started from the bottom now we here

started from the bottom now we here

First weeks in Korea in 2016 versus first weeks at new job in 2019

After a full day of snow and another of freezing rain, I got to work from home one day earlier this week. What a nice and calming atmosphere I painted for myself: working on photoshop and publishing ads on one computer, watching Terrace House, The Great British Baking Show, and Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix on the other computer, sitting on the floor, iced coffee on the table, all while it absolutely pours down freezing rain outside. It’s a day that I wouldn’t have been able to have about a year ago. I’ve been away from Korea almost a solid year after this month, but it still feels quite near in memory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first weeks in Korea, comparing it at all turns to my first weeks at this job.

Suffering through the million steps in the visa application process alone seemed almost impossible. I could probably manage it now, knowing what I know, but at the time my 22-year-old self could not imagine going through it alone. Having a recruiter or a company to work with for the first time really helps you manage all of the steps and smooth the way with schools and embassies alike. I navigated all that, working during the day and interviewing at night, mailing off my documents as quickly as I could manage.

Once all my documents were submitted, all that remained was packing and waiting for my visa to arrive back from the New York City Korean embassy. Except that … it didn’t arrive. I waited weeks, wondering what the holdup was. My school was relying on me to get my visa to purchase the flight out and start my training. Finally, I talked to my school director and she advocated for me to the embassy, even though she had to stay up until probably midnight to do it. The holdup was I’d included the wrong sort of envelope to ship my passport back, and for whatever reason, they had none of my contact information to tell me about this. I and the school reached some kind of absolutely insane arrangement. I would go pick up my visa by hand from the embassy, get back to my hometown, and ship out of the country the next day. NYC is about 4 hours by train from my hometown, so I did a daytrip to pick up my passport, visit the Met (on account of how much time I had before the embassy opened), grab dumplings with my friend, and then peace out that evening. I arrived home from the train station at 2am. We had to leave for the Philadelphia airport at 5am. It was an incredibly emotionally brutal stretch of my life.

I arrived to Korea on the last snow of the winter (in 2016). I remember looking at all the neon lights whizzing by the freeway and thinking, what kind of trouble have I gotten myself into now? My school didn’t have my apartment ready yet, so they had me set up at the love motel next to what would become my apartment building (a common practice among most hagwons). After they dropped me off at my room, I turned on some cartoons, ate some of my mom’s biscotti, and just flat-out sobbed. I’d never felt so alone in my life. I only say this to illustrate how much I miss it now, how far I’ve come since then.

Since I arrived so late, I got one whole day of training before I had to start teaching for real. Most of the other teachers had several days to learn, observe, and organize all of their supplies. As it was, it was quite the trial by fire, and every sound of high heels in the hall outside got my hackles up as if it were the vice-director coming to deliver notice of my firing and imminent deportation herself.

One of my coworkers told me to give myself about two weeks to flounder around and get things figured out. In reality it took closer to a month, until we had a full cycle of tests and exams to proctor and grade, before I was more comfortable with what I was doing.  I never actually succeeded in logging into the school management software with my own login, I always used somebody else’s. It always felt a bit temporary to me, college-like, even though there are many who stay at the same school for 2 years or longer, if they find they like it.

The contrast between then and now is stark. I’m starting out in a new industry, one that I’ve given lots of thought to, but had little practice in, for 4 years since I graduated. In that time, doubts have been nonstop swimming through my head as to whether I was actually qualified to be in the marketing industry at all. That being said, I never had a teaching degree. (i do have a marketing degree) I don’t read teaching publications and critique lesson plans in my free time. (i do read marketing publications in my free time.. haha, nerd!!) Digital marketing is my favorite facet of the field, and I’m beyond excited to get to learn the most difficult social media marketing platform to stretch my mind and my abilities as much as possible. I’m actually being given plenty of time to learn and observe, which is great, because there’s so much to learn. My coworkers are patient and understanding, and I don’t have a boss who is looking for faults to try to pit one set of employees against the other.

Whether I actually have any talent for marketing, of course, remains to be seen, and I miss Korea every day, but I’m getting by. I’ve learned so much since my arrival three years ago in Korea, so I obviously wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, but I’m hoping I can use that time as a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block, moving forward.


All-China Tour: Beijing & the Year in Review

All-China Tour: Beijing & the Year in Review

Only one day in the year remaining, it’s time to close out the All-China Tour 2018 saga and look forward to 2019. Coming from the stunning success of my time in Xi’an, the slog back to Beijing was nearly insufferable, with 6 hours of noisy train companions and the stress of the Beijing metro. I stayed my last night in Beijing in a wonderful area much like Laomendong or Tianzifang, a walking-only shopping and restaurants district. It was a bittersweet time, as I didn’t have time to do anything significant, like go to the Summer Palace or the Lama Temple, which I had missed on my first try, but I had more time than I could spend dallying at my hostel on social media.

Finally, I made myself get out and explore. I finally purchased the customary souvenirs I take from each country: a flag and a small patch for my bag (a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in Mandarin was left out because I’d gotten one in Hong Kong). The spindly little trees in the streets were just beginning to flower, after such a cold winter. For once, I’m glad I didn’t get lazy and eat one of my last meals at the hostel bar or McDonald’s, instead finding some awesome spicy beef noodles at a place called Zhuwei. There were also these fascinating sugar treats which I thought would be like Korean sugar candy, ppopgi, but turned out to be more like regular sugar hard candy. I bought a bull-shaped one only because I couldn’t find my Chinese zodiac animal, the rooster. I couldn’t help but think what fun Korean cafes would have with putting those beautiful sugar treats in lattes, sticking out of choux cream puffs, and delicately adorning cakes.

My last night was spent trying all the Panda Brew beers that my hostel offered and talking to this Aussie dad and his son, who oddly enough, I had talked to the day before in my hostel in Xi’an. Somehow, we’d ended up staying at the same place two nights in a row, in two different cities. They had been asking me some Beijing advice, as if I looked the more seasoned traveler, or perhaps more capable because I was going it alone.

I keep thinking about the breakfast I had the next morning. Although visually it looked a complete meal, it was utterly devoid of any kind of seasoning whatsoever (they make fun of white people for not seasoning their food, but the food was so bland, I had to ration my egg yolks to make everything on the plate palatable). I called my mom, packed, and headed out for the last time. At the airport, I got a soy latte, some kind of sandwich, and a single-origin Chinese coffee at the Starbucks before exchanging the rest of my money. This coffee is significant because my mom promptly dumped it into the coffee tin with all the other beans when I got home—despite my hand-carrying it all the way from China. There weren’t many good movies on the flight, and we were so late I ended up sprinting through the airport in Seattle to make my connecting flight. I was so tired from it all that I ended up just sleeping most of the way back.

We can now zoom out significantly. The rest of the year passed by in a mostly-happy blur, and only now does most of it seem to be coming together. Shortly after my birthday in May, after submitting tons of applications (for the record, I submitted more than 106 applications throughout the year), I got hired as a barista at my favorite coffee shop in the world. This is high praise, because I would like to take up residence at a lot of those really chic Korean cafes, and I’m still obsessed with the chairs next to the window in Holly’s Coffee in Seoul Hapjeong Station. The job-hunting slowed down significantly for most of the summer and fall, and I had a great few months running the social media for the shop.

I did lots of small travels: going to Myrtle Beach as we do every year, a few trips to Pittsburgh to visit and stay with friends and family, a visit to Amelia Island in Florida to see my uncle who I haven’t seen in years. I went to lots of concerts, made lots of new friends, and put lots of miles on my car. It was a shock, of course, getting back behind the drivers’ wheel after more than 2+ years of not driving at all.  I got new tattoos, took a mini-MBA course at Rutgers Uni, and participated in my 4th straight Inktober challenge.

Suddenly, it seemed, I got an offer to interview with a social media marketing company in November, got offered the job in early December, and found the apartment nearby a week or so later. My last few weeks at the coffeeshop were really sad, especially considering I was leaving during the winter holidays. Christmas is always a lowkey affair for my family, usually a time for travel rather than spent at home around the tree, so this year wasn’t too much of a departure for anyone. Shortly thereafter, I started the move to my new city for work. It’s not far from my hometown, so all of the big stuff was moved in just one day and we assembled it yesterday.

Things have fallen into place surprisingly quickly. I start work in 2 days, and I’ll try to figure out what that will look like in the weeks to come. I usually like this time of year because it’s so hopeful. Everyone is creating new resolutions and everyone is very optimistic that this next year will be the one. It’s been the longest year ever for me, from starting out in Korea, to my long-awaited trip through China, working at my favorite café and making all these wonderful friends, to the quick development at the end of the year of getting the new job and new apartment. I wonder what next year will hold?

I was talking with my Korean friend, Gwan, yesterday. He was telling me that it’s going to be a lucky year, and it will also be a good year for challenging ourselves with new creative pursuits as well. I’ve also been having vaguely ominous prophetic dreams to that same tune, too. I hope that we can all create something new that we can be proud of in the new year.

Cheers, to looking back generously with rose-colored glasses, and looking forward with vision unclouded and focused.

Xi’an << All-China Tour 2018

Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast, to continuity.

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