Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toast, to continuity.

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

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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.

The best way to start running

The best way to start running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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