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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast to quality over quantity when travelling is involved.

wet exhales, happy relief

wet exhales, happy relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast to fresh air, both literal and metaphorical.

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”

This post comes woefully late, but a lot of things have happened in between the events of the post and its actual writing. I’ve been on trips, gotten a tinder and met several people because of it, gotten two tattoos, graded a million papers and written report cards, and weathered many holidays and special days, and survived the dismissal of another new teacher. It’s been a wild ride.

So, even before I actually arrived on Korean soil I was already inviting friends and family to come visit me. Now Aidan hyung was the only one to follow up on this so far. But faithful friend Becca soon made plans to visit in early August. I initially thought that it might be around summer break, which was at first cool and then horrifying because I thought that it would be during the summer break and I would have to postpone my Japan trip to meet her. Turns out the time was early September instead, so no conflicts.

However, as time to plan came closer, I discovered that not only would Becca only be here for weekdays (of which I have such long hours that I could barely do my proper job as tour guide), but it would also come at the most stressful time to date of our school year, the changing of the semester.  During this time, a lot of the old coworkers left and a lot of new coworkers were coming in.  We also had changing schedules and books and report cards to hand in.  It was a huge mess.  So I was a nervous wreck, despite all my planning, that Becca would arrive and have to cool her jets for many hours while I languished at work.  I had arranged for Becca to get her tattoo (she likes to collect tattoos from every country she visits, even after she’d just freshly gotten one in Cambodia the week before) during the afternoon so that I could meet her directly after in that neighborhood.  I had told her that I would pick her up on my break and shepherd her to my house so she could put her huge backpacking pack in my house and I could give her the key and explain where to go.  I even bought a few samgak kimbaps for her lunch.

That Tuesday came and everything seemed to be going wrong.  It was our head teacher Amanda’s last day at the school and everything was in shambles.  The schedule had just changed that week, so the break that I had counted upon did not come at the right time and I was afraid she would have to wait in the train station and all my plans would be wasted.  I became a nervous wreck in the office, so much so that the other coworkers literally told me to just not worry about Becca and just have confidence in her.  But I reasoned: “I’ve made all these p l a n s and they can’t go to w a s t e” and was very stressed instead.  Becca’s wifi refused to work and I could not remember how long the train from the airport took or anything.  At lunch break, I strapped on my running shoes and sprinted to the station.  I was terrified that I would a) miss Becca and have to leave or b) get to meet Becca but be late back to school and get in trouble.  I watched the minutes tick by.  There is no free wifi for the Becca-type of travelers in the Seoul National University station.  I agonized over being late back to school

I’m happy to report that that didn’t happen.

Becca arrived in the train station safely, looking radiant and relieved.  I shepherded her to my apartment, explained where she was going, provided her with the tattoo design I’d drawn up previously and some lunch, and then I had to dash back to the school.  I was precisely on time.  Becca left at the correct time for her appointment, and the meeting with the artist was set up with military-like precision like a spy operation.  (Tattoos are technically illegal in South Korea, but more on that, I think, in a later post)  I met her at the end of the day when she had just finished up with the tattoo appointment, and from there we headed for samgyeopsal, which it shouldn’t need to be mentioned is my favorite meal in the entire country.  Becca asked for a “traditional Korean dessert,” and even though a lot of Koreans really do like Baskin Robbins, we managed to find a really good bingsu (shaved ice) place in Hongdae in amongst the night shopping and partiers.

What I learned from Tuesday with Becca?  Trust in your friends.  Trust in the process.  Trust in the universe.  For all your planning, everything will go exactly not as you intended, but as it is meant to go.

My bed is a tight fit but I’m pretty small so we managed just fine.  Wednesday was tall coworker Zach’s last day and there were lots of shenanigans.  I was much happier this day because Becca was safely in Seoul and could start to find her way around.  I had planned for her to go to the palaces on this day, but as it rained that day, that ended up not working out.  I suggested instead that she go to Dongdaemun for shopping and to see the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza).  All I could really do when I left was tell her the subway stops, give her an umbrella, and send her on her way.

I was sad myself when she asked where to get “authentic Korean breakfast” and I had to explain that breakfast is literally just the same food Koreans eat for every other meal, just eaten in the morning.

When I returned in the evening to discover that Becca only just barely made it to the DDP, and only because somebody who she met in a cafe that afternooon told her to go there, I was initially pissed but then cooled off.  I gave vague directions at best and a real Seoul native could instruct her better than me, right?  Every night I would ask if Becca had a fun day and she never said “no,” so I’m glad.  Basically, Becca is a pro traveler and is really talented at discovering the cool things to do in any given part of town, despite the lack of a guidebook or computer to research.

We had to stop at tall co-worker Zach’s apartment because he had stuff he was giving to me.  He had to take a plane out the next morning, bound for Hong Kong.  I really had intended for Becca to meet all the coworkers, but it turns out that I couldn’t really interest anybody in doing the planned things that week, so we ended up not meeting anybody really.

For dinner we had the actual most-loved Korean meal of all time: chimaek, or chicken and beer.  Becca’s got some mad dietary restrictions on her these days, and I find that I would be so worried about whether she could eat this or that that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy things properly.  Becca had no such qualms, despite not being able to eat spicy foods or drink too much, seemingly Korea’s two favorite pasttimes..  Basically, it was all an attitude thing, so if you let your dietary hangups get in your way of having a good time, they definitely will, but if you’re determined to have a good time, nothing can stop you.

We went to the Han River with a beer or so in hand and had a chat.  It was nice to watch the city lights go by and catch up.

Thursday I had so many well-laid plans, but those always go so well.  I thought this was the day that Becca should go see the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I think she got to, but I can’t remember.  My instructions to go out the Gwanghwamun Gwangjang stop on the purple line, following all of the travellers, were pretty explicitly clear, for once.  After that I had intended for her to head over to Insadong, which I also left pretty clear instructions for, but all the best-laid plans can go to shit.  And it’s so, so easy to get distracted in Seoul.  Somewhere along the way, she got hungry and, I believe, got some sort of yukgyejang, which is a spicy beef soup.  Sometimes the close-your-eyes-and-point method works well, other times it shoots you in the foot.  She said it was good, though.  You have to be pretty open-minded when eating in another country.

For dinner tonight something quite strange happened.  Becca’s dad is pretty high-up in the medical field, so he has connections all over the world.  Turns out he had a friend in Seoul, and he wanted us to meet that friend.  Said friend was also bringing his son.  I was under explicit instructions not to woo said son.

Becca’s dad’s friend ended up not coming for dinner in Ichon, but his son, Kevin, ended up being perfectly nice dinner company.  I think it may have been hard to balance talking to Becca about her experience in Seoul or about their dads’ work or the medical field and talking to me, a lowly teacher who can speak some Korean.  I’m not sure who would have been more interesting, but he balanced it with grace.  You know what I did not do with grace?  Eating haemul pajeon, the green onion pancakes with squid or octopus in it.  Ew.  Especially difficult with chopsticks.  We did manage to polish off a bottle of makgeolli between all of us, even though Becca did not drink much and Kevin didn’t drink at all.  By which I mean that I drank about 2/3 of the makgeolli.  It’s fine.  After dinner, we went for coffee and Becca’s dad’s friend did meet us.  He was nice and it was really nice meeting a fatherly-type older gentleman here.  It’s too often you see the rude ahjusshis and forget that they are fathers and grandfathers, too.  It’s important not to forget about connections like that.  You never know when your son or daughter might be travelling around the world and be able to meet your colleague for a dinner.

There have been so many mornings of a Friday where I have seen the ahjummas gathering in their full-on hiking garb in the subway station and I wish that I could join them.  So I sent Becca to Gwanak mountain.  It’s so far been my favorite mountain that I’ve hiked in Korea.  I was quite jealous that she got to go and I didn’t.  That day, she found the bus stop like I instructed, followed the students and people in hiking gear right up to the base of the mountain.  She was adopted by some ahjusshi on the mountain who showed her the way to the summit and got bibimbap and makgeolli for her when they reached the bottom again.  Becca is a far more adept traveller than me, but she ends up having really cool experiences because of it.

Even though Kevin spent basically the whole night before telling us how busy he was with med school studies, he somehow agreed to go out with us, both when we went to Kodachaya in Hongdae, where we got really spicy kimchi fried rice that Becca could barely touch, later when we went to my friend MJ’s bar, and even later when we went for noraebang.  It wasn’t the long and crazy night I had promised, but it was enough.  Kevin rapped Beenzino and I was so impressed.  I’m glad he took the night out of studying to come and join us for a night out on the town.

Saturday morning was the departure date.  We had to get all the stuff back into Becca’s bag after everything had been strewn about my floor and caught a coffee and bagel at a nearby shop.  It was sad to see her go and my anxiety is such that even despite profuse assurances that she had a fun time, I still worry.  I’ll probably always have these worries.  But again, this is the kind of travelling that is just kind of go-with-the-flow and entirely attitude-dependent.  Becca is the sort to make a good time out of any situation and I wish I could adopt that attitude.

A toast to old friends in new places.

 

lay down your roots

lay down your roots

It wakes you up to take a journey for a while, wherever it may be.  As you walk around the place, looking here and there at rustic scenes and mountain villages, everything seems most unfamiliar.  And how amusing it is the way people snatch the first opportunity to send a letter back to the capital: “When you get the chance, don’t forget to do this, don’t forget to do that.”  In such a place, you really notice everything.  Anything good–even the possessions you have brought along with you–seems better, and anyone you meet with artistic talent or handsome features seems more impressive than he usually would.  It is delightful also to go into retreat at some temple or shrine, unknown to anyone.

It’s been a while. I finally know exactly how my cousin Susanna feels, the need for something to be perfect, and if not perfect, then sufficiently impressive to want to show off. But here we are. In that time, I’ve settled in to be one of the “old boys,” as many of the teachers who were here when I started left and new ones replaced them. Preceding that was a mindless dash to the finish of the month in a haze of tests and grading and special days and field trips and report cards, culminating in my friend from home come to visit.

I have this unfortunate habit, I’ve found, of only being able to plan out/ look forward to one trip at a time, and this Japan trip was a titan, despite in retrospect there being a complete lack of planning on my part. I’m not that good of a solo traveler yet, it seems.
Going to Japan is every teenage punk-weeaboo’s dream, and though my Japan-centered sensibilities have cooled completely into just fond regard for the country in the meantime, it still meant a lot for me to get to visit. I was also afraid. Did I choose my home-away-from-home well? What if I chose wrong and really I end up liking Japan more? How will I live with myself then? I was plagued with those questions before going.

The morning of the day I was to leave, I woke up early enough to clean my whole apartment and do all the dishes and pack. It was quite miraculous, honestly. The whole day was just everybody going through the motions because they’re so excited to be elsewhere. In the last class, coworker Jennifer suggests to me that I ask the boss if I can take off early so that I can get to my 8:45 flight on time. Even taking the taxi instead of the bus or train, there’s almost no way I could have made it in time. I would get in trouble for this later with the vice-director, but the director of the school signed off on it and allowed me to leave early. Incheon is far from Gwanak. I’m stressing the whole time because I’m afraid I won’t get there, and although the driver was perfectly fast and there wasn’t as much traffic as expected, he thought for a full 20 minutes that I was saying I was meeting a friend in Incheon city and not going to the Incheon airport… … so after we figured out that was where the misunderstanding had occurred everything went way more smoothly.

Peach Airlines is weird. It’s the Tiger Air of Japan. The seats were insanely small and I did not sleep a single wink on the entire 1.5 hour flight… but uncharacteristically for me, I did not bring any books with me. Tragic. So it was a pretty painful flight. Airport was fun at 11:30 pm trying to go through customs and figure out how to get to my hostel. Once you’re at your hostel everything comes easily. I made a grave error in taking a taxi from the airport, because hey it was only 50,000 won in Korea so it shouldn’t be that bad in Japan, right? Wrong. 17,000 yen IS NOT $17!!! It is $170!!! I struggled with the conversions throughout the whole rest of the trip, and I ended up using my American debit cards because my Woori Bank card never ended up working… Travelling is a lot easier when you can guarantee that you will definitely be able to pay for everything. Anyhow, the taxi was pretty much the only option at 12:30 am when all the trains and shuttles are done and you can’t speak the language or anything, even though it ended up murdering my bottom line for the rest of the trip.

I woke up the next morning in my cute little box of a hostel room. It’s like your bed becomes a little platform room and you have a light and outlets for chargers (which, blessedly, are the same as American outlets) and a little writing desk and everything. You draw the curtains and the room is yours. You relinquish your shoes at the front of the hostel and walk around in little scuffling slippers the whole time.

I took a long time to get out of the hostel because all I had was a vague inkling that I should get into the city of Osaka at some point during the day. As I hung out and contemplated life over free wifi and free coffee, I started to notice that the hostel front desk attendant was playing some music that sounded… quite familiar. Especially language-wise. With a connection over Korean music, the girl explained where I should go that day, so eventually I got out to the Osaka castle and then went to the Shinsaibashi, a very famous shopping street. At this point in the day, I had not eaten anything substantial in many hours. My friend, Gabby, play-threatened me over facebook message, “don’t you pass out on me!!” as I sat in a café where I had a remarkable coffee prepared by a really nice barista. I was supposed to meet this friend a few days later in Kanazawa. At around 8pm, I finally got a real meal: I caught a ramen at the purportedly best ramen shop in all of Osaka. It was pretty good, and it was one of those places where you sit at the bar and watch the chefs make your order right in front of your face.

Japanese trains are substantially harder to use than Korean trains, it was really hot the whole day and I was mostly out in the sun for a while when I sketched the Osaka castle, and I had taken for granted how easy it is for a person to get around when they can just read the language (as I can in Korea). There’s substantially more grunting, pointing, and nodding when I’m in Japan.

The next morning I went to the Shinsaibashi street again for breakfast, but also most specifically to buy a book. I had the train ride to Kanazawa ahead of me and I did not intend to go without a book. I bought the above-quoted “Essays in Idleness” which spoke to me on many levels, but it was cool to read some Japanese literature while in Japan and get some insight into the Japanese psyche, which really hasn’t changed in 1,000 years.

I succeeded in buying my train ticket, but due to going to the wrong set of gates at first, missed my train by mere minutes and had to wait a whole extra hour for the next train. I did not get the memo about reserved seats and unreserved cars, so about 20 minutes in I had to move to the unreserved car. I slept far better on that train, and it helped to have a book with me. I always feel more at ease with a book that I can pull out at any time.
Gabby really graciously waited the extra hour for me to arrive in Kanazawa and took me to a place where we got burgers, and later nachos and margaritas. Gabby’s house is far nicer than mine and has actual rooms. But Kanazawa is also the size of Pittsburgh, whereas Seoul is more comparable to New York City in population. Japan is also much quieter and cleaner than Korea, which was nice at first, but became unnerving after some time.

The next day, ever-industrious Gabby (I would have been totally content to sleep forever but we had to start moving sometime) woke me up with French-press coffee and rice, which was sprinkled with some sort of salty prune powder which was nice. We went to the Kanazawa castle, which was pretty remarkable-looking from afar. I can imagine going for runs through the surrounding parks or the ahjummas going for strolls on the weekends. I had sakura (cherry-blossom) ice cream!! It was wonderful! Gabby said that the trademark in Kanazawa is gold-leaf ice cream, but even though I’m generally pretty extra, that was even too extra for me. She explained the details of the design of the castle to me, and I was impressed because man, I don’t know nearly anything about Korean architecture in comparison.

In addition, we went to the fish market to have a look around. IT IS SO CLEAN COMPARED TO KOREA, I was floored. Gabby seemed to think it was silly to make that remark, but I’m used to the ahjummas barely wiping their hands and squatting on the ground all day, so it was a surprise to see it so clean and organized. I came to find that that’s the norm for Japan, though. Gabby ducked into a small restaurant in a side alley and it turned out to have sushi, so that’s where I had my first proper sushi in Japan. We got those assorted-fish sushi bowls, and some was wonderful as expected, and some, like the octopus, was terrible. I’ve tried octopus and squid on so many occasions in the last six months and I hate it every time. Especially raw octopus tastes and feels like you’re just chewing on salty rubber… Anyhow it was really nice to have a guide to explain what to properly do in a sushi restaurant so that I could do it later, in Tokyo, and not embarrass myself.

The other thing that we did that day was going to the temple. I saw many temples and shrines. I still don’t properly distinguish the temples from the shrines. Shrines are for the Shinto religion; temples are for Buddhists. They are all equally special and amazing and beautiful, filled with ritual significance. It was nice to have a friend to explain to me how to wash my hands, how to do the cute little clapping-bowing thing before you throw the coin into the slatted box, and how you buy and tie your fortune. At first, the fortune I bought (which I though was for “”love””) ended up being wishing for a son to be born… No. How about no. The second one, a general-good-luck fortune, said that I will be really lucky but you probably should not be travelling, which, lol. As we prepared to tie our fortunes onto the little box, a crane strutted by in the pond next to us. It was all very picturesque until an old couple sort of walked through the path to try to get a picture with the crane and made it fly away. Ahjummas and ahjusshis are the same in every country, it seems.

We got coffee at this cute little place with a really cute menu. Gabby wanted to be sure we could get a Japanese sort of dessert, so I had some sort of soybean-powder parfait which was deliciously bizarre. After a day like that, we collapsed into Gabby’s house for just long enough to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness before passing out. Gabby’s house is cute because you just slept on futons on the floor. I thought it might be like that in Korea, but that’s probably for the best that I have a proper bedframe; my floor here is always filthy despite my best efforts.

In the morning we went to Tokyo by train. This was far easier with Gabby to show me the ropes on the trains. We bought bento boxes because it’s apparently very auspicious to eat a bento lunch on the Japan Railroad Shinkansen train. I usually just fall asleep immediately upon getting into a moving vehicle so it was happy that I had Gabby to watch out for me.

Getting out the train in Tokyo, I was not immediately impressed. Granted, we went to Ueno station, one of the other big stations besides Tokyo, so we missed a lot of the hustle and bustle. Our hostel, SPACE Hostel, was really cool. This one was one where you only have curtains around your bed. My dorm room was constantly damp, and as I accidentally left an onigiri (or samgak kimbap) in my bag for a whole night, left the whole room smelling like damp ham for more than a day. Whoops. In the evening, freshly arrived in the city, Gabby had promises to meet her mom’s friend for dinner. I agreed that I would just find my own dinner during that time and not worry too much. This was a stupid idea on my first night in the country and not being able to read Japanese and not being in a prominently touristy area. Anyhow after a full hour of walking I ended up getting a pizza margherita and a peach shochu smash or something like that. Moulin Rouge! was playing on the screen above the bar. It was kind of surreal. Walking back to meet Gabby, I was invited in to meet Gabby’s mom’s friends. They invited both of us to the friend’s bar, which was a converted geisha’s house, now a bar-teahouse-art-and-antiques showroom. The view of the river and the atmosphere was amazing. I was enthralled. Naturally, Gabby’s mom’s friend invites us to her house which was nearby. We went from 100-year-old teahouse to 21st-century high rise. Very swanky. The view of the Tokyo Skytree and the river and city lights from here was stunning. What a welcome to Tokyo!

The next day, we went to the big temple near Ueno. I can’t tell you exactly what it was called because I’m terrible at remembering Japanese names, but it’s the one with the really big lantern that could fit 6 full-grown adults inside. It was a huge complex, and we got to see people purifying themselves with smoke and water, everyone tying on the wishes, and many smaller pilgrimage sites. It’s really such a bustling marketplace and I imagine it would have been much the same on a holiday 100 years ago, too.

Speaking of marketplaces, we also went to the Kappabashi kitchen street. This is a famous place in Tokyo, because it’s the place where all the restaurants buy their plastic replicas of the food that they will display outside. From small sushis to huge noodle dishes to ice-cold beers or flaky pastries, they were all represented in painstaking plastic detail. I was tempted to buy some for my mom, but then again, if you don’t have a restaurant, what use could you have for those plastic foods? It was cool going through all of the restaurant banners, tableware, and other things. It gives you a really succinct understanding of the food culture in the country. This street makes it ***feel**** like it would be very easy to open a restaurant in Japan. We got really wonderful coffee at a shop that looked quite unremarkable from the outside, but I could tell would be awesome on the inside (kind of like people, I guess). Japanese establishments have an amazing aesthetic that I appreciated every second of every day that I was there.

Gabby has a lot of family friends. We met her other family friend, a young professional living in Tokyo, and we somehow chose a paella restaurant in Shinjuku, I think, and had such interesting sangrias with our dinner. Afterward, we set out for a view from the top of the Tokyo Government Building. It was quite the ordeal to get there, but it’s free to get to the top, unlike going up to the Skytree. There was a group of boy travelers trying to get up the building at the same time, looking for the entrance, and they were all really nice and cute. The view from the top is amazing. The city seems to go on for miles upon miles, as far as the eye can see. Seoul has lots of mountains, but Tokyo is mostly flat, so all you can see is just lights that go on into the distance like stars in the galaxy.

That night was Gabby’s last night in Japan for about a month, so even though Gabby rarely drinks, we drank a bit out on the fire escape of the hostel. We said a toast in every language we could find on the internet. I was not feeling great the next day but it apparently wrecked Gabby for her long flight the next day.

I stayed for the next day by myself. Since we mostly saw a smaller-street kind of scene, temples, and castles, I wanted to see for myself if I could find the real Tokyo hustle and bustle that I’d always pictured I’d find when I came to Tokyo. I wanted Shibuya, I wanted Harajuku, I wanted Ginza. I wanted the crush of people so strong that I’d never want to see another human being for ten years. Shibuya crossing is the busiest street crossing in the whole world. As I sat nursing my drink from the second-floor Starbucks and watched the light cycles, people ebbed and flowed like the waves and tides at the beach. They could juke and dodge perfectly like they were those birds flying in perfectly timed swoops, hundreds all at once. My brother called me during this time, extending my intended stay from 10-15 minutes to more than an hour. Whoops. I had a vague idea of how to get from place to place, but most of this was walking. I think I attempted to walk from Shibuya to Harajuku, which did not end up happening. I took the train and Harajuku was just as crowded as one would expect. Like, suffocatingly so. There were tons of cute shops and things, but during this time I really would have appreciated a Japanese-speaking friend to help me find somewhere to eat and smooth the process, but I ended up getting McDonald’s and a strawberry crepe. I ended the day in Ginza being awed and impressed by all the big and beautiful stores and realizing I couldn’t afford anything in the dinner department in that neighborhood. I made my way back to Asakusa to our hostel and then got sushi at one of the conveyor-belt restaurants. A kindly young guy, with motions and carefully slow demonstrations, showed me how to hail the sushi chef and tell him what I wanted.
The next day I had to head to Kyoto on the train. I felt like a pro at the Shinkansen train by this time. I arrived in the early afternoon in Kyoto.  My coworker Myra had also come to Japan and to Kyoto at the same time, so there had been some sort of plan to meet for sushi for lunch. As I couldn’t take any wifi until 3 I discovered that she had already left to go out to the temples and shrines for the day, so I was on my own for that day and evening.  My hostel was very cool, like big bunk beds with a little platform for hanging out.

On the first day in Kyoto I went to the big temple nearby our hostel.  It is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world.  Despite anything else, this was my favorite temple I visited because it was so peaceful.  Since everyone has to take their shoes off directly after stepping on the gravel of the square, everyone is automatically more quiet and reverent.  Everyone walks around slowly on socked feet.  The dark wood structure looms high above not frighteningly, but rather reassuringly.  Like a protector.  I sat a while sketching until they told us the temple was closed and we had to leave.

I learned from Gabby that a good way to eat well and sort of cheaply in a place where they are more able to cater to tourists is in the department store food courts, so I ended up getting what would have been called in Korean deop-bap, or rice with stuff on top.  Mine had raw salmon and was delicious.  I ended up spending a long time in the hostel kitchen trying to unwind and drink some coffee and ended up staying way too late.

My last full day in Japan was spent touring shrines and temples.  I picked the two most important-looking ones as I took an extremely early breakfast that morning.  I had gotten up at 5am because it was too hot to sleep.  In the morning I went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine.  It’s a few stops down the JR Line, but it was nearly a 10-year dream in the making.  I had read about this shrine when I was in elementary school and the vision of those thousands of bright orange gates stuck with me for so many years.  As you start out, the crowds of pilgrims are loud and boisterous.  They crowd and swarm and it is uncomfortable to stay there amid the masses.  But then you move off to the side and up toward the mountain.  Even going through the smaller rows of gates, it’s still crowded with people taking selfies, but it thins out as you go on.  It quiets down.  There are little stands to sell talismans, souvenirs, and refreshments along the way.  There is not much of anything at the top, but the graveyard shrines are littered with small replicas of the orange gates and small fox figurines.  Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to the fox god.  Shrines are so peaceful and even among so many people you can feel at peace.

I returned to Kyoto to meet for ramen with my coworker Myra.  Being in a different country and be able to meet with my friend Gabby was unreal enough, but what were the odds that I would be able to meet with my coworker as well?  Unlikely at best.

In the afternoon I took the train out to the Tenryuji Temple.  It’s also kind of far, as in not within walking distance, but I walked through the bamboo groves to get there and even with all the people taking selfies galore and crowding and clogging, it was still beautiful and serene.  This temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and taking in the temple and its surrounds, contemplating the beautifully manicured ponds and gardens and chilling out.  It truly feels like a pilgrimage site.  That evening I had the most amazing butter fried rice for dinner.  Truly awesome.

A full day of travel followed, with trains and more trains and planes and more trains, but I had never been more relieved to touch down in a country whose language I understood.  I had such an odd thought: “I’m home.”  When did that happen?  When did Seoul become home?  It’s so weird how that definition of home changes.  Is it just somewhere to rest your head at night or is it how you lay down your roots?

A toast to home, wherever that may be.

tl;dr: I was afraid that I would like Japan more than Korea but even despite how beautiful everything was and how long coming my trip had been, I still somehow liked Korea better.

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Sore toes, sad kicks, and samgyeopsal

Sore toes, sad kicks, and samgyeopsal

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do.  You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.  Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions?  For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

You learn over time that a lot of travelling and living abroad is literally just being in the right frame of mind.  It’s easy to do this when it’s a relatively short period of time like studying abroad, but it’s harder to maintain in the long run.  In the intervening months and years.  It’s about three weeks ago that most of this saga occurred, but the attitude parable is always relevant.

I’m currently trying to woo this boy, Sam-sshi.  Many of my current anxieties revolve around this situation, so we’ll just lay this out there.  So I knew him from before I left because we met when we both went to school in Pittsburgh.  He’s Korean-American and I was in Korean class so it was an easy extension.  We only met once or twice before I left after the summer ended.  I thought that was the end of it.  I returned home, took the TEFL course, and then went to Korea.

Months later, Chris-sshi comes into the bar and announces that Sam-sshi will be coming to Korea for work in June.  Well, June passes, and finally halfway through July he comes.  We’re scheduled to meet one Sunday, and I’m assailed by doubts.  We only met twice, what if I blew this up to be way more than it is?  What if he’s not as wonderful as I remembered?

Fear not, dear reader.  He’s every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and seeing people from home is always a sight for sore eyes.  We talked as if we’d known each other for half a decade and not just met a few times nearly a year ago.  We took a taxi to the university, where his cousin was having an architecture exhibition.  Later, he had more people to meet so he had to leave early.  Fast forward to the next weekend.  After substantial waffling, we agreed to meet in Myeongdong.  Seoul is far from where he lives in Ansan, but I was willing to wait.  I waited at home a bit, since it was Friday and we get off early on Fridays.  Then I waited at Starbucks.  After a while, I continued to Myeongdong.  I apparently have no idea how long it takes to get to Ansan.  I wait in the Myeongdong station, and then take a stroll down the shopping street.  Let me tell you, that is a depressing amount of foreign tourists on that street.

Finally, as soon as I was on the farthest possible part of that street, he had arrived.  We had to find a bathroom, so we settled on some sort of beer taphouse, which turned out to be expensive and underwhelming.  While there, a guy spilled his beer on me, Sam-sshi’s Guiness was ridiculously flat, and he admitted to me that a) he’s seeing a girl from Tinder, but b) that as soon as he discovers that a girl fancies him too much, he immediately loses interest.  Just bro talk or warning me off?  I don’t know.  After the single beer, he had to return to Ansan.  Should I  be flattered that he made this 1.5-hour trip up to Seoul for such a short meeting or disappointed that he wouldn’t hang out for longer?  We’ll see.  The goon has barely responded since after that, and it’s been two weeks.  This is often my kind of luck.

Anyhow, we’re here to say that love-life things are not anything that can necessarily be solved by “””having a good attitude,”””” unfortunately, which is kind of sucky.  But that’s life.

It’s like this.  This past week, my teeth had been hurting me.  I’m a hypochondriac when it comes to teeth things, because I’m terrified that something’s going to happen to them and I’ll need to get a root canal or something else awful.  But here’s the thing, it was just because I was focusing too much on them, worrying my gums and overbrushing and things, and when I stopped worrying, my teeth took care of the problem, whatever it was, by themselves.  Worrying too much often blows up the problem to be way worse than it is.

The morning after our underwhelming Myeongdong date (I call it underwhelming in the same breath as being appreciative that it happened and I would have waited much longer for even a date at Macca’s, but it was sadder that it was cut so short), we were set to go to the Boryeong Mud Festival.  I usually say “we” as in “The Royal ‘We,’” but for once I literally mean that a lot of people I know were set to go, including my coworker friend Jenn, another group of coworkers on a separate tour, and Sam-sshi, but with Tinder girl. (He said that he lowkey didn’t really want to go with her, after his aforementioned hangup, so he was going to just hang with us and get barbeque and ditch Tinder girl. I approve.)  I was on a different tour so that I could get both the bus and hotel booking in one shot, as well as being signed up for something called a “mud marathon” and other activities which sounded awesome.

That morning I woke up at 6:30 to pack, since I didn’t the night before.  It was pouring rain, but also pouring in were the excuses from all my friends as to why they didn’t want to mud festival in the rain.  All of them were ludicrous for many reasons, but mainly you’re anticipating being wet and covered in mud, so why should a little extra rain hurt?  Nonetheless, I was doubting a bit my choice to go.  Usually in these situations, though, I say, “I paid for it and I said I would do it, so I’m going.”  The 8am meeting time was very reasonable, anyway.  While I was on the bus trying to catch some sleep, Sam-sshi, too, backed out of the deal.  Only I remained of this huge group originally promised to come.

The Boryeong Mud Festival is one of those things that you read about, when you’re sitting back at home in your home country, that makes you say, “yes, of course I want to go to a country that has something like that, it sounds awesome.”  Go play in the mud in one of the largest festivals in all of Korea, sounds fun.  Although I was momentarily discouraged by the claim that it’s basically a big frat party for foreigners, I still wanted to go based on the initial impression alone.

So I’m sitting on this bus, caught between listening to the other bus riders’ stories, worrying about Sam-sshi and work things, and trying to get some sleep, my big umbrella propped up like a samurai’s katana, when I had a thought.  For once, I was faced with a situation that would be 110% what I made of it.  Nobody is going to make a trip in the rain fun for you.  But I really do tend to like rainy days, and if you told 8-year-old me that she would get to play in the mud and rain for a weekend and nobody would yell at her, she’d be overjoyed.  So really, if you resolve that the rain is going to ruin your time there, then yes, obviously, you’re going to have a bad time.  But if you determine that you’ll have a good time, despite being all wet and cold?  Well, that’s where the magic happens.  So I did an experiment: what would happen if you go into a potentially bad-time situation with an attitude that you’re going to have a good time regardless?

Spoiler alert: you’re gonna have a blast.

Sometimes travelling alone on the tour is helpful: you’re not stuck with work mates or family and can move between the groups freely.  Or if you just want to be by yourself for certain things?  That’s okay too.  You can sit with whoever you want and do whatever.  That’s my kind of style.  Nevertheless, good things happen when you branch out.  This is hard as an introvert, so it comes very slowly, but it’s easier in this frame of mind.  It helps that a lot of the people on the tour are either English teachers or travelers, so it’s easy to compare notes on our experiences.  While we drove and talked, there were about 120 people on the trip on three buses, the clouds cleared up and the sun came out.  Ridiculously pathetic fallacy.

We started off the trip by watching/kind of walking through the parade in Boryeong.  Then, there was a watergun fight organized by our tour group.  While it was a little weird feeling like the foreigner entertainment guild, the spirit of the place seeped through after a little bit as random Korean boys came through and we got to douse them with water, too.  Anyone who got too close to the refilling pool would get pushed in or splashed.  It ended up being a ton of fun.  After being thoroughly soaked, we moved on to the next part: the mud marathon.  I’ll admit I was a bit nervous for this part, as when civilians call something a marathon it might be anything from a 1-mile fun run to the full 26.2-mile shebang.  Civilians have no idea how long a marathon is.  We arrived at the mud flats in the afternoon.  It was cloudy but not rainy, and we got our socks and outfits ready.  As a proper swimmer, I’d had my suit on all day, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.  Nonetheless, I did not come prepared with the proper socks and I had to borrow money from one of the kindly Aussies on the trip to buy some new socks that would actually stay on my feet (the mud’s suction is insane, you see).

The mud is so, so fun to play in, but this was business.  You got a really cool prize if you won, which I was confident I could do at first but after seeing the collection of really, really athletic-looking girls who were arrayed around, I wasn’t so sure.  The top 100 finishers got a medal, though, so that was the goal.  It was only a 3-kilometer race, so no big deal.  Except that it was hard.  The mud sucks your feet in and saps your strength (although it’s refreshing to be able to just run in your socks, no shoes), but you also have to be careful to not bring your feet down too hard in case of any rocks or sharp shells.  It was cool to see the procession and the different levels of undress of the participants.  There were some Boryeong residents who you can tell trained for the event, they smoked everybody easily.  At the farthest point they stamp your arm as you go by to show that you’ve run the full way, then you round the corner and head toward the finish.  I always end every race by a mad dash to the end, as I learned from my friend during my time in water polo.  I got the medal!!

After that was mud wrestling.  I always talk a big game for one so small, always saying stuff like “fight me” or something, but I got in that ring and honestly there’s something to be said for tallness.  I literally got picked up and thrown out of the ring, despite all of my attempts to get down low and use my center of gravity for my own advantage.  Since I got out so fast, we ended up playing soccer with the mud flat hyungs.  Now, I’m not wonderful at soccer with shoes on and on dry land, so kicking the ball with my bare feet and into puddles ended with some very sore toes and sad kicks.  But I did score a goal and the hyungs were really nice, when they weren’t trying to score on us.  The rest of the “marathoners” and “wrestlers” slowly joined, but at one point I got mud in my eyes and had to step out.  My toes were so sore at this point that I couldn’t be of much use, anyway.  It was an ordeal to get as much of the mud out of our clothes as possible, but that’s one of the joys of playing in the mud, I suppose.

After going back to the motel (the traditional kind where you sleep on the floor and stuff) and showering, a group of people went out for samgyeopsal.  It’s always weird not being necessarily the oldest but the most experienced in a group.  Afterwards, we attempted to chug as much soju as possible while walking on the beach trying to find a spot to watch the concert.  PSY was the act of the festival, and I was quite skeptical because he seems like kind of a goofy human, but wow, he is a wonderful performer.  The crowd was electric, and he knew how to work the crowd to get everybody pumped up.  The Aussies left and returned at one point with huge armfuls of soju bottles for everyone.  It was pretty crazy how everybody was drinking them like they were water.  The last encore was Psy doing covers of older songs, and he covered Big Bang’s “Sunset Glow” and my friend and I absolutely lost it.  It was an amazing atmosphere.  Afterwards, some air force men from Wisconsin tried to get me to get pizza with them and go home with them, but even free pizza was not enough to keep me from going back to the hotel to fend off the impending hangover.

Turns out, I succeeded.  I was trying to get this friend to go to brunch with me, and while we failed in going to the promised brunch place for actual brunch, we actually returned later for a very decent lunch.  (In the meantime we had pizza and waffles at another café for our breakfast.)  We were supposed to go to the “real” mud festival at this time, but it ended up being quite disappointing.  It was a bunch of activities and games set up in the plaza, but there was barely any mud!! I don’t know if it was all dried up or used up, but it was just not worth it to get all dirty for so little payback.  In addition, it ended up being quite sunny and nobody was feeling standing in 2-hour lines just to go down a water slide.  We ended up going to the beach and listening to the rave-like music and floating around with everyone in the water.  The water was really warm and the atmosphere was really chill despite the intense rave music.  After some time we actually continued into the concert part of the rave, where disinterested-looking volunteers in facemasks pelted the crowd with huge water hoses.  We caught it just before the end, and that part was wayyyy more fun than I imagine the actual mud festival was.  We also caught some Popeye’s chicken before I left, something I miss immensely from home.  Sometimes KFC just doesn’t cut it.

So anyhow, this would have been a very boring and un-notable weekend if it hadn’t been for that experiment.  When they say attitude is everything?  Yeah, they’re not lying.  Perspective makes a huge change in how you go about your daily life, and sometimes you gotta take the setbacks as just another challenge for growth.

A toast to seeing obstacles not as stumbling blocks, but rather as stepping stones to the next big thing in this life.

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