Vast Visions

a year abroad in south korea


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The Lie

This is one of the most sincere things I have ever written about myself. I am at a point in my life where I feel comfortable about sharing it, and for my closest friends this will be the first time you hear it. It’s a  story I was afraid to tell, but I hope it can serve a purpose now. This is the last post I will be writing.

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In life, there are times when the floor drops from beneath you.

Four years ago I asked if I could leave drawing class early to go to a doctor’s appointment. My instructor at the time asked me if everything was OK, to which I reassured, “Of course, I’m fine, it’s probably not a big deal.”

One hour later I was diagnosed with Takayasu’s Arteritis.

My mother and father were in the room, and I was shivering on the table, wearing a hideous hypoallergenic bag over my body. The specialist we had been sent to see, a cardiac surgeon, told us that there was no mistaking the diagnosis – it was a “textbook” case. And in such a tremendous moment in the lives of my parents and I, he was darkly fascinated.

“I’ve actually never seen a live case before, it’s so rare,” he said. Meanwhile, my father looked into his hands. My mother gripped the armrests of the chair as if she was about to shake it. I was furious. How could this young, hotshot surgeon do this to my parents? “Tell them it’s not a big deal,” I begged in my mind. “Please, just tell them that I can handle it. They don’t understand. Honestly…neither do I.”

I was nineteen years old and a freshman in college. Nothing felt wrong. I was just starting to find my footing, make new friends, and understand what living independently was like. It would all be wiped away.

I had to immediately start treatment and make time to take more tests. We were recommended a cardiologist, a rheumatologist, and secondary hematologist on the spot; rationed a handful of business cards and a dab of pity on top. I remember sitting in the car with my parents after the appointment, all three of us just stuck there in the parking lot, the snow falling steadily around us.

My mom got home and researched online feverishly. My father stood silently behind and watched her search. She looked into the disease, the online support groups, the best specialists. While she was reassured by the internet, I refused to look. To me it seemed a Pandora’s Box that I didn’t want to open. All I knew was that I was going to have to face whatever was about to come my way.

I can’t begin to describe the physical and psychological battle that ensued.  In order to slow the progression of this rare type of heart disease, I was prescribed a very high dose of steroids for about a year. The medication caused Cushing’s Syndrome, which had a toxic effect on my body. My face became completely rounded and I got acne. My back developed a painful hump. I gained 15 pounds. Into my legs, thighs and abdomen were carved huge, ugly stretch marks that would never heal. My hair thinned and fell out. I was tired and in pain. My body was falling apart day by day.

Because of how different I looked, I hid myself away at school. Every time someone stared at me on the bus, I was ashamed. Every time I ran into one of the new friends I made, I disappeared within myself. I ate quickly and alone in the corner of the cafeteria, afraid to look past my tray. I remember passing through entire days just looking at the cement of the sidewalk, avoiding questioning glances. One of the worst things was waking up every morning and facing the mirror with the hollow hope that it was all a bad dream.

Nightmares wove in and out of my conscious mind. I woke up from the anesthesia during a surgical test and watched the doctors finish their procedure on me. I passed by my reflection and could not recognize my own face in the mirror. Soon I forgot what I used to look like altogether. My identity slipped further away the more I looked into the face that wasn’t mine, the more I walked around in a body that I had never known. When I could be alone, I sobbed until my chest hurt and I couldn’t breathe. I cried enough for a lifetime.

What hurt me the most, though, was what this was doing to the people I loved most in life. I couldn’t prevent my mother from waking up in the middle of the night in terror, and I couldn’t stop my father from feeling guilty. When I asked my younger sister, “Does my face look that bad today?” I couldn’t stop her heart from sinking.

With all of this happening I made the choice to stay in school, and though it was one of the worst semesters I had completed grade-wise, it set the standard for how I was going to continue living. Just like that, the year I was 19 vanished, but I wasn’t going to let anything else be taken from me.

So I did the strongest thing I could do: I smiled.

I tore my gaze away from the sidewalk. I took deep breaths, looked straight ahead and walked without shame. With my swollen, ugly face I went to concerts. I made fun of myself in front of my friends. I devoted myself to studying. I showed my parents that I had enough strength for all of us. I eventually came off the harsh medication and for many months I focused on recovering. Slowly, my mom worried a little less, my father started telling jokes again, and in my sister’s expressive eyes I saw the reflection of happiness return.

Years later, I am here in Korea.

And I am here because of a lie.

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My pen hovered over that part of the application for a while.

“Known Illnesses/Diseases?”

“Medication?”

With pages and pages of paperwork spread out on the surface of the desk, my pen cast a thin shadow over those two little questions. Finally, the shadow twitched, and I wrote something that I am not proud of.

I made up my mind to teach in Korea shortly after my teacher and good friend recommended it during my junior year of college. I was immediately interested in the idea, researching the various programs, offers, and companies all offering a way for me to live and work abroad. It took a while for my parents to accept how determined I was to live abroad for a year, but with my health at a stable point and the doctor’s approval, they didn’t want to hold me back.

It was a long and arduous process getting all the paperwork together. Notarizations, those damned apostilles, my FBI Background Check finally intact after getting rejected and returned; precious documents all stapled together with the anxiety that I would get found out and sent back before I even started. My fears stemmed from accounts of people getting rejected from the program for health issues as trivial as migraines. While researching I was also made aware of Korea’s social prejudice against those who are not in perfect health. With a complicated-sounding condition lumped into the category of heart disease, it would have been impossibly difficult to convince a recruiter that I was as healthy and functional as everyone else.

So I passed over the hurdles cautiously, one by one – the application, the paperwork, the TEFL courses, the interviews. On top of the normal anxiety of living abroad for a year, I was constantly afraid I would get pulled out of the program during orientation. Before leaving, I prepared with my doctor a note that described the nature of my condition and that it wouldn’t affect my job performance, just in case I needed a bargaining chip to stay. I was also aware that I would need to undergo a health check, but there was no certainty over what kinds of tests they would run or what they would look for.

Another problem I ran into was getting the medication I needed overseas. I was using a medication that needed to be refrigerated, and I had no idea how I was going to keep it cool. I managed to take a few months worth of it onto the plane with a prescription note and clearance, but when I got to the airport in Korea I was scared that someone would misunderstand, pull me aside and charge me for something. I bought some ice at a convenience store in the airport with my new Korean money and replaced it in the pack. I crammed onto the bus with other confused EPIK-ers, not knowing where I was headed or how long it would take before I could buy more ice.

All during orientation I bought cups of ice, frozen popsicles, and cans of energy drinks from the CU to keep the medication cool. Then, close to the end of orientation, the day of the health check arrived.

I was stricken when one of my friends came back and told me what the health check entailed: I had to take a chest x-ray. This was the same test that had been used to diagnose me back when it all started, so I was mentally preparing to pack up my bags and go back home then and there.

But, by some miracle, I passed the health exam.

After that, I got placed at a great school with amazing teachers, in a nicely-sized apartment just a few steps away. I made it.

One incredible (and healthy!) year later, this faulty little heart of mine is still pouring out gratitude.

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I haven’t written this to tell you it’s OK to lie on a job application.

I have written this to tell you that there is nothing holding you back in this world.

Go to a country you’ve only seen in pictures and breathe in its air. Squint against the sunrise of an unfamiliar horizon. Chase after something. Teach. Learn.

Live.

I will never find the identity I lost four years ago, but in its stead is a new one; one that I have made with my two hands, that others have strengthened with their kindness and support and love. It is the identity of a woman who is confident, bright, recklessly optimistic, and so, so happy.

In a way, through spending this year abroad I wanted to test myself; to prove that I could do it. In a way, I wanted to escape all semblance of the life that told me “You can’t.” Even if it was only for a year, I wanted to put far behind me the memories of struggle and self-defeat.

I wanted to be unstoppable…and I was.

To everyone who has read my blog this year, thank you. It’s been a dream that’s ended much too soon. Thank you for your comments and encouragement. Thank you for listening. As I start my new life in Chicago (law school, after all!), I will no longer write here, but this blog will always be here to those who want to relive this crazy amazing year with me, all over again.

My sketchbook didn’t exactly get filled this year, but my heart did.

I guess I’m addicted to fresh starts after all.

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Holding On

I spoke to my parents the other day. My father was criticizing the way my mother cleaned a window, and in the middle of the video call went over to clean it better. I shook my head and commiserated with my mom.

“He’s suddenly so good at cleaning, huh? I wonder if he’ll use his talents on the basement.”

The only place in our house that none of us have any reign over is my father’s basement. He has his lab down there (dental technician), and with the rest of the space are things that he simply refuses to get rid of. Relics of the 90s, video tapes, elliptical machines, rugs and chairs. Convex TV screens and the smell of cardboard. The space is large enough to be a livingroom, and there was a long time when I wanted a spot down there to use as a studio space, but he filled every last crevasse with an empty promise that he would clean it. One day. Someday.

Every thing is in the shadow of another. No floor, no tables. Stacks and piles, concrete and dust and flickering fluorescent light. Boxes and clear plastic containers, shoved miserably together. Trellised wires and the diminished gleam of metal under grime. And a man who spends most of his time there, in the harshly-lit dark, surrounded by his work and his things.

I thought of that basement today.

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My suitcases have been open and empty for days. Clothes strewn about, piles of papers, Christmas cards that have reminded me of home. My eyes have grown tired and used to the mess. What do I keep? What do I leave behind?

How do you pack these feelings away?

I built a life here. I found friends, a niche in my job and a favorite place to eat. I passed through cycles of losing and finding my way again and again, denying the night’s end into the cool, crisp morning. Shopkeepers to smile at. A path home that I liked to walk. A place where I could be alone if I needed to.  Breathing the air in each season, looking up and recognizing the familiar smoky blue that forms the night.

How do I say goodbye, to this life in Korea that I forged so carefully? It’s been a year’s work. When I go back will it, too, find its way into my father’s basement, cluttered by cassette tapes and trampolines, joining my other projects, buried there?

I sort uselessly through the writings and drawings my students have made, and for once in a long time I feel like crying. I found so much happiness here. Can’t I keep this too?

Maybe, for my father, the things he keeps are a tangible reminder of the life he has slowly built up. Coming from a different country, making it through all of the difficult jobs to afford that first TV set, to accumulate all of those cassettes and carefully recorded home movies. All the faithful stereo systems that would blast Caribbean music through the windows, no matter where we lived or how bad things were, telling everyone that we were making it through and proud of where we were, having a good time. It’s all broken and damaged now, but he won’t let go.

In his act of keeping, I see that I cannot.

I can’t turn my happiness into a thing that I can hold on to. I haven’t the space for it.

And so I find the strength to throw away.


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Marathoning Japan – Four Cities in Five Days

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On the journey back to my tiny apartment home in Daegu, my eyelids were leaden, various leg muscles were pulled, and I lethargically guessed what subway line to take to get back. Five days in Japan had chewed me up and spat me out. But with a pocketful of strange coins, and many warm, beautiful memories, despite my weariness I returned to Korea spiritually satiated. My gaze has become a little more wizened from my travels further east. So take some time to tie your shoelaces a little tighter, I’ll take you on my sprint through Japan one more time.

 

TOKYO – The Salaryman Phenomenon

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From the moment I arrived in Tokyo, I was effortlessly integrated into the masses. In Japan, there were no special airs that the citizens put on. Unlike the prominent brand-wars in Korea, people wore widely varying clothing, kept their attire more casual, and seemed to accept the fact that high heels are impossible to wear on an everyday basis. (I was shocked to see women wearing sensible shoes for a change.) In a way I felt relieved that I was wearing similar clothing.

There was a huge exception to the general dress of the public, however. With suits and slicked-back shafts of grey hair, Japanese businessmen marched in forces, walking with great purpose. It was an entire generation of 40-somethings, dyeing the human traffic through Tokyo’s heart in hues of grey and navy. Each “salaryman” was uniformed with a briefcase, shined shoes, and a stiff line for a mouth, treading the hamster-wheel of commerce. I walked through these crowds of men like walking through the ebb of a wave.

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Shibuya was the bustling shopping district that I made a special point of visiting because of a…car movie. There was a scene where cars drifted through the thick crowd in this square, renowned for being one of the busiest in the world. It was a great scene in an awful movie, and I had to see it for myself. It was a strange yet familiar feeling walking through the square as I wove through a curious stew of humanity, not unlike that of Times Square.

I stayed in a part of Tokyo called Asakusa, a beautiful traditional-styled neighborhood. After confusing Akasuka and Asakusa, two towns on the same subway line but 30 minutes apart, I arrived at the hostel downtrodden by my constant navigational failure. Although it was dark by the time I got to explore the area, I found the neighborhood lively. It felt more traditional than the city’s center, and hosted some gorgeous temples and quaint storefronts.

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The weather on my trip was less than ideal, as the rainy season had just started, but thankfully it never started pouring. On the Tokyo leg of my trip, I stopped by some of the must-see locations (Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Akihabara) that were easy to get to by using the green JR line of the subway. I also enjoyed visiting Ueno, which had a four-story toy store filled with everything that makes a child’s heart go pitter-patter. Although it was raining, the subways were incredibly packed in the afternoon. I awkwardly found myself face-to-face with a few Japanese men after packing into the subway car. And there was no shortage of characters along the way…

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I spent a great deal of time inside Japan’s subway system, which looked intimidating at first. As soon as I understood the tangled mess of subway lines, I saw how efficient the system was…except that one needed to exit/reenter the subway system when transferring lines. I was glad that I knew how to read Japanese, as it made things a lot quicker and easier to figure out. The fare system is also very accurate, allowing one to pay according to distance traveled. That being said, though, subway travel was one of the largest expenses I had on my trip.

While sorting out my fare, I fumbled around with Japanese money quite a bit. The lowest denomination of paper money is worth $10 (1000¥), so the $1 and $5 coins were extremely valuable. I’ve long been conditioned to think that change is throwaway money, so I was really paranoid about losing any of my coins. It was a huge pain in the アッス.

Before I knew it, I had to leave Tokyo behind. I wanted to stay a little longer, especially since I met such great people in Asakusa, but with a nightbus ticket in hand I was bound for the next location whether or not my heart was prepared to leave. Next stop…

 

KYOTO – Faith

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My first glimpse of Kyoto was from eyes sunken in from the struggle of an 8-hour nightbus journey. I arrived at 5:00 am, before the sun had any time to breathe life into the city. It was dreary and cold. I was alone, walking aimlessly through the quiet city, street signals blinking through the morning mist.

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I stayed at a hostel in Teramachi, an area of Kyoto with a lot of modern shops and restaurants. However, since I arrived so early in the morning, I could only put my bags down. Check-in time was all the way at 3pm, so the bed wasn’t ready yet (/cried internally). As desperately as I wanted sleep, I had no choice but to make the most of the day. With a map in hand and prominent dark circles under my eyes, I went off again into the unknown to seize what Kyoto had to offer.

I visited several temples that day, each unique and beautiful, blending manmade structures with nature in a way that complimented the surrounding area. One of my favorite temples was Fushimi Inari, the temple of the fox:

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I visited a few more temples before coming back to my hostel at 6pm. I freshened up, and instead of taking a nap I got my second wind. I was excited to finally explore Japan’s nightlife, so I checked out the hostel’s bar to see if any other expats were around with similar plans in mind. I was prepared to circle out of there when I ran into two Australian dudes from the previous hostel in Tokyo! They were meeting up a friend of theirs too, so with that I had a crew to rock with as the city started lighting up.

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It was at about 2am that I miraculously found my hostel bed. The next morning, I abruptly awoke to the voices of two other girls in the room. As I poked my head out to see who was being so obnoxiously loud, it happened to be two people I knew from Daegu! WHAT!? We chattered excitedly, checked out together, had a filling crepe breakfast, and explored Kyoto just a little bit more before I had to run off to the next location.

That day I visited a temple called Kinkakuji, a structure leafed in pure gold, surrounded by gardens and nature. It was one of those sights in life that you never forget.

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We wandered through the gardened grounds until we came to a small clearing where we could buy candles to light for good luck. Some of them said amusing things such as “Better Driving” and “Luck in Love.” My friends asked me if I wanted to light a candle and ask for something, but strangely, at that moment I found myself content.

Even though there always seems to be something I want in the back of my mind, I didn’t feel compelled to ask for anything. We have the tendency to always want more than we have, but there’s something in stepping back and evaluating what is already there. Right then, I felt like I was already blessed – I had decided to travel to Japan alone, but by some divine providence I never found myself lonely or in want of company. Somehow, my entire trip was filled with the voices and presence of friends, new and old. So instead of asking for “Luck in Love”, I clapped my hands together and thanked whatever far east deity granted me such a successful trip so far.

My time in Japan made me come to appreciate how truly lucky I’ve been this past year.

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OSAKA & KOBE – The Sleeping Tower

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My time in Osaka was very short. I arrived in the city at around 5pm, checked into my hostel, and barely had time to freshen up before the sun dipped below the horizon. I was supposed to meet up my Daegu friends again for dinner in Osaka, but without working phones and sparse internet access, it was difficult to coordinate. I ended up missing them, but one of my friends in Kobe contacted me that same night.

At 10pm on my last night in Japan, I made the split-second decision to gather up all of my things, leave the hostel and catch a train to Kobe. My friend had started teaching in Japan shortly before I started teaching in Korea, and since they had offered me a place to stay I ditched the guarantee of a restful night for some last last minute shenanigans. And I’m so glad that I did – it was in Kobe that I got a true taste of Japanese bar culture and nightlife.

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I met my friend at Kobe station with a huge backpack and the feeble hope that I’d be able to spot them in the crowd. Somehow I did, and we dove into an expat-owned bar downtown.

Every bar in Japan was incredibly small. One had to squeeze between arms, legs, laps, and a few conversations to make it to a barstool. Drinks were a little on the expensive side in comparison to Korea, ranging from $7-12 depending on the drink. Additionally, every bar I went into had some kind of option to do karaoke. At the first bar there was a burly, drunken expat destroying every Disney song from the 80s-90s, one-by-one, executioner style. The crowd went from nervously laughing to sullenly gazing into their glasses, waiting out the bloody massacre that was this dude’s Disney Princess falsetto. We all tried to drink until he sounded better. Didn’t work.

After a few more bars and laughs, and a random old guy trying to take me away with him(…?!) the night slipped away. In the light of the rising sun I found Kobe Tower, blinking quietly over the waterfront. Although the building’s lights were dimmer than they would have been earlier in the night, it was a sight that served as a good close to my stay in Japan.

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These days my world has been speeding past me. I only have a few months left in this part of the globe, and I am still trying to grasp at every last second of my stay. It was a dream of mine to visit Japan, and even though my trip was only five days long I managed to keep going, sometimes only on some luck and the borrowed strength of the universe. I don’t know how I was able to see and do it all, but I am so happy that I did.

I can’t tell where these next two months abroad will take me, but my eyes are fixed on the horizon, eagerly anticipating what new experiences may come my way.

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Of Men and Fear

r1020103_11565301Under the streetlight glow, I’m walking to the next place on a Saturday night. I pass a group of men clasping each others’ shoulders in a drunken lean, languishing down the street, blocking the path with their pace. I hear them start to make some noise and it’s directed towards me.

“Heeeeey shorty why you alone? (Oooo look at her. Where she going?) HEEEEEY~”

A cold feeling washes over me. Disgust. I choose to pretend I don’t hear them. There are too many people on the street ahead so I can’t escape. One of them gets mad.

“HEY YOU. I’M TALKING TO YOU. TURN AROUND.”

I feel fear twist through my chest. Sighting an out, I dash into a coffee shop. My mind is blank, my legs do the thinking. I walk straight into the women’s bathroom and grasp onto the cold ceramic of the sink. As I look into the mirror, searching my reflection for some sense of equilibrium, I hopelessly wonder how long it will take before they’re gone.

In that moment all I do is blame myself.

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I was reading the news in the US recently, and what I saw struck me so much that I felt like writing down my feelings about it. The recent mass shooting in California, though a world away, took me by the shoulders and shook me.

Though many tragic things happen every day, from a young age we are desensitized to some of the worst human experiences in existence. The TV plays in the background, and over family dinners we learn to peer right through the ribcages of starvation, mothers screaming in grief, blood and mugshots, bullet shells and vacant-eyed corpses, all without putting down our spoons. But, if by some chance we recognize a place, or worse, a person on the news screen, our whole world stops. Although I didn’t know any of the victims or even live close to California, somehow this tragic event made things stop for me. I felt affected and I wasn’t entirely sure why. What was it about this situation that broke the shell of my disregard? I realized what it was after a friend asked if I had watched the video that the killer left behind. I hadn’t, I explained, because I was too afraid to watch it.

In a moment of clarity, I was taken aback by my own answer. I tend to think of myself as exceptionally tough and unfazed by a great many things. I don’t cry, my stomach doesn’t turn when I see gore, and I don’t wince when I am in pain. To suddenly feel afraid in this way uprooted a fear that I have always carried but never acknowledged or legitimized. When I saw accounts of the killer’s motives, read through his own words his feelings of entitlement towards women, his anger, his frustration, his depravity and subsequent violence, the singular thought that came to my mind was,”This is why I’m afraid of men.”

I know that many will readily attest that there are plenty of good men out there, kind, adverse to violence, and generally good (#NotAllMen), but I need to start this conversation with how these kinds of feelings are cultivated. I am a daughter raised by a father who used fear as a tool.

My father is the man who I have known all of my life, who is responsible for my very existence. He is a great man, funny, hardworking, strong, and someone I have an affinity for. He is someone I respect and love. We never had a very close relationship, we never hug or have many conversations, and I have known him to be insensitive. He raised me to value strength over the appearance of weakness and vulnerability. When I was a child, he got angry when I cried. I am the tough girl he raised like a son, and although he is proud of me, I have often wondered if things between us would have been better had I been born a son. Growing up with him made me wary of what a man, even one as close as a father, is capable of.

My father’s worst fault is his anger. His explosive temper makes him irrational, irate, and at times violent. At the drop of a hat he would misunderstand and overreact. Blind anger forces him a few frightening steps forward in a physical threat. I see him barely holding back the anger from seeping through his clenched teeth. He exacted his authority through the unpredictability of his rage.

My mother raised me to deal with my father. She never cried or cowered during his outbursts, and on some occasions she provoked my father further. I used to fear for the safety of my mother, but I believed more in her self-assurance than in my own. I was about sixteen when I stopped actually fearing my father, knowing that he had to cycle through his anger every now and then to maintain his sense of dominance. I felt safe from the threat of actually getting hit, but psychologically I knew I would never be completely freed of my fear of him.

This is where my understanding of men began. I accepted that my father was a man and that it was within his nature to behave this way. It was also within the nature of women to pacify men, to verbally throw water on them, to diffuse an escalating argument and ultimately disarm a man of his anger.  As a young woman, I learned how to deflect advances from men in the kindest way possible, most of the time because I was scared. I can’t differentiate a nice guy from a bad one anymore because I fear their potential.

When I was walking alone that night, I blamed myself for being alone. I blamed myself for not acknowledging the drunken group of men before they got angry. The world that I live in has taught me to abide by this fear, and for my entire life it was normal. But right now, I can’t believe that I so easily accepted this as my reality for so long.

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Form an image of power in your mind and you will not see a woman. You may not even see a man. But you will see objects of fear – guns, knives, fists and fire. You will see the potential of violence – tensed muscles, a finger on a trigger, a boxer knocking his gloves together. You will see red. You will see terror.

Fear is one of the most powerful forces we know.

In his death, a young man in California tried to use fear to finally gain power over the women he desired.

Ironically, the best thing women can do is deny him of this, too.


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Teach

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I saw ants wandering the crevasses of the sidewalk on this warm afternoon and realized that my journey here has come full circle. The trees that had lost their leaves, shivered and bloomed have regained their strength to grow. In the day’s heat, my memories skip around from my first steps into Homeplus through blurry midnight taxi rides. But what I remember most are the students that I teach – the quirky, cute, struggling, hard-working and spirited bunch that I brightly say “Hi!” to every day, between every class. They have made up a large part of my life here, and although Korea has given me so much, these kids have undoubtedly given me the most.

I didn’t always think I’d be cut out to teach. When I first considered teaching (rather, tutoring) I was a college sophomore whose primary concern was earning extra money. I came across the position to be an English tutor through a bit of a conversation that I caught as I waited for the bus. I slapped together an application that same night, using an essay that I wrote as a high school junior. A quick interview later, I was handed a manual and a schedule; I got the job. The confidence I had in my own writing got me through the door easily, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of sitting across from my peers with their hands at their temples, staring blankly at the papers in front of them. In those 90 minutes, I wasn’t working for my own sake, but for theirs. In the first few sessions I tutored, as I unwrinkled papers crushed by their frustrations, I knew that I wasn’t going to waste any time convincing them of my abilities; I needed to convince them of theirs. Smoothing out the page, I would draw a breath, smile, and say, “Let’s look at the first sentence.”

I had to become a tutor.

That being said, I spent the first week of my job floundering a bit. I threw my students worksheets, corrected their papers excessively, and fumbled with the content of the pieces they had to read. But continuous experience helped, and through the dedication I had to getting my students to pass, I learned by leading. After a few short weeks, tutoring hardly felt like a job anymore. I bounced ideas off students, asked them thought-provoking questions, and helped them structure some truly great pieces of writing. They surprised me so much that sometimes I wondered why they were even doing poorly in the first place.

After devoting the rest of college to tutoring every free chance I got, earning money didn’t bring me through the door. What I truly came to love was meeting someone so caught up in their own self-defeat that they didn’t see their own potential, and I would be the one to show them it. When my students brought their grades up from not passing (NP) to a B+, they thanked me again and again. To this, I would pick up their papers and remind them that I didn’t write it, they did. For 90 minutes once a week, all I did was stir their minds until they found what they were looking for. That’s all tutoring was, and four years and countless students later, my task never got more difficult than that.

For tutoring or teaching, you have to begin with your own confidence to get through, and sometimes you even have to trick yourself. When I started teaching in Korea, I told myself that I had all the experience I needed being a tutor, and my assured sense of self did the rest of the work. In truth, I had never stood in front of a class to teach for 45 minutes at a time. Furthermore, even as recent as junior year of college, when I gave presentations I could feel my heartbeat through my voice. But I didn’t linger on these things. The kids didn’t get some blubbering nervous fool when I stood in front of my first class; they deserved a great teacher, and I was resolved to be that.  I stood at the front of the class and I was confident, clear-voiced and a little silly. I made mistakes but I made light of them. The kids were engaged for the whole lesson, enjoying it. I surprised myself so much that afterwards I wondered how I got magical teaching powers so suddenly. How did it happen?

The truth is that I acted the part until I became it.

At this stage, I feel like my transformation into a teacher is complete. One of the important things I’ve learned is how to let loose and make a fool of myself. I pantomime, dance around, praise emphatically and give every class 110% until I’m so spent that I barely have the energy to do much else other than pass out. I relish any opportunity to laugh along with my students during a lesson. I find myself referring to my students as “my kids” when I tell anyone about them, and I find myself telling all those lame, corny teacher jokes. I didn’t think I’d fall into this job so well, but even through the challenges I find myself coming back, smiling, ready to begin the next lesson.

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(From our comics lesson. I swear I didn’t teach them this…)

As all things go, however, time and again I’ve met a fair amount of bumps in the road. On some days the challenges test how much I can endure. A few of my second grade classes this semester get unruly regularly, and it’s hard to get them to concentrate. Some sleep in the corner, some throw pencilcases around. I surely sympathize with the feeling, stuck in a class that you don’t understand, allowing your attention to wane. But for the few kids that are at the front, answering every question, I know that despite the mayhem I have to do right by them. So I use my “New York” and my smile fades into a hard look that epitomizes Jack Nicholson’s “You talkin’ to me?!”, because nothing is scarier than getting a teacher that smiles all the time to clench her jaw, suppressing latent rage. It’s worked well so far. :)

But, as you are well aware, channeling Jack Nicholson four times a week is quite physically and psychologically taxing, so last Friday I was prepared to do a gazelle leap out of school and into the weekend. While I was shutting off my computer, a few of my former students showed up in the teacher’s office. They had graduated middle school last semester and were now attending high school. I was so purely happy to see them that I started talking to them way faster than they could understand (or any human being could). One of my former students told me he had gotten into a foreign language high school where he began studying English. As the rest of the group said their goodbyes and left, he hung back to look me in the eyes and say, “Thank you, Natasha Teacher.” Nearly died from the feels.

Thinking back to my days as a tutor, the gratitude that people have shown me makes me believe that maybe, other than notes in the margins and grammar advice, I gave them a bit more: I gave each of them my unshakable faith that they would succeed, and they did. Some of my favorite teachers over the years had done the same for me. It’s a quiet gift of inner strength that I am humbled to give.

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When I used to sit cross-legged in the closet of a tutor’s lounge at my college, catching a breather between shifts, I would scoff at a sign above the door: “Saving the World…One Sentence at a Time.”

Thousands of miles away, years later, I get it.

These few months of teaching have made my world a little more beautiful.


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State of Mind

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When I was in college I tutored English, and one of the pieces I worked with through the years was Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Power of Context.” In the piece, he talks about the effects of one’s surroundings on the psyche, even going so far as to suggest that it can make a killer out of an ordinary citizen. The presence of graffiti, garbage, and “broken windows,” he claims, can subconsciously enforce the idea that in run-down neighborhoods crime is omnipresent and, therefore, accepted. He contrasts the crime rate in slums to that of wealthy suburbs, and attempts to explain the disparity through reducing the impulse to commit crime to a visual stimulus that pulls the trigger (one’s “tipping point”). Although he makes an interesting argument, I always reminded my students to think for themselves and consider how large his claim really was. It seemed to be an amusing explanation, but not without its pitfalls. Personally, I didn’t believe it at all.

Almost three years later, on my way home last Saturday night, I started believing.

The night was unusually cold, but everyone had grown tired of waiting for the weather to warm up. The weekend before was rainy, yet there was no shortage of women in short skirts and strappy shoes, powering through. I was out to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and started the night at around 9pm. On the subway into downtown, a nice old ahjumma insisted that I take a seat next to her. This is when I regret that I know so much Korean, because after she asks me where I’m from and tells me about her daughter, which I’m guessing was just a skill check, she seriously asks me, “Is there Jesus in America?”

….huh?

She tells me in the most animated Korean the tale of 예수님 (Korean Jesus), pantomiming blood dripping down his face and reenacting the glory of his resurrection. It was a long 20 minutes.

So…straight to the bar I went. Two gin and tonics later it was midnight and the crowd was just starting to creep out of the shadows. Almost spontaneously, a throng of foreigners lined the main stretch of Daegu’s bars, pouring in and out of Thursday Party, trapped in the stairwell between MF and Who’s Bob. I successfully managed to deliver my well-wishes and clink a few glasses with some friends, so I was fully prepared to call it a night as the clock struck 3. In the midst of my struggle to un-stick my shoes from the filth of Urban’s dancefloor, a drunk Korean girl grabs a random American guy by the collar and lifts/shakes him until the unbalanced pair careens to the ground, knocking barstools and tipping drinks on the way down. People stare, the moment ceases. It was akin to seeing Nicholas Cage act with more than one expression – it just doesn’t happen.

You see, foreigners inhabit very different spaces from Koreans downtown. Usually, bars like MF and Thursday Party are replete with military dudes, English teachers, and other foreign University students. In clubs like AU and Monkey, however, the crowd is strictly Korean. The split can be divided almost geographically, one side of the intersection belonging to Koreans, the other stretch marking the beaten path of the foreigners. Of course, there is some mingling of the two in places like Thursday Party, but no matter where you go, the foreigners have their packs and so do the Koreans.

After months of living here, this has been the first time that I have actually seen a Korean fight with a foreigner. I have always known Koreans to be peaceful and adverse to confrontations with foreigners, but this tough chick was turning the club into the Twilight Zone. Hearing a glass smash in one of the far reaches of Urban’s maw, I got my jacket and wasted no time waiting for the fallout.

I judged the whole thing as an anomaly and continued on, walking through the stretch and passing Thursday Party on my way to the taxis. I had grown accustomed to going out alone and relying on the fact that I know a lot of people, but this night I feared that things were getting out of hand. Not even the biting cold could quell the rage that was permeating the air. I was walking behind another large foreigner group when a 30-something year old man procured from his fleece jacket an entire bottle of liquor, complete with the pouring spout from the bar he stole it from. I hung back, as the equally large woman he was with (his wife?) verbally smacked the shit out of him. Under my breath I mumbled “Timber…” as the blubbering titan staggered for what seemed to be a certain cement kiss. To his misfortune, he met the hands of his burly wife, who ripped the bottle from his hands and flung it into the street. Its shatter sent a crystalline CRACK through the heavens. My breath caught, I came to a dead stop; I was terrified.

I turned around, and in the next intersection a foreigner was stopping a car with his arms in front of him, laughing and cursing, terrorizing the Koreans within. His friend was carrying an enormous green plastic bottle–

Is that two liters of SOJU…. ?!

The night was getting absurd. Taking momentary refuge in a kebab place, the same guy that had been bowled over by the Korean chick walks in, bloody knuckled, laughing maniacally. He snatches up some random person’s leftovers looking utterly satisfied eating someone else’s garbage, pumps his chest and walks back out. At this point I send a feeble prayer to Korean Jesus to shepherd me out of this strange, strange hell.

Broken glass crunching underfoot, spent bottles of liquor and condom wrappers, dark splashes of vomit on pavement, throaty man-screams of “‘MURICA!”  – This is the stage that we act on. And we all play the parts, don’t we?

I walk past GoGo’s, a place famous for its bagged mixed drinks, and I recall the night that a foreigner thought it was funny to jump into random Korean people’s cars. I remember a time when someone brought an enormous bag of cheese puffs over their shoulder and released a cheddar avalanche into the street. Shortly after, a haggard Korean man had to come and sweep it up. It was heartbreaking and embarrassing.

Foreigners are making Korea suffer. It is an unfortunate reality that many times I wish I could change. Last Saturday, surrounded by other foreigners on that short walk to the taxis made me more nervous than I’ve ever been. Somewhere down the line I got a little too comfortable with Korea’s lack of crime. I guess everyone else got comfortable, too. With no one to answer to, there are no rules. There is just alcohol-soaked mayhem.

At 5am Sunday dawns and I open my apartment door. I think of nothing but sleep in the hopes that I can pass it all off as a bad dream.

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Addendum: I realize I make some pretty sweeping generalizations about foreigners in my writing, and I had to answer for that on an auxiliary site that publishes my posts. I’ll repost my comment here again for clarity:

“…based purely on my personal experiences many instances of destructive, insensitive, or violent behavior have stemmed from other expats. I could attribute this to my being a foreigner, and thus only being exposed to other foreigner behavior, but I’m being honest when I say that I am more afraid of other foreigners than Koreans when it comes to situations like the one I dealt with.

What bothers me is that many foreigners lack the respect or care about the consequences of their actions. After a night like that, no one is walking home with regrets about the mess they made – they’re waking up from a blackout state with no recollection or second thought about what they’ve done. According to them, it’s not their country, not their responsibility.

“As long as it was fun,” they say, justifying the times that they jumped into random cars, scaring innocent people inside.

“It was a good night,” they say, forgetting that they had to rely on a good-hearted taxi driver to deal with their drunk incoherent self.

It’s a damned shame. Many of these people would not go home and do half the things that they feel entitled to do here. It’s a “we teach your kids English, deal with me” kind of mentality. Not all foreigners act this way, but the ones that do truly give other foreigners a bad name. And all any of us can do is watch them burn a place that we have learned to call home.”

I’m not going to disparage my own words by chalking it up as being “overly-dramatic.” It really is a problem that still makes Korea adverse to foreigners at times. I hope that this will help some people understand that the ahjumma giving you side-eye on the subway may have just come back from a night of cleaning some other expat’s puke. It’s cultural friction that originates as far back in Korea’s history as two American soldiers meeting in a cramped, dimly-lit room, drawing a line on the map that would sever the Koreas forever.


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The Fortune Teller

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It’s 2am, and on club street in Daegu, warm light and Mao Zedong’s face glow from a cheap plate-glass facade; the fortune teller is within, furrowing her freckled brow, not-so-discreetly checking her phone on the table, turning her cards with the rhythm of time. And there’s a line.

For a long time I believed that my Korean friend was a little too trusting of fortune tellers. After complaining about the latest row with her boyfriend of a year, she tells me that she’s frustrated and in a bad place. I give her all the advice that I can, but being single, there is nothing I can say that she will earnestly listen to. With a tug at my arm, she shepherds me into a fortune teller’s stall, and into a unique cultural phenomenon.

Fortune tellers, mysticism, nine-tailed foxes – these all still exist in modern Korea’s consciousness. Call it adherence to tradition, call it a stubborn piece of history, but irrelevant it surely is not. There is no fortune teller in downtown Daegu in want of business, as young women in sharp heels perch on ragtag stools inside strangely decorated rooms, wasting time on their phones in wait. Inside, a “menu” of services, from a simple tarot card reading to checking up on your fate from a tome of a book. What’s more, there are a fair number of regulars that treat themselves to a reading, and they keep coming back as life always seems to procure an event worth seeking advice for.

I remember seeing fortune tellers as a novelty back in the States. Appearing in places like Manhattan and Atlantic City, they served as a kind of amusement for tourists. Some were next to the funnel cake stands, some were by the Thai restaurants, small and curious-looking, but completely void of intrigue. I may have been cultured to believe this, but they always appeared dirty: a place quickly cobbled together with carnival dolls and cheap velvet, smelling of old plastic and mildew. Behind the glass, white-faced mannequins with turbans and blank expressions, peering soullessly through dusty, curled plastic hair. To me, an unapologetic sham.

I, therefore, surprised myself by agreeing to get a reading done.  My friend and I walked through the vinyl plastic doorway into a relatively well-lit room. There were no candles, but strange decor, including a Mao Zedong frisbee mounted on the wall. In the cramped single room there resided three women in their own stalls, complete with their own respective lines of customers. “This lady is good,” my friend reassures me, pointing to the woman on the far right. The wait for her didn’t look so long, but there was a group of women at the table so there was no telling how many questions she had to entertain. As we waited there, I contemplated Mao’s benevolent open-mouthed smile and the Communist dawn breaking behind his head.

I’m actually still a little taken aback that fortune telling is so popular in Korea – there may even be one fortune teller for every food stall in Daegu. I found it strange that Korean women, who seem more in control of their lives than ever, pile into these shacks week in and week out to hear things they already know. It’s true: after my friend finished her reading, she explained to me that the fortune teller doesn’t tell you the future, but “what may be.” Great, I thought. I’m dropping $10 for a big maybe.

I sat down with my friend at my side to help with translating. She told me to ask a question in my head, to clearly picture who or what I wanted to ask about, and to pick cards. Unlike tarot readings that I’ve seen, she asked me to pick 6-8 cards, all of which she turned over at once. I decided to give it as genuine an effort as I could, and framed a question in my mind that had been bothering me for a while. I stared at the images, coming up with my own predictions, anxious about what this middle-aged woman was going to tell me as she laced her fingers and scrutinized my selection.

Fortune tellers indeed have a great power. They “sow seeds” when they do a reading. It’s such that even if you don’t necessarily believe what you hear, and consciously choose to ignore what is said, the subconscious hears it. Like my dreams that still take place in a house I haven’t lived in for ten years, I was mindful of the risk of hearing something that my subconscious would grab hold of. Fortune tellers have this ability, to plant the kind of idea that could consume a person, and honestly it’s a little scary.

I also learned that in Korea, fortune tellers could be responsible for much more. Another Korean friend of mine, set to get married soon, told me of the absurd circumstances that delayed her friend’s marriage for a year. This friend’s mother had consulted a fortune teller about the prosperity of the marriage, and when several fortune tellers warned her against it, she forbade her daughter from marrying her boyfriend of over 10 years. They eventually got married, but to break off an engagement based on a date of birth and an ancient chart, in the 21st century, is telling of the conservative culture that still grapples hold of a new generation struggling to preserve one of its strongest founding Confucian values: deference to society’s elders.

The fortune teller thoughtfully looks me in the eye, nods and explains the cards in an earnest way. I barely turn my head to hear what my friend translates her message into. It was only after this experience that I could understand why even a driven, self-motivated Korean woman could sit down and wait for a dose of mysticism. In a country that burns through stores within months to give rise to the new, where fluorescent light extinguishes the night, where buildings silently rise while you sleep, there exists a place where an ahjumma will take your hand, affectionately call you “sister,” and bring you some clarity through the chaos.  I don’t think it’s about learning your future, or even receiving cosmic guidance. Perhaps we crave something old, something familiar, to believe in – a weathered voice and an insight that we just weren’t seeing before. Perhaps it’s as simple as human contact – in an age of instant messages, someone who straightforwardly looks you in the eye, reassures you, and sometimes surprises you (with things you already know).

After I got my cards read, my thoughts lingered on a piece of advice I was given: “You’re trying hard to move on, but…if you give up, you will regret it.” Under Chairman Mao’s toothy smile, inside that odd little space, I’m not entirely sure that I would take her words to heart. But I will say, for coming in a skeptic, I left with a bit of wonder.