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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on the other side of the desk

on the other side of the desk

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

Let’s take it from the top.

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

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

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

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

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

2. Put good in, get good out.

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

3. Don’t be a Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Load on the examples.

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

9. You get what you pay for.

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

10. Any learning is better than no learning.

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

 

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

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

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast to being dumb and lucky.

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.

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.