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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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 Wide World: Traveling Outside Korea

I made a calendar before I left for my winter vacation. Littered with notes in the margins about confirming flights, double checking bus schedules, and detailing directions to hostel addresses, I mapped out a two week excursion to three very different places: Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Sitting at my desk at school, looking at the creased page full of travel details, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what those two weeks would be like. And, as I sit here again behind my desk in South Korea, I can’t fathom how those two weeks held so many memorable miles, random bruises, pale misty mornings, blazing noon heatwaves, and cheap, delicious street food. My short time traveling over those two weeks took me on an incredible journey that felt like it spanned two months. Here’s some highlights of it.

BALI, INDONESIA

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My first stop was Bali, and I spent most of my time in Ubud, a small village known for its tight-knit community of artists. From the first sunrise, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the place was. The feel was different from any other place I’d been; wide, reflective expanses of rice paddies, clustered shops spilling colorfully dyed fabric into the streets, and tiny convenience stores stocked with weird “roasted corn” flavored snacks. Intricately carved doorways framed passages into worlds of snarling stone idols and meek worshipers. Lush green foliage all around reached upwards and outwards beyond my vision. And there were monkeys.

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Bali reminded me of the benefits of living simply, without the daily tether to technology or modern amenities. Yeah, the hostel was bug ridden, and yeah, the bathrooms left something to be desired, but those are the sacrifices you have to make in a place where the climate is warm year round. I had a similar experience when I went to my parents’ birthplace, Guyana, a few years ago. Swatting flies with your left hand and eating with your right becomes a habit. The day’s heat becomes expected, then a forgotten detail. While traveling, it’s important to realize early on that the only things you truly require at the end of the day are running water and a place to put your head down to sleep.

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However, one thing that I found not-so-pretty about Bali was the undercurrent of tension between the locals and tourists. Several times during my trip I felt like I was being swindled, and at one point I was, reluctantly paying an extra 200k Rupiah at the shore of Lombok for a boat back to Bali. Walking down the streets, you’re barraged by men asking you for taxis (“Taxi, yes?” “Please, taxi?”). Getting gypped on your fare is also a common thing. It was a little annoying, but this is what tourism has turned Bali into.

Those aren’t shells on the beach pictured above. In Kuta, on many parts of the beach there is nothing but garbage. High winds during that week caused even more of it to be scattered across the sand. Between the waste, Balinese men and women were bent over picking it up, making it look clean in front of the resorts. Upon seeing that, I thought about what the Balinese had to sacrifice as a small, developing third-world island with its reliance on the upsurge of tourism as one of its primary sources of income. What is being given up culturally to support the tourism industry? Kuta’s beachfront hosted the most western-styled shopping and restaurants I’ve seen in Bali, but it was an undeniably jarring sight. As locals struggle to keep Bali’s native culture alive, Starbucks thrusts its glass storefronts and designer coffee into the streetmarket – on the placard: “Something Familiar.”

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In all, Bali was a worthwhile first stop of the journey, and by seeing Ubud, Kuta, and Gili Trawagan I feel like I caught a good glimpse of it. A bit rough around the edges, but a true visual and cultural feast that I’m glad to have visited in my lifetime. I’ll walk with some bug spray in the future, though.

SINGAPORE

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Gleaming from the moment I stepped out of the plane, Singapore was the cleanest and most modern city I’ve ever visited. So clean that they don’t even sell chewing gum in the stores – only mints! Singapore held beauty of a different kind, this time manmade, with sharp architectural lines piercing through blue skies, quaint footbridges spanned over a calm river, and immaculate streets made lively by chattering, fashionable Singaporean women. If I could compare it to South Korea, I’d say that it’s even more clean and technologically advanced. And the people here are rich. I often saw businessmen with well-fitting suits having fancy riverside lunches, and overheard brokers giving stock advice over the phone in Chinatown. They were all so put-together that I found myself wanting to dress up a little bit too~ Let me take you through the sights:

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After my time in Bali, this place was different in every possible way. I stayed in a hostel in Clarke Quay, which is alongside the river that runs through the city. Although the hostel was pretty central and a few steps away from Chinatown, everything in Singapore is walkable so the location didn’t really matter. And, let me tell you, I walked. Four days was a perfect amount of time to really experience Singapore while maintaining my travel budget. I didn’t buy many souvenirs, but I bought a lot of food, desserts especially. (I must have brought back a few pounds as a souvenir…)

One day while sightseeing, I was stopped by a group of sprightly highschoolers on a field trip. They were interviewing tourists for their project, and with nothing urgent planned, I obliged. Their English was incredible! They had a very sweet accent, a little British sounding, with very clean pronunciation. I thought of my middle schoolers back in Korea and how heavy the Korean accent is through their English at times. I think the Singaporean students had such pleasant-sounding English because of how heavily immersed they are in English on a daily basis. Unlike Korea, Singapore utilizes English on everything, and it’s the primary mode of communication. In a modern, multicultural city, English is the bridge between cultures and the perfect interjection to squeeze into a bit of gossip – it was funny to hear people rapidly speak in another language, then fit in an, “I’m being soooo serious!” between.   

I also did a fair amount of art-looking while I was in Singapore thanks to its Biennial event happening between three large museums and various galleries. I devoted a day to hunting the art placed throughout the city and finding exclusively Singaporean pieces created by artists from across Asia. I enjoyed viewing shows of work produced by primarily Asian artists, and the exhibits did not disappoint. In fact, with my ticket I got a free audio tour! Fancy!

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Another thing I loved about Singapore was the shopping – I didn’t buy much, but to have so many venues to shop in, all at the same time…the urge to shop was infectious. And Singapore’s malls go on for days – I hopped from supermall to supermall, walking winding miles through the stores and floors, riding escalators into the stratosphere:

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People in Singapore were friendly, and I found myself smiling a lot as I walked around the well-designed public spaces, eating ice cream sandwiches (literally, they wrap a piece of bread around a slice of ice cream). I happened to travel alone for this leg of the trip, and with no one else to worry about I was able to do anything I wanted. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, and despite riding the Singapore Flyer solo next to a couple (awkward……), it was pretty fun. Hopefully one day when I’m a bit more financially stable I’ll pay Singapore another visit.

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CAMERON HIGHLANDS, MALAYSIA

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I was bent on seeing the landscape here after doing a few google searches and, my goodness, my eyes have never rested on a more beautiful sea of green yet. Cloaked in early morning fog, the mountainous landscape was made even more inviting and mysterious. I took an overnight bus from Singapore to the Highlands, and the journey took nine hours. As the bus climbed higher and higher towards the town of Tanah Rata, I grew more anxious of the bus’s shifting balance through narrow, winding mountain roads. Made it, though! Check out these views:

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The Highlands are known for its tea – all the plants you see here are tea trees, grown into short bushes, and pruned meticulously.

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Although the hostel was one of the worst I stayed in during the whole trip (no flushing toilets…), I only planned to spend a day and a night there so it wasn’t too bad. I toured several places that day, including the tea fields,  a small jungle, and a butterfly garden. The people there were so amiable, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the tea was amazing, so I was quite happy about this little stopover en route to Kuala Lumpur.

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

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This party city was one I wish I spent some more time in. Limited to two days, I did a fair amount of sightseeing while I was there, but I definitely could have used a few more days to really get a feel for the place. I stayed at an impressive (and clean!) hostel called Reggae Mansion, which had its own rooftop bar and a cool group of travelers filtering through. I booked a tour through the hostel and I was not disappointed. Here were some of the stops:

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The Batu Caves, pictured above, was one of my favorite stops. The climb to the top was a manageable 278 steps, and the view was worth the huffing and puffing. It was most interesting to see the amount of religions peacefully coexisting in KL, with temples, churches, and mosques situated close to one another in the city’s heart. I had a good time touring this city but regrettably I didn’t have much time to walk around it on my own.  Next time, I’ll stay a bit longer in KL…

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Next time.

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THE TRAVELER MENTALITY

On the Bali leg of my trip, when I came back from Gili Trawagan, I met a girl who had been traveling for six months, lived in Australia for two, and was going to fly home to Texas in a few days. We had a lively conversation on the bus ride into Denpasar, and when we got off she admitted that she didn’t have a place to stay. I offered to share my hotel room with her since it was a double, and we got along easily the whole time. I also didn’t mind halving my hotel and taxi costs. Since her flight was later than mine the following day, we both checked out, had breakfast together, and parted ways. It was only as we were saying our goodbyes that we realized we hadn’t even exchanged names.

After this trip I developed a sense of what it means to be a traveler. Suddenly, the things that seem pivotal to existence – human contact, shelter, solid plans – become inconsequential. So, too, were names. Travelers often didn’t exchange them because they weren’t necessary; nothing more than two human beings meeting, conversing, coexisting for a short time, and moving on. Yet at the same time, the conversations I shared with other travelers were about deeply personal things, such as our families and the directions our lives were taking us.

Things get streamlined – when all you have is the backpack on your back and some loose plans swimming in your head, conversations with others are less frivolous and more honest. It was about being real as one human to another human, about relating the core of the human experience (love, life, relationships, hardship, triumph) to others, and expressing who you are through just a few short exchanges. You trim out the idiosyncrasies of your own character to give them a framework of the personality behind the person. There is simply no time or reason to put on a front. When living around the same people day to day, we get so caught up with the desire to project an identity that’s well-accepted that we forget how simply we can let someone know what we’re about, and even more simply, how we can allow ourselves to be accepted for who we are.

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The people I met traveling, who had been traveling for months, knew how transient things were in life. I didn’t understand this at first, when I lamented the fact that I didn’t exchange any contact information with some people I met, but I soon realized that there was no point; they would be somewhere out there, far away, with no chance for us to meet again or build a friendship. It wasn’t necessarily a sad thing either, but rather…just a thing. You learn to appreciate the moments as you get them, and tuck them away somewhere in your mind so that one day you will smile about it. That is the true souvenir of a trip – not the little fridge magnets or moldy postcards, but those odd little serendipitous moments of meeting someone, having the most profound conversation you’ve ever had in your life, and then accepting that you’ll never see them again.

But such is travel; every nuance fascinates you. Sunrise and sunset suddenly become worthwhile to catch, cheap, simple food tastes like the best thing you’ve ever eaten, and you press on, walking just a bit further, even though you haven’t rested all day.

It also gives you a lot of time to think. As I listened to impromptu musical performances in Singapore’s Esplanade, and gazed out over the endless green of the Highlands, I thought about what was truly meaningful in my life. What do I want to accomplish with my time on this Earth? Instead of going into “existential crisis mode” as usual, I felt calmer about acknowledging that type of question. If I take life as I get it, and if I’m content and satisfied with what I’m doing, where I’m at, and where I’m going, I think I’m on the right path. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

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When I started this blog, I knew that the year ahead would allow me to explore more of the world than I’ve ever seen. However, I didn’t think that I’d find out so much more about myself in the process. With every new sight, I gained some kind of insight into my own life and how I wanted to lead it. I thought I had a good sense of what I was like and what my capabilities were before I left for Korea, but now I see myself as more positive, confident, self-accepting, and brave. I still wonder what kind of person I would have been if I didn’t decide to spend a year abroad. It’s bittersweet that I’m already halfway through, the time has passed so quickly.

As a result of traveling alone from country to country, relying on myself for food and shelter, confronting various challenges along the way, I feel as if nothing will phase me. I believed that living on my own in Korea would grant me the independence I desired, but this short trip gave me that and more. Sometimes I had a plan, sometimes I crossed my fingers, sometimes I went with the flow, but all the while I was certain that I’d make it through. There’s something to be said about letting go of all you know, of everything that makes you comfortable, of everyone familiar, and diving headfirst into the world. I made that dive half a year ago, and I have been cherishing every moment since then.

I hope that the next six months will continue to bring many opportunities to see and experience this truly vast world – I’m already planning the next trip.

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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.

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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.]


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On Tolerance

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It was one of the most physically taxing things I’ve done in a while – a mountain hike up one of Daegu’s beautiful peaks, Mt. Apsan. It was also something that I only could have done with the help, encouragement and understanding of my fellow hikers, most of whom barely knew any English.

On a cool, foggy Sunday sometime last month, I met up with a good friend who introduced me to a local activities group. This group, consisting of Koreans from around Daegu, were about three men and one woman, all in their 30s to 40s. I arrived to the hiking site in typical ill-equipped waygook fashion, donning a leather jacket, combat boots with no grip at the bottom, and a heavy DSLR in a backpack. My counterparts were all outfitted with impressive hiking gear – special hiking boots, bright brand-name hiking jackets, and outdoorsman backpacks. Nevertheless, I stayed optimistic as I stared upwards, trying to remember the last time I exercised.

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About halfway up, I was about to quit. Winded, lightheaded, and feeling like I was going to toss my breakfast, I sipped some water at the temple spring and gestured to the group to go on without me. I insisted that I could wait at the temple until they all hiked up and came back down. I felt embarrassed at how much I was slowing the group down; the well-prepared, experienced hikers who were probably used to climbing up a lot faster. Instead, they surprised me. My friend translated what they were saying, and they all said the same thing: “We came together, and we will get to the top together.” They could have all agreed that maybe the hike is too difficult, maybe it would be easier for me to stay behind. But they waited. Gathering every bit of willpower I had, I pushed aside my reluctance, and decided to keep going.

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There was one man in the group who jokingly complained every few steps, and I revealed that I knew a little Korean, laughing at his antics. It also happened to be the running joke that I needed to sit down at certain intervals on our way up, so every time he whipped out a foam pad for me to sit on! Haha~ One other member of the group even took my backpack from me, offering to take it up. They asked me if I needed water, and looked back to see if I was okay. At one point, to make the climb a little more fun, we played 가위 바위 보 (the equivalent of rock paper scissors) and the winners got to climb a few steps higher. I ended up winning this little game, and simply stated “Lucky!” to my fellow hikers from the spot at the top, causing them all to laugh.  I was so grateful for their high spirits and kindness that every so often, looking towards the steps ahead, I found my mentality change to, “I think I can make it.”

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And I made it to the top.

I took some of these shots at the observation deck, looking down at the city that I now call home. The contrast between the natural beauty of the mountain and the gridded city below was breathtaking. Although it was a little foggy, the view was mysterious, incredible, and something that I didn’t think I would be able to see. We all ate some kimchi and rice, had a few cups of beer, and relished the moment in the crisp, mountain air. I couldn’t have shared that time with a better group of people.

Now, I’ll try to talk a bit about something that has been on my mind for a long time. Some of my good friends and other expats that I know have been very vocal about their discontents with certain aspects of life in Korea, whether sharing it online or over a beer at Traveller’s. At times their issues focus around a co-teacher who “doesn’t do their job,” a confusing chain of command, or being all too often lost (subsequently confused, angered) in translation. It is the result of a jarring transition from Western culture to Eastern culture that many are not adequately prepared for.

But is it their fault?

I came to Korea having taken courses in Korean history and culture and Korean language. Prior to that, I was very interested in Korean culture, watching Korean dramas and listening to Korean pop music. It was an interest that I shared with some of my friends in America, and part of the reason why I chose to come to Korea. However, I can’t say that I share this same degree of cultural interest with everyone here.

Some hate the food. Some don’t attempt to speak the language at all. Some don’t understand the whole idea that “you have sick days but you’re not expected to take any.” Some get “shushed” on the bus for talking too loudly, outraged that a disgruntled old man chastised them in Korean. I hear things like, “[My co-teacher] doesn’t even know the difference between the p and the f sound,” and, “I’m glad I’m not Korean.” Misunderstandings and mishaps occurring over an over again, resulting from a clash between two parties that are proud of their own culture.

It’s disheartening that these things happen. We all have to take a lengthy online course that is supposed to teach us the ins and outs of living and working in Korea, but it utterly fails to prepare people for what they’re really expected to undergo: an attitude adjustment. Many are unabashedly Western in the far East, and when the water doesn’t part for them, they lash out. Frustrated, they vent online about a scatterbrained co-teacher and a rude old woman on the subway who nearly ran them over in her rush.

The absurdity of it is that you should let the old woman push her way through.

A cornerstone of Korean culture is deference. It goes beyond merely respecting one’s elders, ingrained into the minutia of day-to-day communication. When meeting someone new, it is common for Koreans to assume the most formal way of speaking to each other only until they have a verbal confirmation that they can talk informally to the other party. They actually ask each other, “Can I talk to you informally?” In addition, the relationship between the speaker and listener is almost always anchored by age difference. A 50-year-old man will talk “lower” to a 40-year-old man. This is the tradition, and though it is getting more relaxed as the years pass, it exists.

So do the Confucian values that Korean society was founded on; an entire system of deference, holding one’s obligations to maintain filial piety, marital fidelity, and respect for governing bodies as the utmost of social responsibilities. Remnants of this sociopolitical system are still in tact, and keep the country in its pristine, machine-like order. They are trusted values that have granted Korea its position as a technological and economic force of the East, and the reason why these seemingly “dated” values aren’t completely gone in a modern world.

Thus, when I came here, although I took a course in Korean culture, there was no real way of knowing what I was in for. But I watched carefully; I took in what everyone was doing. I bowed deeply, learned some of the greetings, and smiled no matter how tired I was. I greeted everyone in the morning, sat next to them at lunch and said, ” 맛있게 드세요!” (Please eat deliciously!). I prepared and taught entire lessons (I still do) and tried to be as hardworking and accommodating to my co-teachers as possible. And they noticed. One English teacher in my school who I didn’t know came up to me one day and thanked me for being “such a bright person.” I didn’t think I would be this way either, but in the smile of the gatekeeper 할아버지 (grandfather) as I greet him, I find so much warmth. In all the energetic “Hi!”s from my students, I get a little more strength to get through the day.

If you can give value to all of the little moments that you have here, the difficulties will be few and far apart.

It’s easy to get frustrated in a place where you don’t speak the language, and where the culture is so fundamentally different. But if you can bow and apologize to the woman in a rush, offer your seat to the tough 아줌마 in the subway, or pick up the slack of an overworked co-teacher, the negativity will dissipate, and you’ll find yourself seeing the big picture.

I think back to that hike, and how much I wanted to give up. I was halfway up, and I insisted that I couldn’t make it to the top. Every part of my being was screaming that “I can’t do it.” But everyone encouraged me. People that I had only met earlier that day, that didn’t speak any English, patiently stuck by me, guided me, and made me smile through the challenge.

It is why I hope that some of my friends can see how truly wonderful life is here, and how surprisingly far a little tolerance can take you.

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The Mystery and Allure of Korean (frozen) Food

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Nowadays it’s been getting pretty chilly here. Ahjummas be rocking their puffy hiking jackets, the plague is slowly spreading at my school, and I got this icebox where my bathroom used to be. Yeah, winter though.

Today, boys and girls, I will start off with an earnest confession. I can’t cook for shit. I realize this as I rotate between instant jjajjangmyeon (black bean noodles), frozen dinners and/or potstickers when I’m too tired to go out and get food. Part of the reason why I don’t like making food here is because I don’t have any counterspace in my matchbox kitchen to prepare anything. My fridge is proportionately tiny, and dishes are a pain. It usually ends up being a lot easier, faster and cheaper to go out and buy food.  But, being the responsible adult that I am, I usually have some backup frozen food in the freezer in case I can’t make it out one day. And let me tell you, my freezer is packed.

When I’m shopping for frozen food, I look at the back first. Why? To see if I can understand the pictures in the directions. No pictures? Yeah, I’m going to pass on this one. Usually the directions have a little microwave drawing with the number of minutes inside the microwave, so I like to pick those up. They also have a picture of a snowflake next to it for some reason…?

So I guess I’ll start off with one of my more successful dishes: Potstickers. I used to make these a lot when I was in college. They are little crescents of golden, lightly-fried goodness, filled with meat, veggies and glass noodles. I think there is another faster way to make these, but I make them the way I used to, boiling them for a little, straining, and then frying them a little to get the outside crispy. I usually make a whole bag at once so I have some leftovers for the next day.

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And here is another frozen food success story: bacon spaghetti carbonara. Pasta with little bits of bacon in a delicious cream sauce. In one package I found enough pasta and sauce to make this twice (score!) and the directions weren’t difficult either. Thank you so much packaging-drawing-dude, your clear drawings saved my dinner.

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And now I take you to the dark side of Korean frozen food. The experiences where I’m like “WOW. I really really need to learn how to cook because I don’t want to experience that ever again.” For this segment I take you back to the picture at the very top (Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait).

It’s a pretty unassuming dish on the surface – looks like some kind of sweet and sour pork? Chicken maybe? Looks a little spicy but whatever, right? After microwaving it for a few minutes it smells AWESOME. Ravenously hungry, I take a bite of it without looking and “crruuuunnch.” Yeah, that’s…cartilage. And skin. No meat. I take a closer look at the strangely shaped pieces and…they’re chicken feet. De-boned, spicy CHICKEN FEET. I was hungry and didn’t have any qualms about eating it, but as far as dinners go it was painfully spicy and pretty unsatisfying.

This unfortunate experience leads me to Exhibit B (below). There was one time when I was being “creative” with my dinner. I made a frozen dinner and it was 80% stew-like liquid and 20% meat with cubes of what I think was supposed to be pickled radishes. So I made some instant jjajjangmyeon and put the solids of the stew thing on top. This is what happened:

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Oh, God the horror. The meat was chewy, half bone, and super spicy. Almost cried/had a nosebleed. And the cube things that were supposed to be pickled radishes were cubes of tasteless water with a crunchy frozen center. The jjajjangmyeon, made in a hurry, was a little crunchy too. This was the meal that inspired me to get my butt in gear and start trying to actually cook. Has that happened yet? Nope. But you’ll be damned sure that I’ll post about it and take tons of pictures of it like it’s my newborn child.

And so, to get rid of the bad taste from the last photograph, I leave you all with a picture of the most beautiful tonkatsu (pork cutlet) that you’ve seen in your life. Some day soon I will try to figure out this whole cooking thing. Meanwhile, I will gladly brave any kind of cold to get me some of that:

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Ooooh baby.