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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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Marathoning Japan – Four Cities in Five Days

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

 

TOKYO – The Salaryman Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

KYOTO – Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OSAKA & KOBE – The Sleeping Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Ahjumma Made Me Stay

When my co-teacher opened the door to my apartment, I don’t know what I was expecting. Here, around the corner of the middle school that I work at, in a small building three floors up. When she opened the door, I thought that I really had the worst luck in the world.

I was greeted by a horrible mildew smell and absolute filth. The place seemed like it had been used by four people and then ditched for five years. The floors were caked with dust. The sheets smelled bad. The kitchen was covered in an ungodly amount of food residue and spilled sugar. Laundry room reeked. The place was awful.

After this first look, all I could do was drop off my luggage and head off to the school to meet my superiors for the first time. But I made a mistake that would make matters worse – I locked the inside door. When I came back from the school visit, my co-teacher and I were bewildered that the second key on the ring didn’t work. All of my money and possessions were in that hellhole, locked up. We called the landlady but she was out. I had to go back to the school while my co-teacher called a locksmith.

Half an hour later at the apartment, the locksmith hobbles over and picks the lock.  The landlady, back from her excursion, also came to see the spectacle. From what I could understand, she asked the locksmith how much it would cost to change the lock but she determined that it was too expensive… I picked up some money and off to Homeplus we went.

Just when I thought I had the lousiest luck that day, things turned around. While shopping, my co-teacher and I ran into two students from school. One was quite bold with her English, a bit tomboy-ish and the other was a little more reserved. They talked to my co-teacher and she told me that they wanted to help me shop. One started pushing the cart and I asked them about what foods I should get. It was so cute ^^ They also wanted to help carry all the things to my apartment. My co-teacher bought them ice cream and we went back to the apartment.

When we got there, my door was already open…inside was the landlady ahjumma cleaning the apartment because she felt bad. I said goodbye to the students as my co-teacher took them home, and I immediately started cleaning with the ahjumma. She has a strong Daegu accent and can’t speak a word of English but I managed to use a few Korean expressions with her and converse as we cleaned and scrubbed side by side. Despite the language barrier, we appreciated each other’s company. I insisted multiple times in Korean that “I’ll do it” but she didn’t want to leave T___T She stayed until around 11pm.

The next day after class and a solo trip to Homeplus, she was there again, this time washing the sheets. While it was going we sat on the floor and watched TV together. It was surprising when she started singing along to one of the Trot songs playing, my heart melted a little.  I told her she has a pretty voice LOL I really stretched my Korean abilities to its absolute limits in the few days I’ve been here. I don’t know how anyone could manage without knowing any Korean at all. When she was leaving I offered her Peppero but she politely refused and pointed to her teeth. I’ll have to think of something better to give her.

Right now I’m still cleaning my apartment, the kitchen is taking two days at this rate but at least I’ll know that things are clean. The girl who lived there before me, if I meet her, she better run the other way because the filth she left behind was straight up illegal.  With every blackened paper towel I hate her more, but hopefully when my apartment starts smelling nicer I”ll forget about my murder plans.

So why didn’t I simply move or request a new apartment? Because I want to make this work. I don’t need a fancy apartment or new appliances, I just need a place to come back to. It may be tough to live there but it’s gotten better. And, of course, my landlady is awesome :)