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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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.


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Together, Alone

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New Year’s Eve is the time to celebrate, to gather up with friends and engage in some “rage” – that is, partying and drinking until you realize that you’ve lost all spacial perception.

Instead of staying in Daegu, I decided to spend the occasion in the lively coastal city of Busan. I had been there recently for a “12 Pubs of Christmas” bar crawl, the second that I’d completed over this past holiday season, where I hopped from Haeundae to KSU to Seomyeon to…? On this night, some people I knew were taking the KTX train down to where the party was at, bent on raging all the way there. It sounded like a fun way to kick off the festivities, so I planned on joining in.

Being the incredible split-second decision maker that I am, I chose to take a taxi instead of using the subway to get to the KTX station…and ended up missing the train because of the heavy traffic on the road. (It was New Year’s Eve, still not sure what the thought process was on that one.) The taxi driver was really nice though, and it was worthwhile chatting with him. All of the phrases I learned from k-dramas came in clutch! He was even nice enough to call the station and ask if there were any seats on the next train. He must have been so amused by my company that he shaved off 500 won from the fare as he gave me my change. Unexpected kindness in Korea, once again. I wished him luck for the New Year (새해 복 많이 받으세요!) and off I went to get a ticket for the next train.

As I boarded the train and settled in for the 40 minute ride, I found myself feeling a little ridiculous. I was sitting alone, wearing a sequinned out dress, traveling hundreds of miles away to an uncertain location somewhere out there. During that quiet ride in, I held my coffee cup for warmth and stared blankly at the darkened world that was passing by me, catching glimpses of my own reflection and the speeding landscape in turns, absorbed in thought.

For the first time since I arrived in Korea, I felt alienated.

What was I doing, exactly, traveling all the way to Busan? I was so determined to go that I never asked myself for a reason. I was going to meet up with some people from Daegu, have a few drinks, and celebrate the New Year – that was the gist of it. But once I found my way there, besides the “Hello what’s haaappnin'”s, the drinks, and some random clubbing in between, I already knew that the night wasn’t going to shape up to be more than what it’s always been:

Just another night out. 

I had never been a very social person in the past. I had a loyal few friends back home that I would see occasionally. I was often busy with either a job or school, and my friends never demanded constant contact with me. Yet suddenly, in Korea, I feel as if the contact never wanes – always someone here or there, always meeting up, always drinking, always traipsing back with pocketfulls of receipts at sunrise. Although, granted, I’ve never met so many great people before and been to so many rad events and places, I realized at that moment that I was building up an identity for myself that I never had. An uber-socialite? Me? As unbelievable as it seemed, there I was, so determined to party that I took the train by myself, sitting crosslegged with sequins boring into my side, checking my phone for location updates and texts.

So after finding the herd somewhere in KSU and dipping into Vinyl for what was supposed to be the last few minutes of the year, I found myself alienated once again; this time in an overcrowded space, jam packed with people I didn’t know or care about, peppered with a few drunken acquaintances.  The band was playing something in a kind of slow rock malaise, as the singer wailed in the throes of it. The air was thick. As I moved through the melee, I felt as if I was looking for someone that I knew wasn’t there. I wove in and out, searching and searching, feeling emptier at each strange face.

I felt so disheartened that I left.

Out in the cold, I started wandering around the streets, my heart feeling heavy. Wasn’t I supposed to spend NYE in that huge group, partying, drinking, dancing? Instead, I was walking by myself in the freezing midnight air of Busan’s usually bustling university party central, in a deep and pensive silence. Everyone had scurried indoors to witness the clock strike together, to yell “Happy New Year!” collectively, to exchange hugs and kisses. But with my soundless footsteps in the night, I walked on, directionless.

Dully, the cheers of midnight swelled from the basement clubs and bars. The moment came and went. I looked up, wondering if I had made the right decision – to be out there, all dressed up but “nowhere.” Looking up into the black sky, I remember telling myself that it was enough to be in Korea at that moment, in a place that I had only dreamed about going to not so long ago.

To be in a different country, to be alone but content, to embrace the night as me and just me without the forced well-wishes of a wayward crowd – it was more than I could have asked for.

New Year’s is a time ripe for introspection, and for me it couldn’t have come at a better time. Four months into my stay, I can say that I’ve lived it up every single weekend. Not one weekend have I spent at my apartment, shut in, bumming around. And I’m glad that it’s been that way for so long. It’s about time for a change of pace.

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Carpe diem – seizing that day, every day – maybe through all of my experiences I needed to learn that it doesn’t necessarily mean always having a place to go or people to meet. If carpe diem is the means, the end must be this: to finally be content with the day that you are given, to be happy with the things you have, to cherish the people that you know and truly enjoy the place where you’re at. If not, you end up being carried so far away by the wind that you lose sight of what you really want. I know I did.

Maybe, four months in, I’m finding myself in need of some rest. Perhaps it’s been too much, the lifestyle of being out on Friday nights only to come back sometime on Sunday. I feel like this is the part of my karmic evolution that has become worn from a life of frivolity and excess. It’s fun for a while, but sooner or later you start feeling empty. Like eating too many marshmallows when you’re hungry. Or something. All the marathon partying has been a bright spot in my stay here, but now I think it’s time to take a breather.

I stayed in Busan to see the first sunrise of the New Year, and it was worth the wait.  

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That morning, I packed in with the other Koreans on Haeundae beach. As all the balloons and fragments of yesteryear lazily climbed the skies, I knew the resolution that I had to make:

This year, I’ll be good enough for me.

I’ve constantly found fault in myself for failed relationships, missed connections, or things simply beyond my control. I had been caring so much about what other people thought of me that I began playing a part rather than living as who I am.  Some self-acceptance and a little more meditation every now and then are the best things that I can give myself for this new year.

Everything in moderation, right?

(Actually, in a few days I’ll be off to a few places for winter vacation, so I just might need to delay my ascetic cleanse for a bit longer… ;)

Stay true to yourselves this year, dear readers, and best wishes for 2014! ^^


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Seoul Search II: Eat, Don’t Sleep, Rave, Repeat

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This is pretty overdue, but the past few times I’ve been in Seoul, I’ve been to some amazing concerts and places. So take a deep breath and get ready for a trip, because it’s about to get surreal up in here.

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The first concert I went to in Seoul was last November, and it was an incredible few hours packed with some of Korea’s most current rappers. E-Sens, San E, Bumkey, Swings, and Geeks were some highlights of the show, and it was my first time ever hearing them. My friend, being a huge fan of Korean Rap, recommended the concert to me,  and it was one of those “Hey, why not?” moments that I am so glad I took advantage of. (Honestly, I haven’t regretted one of those moments yet.)

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It was such a crazy clash of cultures – here we have some Korean rappers, swagged out, donning snapbacks and chains, manipulating their language into something you’d hear straight off the decks in NYC. Everyone in the audience bobbed their hands and heads to the flow, and let me tell you, these guys KILLED. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, somehow it didn’t matter. You FELT it – the precision, the timing, the tenacious bob and weave of every verse, till you were so into it you found yourself shouting “OHHHHHH!” with the crowd after a killer passage. I knew the language of music was universal, but this experience truly stunned me.

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We stayed in Gangnam, because who wants to say that they went all the way to Korea and didn’t see Gangnam? My father had a good laugh about it, at least. Although Gangnam is characterized throughout Korea as a wealthy area, my friend and I found a reasonably priced hostel with this beautiful view of the city at night. It was a great weekend trip that ended with some Forever 21 shopping and a tonkatsu lunch (as you all know by now, katsu is my favorite :3)CAM00219…I’m just going to leave this here, in all it’s glistening tonkatsu-ey glory.

And then there was SENSATION.CAM00276

It was a spectacle of an event that I arrived to in style. On the last day of November, I took a party bus from Daegu, and on the way made a few good friends to rave the night away with. After a 5 hour ride, we were let loose into “Wonderland.”

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The theme for this event was “Wicked Wonderland” and it was complete with free beers, pulsing green wristbands, and erotic dancers in strange, strange getups.

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What’s going on now? Are those butterfly wings being inflated across the space? WHAT??

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Visuals for the event were A+. Music was meh. Pretty much standard house music. And another thing – remember those awesome friends that I made on the bus? Well, the caveat to these “all white” dress code events is that YOU LOSE PEOPLE. Turn around for a second and…gone. Not that it mattered too much though, it was still a lot of fun to dance around and randomly bump into other people from Daegu, exchange the arbitrary “WTH are you doing here??” and keep raving away.

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Something seems a tad overwrought here…upside down bulbous ukelele? Radioactive green garlic to keep the Twilight tweens away?

Anyway, I ended up standing/dancing for the length of the concert. I didn’t sit down for 8 hours. The chairs were constantly occupied by girls who thought it was a good idea to wear “kill heels” to an all night dance event. Thankfully, I wore flats, but they slowly got destroyed as the night wore on. The next morning, as we endured the trip back down to Daegu at 5:00 am, I’m pretty sure that my ankles were at 30% functionality as a result of the night’s shenanigans. But I survived!

And here’s the deets of trip #3 to Seoul that I took on the last weekend of 2013, a spontaneous road trip during December’s last leg that was fast, fun, and an absolute blur of a good time:CAM00346

Well, well. Would you look at that view?! That’s from Seoul Tower, where I got some great shots of Korea’s largest city. I thought Central Park in NYC was a unique natural respite in the middle of the city, but the rolling hills and thick forestry in the midst of Korea’s capital are beyond compare.

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The windows at the top of the Seoul tower had various cities and distances on them, spanning every direction. Big ups to NYC~

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Still keeping up with me? Next up, a lovely little teahouse in Insadong, the artsy district of Korea:

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The white little fruit/nut thing on the plate (top right) was surprisingly tough, and when I tried to stab mine with the dessert fork, it…flew into the netherworld. Whoops. The tea that I had was apricot flavored, and it had a very strong fruit flavor, a lot more like hot juice than tea. I’m certainly not going to complain though, tea is always hella good.

Another great highlight of this trip was Castle Praha in Hongdae:

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It’s styled very much like an old world castle (Czech?), complete with some full-flavored beers on tap and wiener schnitzel. No I’m not kidding, I ordered it and it was delicious ;D They also know how to do a good pour on the beers – the perfectly crested foam on top of my Weizen was heaven on Earth.

And then…we partied our hearts out until the next morning. I have no photographic proof of this, which probably attests to the level of cray that it was. Fast forward to hangover morning, 10 am:

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There it was, right in the middle of Seoul: a homely respite that made me feel like I was in old school Korea. The traditional house-styled restaurant, complete with a courtyard opening up to the cold, clear sky, offered us as much of a spiritual cleanse as a culinary one.CAM00374CHICKEN. SOUP. FOR THE SEOULLLLL~~ (sorry not sorry)

We each got a whole chicken, stuffed with white rice and a split chestnut in the very center, steaming in a savory broth. Beautifully simple and filling.

After a restful morning and a visit to a jimjilbang (sauna, shower, spa etc.), we headed home, heads still spinning from the whirlwind weekend that was Seoul.CAM00380For those who were keeping track at home, that was two months and three trips to Seoul! Whew! What a way to wrap up the year!

After being in Korea for four months, I feel like the time has been going so fast. I’m fully immersed in this new lifestyle, and I’m busy nearly every weekend. Trips to Seoul, trips to Busan, downtown shopping sprees and that new restaurant that I always wanted to eat at. It’s a life full to the brim, and I am still drinking it all in.

[Edit: This frenetic lifestyle eventually leads me to a slight existential crisis, as you’ll see in my next post, but life’s not all roses and inflatable butterfly wings, right? Keeping it real with you all in “Together, Alone,” a reflection on how I’ve been keepin’ on so far in the ROK.]