffee, I read and enjoyed the sunshine.  I thought it would be unbefitting to fall asleep in the café, so I ended up going down to the beach for a nap.  They only give out one key per room in the minbak, you see, and I was not the lucky key-holder that day.  After some sleep, I felt marginally better and met new friend Shane at the GS, where we ate ice cream and those “Nacho” brand chips.

We headed out to Jisimdo, one of the outlying islands from Geoje, after that.  I had the feeling that on a nice summer day, Jisimdo would be a bustling hiking area, and missing the ferry back to Geoje would be no big deal, as there were many guesthouses and cafes and restaurants dotting the hillside.  As it was New Year’s Day, none were open that day, so we had to be sure to catch that last ferry back.  Shane and I walked around, exploring the old Japanese battlements and trails.  We had picked up long bamboo spears somewhere and were swinging them around dramatically as if we were in some old samurai anime.  Near the end of that adventure, I did get really dizzy.  Maybe it was dehydration or still food poisoning, but I was feeling really bad as we were getting on the ferry back.  Back at the accommodations, I took yet another nap and was restored to full health!

On Saturday evening, we were scheduled to go “bar hopping” in Okpo, which is the main town area in Geoje.  I’m always wary of stuff like this on trips here, because—while it might be cool and novel to go out partying for many, who might live in remote little towns that don’t even have a single noraebang to boast, or if not, then on military bases—it’s not all that novel or cool to someone who actually lives in Seoul and not outside of it.  I’m made even more wary when they describe it as a place with “lots of foreigner restaurants.”  As it turns out, the “suggestions” that they made, everyone either ignored or only listened to one single one, the one for the Indian restaurant, so 60 of us shuffled in all at once to this restaurant on Lunar New Year night when the restaurant only had 3 on staff.  You can probably guess where this is going, but basically we were the last to order as the staff ignored us for upwards of half an hour to even take our orders and then it took another 2+ hours for our food to come.  Somehow we bullied our way into a discount.  I’m glad for friends who can take matters like these into their own hands.  I’m the sort of confrontation-avoidant person who would never say anything and just lose two hours of their life with nothing to show for it.  We were expected to go out and drink at the little bars surrounding Okpo after that, but after all the waiting, I had no desire to stay in that area for even one more minute.  Plus, I was averse to ingesting any more alcohol that weekend, unfortunately.

We woke up Sunday to clouds threatening to rain and headed to breakfast, which was “the full English,” always a treat.  We emerged from the minbak after breakfast to find a steady downpour.  The weather was just nice enough that I just walked over to the area where the cafes were to wait out the rain, if I could, and if not, to wait until it was time for the bus to go.  I hung out in a café and ended up meeting the Irish friends, who had come in for brunch, having missed the tour group’s breakfast.  We shuffled back to the bus after that, stealing the ideal seats in the back, elevated so we could see all the way down the aisle easily.  The bus stopped after a few minutes to pick up the tour group members who had gone to Geoje seaworld that morning and then we headed on to Seoul.  We hatched a plan with the Irish friends and American friend Colton and his girlfriend Yoojin, to go out for dinner (huge bags in tow).  I’d suggested, since we got out at Noksapyeong station, that we go to one of my favorite café-bistros, Fat Cat, but it turned out to be closed.  We instead got burgers bigger than our faces at a place called Burgermine (there are about 3-4 burger places within spitting distance of Fat Cat if you ever happen to go and find it closed) and made plans to see one another again.

In between saying goodbye that time and the next time I saw them two weeks later, I had interviewed for the next year’s jobs and begun the narrowing-down process.  My future was a lot more certain after two weeks.  We had hookah, drinks upon drinks, and stayed out until the train started up again at 6am.

It’s been about a month since then.  I haven’t been avoiding the friends, per se, but it’s hard to commit to staying out until 6am.  My old lady soul protests to it unless there’s copious amounts of food or coffee involved.  My life is a whole lot more certain now that it was even a month ago.

Spring is a good time to reflect about old things dying and new things beginning.  That’s why I’m kind of grateful that the school year here starts in March.  It’s the perfect time for a new beginning.  The anger and stress and bad feelings all die with the cold weather and peace returns on the calm spring wind.

Near the end of the old year, not only were all of the students acting up like crazy—perhaps on some subconscious level understanding that they’d never see most of us again—all the teachers were going crazy, too.  Everyone leaving became lazier and more spiteful. Things seemed to speed up exponentially as the new teachers came in from Canada, Australia, America, and we had to attempt to fit a year’s worth of our learnings about how the job works into a few days at most.  The social scene at the end when everyone is leaving is fun, tragic, and hectic.  Everyone tries to fit all of their “lasts” into a single week.  It’s i n s a n e.  It’s so sad because some of these friends you know you might never see again in this life (in person, that is), at least not without the huge difficulties of crossing oceans.

It’s sad saying goodbye to humans who mean a lot to you.  It’s also sad saying goodbye to places that mean a lot to you.  I’m so incredibly grateful that I don’t have to say goodbye to Seoul for another year.  As I took my run last weekend, I was struck again (as I am nearly every day) by how beautiful this city is, how lucky I am to live here.  I’m already becoming sad at probably having to leave it, and that’s 11 months in my future.

In the meantime, I moved into my new job, the after school working only 5 hours a day in Dangsan-gu, just a short one-stop ride away from my home right next to Hapjeong station.  I found a perfect little loft (being short, lofts are perfect for me) which is exactly equidistant from Hapjeong and Sangsu, which leaves me situated in literally my favorite neighborhood in Seoul.  I’ve almost completely decorated the new house, which is fun but difficult, being an adult, y’know, but now the space really feels mine.  I do almost all my own cooking and have to manage my own affairs much better, now that my boss or coworkers aren’t right there to solve all my problems for me.  Every problem seems magnified when you can’t just lean back in your chair and ask 10 people who have had the same problem before.  But I think this year will be a tremendous year of growth.  It’s also a bit lonely so far.  I’m great at making friends, but I’m horrid at going out and finding friends, especially given the language barrier.  So we’ll have to learn to break through that.

Looking forward, I’ll continue to better manage the new house, find some Korean lessons so that I can really get more out there in the community, and keep discovering more and more about my neighborhood and my city.  I’m so happy and excited to be here for another year, loneliness be damned.

 

A toast to embracing the loneliness, using it as medium to create something new everyday.

 

 

let that be enough

You don’t need more motivation. You don’t need to be inspired to action. You don’t need to read any more lists and posts about how you’re not doing enough.

We act as if we can read enough articles and enough little Pinterest quotes and suddenly the little switch in our brain will put us into action. But, honestly, here’s the thing that nobody really talks about when it comes to success and motivation and willpower and goals … : you are as you are until you’re not. …

You don’t get to game the system of your life. You just don’t. You don’t get to control every outcome and aspect as a way to never give in to the uncertainty and unpredictability of something that’s beyond what you understand. It’s the basis of presence: to show up as you are in this moment and let that be enough.

You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best. You need to stop listening to people who are in vastly different life circumstances and life stages than you tell you that you’re just not doing or being enough. … You need to understand that what’s right now becomes inspiration later. You need to see that wherever you are now is what becomes your identity later.

Years from now, when I’m on the right side of the CMO desk, I will tell my employee (younger, fresher, more afraid than me) the parable of catch up the schedule.  I will be able to laugh about it then, as time has dulled the pain and outrage to not as keen a slice.  Until that time, I’m allowed to be salty for a little while.

I don’t like to complain about work and stay positive most of the time, but here’s now the parable goes: once upon a time, the month before Christmas, we had a paper full of schedules and instructions dropped on our desks.  This was in lieu of having an actual meeting to explain all of these things because the management can’t be bothered to have face-to-face meetings with us teachers most weeks.  Most of us were more concerned with the practicalities of the upcoming special day and open class at the end of the month, so a small, short item was slipped in that everyone seemed to understand quite well: “catch up the schedule.”  At least, nobody seemed to require any clarification on this item.

We had “Compassion Day” at the end of the month, which required our kids and their parents’ participation in fundraising for “little kids in Africa” (let’s not talk about the problematic nature of the relative “white savior complex” our school is promoting).  We also had Open Class, which is the most nerve-wracking day of the semester, where the parents come in to watch their kids in class.  In theory you just teach a “normal” class and want to show the parents what their kids are like in school, but in reality it’s designed to make the parents feel good about their kids each being the smartest in their class, and designing flashy, work-intensive games to entertain the parents and then practicing the answers so that everyone seems perfect that day.  Also during Compassion Day, since it was near Christmas, each class had to pick a festive song and train the little ones to sing it perfectly and dance a choreographed dance (ours was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”).  We also had report cards and scores of other grading from elementary school tests at that time.  What I mean to say was, the month of December was busy as hell.

This small command fell by the wayside, until it started to become a problem.  See, everyone on our side of the office took this item to mean “catch up the work you haven’t done yet because there are tests and special days at the end of the month, so finish anything that you’re behind on.”  What we were supposed to have understood but nobody was told was that it meant “get ahead of the schedule since the fourth graders are moving to fifth grade and the parents will be sad if they see empty pages in the students’ books.”  The Korean teachers were mad at the foreign teachers for not understanding this poorly-worded sentence and the foreign teachers were mad that they were expected to read the Korean teachers’ minds as to the future plans of the fourth graders.  My personal solution was: I went into my fourth grade grammar class and asked, “Okay, raise your hand if you think your mom or dad would be sad that there are blank pages in your book.”  Nobody raised their hand.  One kid volunteered that there are already blank pages, and another supplied that his mom has literally never seen the inside of his book.  So that settled it for my class.  The other teachers were not so lucky.

This is a long story for a very simple moral: communication is key.  If we could have had a meeting to iron these things out, a lot of time and frustration on both sides could have been avoided.

There are bad things in every workplace.  Some more than others.  I can go on for days about how I don’t like how things are always sprung on us last-minute, how the foreign teachers are treated as simpletons who can’t follow simple directions at best and with stalwart contempt at worst.  I can tell you about our shitty apartments or how every request is met with abject annoyance by our vice-director.  I can tell you about the endless communication problems between the Korean side and the foreign side (although me and my co-teacher Miss Tiffany seem to be the exception) and our vice-director straight-up badmouthing us foreign teachers to our Korean coworkers.  Our problems are not real, you see.  All foreigners do is sit on their asses all day and complain, if you can even call them “teachers,” you see.

It’s really easy to get bogged down in that negativity.  It happens to me once a day.  It’s easier than breathing to be consumed by the complaints and the mental noise that forms when you’re in a constant state of anger.  I see some people consumed by that anger day-in-and-day-out.  It seems exhausting.

When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, almost none of them are angry.  What is there to be legitimately angry about when you’re so young?  Almost all of the kids are feeling happy and excited every day.  I try to make it clear that there are many kinds of excitement, because there are so many things to be excited for.  Excited for snack time.  Excited for the weekend.  Excited for their next birthday.  Excited for next Christmas.  Excited for the next time they can pet a dog or see a movie.  That’s a good way to live.  My favorite emotion is chill.  The second-to-last emotion is always chill.  I do a wall sit on the wall and cross my right ankle over my left knee, hands clasped behind my head, eyes closed, and let out a long-suffering sigh.  If I’m not feeling chill, I tell the kids, they should all be very scared.  But also very nice.  When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, the last one is always confused: “Raise your hand if you’re confused.  ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Why is it February already?’”  I’m feeling the most confused now.

Why am I here?  I’ve been having to answer that question more and more these days.  I came because in summer of 2015, applying for those marketing jobs, to fulfill my “destiny” as it were, I could never really bring myself to send out those applications.  Something stayed my hand every time.  Being both enrolled in Korean classes at the university and also a former-English-writing-major-turned-English-literature-minor, several people told me “hey, you should think about teaching English in Korea.  You’d like it.”  I shrugged it off at the time, but the idea took root and sprouted over time.  Now, just over a year ago, I’m still trying to see if this was the right path for me.

Why am I here?  So many signs say that I should dislike it.  Chief among my concerns was my disdain for the supremacy of the English language worldwide (just because I like the language myself doesn’t mean everyone else should have to learn it).  I don’t like that everyone else in the world is expected to learn at least English if not a myriad of other languages, while the Americans just laugh it off and say, “Oh, they’ll just get a translator.”  I don’t like that the kids are worked to the bone here, even from kindergarten age they are shuttled to and from classes and academies until late in the night, where they then have to do homework until the wee hours of the morning.  It’s hard work getting ahead.  I don’t like the focus on tests and quantification rather than understanding and practical knowledge.  I’d rather the kids be able to understand and talk about the book but not have anything tangible to show me than to have a packet of perfectly completed worksheets and no knowledge of the material we just learned.  I hate that the students are so beat to death that even by the time they are in first or second grade, all the creativity is drained from them, so the only thing they’re capable of doing is perfectly copying the lines written on the board and looking for the answers in the book, rather than thinking and understanding for themselves.  I hate that when told to write a story, they don’t even have the creativity for that, so accustomed are they to just copying and pasting what they need to write.  I hate that all the wonder is so sapped from them that I try to talk about space or cowboys or princesses, things that should interest them, but instead I get blank stares.

“Okay, but, why are you staying if you hate it so much?  Why are you here?

A non-answer: there’s something valuable about being a minority, especially when few of my kind of privilege can experience being in this position.  It makes you both more empathetic to the plights of others, and also makes you care a little less about your own self-righteousness and your own social standing.  Whatever you do, no matter how long you’re here, you’re just another foreigner.  It would be the same whether you’re a tourist just visiting for a week or a student here for a year or some foreigner who’s lived here for years and holds a Korean passport.  We all look the same to the Koreans.

And a real answer: I really do like teaching.  I did not expect to like it that much, but there’s something so satisfying about rephrasing your explanation in a different way and seeing it finally stick.  There’s something so satisfying about watching your students improve throughout the year, being able to do things at the end that they couldn’t have even dreamed about at the beginning of the year.

There is a terrible moment when your student says something incredibly stupid-sounding and you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?”  Or they say something that’s incredibly insensitive, either racist or heteronormative or queerphobic or any number of other ugly traits, and again you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?”  That’s what I call a “teaching moment.”  You realize that this is why you’re here, this is why they brought foreigners rather than using Korean teachers.  You bring a perspective that is different and much-needed to these kids, especially when their parents have taught them some downright damaging things about the world around them.  This is the time when you have the chance to make a difference.

I really do like the kids.  When you’re sick or angry or hungover and feel like the earth should just swallow you up in one piece, a well-placed cute comment or a kid hugging you round the middle and saying “I love you, Miss Georgia,” can melt all of your troubles instantly.  The kids’ joy is so pure and they can be entertained by watching the same video (like the songs from “Moana,” for example) over and over again for a month.  It’s really amazing to see the kids who could barely tell one letter from another at the beginning of the year to be able to read full stories with seeming ease by this time.  It’s a really fulfilling job sometimes.

In September-October-November I was thinking about having to go back to America. (This was before the election results which made this even more unpalatable than before.)  I thought to myself, “Man, I really don’t want to go back just yet.”  And then, “Well, is anybody really making me go back?  No.”  My parents were surprisingly understanding when the news that I was staying came their way.  Of course, I’ve been saying that I’d switch schools since around that time, and I procrastinated finding the new position until only a month remained…

If you’re thinking this is a good idea, don’t.

I, of course, was not worried by this delay, but everyone around me demanding the play-by-play on my plans?  It was the people around me who actually spurred me into action.  The last week of January was a flurry of activity and my own complaints about updating my resume, writing cover letters, and getting passport photos done.  The very next day, I sent 5 emails and got 5 requests for an interview.  Within 24 hours, I had 5 interviews (two via skype on the Friday and the next day, 3 in-person interviews).  Within 24 hours of that I had 5 job offers on the desk.

In the United States these days, especially for young people, you become accustomed to and come to expect to send out many, many job applications, have many interviews, and never get a call-back.  Mostly just throwing your resume into an uncaring void.  You rarely get an offer, let alone having multiple offers to juggle.  You even send out applications to the less-desirable places just so that you might have a job at all.  It’s not so in Korea.  At least, for English speakers it is quite easy to get a fairly decent job.  Here, it seems, the recruiter doesn’t request an interview unless they’re all but prepared to give you an offer.  The interview is mostly to confirm what they already know and to iron out the contract details.  I don’t think that I’m exaggerating much when I say that I will probably never have as life-affirming a job search process as the one I’m currently in the midst of.

Consider this:

Job A: in a decent area in Seoul, Yeoksam, the school is in a literal house that they bought and renovated, with cool little lofts and attics and slides and stuff for the kids to play on.  It seems like a really cool environment and all of the teachers and management seem really nice and close-knit.  Good pay.  Shorter hours than I work now.  The other teachers will help me find what I need, like churches or post offices or swimming pools or Korean lessons.  The downside is that I have to plan my own lessons, which adds to the amount of work significantly but would also be more like a “traditional teaching experience” and therefore more fulfilling.

Job B: it’s an afterschool position, which means that I go to a public school after regular classes are out and teach the kids there.  The hours are literally 12-6.  Time is one of your best assets on this earth and the sheer time that I would have to do other things is alluring.  The better quality of life that will result from this situation is more DIY than the other one.  The curriculum is already planned for you so all you have to do is implement it.  Low brainpower.  Downside: there’s only a housing allowance so I’ll have to find my own place, but hopefully I’ll be in a good area that I like, such as Sangsu, my favorite neighborhood, so that I can afford to have a decent apartment.

They release the list of schools hiring afterschool teachers tomorrow.  After that, I’ll have my decision for next year.  Tomorrow we have the “graduation” field trip for kindergartners and the level test for elementary schoolers.  In the evening I will eat dinner, smoke hookah, and drink buckets of questionable cocktails to celebrate coworker Stephanie’s birthday.  Sometime in that mosh pit of events, this list will be released.  I will accept one offer and will have to turn the other down.  At this point, I’m not quite sure which I will choose.  I leave you now on a cliffhanger.

A toast to having options but still being completely unsure of what lies ahead.

Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

You’ll never hear a solo traveller tell you anything but how wonderful, life-changing and liberating it is to travel alone. It’s all true, you’ll learn your biggest lessons in love, life and the beautiful planet we share. You’ll change as a person and your very core will be strengthened. You’ll never depend on another, you will be the true master of your own destiny. Meeting new people will become a daily occurrence and that will quickly teach you never to settle for less. You will establish your tribe, a mixture of old friends and new. Initially you’ll let all kinds of weird and wonderful people into your life but you’ll quickly learn to be discerning about who sticks around.

This magic starts to evolve from day one, the moment you take your first flight, bus journey or boat to a faraway land alone. Each and every day you navigate the globe as a solo wanderer you’ll learn so much, not only about others but about yourself too. …

You’ll start to realise how often people chat about nothing at all. Yeah sure traveller small talk exists and usually begins with: ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where have you been?’, ‘Where are you going?’. These questions are asked every single day but the answers open up whole new worlds of possibility and understanding. Each response kicks open doorways to dreams and inspiration. …

Living out of a bag for extended periods of time became a way of life. Not having anyone to impress or keep up appearances for is liberating. Solo travel strips you of your need to present yourself as a perfectly polished human as you quickly learn it’s what lies beneath that counts. …

You’ll get into conversations about your future and instead of mortgages and careers your dreams will be a list of countries. A whole world of opportunities out there and a backpack that looks so rejected lying dormant on your bedroom floor.

For you’ve been bitten by the bug of the solo travel/wanderlust variety. Try as you might to conform you will never see settling in a conventional life as a viable option now. Your only solution is to find someone wild and free to run with you.

It’s now the new year and no matter how stressful or saddening 2016 proved for many, the year will soon pass into the realm of memory.  On New Year’s Eve, I failed to make any high-flying, hard-drinking plans befitting a proper red-blooded American 23-year-old.  I ended up going to see Rogue One in the 4D theater, meeting old friends and new for dinner at our favorite neighborhood Mexican joint, going for beer, noraebang, and then heading home at a respectable time of 1am.

We were at our second-dinner location enjoying chimaek, chicken and beer, as the clocks (time measured by all of our iPhones, of course) struck 12, when I took my dad’s customary position on every New Year’s meal.  As children, we dreaded the annual interrogation as to our New Year’s resolutions.  Because, you see, my father is a businessman, so we have been raised on a steady diet of business rhetoric our whole lives.  Your New Year’s goal cannot just be a single to-do item or even a list of places to go.  It must be a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based.  (My official goal, “become a ‘real adult,'” which is really one really big nebulous goal broken into smaller and more specific items for improvement, does not really meet these standards. But i digress.)  The other friends shared their goals, various as the people who keep them, but then new friend Brendan’s turn came.  He sat in shock.  There were literally no goals to be made.  Nothing to interest this man in this whole wide world, save finishing out the teaching contract and returning to Canada for a life of indolence and comfort.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to want the comforts of home and family.  We all do, to some extent.  But when wanting those things is only due to a lack of conviction in your interests, it becomes too hollow and sad for my liking.  Imagine having enough money to go anywhere in this world.  No ties or responsibilities.  You can pursue any interest that you possibly could imagine.  No place calling out to you, asking you to explore and learn.  This was heartbreaking to me, and nothing the other friends at the table could persuade him otherwise.

I like staying at home as much as the next guy.  I’m quite the homebody.  But this lack of interest in learning and discovering new things just rang so hollow and untrue to me.  It seems to me that I’ve been travelling my whole life.  “Even now, I am travelling,” as my one student’s mom wrote in her Speech Festival speech.  Whether it’s small adventures like runs or walks or bike rides, or flying to Korea or Australia, I don’t believe that staying sequestered in your safe space is wiser or better.

There are some universally agreed-upon things that travel is good for: you learn so much about yourself and about how you interact with others. You use the new cultures you are experiencing as a foil to examine your home country.  You become more empathetic.  You learn to improvise.  You learn to crop your life and the things you hold precious into a small and manageable size so that it can be folded and crammed into a pack and tossed on a plane at a moment’s notice.

We all agree on these things.  But how you “get there,” or the travelling experience, is deeply personal to each person.  As an example, I offer an anecdote from my childhood: when I was younger, my family would go on bike rides, strapping the bikes onto the car and prepared with snacks, maps, GPS tracker, water bottles, anything we might need.  We would often stop at a local elementary school where they couldn’t charge you for parking and head out onto the rail trail.  The fall leaves would filter the sunlight overhead and the crunching of leaves under your bike came loud in your ears when nobody was talking.  It’s sometimes hard to talk and bike, especially when you’re racing for dominance against your younger brother.  If we reached something of interest, like a gathering of rocks jutting out into the river where you could eat the snack and bathe your tired feet, or a little roadside stand selling ice cream, or a waterfall that was too far to jump on but close enough to look at, we would stop and “smell the roses.”  There was no agenda.  Nobody would be mad if we didn’t reach the promised 20-mile out-and-back.  Fast forward a few years.  My younger brother is training for a running of the locally famous C&O Canal trail, 335 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC, with his boy scout troop.  We went on a training ride with the troop one day, scheduled to make a 40-mile-total ride that day.  The scouts were young and fit and I hadn’t been on bike in a while, not to mention my bike couldn’t shift to more than 60% of the gears (it was a cheaply made bike and probably almost 8 years old at the time), so they naturally left my mom and I in the dust.  The scouts would plan to rest every 10 miles, no stopping for quaint little interesting things along the way.  I was puttering along and a bee stung me on my leg.  However, it not only stung me but got stuck in my bike shorts stinger-first so continued to sting me as I’m crying and trying not to fall off my bike.  My mom eventually turned around to see what the commotion was and we ended up stopping at a lovely farmer’s market for iced coffee while I literally took the ice from my coffee to nurse the bee sting.  The moral of the story?  Stop and smell the roses is probably the best way to travel.

The aim of this anecdote is that I know too many people for whom travel is not cultural discovery and joy and wonder (as it should be, in my opinion) but more of a clinical search for Instagram opportunities.  It is all too easy to fall into the mode of to-do lists, where a city can be dissected into its most sparklingly Instagrammable sights and activities, and you forget to actually experience things.  Call me too Hufflepuff or whatever, but I would trade ten days packed full with the city’s “must-see sights” for just one day at a really cool cafe with cool atmosphere or a cool view.  The checklist philosophy of travel is more exhausting than it’s worth, and it doesn’t quite give you a real sense of the personality of the place you’re living in or visiting (after all, if all you’re doing is the famous places, all crowded tourist destinations kind of bleed together after some time).

This entry’s working title is “Two Travellers,” mainly for those two contrasting travel philosophies, but also for my trip to Hong Kong over Christmas, with me and coworker Jenn.  How many travellers?  Two travellers.

Our plans were nebulous and theoretical at best.  Jenn is famously attached to her boyfriend so I really doubted that the plans would actually materialize.  This will come as no surprise to anyone, but it’s harder to plan a trip with two people than just one.  But we managed, mostly due to strenuous bugging on Jenn’s side because I am bad at planning ahead for things other than hostels and plane tickets.  Luckily we shared a common philosophy about going to Hong Kong: in essence, eat everything and we don’t care about much else.

Korea doesn’t do Christmas.  There are no special deals or restaurants and not much decoration, so it doesn’t feel much like Christmas.  It was not even cold enough, really, to warrant a holiday-like feeling.  We left on Christmas day for Hong Kong.  The hardest part of the trip was just finding the airport shuttle bus, which was actually ridiculously easy.  Jenn prided herself on arriving makeup-free, which is my perpetual state except for extraordinary circumstances.

Arriving in Hong Kong, we got spicy, peanutty dan-dan noodles and the typical iced milk tea/coffee blend which is apparently famous in Hong Kong, all without leaving the airport.  It was pretty awesome.  We got on the train with little trouble, but then getting off the airport train in Kowloon, we seemed to be trapped in a giant crater formed by towering shiny apartment buildings, no egress except for motor vehicles.  While the walking distance to our hostel was not that far, we had to duck down underground again to take a more circuitous route to get to our “neighborhood,” Tsim Sha Sui.  Jenn was hell-bent on finding certain snacks she remembered aunts bringing her in her youth, so it seemed like we visited about a thousand snack shops and convenience stores.  We didn’t find much, and mostly discovered that there were so many Korean stores and Korean tourists that it was like we never left Seoul.  At the end of the evening, we found the Temple Street Night Market quite by accident.  There, they sell anything from dog beds to dildos, but our favorite find was fridge magnets with sassy sayings in Chinese and English, my favorite of which was “From far distance you look like rainbow, from near you look like a big potato.”  We got fried noodles and a big bottle of beer at some outdoor eatery, but our favorite part of the late-night dinner was the roasted peanuts, which were just the right amount of salty and nearly impossible to pick up with your chopsticks.

On the Monday of the trip we ventured out to the Hong Kong Wetland Park.  Neither aquariums nor HK Disneyland held any fascination for us, but the wetland park was just the right combination of scenic and informative.  We had Hong Kong’s version of Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, and diner-style noodles with fried eggs and pork on top.  It was quite bizarre.  The wetland park was cool in the way that Ilsan lake park is just relaxing enough as an easy getaway in the middle of the city.  We loved watching the mud skippers dash between holes in the mud and the little crabs running away from our shadows.  I would hope that the English teachers in Hong Kong get to take their classes there on field trip days.  After that, we attempted to see the harborside Avenue of Stars, which sucked because it was under renovation.  Much of what we saw was under renovation at that time, as it’s the “dead of winter” in Hong Kong, although it did not seem nearly as cold as Seoul.  We got Din Tai Fung for lunch, trying all of the interesting little dishes there as is traditional.  I’m obsessed with the xiaolongbao, soup dumplings, so I got them every time the opportunity arose.  We walked back from there… and while it’s not far on a map, we got kind of quite lost and went in a very roundabout way.  In lieu of dinner, we ended up drinking our drinks and eating Cheetos in the temple courtyard (the temple after which the night market is named), where lots of old men are playing mahjong, smoking, telling stories, or taking naps.

Our hostel was very basic, mostly just a place to rest our heads, not like the comparatively swanky ones I slept in in Japan.  The first night we had a pair of nightmare roommates whose phones were constantly ringing full-volume, zipping and unzipping bags and crinkling plastic bags, and talking on the phone at ungodly hours of the morning.  For two days, we had no roommates, and then more people came into the hostel nearing the next weekend.  But the concierges did give good recommendations for the most part, as well as good advice as to how to get around.

On Tuesday we tried out Hong Kong McDonald’s, as both Jenn and I have an interest in comparing the different restaurants across different countries.  I had a really bizarre salmon burger and iced milk tea, but not completely complaining.  We headed off to Central Station which is on the main Hong Kong Island.  We headed to the Piers, from which you might be able to take the famous Star Ferry, but we didn’t do that.  We walked along, taking in the fresh air, appreciating the soaring shiny skyscrapers and the ferris wheel.  We walked through Tamar Park, which is a delightful park and made me sorely regret not bringing running gear with me.  We walked from Central through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, which is kind of quite far.  Along the way we saw amazing old trees growing out of unlikely places and under an overpass on our way (although we didn’t identify this until later), we saw little old ladies whacking sheets of paper with shoes.  We thought it might be them fixing jewelry or testing the shoes?  Turns out, you write your enemies’ names on the paper, or make specific ill-wishes and get the old ladies to “beat” the curses into your enemies, like some kind of cool old voodoo.  I couldn’t have found this intentionally but we came across this gathering quite by accident.  We got Starbucks, because I am irreparably addicted to caffeine, and I was delighted to find that the “shot green tea latte” that had been discontinued in Korea continued on as the “espresso matcha fusion” in Hong Kong.  We got DimDimSum for lunch somewhere near Wan Chai.  At Causeway Bay, we took the train back to Central and headed up to the Midlevel Escalators, the longest and most famous stretch of escalators in the world.  It was kind of fun riding up and seeing all the cool restaurants that we passed by, and we ended up using them as a tool later to discover where to eat dinner one night.  Australia before and now Korea have taught me that you can only gain from looking down each alley because there are bound to be cool restaurants and cafes or at least cool graffiti everywhere you look.  Not so with Hong Kong.  It was depressing.  But we did not get off to stop at any of the places in the Midlevels because we thought, surely, there were awesome cafes or restaurants or views to be had at the top.

Not so, dear readers.  There is nothing at the top of the Midlevels.  Hugest letdown of my life.  We headed  back to the Temple Street Night Market for dinner (you will notice a pattern with this one… we never skipped a single night at this market), where we picked up fruit juices with exotic toppings such as “bird’s nest” and “hamar jelly,” with questionable health benefits, if any.  I was dying of hunger (Jenn had grabbed some of the HK-famous egg waffles on the way), so we eventually found dan-dan noodles, xiaolongbao, and iced coffee for me to eat at around 11pm.  Sometimes coffee doesn’t agree with me, and this was one of those nights.  I stayed up late into the night, and at the insistence over text message of my best friend from back home decided to experiment with Hong Kong tinder.  Guess what?  Tinder only sets me up with Korean guys, even those studying in or visiting Hong Kong, apparently.

On Wednesday we headed, after eating delightful toasts from a breakfast restaurant called Toastbox, to Lantau Island (this is also the island where the airport is, but that was not our aim).  We took a cable car, which was really awesome as it was a glass-bottom.  I do not get scared of heights so it was fascinating to watch the scenery pass by underfoot, especially watching the scattering of people on hiking trails beneath us.  At the top, we headed to the Tian Tan Buddha, otherwise known as the “Big Buddha.”  On the path are scores of cows just mulling about and asking to be photographed.  It really has the air of religious pilgrimage even though it’s not really used for that purpose anymore and is really way more about the selfie these days.  The buddha is amazing, of course, but I think it’s the walk that is really neat, approaching along with the thousands of other pilgrims and having to walk the stairs up to the top.  The Path of Wisdom is another high-billed attraction, but it’s kind of lost on those who don’t speak Chinese, and that it’s less meditation walk and more selfie opportunity for visitors.

The more interesting part of the short hike to the Path of Wisdom was signs for the Tea Garden Restaurant.  We kept seeing them and, as we were both starving, we wondered where this famous-sounding restaurant was.  Turns out, we passed it on the way, it was an abandoned and disheveled structure with trees growing through the windows.  I thought it was a good metaphor for Hong Kong, really.  There’s much that’s new and shiny, but other things are crumbling and old.  When it’s not deemed worth saving, they just let nature take its course.  We bought incense sticks at the monastery and lit them.  The courtyard was smoky and looked kind of graveyard-like with all the sticks stuck in the ashes of previous visitors.  The Po-Lin Monastery is like many temples I’ve seen thus far, but off to the side, they had a restaurant.  Jenn and I bought fried noodles, tea, moon cakes, and mango jellies there, eagerly devouring them in the outdoor tables.  It had become much colder so we were ravenous but also kind of eager to return to warmth.  For dinner, we were recommended by the hostel front desk girl to get hot pot at the “Supreme” restaurant (its resemblance to the streetwear brand led to too many jokes), but it proved to be wayyyyy super spicy for me and I wasn’t able to eat much.  I hunted for coffee by myself this time, eventually locating some Starbucks where I had a beautiful pomegranate mocha and fell right asleep.

We got in a fight the next morning.  Basically, perpetually single me bristles at being bragged at about how a w e s o m e it is to be in a relationship.  We’re both at fault, but I wrote two affirmations on the subject: 1) I am a full, unique, and important person on my own and do not necessarily need a significant other to matter or be of interest in this world.  On the opposite side: 2) I should not begrudge others’ happiness even when it seems to undercut my own.

Basically, during most trips you’re likely to clash with your travel companions.  It just happens with some companions faster than others.  Thursday, our final full day, was the day we had planned to hike the Dragon’s Back.  We took a bus to the hike among with scores of other foreigners like ourselves.  The Dragon’s Back is as crowded as any urban Seoul trail, with nice views but not wonderful views.  Nevertheless, it gives you both decent city views and also a sense that Hong Kong is, indeed, an island and there are beaches and small town-vibes to be had somewhere.  Jenn became enamored with finding quartz stones to bring back home, but most of them were too sharp or too big to transport.  We took a minibus back, but as I was the last person on the bus, I ended up sitting on a little leather settee right next to the driver.  As he terrifyingly whipped around the hairpin turns and I held on for dear life, I was only slightly comforted by the scent of the jasmine diffuser and tinny trot music emanating from the radio.

We were deposited back in the Shuen Wan markets, where we got bizarre spiral-cut pineapple, steamed buns that looked like little peachy butts, and eventually were hungry enough to stumble upon a restaurant called Hainan South where we both got fantastic Malay curry and lattes.  We attempted to take the tram up to Victoria Peak.  It was too crowded so we vowed to return the next day.  We headed to Hong Kong Park, where we attempted to go to the outdoor aviary.  Closed for the day.  My favorite part of the park was actually the Olympic Plaza, which had fallen into disrepair but was actually being renovated for some new purpose, and the viewing tower from which you could see the tai-chi plaza and meditation garden.  We also attempted to go to the Hong Kong Visual Arts center?  Also closed for the day.  After crushing defeat, we returned to the Midlevels again, with food and coffee in mind, and ended up finding Michelin-starred beef noodles and iced coffee at a fascinating cafe called Maison, serving different coffees, teas, and juices named after various world cities.  After walking around the piers and watching the fiercely red junk boats sailing a while, we headed “home.”

On Friday, our plane was  not until later, so we woke up early, packed our bags, shuttled ourselves and our stuff to Central and put the bags in lockers, then headed up to the tram to Victoria Peak.  If you arrive early, you can walk right on, especially with the “Octopus Card” which is your transit card in Hong Kong (much like the T-Money card in Seoul.)  The views from the top are stunning.  It was a nice wrap-up to the trip, seeing the city that we had traversed end-to-end on foot and by train.  Hong Kong seems big, but in reality it’s much smaller than Seoul.  It’s easy to manage and navigate with absolutely no Chinese ability.  It is an interesting blend of super new and high-tech and crumbling old buildings and stately old trees.  Ultimately, as with Japan, I was glad to return home to Seoul.

I’m sitting here wondering which new places I’ll get to explore in 2017.  I hope it’s a lot.  But more than sheer number, I hope that I can learn and grow as much as possible in the new year.

A toast to quality over quantity when travelling is involved.

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.