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.

everything works out

everything works out

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

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

Hmm, well.

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost didn’t go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

let that be enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this:

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

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

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

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

wet exhales, happy relief

wet exhales, happy relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast to fresh air, both literal and metaphorical.

The best way to start running

The best way to start running

The best way to start running is to start running. That may sound stupidly obvious, but it’s tough advice to follow. Especially when it’s raining, or very cold, or very hot, or very early in the morning, or…

Often the toughest obstacles in life aren’t physical. They’re mental. Indecision, fear, doubt…These things will paralyze you. At some point you just have to get up and go.

It’s easy to motivate yourself in college.  “sounds fake, but okay,”  say all the current college students reading this post, but hear me out.  It’s easy to make yourself go to the gym when it’s free and when everybody you know is doing it, when you’re surrounded by other young people who are all really fit and excited about fitness.  It’s easy to study, even for a really, really lazy person like me, when all your friends cancel plans because they have to study for exams, stay in the lab all night, or assemble end-of-year portfolios.  You see other people working hard and so you work hard, too.  This is probably one part “i’m relatively recently graduated from college and haven’t been outside of a school environment longer than a few months in 17 years,” one part “i’m living in a new country and don’t know how to organize my young-adult life still,” one part “i know the other people are doing fitness things, study things, creative things, but i can’t see them doing them so i’m not motivated by them.”

Within the past month, some before that, I’d set up some practices which I had hoped would stick.  I set up the language exchange with my Korean coteacher, I made a gym schedule with my coworker friend so we could kick each other’s butts into going.  Even with other people brought into the equation, though, it’s pretty easy to slack off.  Life, uh… finds a way to get in the way.  One night out to celebrate/commemorate Chris hyung‘s departure for Pennsylvania can disrupt the whole week’s flow, unfortunately.  Grading papers and other spontaneous outings sap the energy for the “”””important””””” things.

I think it’s a bit of toxic rhetoric saying that quality time spent with friends and good experiences mean next to nothing, while the “important things” like working out, studying, keeping a clean house are held on a pedestal.  It’s what you value, really.  I think there’s a good balance to be had, somewhere, I just tend to be a bit too heavy-handed on the good times and neglect the hard things.  It’s easy to find motivation for the good-times-things.  The hard things are rewarding, but only after a great deal of time is invested into them, which is to be expected but it can be disheartening at first.

A few weeks ago I was on my way to the bar in Hongdae and a Korean girl approached me.  This happens frequently, being a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner who is almost 100% likely to speak English.  People are so excited to practice their English that I get approached all the time.  If it’s a man, usually it’s to say something scuzzy, but since she seemed pretty young I figured she was a university student instead.  The transfer at Hapjeong station to the Line 6 is a long one, and she talked with me the whole time.  She wanted to do a sort of language exchange / be friends and since she was a lady and not a creepy old dude, I agreed.  Usually I say yes to these things and then don’t follow through, but she was persistent.  She is very nice, but also persistent.  I met her and her friend and we had ddeokbokki, spicy rice cakes, at a real restaurant rather than from the street stall, which was awesome.  They didn’t come on too strong at first.

The second meeting, at some point, the friend asked if I go to church.  This is common curiosity because a lot of Koreans are Christian.  I’m Catholic, but I’ve been lax if not nonexistent about going to mass on Sundays.  That’s hangover recovery day or hiking day, most weekends.  Or, at the very least, it has traditionally been the only day of the week I’ve been allowed to sleep in, after school on weekdays and water polo or swimming on weekends.  I should have said no, I’m not religious.  End of conversation.  But I’m usually pretty honest about most things so I didn’t think anything of it.

A third meeting was the friend taking me to her church.  I should stop assuming that Christians mean actual mass when they say “church,” because it was far more like a bible study.  Everybody was nice, but it was an intensely weird experience.  They had this very “”stylish”” music, but then a very bizarre sermon which was more like a college lecture, complete with the expectation that you should be taking notes.  When they read the verses, everyone reads in unison which is terrible and chaotic.  I missed the order and tradition and structure of Catholic mass.  This was cemented for me when I went to the beautiful cathedral in Myeongdong and remembered what “real church” is like.  I like “real church” infinitely better.

Things escalated quickly, recently.  The friend says that she wants to help me learn Korean, which is like, okay cool, awesome, great.  But the reasoning seems a bit off, like I’m her project, like I asked her to do this, which I never did.  I’m not dragging myself around on my knees asking Koreans to teach me.  I know that I’m pretty capable of teaching myself serviceably well by myself, but I’m just really l a z y..  Especially since she decided that the way I needed to study Korean was using the Bible, since it’s the best book and I will learn better that way.  Like, I’m all for Bible study, but only on your own terms.  And the reasoning is just very cyclical and tiring.  I want to learn Korean, just not this way.  She feels like it is her god-ordained project to teach me Korean and make me a better Christian.

We had our bible study/first Korean lesson yesterday.  It was brutal.  While I do find a measure of comfort in having the structure of grammar and lessons to follow in a textbook, I think the method of listening test from a text/ rewrite correct spellings of vocabulary words/ define each word/ use each word in a sentence/ read each sentence aloud/ text translation is a good one. However, I don’t think I’m interested enough in knowing the source material to continue.  I don’t want to have a bible discussion twice a week instead of studying, and I don’t like feeling like anyone’s service project.

Wow.  There was  a huge chunk of negativity.  Long story short: don’t use the promise of language exchange to push your faith on others.

So, I’m thinking that that’s not a really good motivation for learning Korean, to be able to translate the Bible.  At least not for me.  And you shouldn’t be like my other work friend who I’m 98% sure is trying to learn for the sole purpose of picking up boys and nothing else.  The motivation has to be deeper than that.  Like perhaps, a need for understanding.

I had also been struggling trying to motivate myself to go to the gym.  Besides a soul-crushing ride up the elevator, being surrounded by stick-thin people, and having to go really early before work because it’s too crowded in the evening (I expect my post on Korean gym culture will be forthcoming), it’s hard to make myself go more than once or twice a week, if at all.  I’ve only improved in recent weeks thanks to the merciless teasing of my work friend.

Being an athlete for 16 years, it’s really hard to make yourself work out when it’s suddenly not “for” anything.  I’ve never had a time where I’m not training for something, however far it is in the future.  So I had an epiphany yesterday on the elliptical: if I give myself a finish line, a goal, then it won’t be as hard to push myself, like just signing up for a simple 5k was be enough to get me out of the house and onto the running trails in Han Gang like I did this morning.  It was pretty satisfying, even though I got plenty of weird stares for my outfit of wrestling shirt and running tights from the ahjummas.  I was pretty sweaty on the train back, after all.

Maybe motivation for staying fit and studying Korean will come from within, one day, but right now I need external sources.  The right kind, too.

We see this sort of thing with students all the time.  The students who are self-motivated or “intrinsically motivated” are the ones who do best in school.  The students who are driven by pleasing the teacher or their friends or their parents don’t do as well consistently.  Finally there are the kids who are only motivated by what is fun or interesting to them.  If a game or activity is fun or they deem it worth their time, they’ll participate, but otherwise they are either blissfully off in their own world or make class a living hell for everyone in the room, as their sole mission seems to be to destroy everything in sight.  (This is true for kindergarteners, at least.)  You’ve gotta praise the good ones and ignore the ill-behaved ones as best you can.  And everyone responds well to treats.

So, it’s all about finding the right motivation to do that thing, whatever it is.  Sometimes you need a little push, sometimes a big one, sometimes continued encouragement and sometimes merciless teasing.  Whatever works, really.

A toast to whatever makes you take that first step, since the first step is always the hardest.

 

 

 

 

Thinking of flying

Thinking of flying

I hope you had a wonderful birthday as I’m about sure this won’t get to you on time.

I want you to know how proud we are of all that you have accomplished.  I can’t imagine in a million years dad or I thinking of flying to a foreign country where we don’t speak or write the language to live and work on our own.  Dad would be too chicken to visit without a tour guide.  Seriously though, I am so impressed.

Things are falling into place slowly.  Piece by piece, I keep figuring small things out.  Today, I finally got my phone plan sorted out, along with figuring out the aircon and TV after 3 months.. Each small thing feels like a big triumph.  Today I got a package from my eomma in the mail.  Sending packages from America is reaaalllyyyy expensive so you’d think it’s like life-saving medicine, but no, it’s just my mom’s special biscotti, the iconic twice-baked Italian coffee cookie you’d normally pay $5 for at a Starbucks.  She baked the last batch in February on the night before I left for here, and now look how far we’ve come.  Her note was really sweet, too.  I’ve been thinking on this post for a long time, about natural family and adopted family, how you’ve gotta make peace with both in order to be okay with living 5,000 miles away from your hometown.  That letter gave me the necessary nudge to actually sit down and write this post.

Sometimes the world is r e a l l y big.  Even moving away to college, a “mere” 200 miles away from home, seems like a big deal.  But time passes, and the world gets bigger and more spread out. You grow up.  Then you move again, and the world seems even bigger than you’d ever imagined; how the hell can someplace be 5,000 miles away??  Why would you want to go there??  My mom was really sad initially when I told her of my decision to go.  It was almost like I was going to Korea to get as far away from her as possible.  Not true, of course, but initially it must have felt like a slap in the face.  More time passed, and we all settled in.  I secretly suspect that all parents secretly like when their kids are doing cool things because then it makes them feel good when they get to tell their friends about what the kids are up to..

“oh your son’s working a desk job? my daughter’s in korea teaching english, but whatever..”

You learn to negotiate distance.  I have a seriously broken part of my personality which is like if I see somebody on Skype or keep up with them on social media I feel as if I’m basically seeing them in person so it’s a surrogate for actual human interaction, but it’s a great defense mechanism rather than letting the sadness of how far away my family is get to me.

Sometimes time itself works against you.  How long will I be here?  I honestly can’t say.  What’s adding on another year to my stay here to me?  Not much different on my end.  But then I find myself staring down missing weddings, family reunions, my brother’s graduation..  Obviously when you’re away from the other people their lives move at a different pace.  Or maybe the same pace, but a separate pace.  Both sides move on and continue on their own paths.

Sometimes the world is surprisingly small.  Last weekend as we got tacos with the coworkers to celebrate mine and another coworker’s birthdays, we were just going to pay when my one coworker met her friend she hadn’t seen in a whole year.  We ended up going for drinks after the tacos, and I found out this coworker’s friend lives literally 10 minutes away from my hometown back in the states, down to the intersection I live at and everything.

You learn to make it smaller, too.  You have your natural family, who are far away, and then you have your built family, the ones you choose to surround yourself with.  I’m slowly worming my way into the foreign teachers at our schools’ hearts.  I have some hyungs and eonnis here to whom I entrust the safety of my life wayyy more often than I should.  I have this crew at the bar who have somehow become my adopted family, and more than the free shots and a good place to hang out on weekend nights, they are as much of a home as my lonely little Gwanak-gu apartment, at least.  It’s gratifying to be able to so quickly have a place where you can walk in and have a chorus of “annyeonghaseyo”s pelted at you, a “usual” drink, and where all the regulars know your name.  (Of course, it occurred to me about a month ago  that I could potentially work at this bar when my contract is up, so after asking the owner, I’m basically embarking on a 10-month job interview..)

Usually in May two things happen: my birthday and the end of school.  Traditionally.  So when my birthday rolled around this year and instead there were a million tests and special (but stressful-for-teachers) days and so much hard work, it was a bit hard to cope.  But we’re learning still.  It’s still the “first” thing of everything so I hope that with practice everything will become second-nature.  We’ll see, I guess.

A toast to family and friends, both silver and gold.