Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast, to continuity.

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

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being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast to being dumb and lucky.

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

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

This is that story.

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

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

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

w h y . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

category is: poncho eleganza

category is: poncho eleganza

After three days straight of drinking for one of the Geoje friends, Diarmuid’s birthdays and emerging in approximately one piece, I’ve found myself halfway through September not quite sure how I got here. I’d been telling people that I’ve been here for “a year and a half” for so long that it’s kind of crazy to see that time finally arrive. I talked with my parents a few weeks ago, and I agree with something my dad said: “It’s been a weird summer.” It’s been much the same as many of my summers in some ways, like trying to go to the beach every day that I can manage, drinking all the drinks, getting attacked by mosquitoes, and climbing mountains. But it moved too quickly and too strangely. That’s what my dad meant, I think. There was a strange quality to the summer that’s hard to place, kind of how the light after an afternoon rainstorm is a little strange and uncanny.

Anyhow, enough metaphors. Whereas much of last summer was me chilling in my house or trying to convince friends to do things with me, more of this summer was simultaneously solo doing things and having the perfect squad who always seems up for anything (s/o to Geoje squad, you’ll hear a lot about them this post). It passed by too quickly to measure. Maybe that’s how all summers go.

At the beginning of the summer, I made a list of trips that I wanted to take before the end of the year. I managed to tick many of them off already:

  • Jirisan hike
  • Sokcho beach/Seoraksan hike
  • Taiwan
  • Jeju/Hallasan hike
  • Busan re-visit
  • Japan re-visit
  • Myrtle Beach, S.C. for family vacation

As the last post was about Jirisan, the bulk of this one is about the second on the list, which happened in late June. It seems like ages ago now.

July is always a weird month for an American abroad, especially this year, where we have a veritable psychopath in office doing his darnedest to destroy relations with every nation in the world, including with South Korea. Nonetheless, the 4th of July is always a time when Americans take at least some semblance of pride in their country. Traditionally, this holiday for me meant belting out patriotic songs while working a long day lifeguarding at the pool, eating barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs and other red, white, and blue treats, and getting to play pool games when our breaks allowed it. It meant watching fireworks and getting to spend time with friends and family. In later years, it meant day-drinking and night-drinking with college friends. Being removed from all that, and in a country where the 4th of July is just another day, well it’s hard even though most days I actively try to avoid telling people which country I’m from.

July for me this year meant getting an IUD and some sort of steady friends-with-benefits situation (since estranged) and attending my first Pride festival. There is nothing like being surrounded by the love of friends, honestly. Also, this summer I was hard at work for my Korean class at Yonsei University. I will admit I didn’t study much outside of class, but the classes themselves were grueling and really pushed me to the edge of my mental limit.

At the end of July, I went home (or as close to home as I’m likely to get for 7-8 months) to visit my family on vacation in Myrtle Beach. I could have dedicated a whole 2,000-word blog post to this trip, but it would be boring and repetitive for anybody not present on the trip. It was just a trick of fate that it happened my vacation time off and the time my family were at the beach lined up perfectly. I was so grateful to get to see the family, spend so much time at the beach, and eat and drink everything in America. I’d missed salty and cheese snacks so much, and I ate pickles by the jar. I had lots of good talks with my brother and received lots of career advice from my aunts. I also got more updated on all of the family gossip that I’d missed out on for the past 18 months. A lot changes when you’re away. However nice it was, though, it was hard to get over the feeling of being a stranger in my own land. I felt like I had “I DON’T BELONG HERE ANYMORE” tattooed on my head, even though I’m really just the most unremarkable American person anyone has ever beheld, so I attracted no attention. I’m used to standing out in a crowd with my blonde hair. I’m used to being able to talk in a normal speaking voice to my friends across the store; because we’re both speaking English it floats easily above the constant murmur of everything else. While it was nice to be in a place where “everything makes sense,” I understand much better how I fit into the local ecosystem in Seoul. I’m not looking forward to fitting myself back in when I return.

In August I was buried in a fog of report cards and my impending Korean final exam at Yonsei. Towards the end of the month I also managed to lose/get stolen all of my important things, like my phone, ARC (alien registration card), and debit card, in Itaewon. I’m still reeling from the ramifications of that one night. In addition, I and some friends had a short but delightful trip to Busan, which was a re-do of my original trip last year in May, which I’d gone solo and not prepared for at all. Having friends to hang with you at the beach makes things a lot better. Finally, I also received a new Korean name. I’d been going by 조지아 (Jo Ji-ah), which is just the Korean transliteration of my first name, and unfortunately a completely legitimate first name-last name set. However, my friends-with-benefits decided I needed a “more Korean” name than that, deciding that my name should be 김지혜, Kim Jihye. This meant that he decided I should take his last name, Kim, and that didn’t sit quite well with me. I contacted my co-teacher from the old school, Miss Tiffany, about it, and she also thought the name he’d given me was too plain, and also wanted to give me a “full Korean” name, which means that none of the syllables in the name can be transliterated into Chinese characters, or hanja. I chose the last name of Moon because a) I’m already called “Georgia Moon” sometimes, b) I’m obsessed with moon phases (I have a tattoo of them, after all) and c) our friend/drag mother Haebin’s last name is Moon, so several friends all decided that they would take that last name. Miss Tiffany arrived at a few, from which I picked 가람, Garam, which means “strong river flowing” or “accomplish results,” I was told. In addition, I’m happy with it because of its resemblance to the Indian spice mix Garam Masala.

The Seoraksan/Sokcho trip formed the centerpiece of my summer. In my initial query to the Geoje squad group chat, I was just searching for even one other person to accompany me on a hike to Seoraksan. I clearly have no qualms about hiking alone, but for some reason I really wanted somebody to go with me. In the proposal, I said I just wanted somebody to go hiking with me, and then we could chill at the beach for the rest of the weekend, maybe get some barbecue, too. I didn’t expect much. I didn’t expect the rest of the group to be so on board. Of course, it changed significantly as to time and content of activities, but the initial premise remained intact. Hike, barbecue, beach.

A six-person squad all living in different areas of Seoul with different sleep and work schedules is hard to coordinate. I’m apparently not good at coordinating, so I’m just the idea man. I just say “what if?” and everyone else helps me make it happen. Six brains are better than one, after all. Also, not everybody is capable or wants to travel in the grungy style that I’m comfortable with.

Friday night before we left, I packed, headed to friend Rachael’s neighborhood out in Incheon (I don’t know how I was persuaded this would be faster to take the bus from, but I’m not very bright sometimes.) We got chimaek (chicken and beer) for dinner, and then went to Rachael’s house, which is also a loft, to sleep.

Waking up at 5am Saturday, we took a taxi to the express bus terminal, arriving just mere minutes after the bus left. We tried heading to east bus terminal (“Dong Seoul,” as it’s usually called, because dong means “east” in Korean), but our other friend Yoojin had found that the next bus from there was at 2pm. Unacceptable!! So, we made an about-face and headed back to where we started. We finagled a some kind of bus trip with a transfer, arriving at 11am in Sokcho. We then taxied to our hotel, the Mammoth Resortel, which was right near Seoraksan. It was a 1970s-style ski lodge, and we seemed to be the only people around. We rocked up the room to discover that pretty much our whole floor was deserted (I thought this was quaint or fortunate but the other friends thought the deserted floor looked more like a horror movie). We had 6 bunk beds in the room, and it was a pretty cool setup. I always demand the top bunk.

We headed out for our “hike.” I use this term generously because by Jirisan standards there was not much in the way of actual hiking. We did reach the top of s o m e t h i n g.

Walking toward the bus stop was like walking through that town in “Spirited Away.” It looked deserted in the daytime, but maybe it really might come alive at night? The other friends weren’t so sure. We managed to find one solitary open restaurant, where we feasted on just the right amount of bulgogi, pajeon, and budaejjigae, washed down with makgeolli like true hikers.

Right when we got off the bus to the mountain, that very minute it started raining. We saw the big Buddha seated at the foot of the mountain, and I will admit it was quite atmospheric with the mist floating by. I hate a day when I have to purchase a poncho, but this was one of them. (A wiser person would just keep a poncho in her bag for times like these. I never do.) It was a crapshoot as to whether we would be allowed to take the cable car to the summit, because they were very near to closing it due to rain and thunderstorms. We lucked out and got to take it anyway. The foggy views going up were amazing! At the cable car terminus, we got off and walked maybe a hundred yards to the “summit,” where there were enough craggy rocks and views from up high to convince everybody that we’d climbed to the top of the whole mountain. “Poncho eleganza,” we called it. We got ice cream while we waited for the cable car down.

Back in town, we took the most harried but awesome trip to E-Mart ever. Gathering beef, pork, kimchi, veggies, somaek (soju and beer), hongcho (Korean fruit vinegar perfect for mixing with soju and beer), ice, rice, and ramen, we returned to the hotel to stash our stuff in the fridge and get everyone showered, which was quite the adventure. With only one bathroom, some of the braver souls ventured out into the other deserted rooms to use their showers instead. We prepared for dinner, some cutting veggies and getting everything set out and others just cranking the tunes. It was a really cool setup in the hotel, with an open deck edged by grills, a communal kitchen open for all to use, and a fountain in the middle. Nearly everyone took a turn at the grill. There was lots of samjang (spicy red pepper sauce) and drinking, and I tried to get everyone on board with the hongcho. (It mostly didn’t work.) We also got Colton, seemingly one of the only friends who had never heard of Rupaul’s Drag Race, hooked on the show.

Somehow, even after a substantial amount of drinking, we managed to get everything thrown away, recycled, washed, or refrigerated. After that, we headed back to our floor’s kitchen/lounge/common room. We played “never have I ever,” like the middle schoolers we are, while drinking still more. The length of the day really struck me here, and even after I brewed and downed a full pot of coffee, I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I and other old-person-friend Shane had to sleep early. Early, of course, being 1 or 2 in the morning.

Shane and I obviously woke up the next morning far earlier than the others, early enough to have coffee and breakfast before anyone else. For a long time, we dawdled packing and eating breakfast, before finally checking out and heading for the beach. I seemed to be one of the only people to bring a towel, so while the others went to go procure towels, I just went in the water, which was freezing. It started to rain, but we still played around in the water (it wasn’t crowded at that time because it hadn’t reached swimming season yet) and threw sand at each other. We found a duk galbi (grilled spicy chicken and veggies) place for lunch, complete with cheese and fried rice. We got ice cream on the way back to the bus station and headed for home.

Here comes the sappy part. I spent nearly all of my Geoje trip this past January being ridiculously hungover or downright sick. I thought it unlikely that I’d ever see any of the people I’d met on this trip ever again, as I usually don’t keep in touch with people I meet on those group trips. Somehow, I made lasting friends with these people (I call them the “squad” to some of the crew’s chagrin) who still want to meet and do stuff. We’re not all interested in the same stuff. Some of us like drinking insane amounts, some of us take a crazy amount of business trips to foreign countries, some of us like to go hiking alone and have to get rescued by the Korean army, some of us like to go to book festivals, and some of us like traipsing through Mongolia alone. Somehow we found a squad that works in all of its various iterations, and I’m excited to see how we’ll keep in touch when we all part ways and before.

I’m so grateful for this s q u a d. End sappy bit.

I’m looking forward currently to my next grand trip during Chuseok, where I plan to make my re-attempt of Jeju Island’s Hallasan and then head on toward Taiwan. I’m looking forward with trepidation to the end of it all, when I’m attempting to travel for a month in China, maybe swing by Hawaii, and then finally come to a rest back on the east coast of the United States. My “real person” life sounds like a tired but happy balance of “side hustles” with finding a real and meaningful job that is even more well-suited to me than teaching.

A toast to looking forward and looking back on times well-spent with friends.

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.