This weekend I went to the Jindo Sea Parting Festival. Once a year the sea parts and you can cross a rainbow road (not at all like the one in Mario Kart!). I went through an organisation (ButlersKorea) that cost 50,000 won ($50USD), and they organised and covered everything for the day (bus and lunch). We got to see/experience a dog competition, K-Pop performance, Colour Run (okay there was no running, just dancing), lots of foreign foods, release lanterns, and we even met & got a photo with the Mayor of Jindo! This was all extra to the main event - crossing along the curved path to the island like Moses.
Bangsan elementary school snapshot. Feeling accomplished after a fun day of playing where are these song lyrics from? Korea or America: Kpop vs. Apop. Flashback, two girls tug at my arms and beg me to sit with them at lunch. Flashback, pulled off a Konglish conversation with the librarian successfully. Flashback student feeling my abs and being mad impressed. Flashback, coworkers picking me up at the bus station and driving me to work instead of having to take the bus. Flashback ping pong with the 6th grade teacher after class. Gosh what a good day.
I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of teaching and the 6th grade teacher actually thought I had been a teacher for much longer than 6 months. This is the first job that I have enjoyed in its entirety and that has challenged me to think creatively and quickly in order to make a positive difference on many people.
Even on the one student in Korea that has a mullet. Children's laughter and smiles flood my mind and I am pretty sure that this is therapeutic. I feel centered and ready to take on the world. And what a fascinating world it is.
Common Korean design. The green floral pattern looks so natural. oooo ahhhh.
First time Coldplay played in Korea after 17 years of touring. I want something just like this.
Random exercise machines everywhere, literally EVERYWHERE!. Like this one was on a hiking trail.
Cool memorial tower halfway up a mountain.
Come one, come all and see the best view of Yanngu on top of a three story tree house. Equipped with binoculars and a view that puts you above the mountaintop trees,, you are sure to have a whole new perspective of this dinky city :P
Some of the signs here are just too ridiculous. Who would fish in a toilet. That is just weird.
Cherry blossoms can be seen all around Seoul. It's that time of the year where tiny pink pedals cover the ground, couples are matching in pink sweaters, and lights are intertwined in branches illuminating the cherry blossom trees. As I walked through the archway of cherry blossoms I couldn't help but feel how happy and appreciative I was to be there. How beautiful a day it was to be able to walk around a lake surrounded by cherry blossoms with two of my closest friends. To be able to have some great conversations in between all the pictures and walking. And realize that I have people in my life that I can have genuine conversations with about friends, family, work, and what we want in life. I think the most interesting thing I noticed is how couple centered the Korean culture is. Spring time in Korea is almost like mating season for whales in Hawaii. They're everywhere and if you're single and dating a Korean, you're bound to not be single for long. Some of my friends went on dates with Koreans only to be asked to be their significant other after a day of knowing each other. I'll dig further into this with my informal assessments and get back to you. In the meantime, please enjoy some of the pictures I snapped below. But be warned, the pictures don't do justice of how amazing it was to be there. Enjoy!
Challenging your identity is one of the most difficult and rewarding things that a person can do. For example, since arriving in South Korea everything has felt different, the novelty has swept me up and thrown me thousands of feet (ahem, I mean meters) into the air and as I fall, i notice that i am surrounded by incredibly thick fog. I wish more than anything to make the fog transparent because I know that there is immense beauty behind it; if only I could see. Then I begin to understand some new basic idea and all of a sudden the satisfaction of a child learning a new word illuminates my soul.
This is the pendulum that I have been swinging on for the previous two weeks here in Korea. I am still amazed everyday at the life that I now live and I have to repeat to myself that I am a full time teacher in a foreign country. I am the main English teacher for two schools and I am living a brand spanking new life.
I am located in Gangwon province in a small village called Yanngu. Gangwon is the biggest province with the fewest amount of people so living here is like living in the most authentic part of South Korea. The province is 70% mountainous and I found a large network of trails nearby my apartment so that is pretty sweeet.
The first couple of weeks have consisted of me being confused about mostly everything from almost losing my luggage in the airport, to meeting my 9 coteachers, 2 principals, 2 vice principals, and many other administrative faculty, to meeting my 11 different classes, to learning public transit, and even trying to learn the most basic of basic Korean expressions so much has happened so expediently. But gee gosh the children could not be more any more adorable :D
Oh and did I mention that I have eaten silk worm larvae, sea squirt, and cow tongue soup!
Oh and I got to see some Sweet Pretty Pink Cherry blossoms today.
Moreover, I am beginning to really adapt and grow accustomed to my new lifestyle and I can even introduce myself to people without looking like a total fool! Haha. Most of my co-teachers have very limited English speaking capabilities which was difficult at first but now I just make sure to smile greet them and go about my business. A few of my teachers have had more in depth conversations with me such as, "Let's play soccer", "how was your weekend", and "this is how to say this in Korean". I really appreciate their efforts. Every Monday and Tuesday I get to play soccer at lunch which I'm pretty pysched about!
So between the lonely nights of reading up on the language and culture and the days of making toothpaste and planting lettuce with my students. I can ruminate in moments of mammoth mountains and roaring rivers with cute birds and I can appreciate the steady flow of improvement in my teaching and linguistic skills. I am exactly on the ride that I signed up for and I couldn't be more grateful.
Here in South Korea, k-pop pretty much dominates the music scene. It’s mainly what is playing in restaurants and stores (although I have heard some random Pitbull and/or Beyonce thrown in there as well—a Korean coworker told me if it is pop-y and English, it is automatically cool). Korean pop culture in general seems to revolve around being almost sickeningly sweet and cutesy—think of little stuffed pink bunny rabbits with giant eyes turned into song, and you’ve got k-pop. All the male k-pop stars wear make-up; it is not seen as effeminate, because Korean women want their men to be “pretty”. Appearances are very important for both genders, and this shows through the super-stylized, choreographed dance routines, and computerized, barely-human voices. K-pop is fun and dance-y; cute, yet strictly regimented—and this, to me, recalls the overall vibe of South Korea.
Before I arrived here, I liked listening to k-pop sometimes, along with other electronic-y/modern music (the Glass Animals, Oh Wonder, Lana Del Rey…) and this music genre really fits in quite well, I think, to the climate and overall feel of South Korea. Now that I am living here, though, I find my old music has lost some of its appeal—since arriving, I’ve been favoring Stevie Ray Vaughn and Led Zeppelin, Supertramp and Guns N' Roses…which is really about as far away from the vibe of South Korea as you can get. There is just something so deliciously discordant about wandering the streets of Seoul, listening to classic rock from the 60s. Looking back, I realize I’ve always chosen music that is in strict opposition to my immediate surroundings. Stuck in the Midwestern suburbs? Better put on some esoteric, wavy electronica, just to make it weird, am I right? So, am I an iconoclast? Am I simply desperate to be a unique, special snowflake? …I mean, very possibly, but I think it has much more to do with wanting to bring something to life. Listening to a disingenuous genre of music reminds me that the space and time I happen to be occupying is never all that there is, and it offers me a connection, however tenuous, to another space/time--access to a bygone era, if you will. And if I can inhabit 2 separate, discordant spaces at once, I feel larger. I can feel myself expanding to create room for other worlds, and I am greedy for them; I want them all at once. One place is never enough; I want to contain multitudes. For this purpose, travel is the most useful thing: every place I inhabit offers me not only itself, but its opposite as well.
Me and my beary special friend <3 <3 Rock on, Seoul! (I'm not cool...)
I think maybe my apartment is haunted. I have lived here for 3 weeks, but I have not seen another living soul in my building during that time. I hear their voices sometimes—speaking words I do not understand, stomping up steps, children babbling together in what seems to me like a confused cacophony of gibberish syllables. Sometimes I hear a baby wailing from somewhere down below. A man yells things I don’t know out his window on Saturday nights. They are only voices to me, and I have never seen their faces, but then again, that means they have never seen mine. Maybe it’s me who is haunting their lives, and not the other way around; that would explain the stares I get on the streets. I pass people and they do a double-take. If I meet their eyes and smile, they stare unabashedly back, mouths open, or else they look away hurriedly. The other day, I sh*t you not, a woman saw me, made eye contact, looked away quickly, nudged her friend and whispered something, then they both proceeded to look back at me giggling. It feels vaguely eerie to be such an anomaly; like I have 3 eyes or some weird skin condition, a feeling compounded by the fact that I do not speak the language here. I feel like a grotesquely overgrown baby, stumbling through their stores and streets, attempting to communicate through an odd mixture of last-minute google translate terms and sign language. People ask me questions at the check-out; I smile and say “de (yes)” and hope it makes sense. I know maybe 7 words of Korean total, and though I am trying to learn more, it all seems to fly out of my head once I am standing in front of an expectant sales girl who has just spoken for a good 30 seconds straight and is now awaiting my response. It gives me a newfound respect for people who cannot speak English in the U.S., and for minorities—it is isolating to constantly feel like the odd one out, and immensely frustrating to not be able to communicate, not least because I feel so much stupider than everyone else. I wish I could wear a shirt that says “I’m smarter in English, I swear!”
Though it is frustrating and isolating, it is also fascinating to see what it is like on the other side. I have been the native speaker attempting to understand and communicate with a foreign customer, and though of course I know that they are not actually intellectually slow, in some vague, unformed, prehistoric area of the brain, it is there: the judgement, the frustration—and sometimes the conscious thought of “they are definitely not stupid in their native language” takes just a few, searing seconds too long to slip through the cracks and slide into the thinking portion of the brain, and by then, it is sometimes too late; the damage has been done, and I know from personal experience that this damage takes even more effort and self-reflection to mitigate and move past. It is here, in the space between feeling and thinking, that prejudice takes root and sometimes flourishes, and it is an ugly, insidious feeling. This I have known—but now I know it a bit more completely. I can feel it from the other side now. I know what it is to be mistaken for unintelligent, or to feel so inadequate, simply because of a difference in language. And I think that this new knowledge has incalculable value for anyone who wishes to see our world a bit more clearly, a bit more completely. Sometimes it is not enough to consciously know that a certain impulse is incorrect; we must also feel it in our bones. The understanding must become a part of us if we want to have a true and permanent compassion for other humans, and not just those who, because of pure circumstance, share our language and culture. I sincerely wish everyone in America could have this same understanding, that this situation in which foreigners appear slow or very fundamentally different is just one circumstance among many possible circumstances, and absolutely should not be taken for reality.
In summation: I will never take for granted the ability to speak with other grown up humans again; people here think it’s weird that I’m white. Here are some pics of Chuncheon, the city I’m in:
So I am currently on my way to South Korea, and I feel barely here. I feel like a ghost, like I don't even really exist--here, in this space, in this time, I feel like I am already a memory. I felt the same before I left for Australia as well--I think it has to do with not being able to picture myself anywhere at all; I have no clue what my life will be in just a few hours, future me does not exist to present me. I kind of love this vibe though--the whole "nothing is real, is this even happening" feeling is freeing and also simply interesting to experience.
It is very gratifying, though, that this is finally happening, because it is a lot of work moving to a new country--the CIEE TEFL course, the visa application, (the lost passport that I mailed to the consulate but never arrived), the interviews, not to mention the application to CIEE. There are so many hoops to jump through, and at times the actual end goal gets lost amid the bureaucratic minutia. But...this is happening, this is real! I feel vindicated, like I accomplished something. The more miles I travel away, the bigger it feels, so that the airplane leaving the runway becomes almost metaphorical in its ability to defy gravity, to rail against the laws of nature and go soaring through the sky. In this moment I feel like a speck against the enormous blue, I feel like I have found a secret pocket and slipped out of time, and I'm just waiting for the universe to notice its carelessness and call me back...
In light of my impending move to South Korea (T minus 11 days!), this election, for me, has been a very odd one. I have to say, at first I was speechless, shocked, flabbergasted. I simply could not believe that so many of my fellow Americans would look past all of the many (many) awful, racist, xenophobic, bigoted, sexist things that President Trump has said. When I listen to him speak, I am enraged, and so I could not comprehend why so many others were so willing to look the other way—or worse, seemed to agree. I am trying to understand this, because right now I am disappointed and ashamed of my country. One thing that has emerged loud and clear from the Trump supporters in this country is this sentiment: “Trump is not politically correct. He says what he means. We know where we stand.” And I want to unpack this sentiment, so that I can understand what these people are really saying. First, we all know that America is a profoundly racist nation; we always have been, and although we have tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend it is not there, we have never been able to completely eradicate it. And we have seen, in recent years, a greater urgency in the efforts to reveal and emolliate the institutional racism in this country, and we have seen considerable backlash from these efforts—white people (not all, but enough) are made deeply uncomfortable when confronted with these nasty truths about our country. We have had to face problems that we have previously been led to believe were not there anymore. This requires an uncomfortable self-assessment, and considerable effort to change if we admit that there is indeed a problem. So, it is not all that difficult to see how “I like Trump because he is not politically correct” becomes “I like Trump because he removes the onus of responsibility from my shoulders and places it on someone else”. Political analysts said that there was an unexpected amount of rural white voter turnout—it is not a stretch to imagine that these rural white voters turned out in a sad kind of self-preservation—a sort of plea for the status quo. Similarly, there was considerable talk about a culture gap. Voters over 65 turned out in support of Trump—these are the people who are not happy about marriage equality, they are not happy about abortion and reproductive rights, and they probably have a difficult time, consciously or unconsciously, voting a female into the White House. Again, this vote for Trump’s “honesty” seems to be, in reality, a vote for his backwardness, a vote for the "good ol' days of yore"--you know, back when gas cost 50 cents, you could beat your kids with impunity, and white males ruled everything.
A different aspect of the Trump presidency that can be understood from this vaunting of Trump’s “honesty” is the idea that Americans are so disgusted with politics en masse that they simply wanted to blow up the entire system, and the way they did so was by voting for Trump. The story goes that President Trump has no political experience, has no support from even his own political party, and since the system is flawed, and Trump is not of the system, that somehow makes him uniquely able to lead our country. Look, I understand that the system is flawed—broken, even—but to elect a bombastic narcissist in order to blow up the system seems to me a lot like a murder-suicide. If honesty without regard for content is the only standard to which we hold the president, then that is a very low standard, and it reflects very poorly on the American voter. A vote for Trump may indeed be a rebellion against the system, but so is the temper tantrum of a child; Trump’s economic policies simply do not pan out in the opinion of most of the world’s top economists, and his social and foreign policies are nothing short of terrifying.
Now, this election is particularly interesting to me in the context of my impending move out of the United States; I confess, when I first saw the signs that Trump was going to win this election, one of my first thoughts was, “Oh, thank god I’m leaving soon anyway!” But it’s not that simple, is it, because, first of all, the election results still affect me as an American citizen, and second of all, any country I may subsequently move to (including South Korea, where I will be moving in less than 2 weeks) will have its own political scandals and upheavals, its own inherently flawed system--it's not like I'm moving to a pristine nation with no corruption. It is interesting that I felt this relief, though, because I think that this sentiment of really wanting to move away from America reveals just how deeply our national ties run. Even though I knew I was imminently leaving the country, the results of this election still impacted me on a not only political level, but on a deeply emotional level. The fact that so very many of us want to leave our own mess, even though we would necessarily be running into someone else's, reveals that we never truly can leave—we carry America with us wherever we go. And because of this--because of my emotional ties to American politics--the politics of any nation I might choose to live in will never be as real, as visceral, as emotionally meaningful to me as “my” country’s politics. My moving to Korea does not make my innate American-ness go away, and I wonder what it really means to be a citizen when I would not exist without my country, when I can never extricate my core self from the concept of “American”, when a Trump presidency affects not only the policies and economies surrounding me, but who I am and how I think.
In between rambling paragraphs on this long-winded topic, I’ve included a collection of files from my video archive. It might be obvious from some of the posts, but I take a lot of short film clips of things that I see on my travels. Some of them don’t make the cut, but I think they’re worth sharing.
On my last full day in Korea, I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Donghae. We’d gotten together for one more movie night just like the old days. The last week of my time here has been like that: trying to do those last couple things that I love one more time before I go, walking the old routes that I knew, and saying goodbye.
Some trot (what I like to call Korean disco) on the walking path behind my apartment in Donghae (February ’14).
I stayed a couple days after my contract ended at school, and I’m glad I did; it takes a little time to send money home, mail that last box of things that don’t fit in the suitcase, and close a bank account. Things were pretty hectic when I was trying to get everything cleaned and cleared out of the apartment before I was supposed to move. Since then, I keep forcing myself to stop thinking about the next step and just look around at where I am.
I suppose I’ve lived in Korea for so long that I take it for granted these days. I have changed so much since I arrived at Incheon three years ago, but it’s been such a long process that I hardly seemed aware of it.
For starters, I’ve realized—now that I’m living out of a very pared-down suitcase—that I dress with much more consideration than I used to. In university, I would just throw on whatever was clean, brush my hair, and go. Koreans take a lot of care with their appearances, and they’ll comment on yours if they notice something un-Korean about it. (Like, um, everything?) I still don’t much care if other people approve of my attire or not, but I care whether I actually like what I am wearing. We’ve had a couple seriously hot days—32º C!—and it’s been too hot for me to cover my upper arms for the sake of the children and offended old ladies.
(On another note, I am now well-versed in Celsius and the metric system. Dear USA: Get with the program!)
Many people in Korea seems to dress in similar ways and do similar things. I’ve seen my students change their answers in class because they were different from what the other kids were saying. Living here as long as I have has really impressed on me the need for diversity—especially in the media. In a country as uniform as Korea, TV and films are some of the only ways that locals can be exposed to other cultures and ways of thinking, which bring new ideas. Sometimes stereotypes are all that Koreans have to go off of, and this can be really hurtful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had some gross old man leer at me because women who look at me (in that they are blond-haired and Caucasian) are “easy” in the movies they’ve watched. But this is nothing to the way people of color get treated. I didn’t understand the true meaning of white privilege until I moved to a country where I was a racial minority.
A rogue octopus at the Bukpyeong Five-Day Market in Donghae. A surprisingly accurate metaphor for my feelings as a perpetually-observed foreigner in Korea (January ’14).
In some ways, I’ve become more reserved, and in others I’m more open. When someone I don’t know approaches me in the street, I get suspicious. Usually, strangers don’t strike up a conversation unless they want something: an English conversation partner, a hookup, a picture... (In many cases, people haven’t asked for this third item.) On the other hand, when you’re getting to know new teachers, it’s more effective to be forthright. I used to feel like I had to guard myself with people I met through work or social events before I could let them get to know me. These days I’m less concerned with what people think of me, so it’s easier to socialize. When I chat with other travelers in a guesthouse on vacation, being myself allows me to make stronger connections more quickly. I’ve made some pretty good friends on vacation—some of whom I’ve even visited again while traveling around Asia.
Toy dragons at a store in Hong Kong (February ’15).
This brings me to my next item: being able to travel alone. Planning a trip to Taiwan when you speak no Mandarin and have no plans to meet anyone while there is certainly a good way to boost in your anxiety—and your subsequent confidence when things turn out fine in the end. I’m so comfortable with booking flights and accommodations that I sometimes don’t think too much about it. (Citation: That weekend I spent in Jeonju, for which I booked a hotel room for the night after I planned to arrive. Oops. Thankfully, this is the only time I’ve done this.)
I’ve become a bit of a procrastinator since I started working here. This is a side-effect of living in a society where schedule changes often occur at the last minute. Twice this last semester, I sat at my desk on a Wednesday morning with a cup of coffee, ready to leisurely get to work before my first class third period—only to have a co-teacher rush into the office and tell me we were supposed to have class right now, and could I come upstairs because the students were waiting outside the English classroom?
On the other hand, I’m much more flexible, resourceful, and resilient for these reasons. There’s nothing that destroys your self-esteem like being a soft-hearted young woman teaching in a high school setting. I still look like a high school student, and I probably will until my wrinkles get too deep to ignore. Teenagers, with their usual unwillingness to obey figures of authority, have had a field day trying to test their boundaries with me. At first their rudeness really stung, but after a while I realized that the opinions of a bunch of unhappy kids didn’t much matter to me. That said, I really enjoyed teaching high school; I loved the conversations I would get into with my higher-level students.
I’m like these little guys at the Robot Museum in Chuncheon—I get knocked down, but I get up again (April ’14).
Speaking of wrinkles, I feel like teaching has aged me horribly. Where did all my energy go?
I’ll say one more negative change, and then a big positive.
The negative: I have almost no faith in institutions anymore. After having my job cut here (twice), I have a lot of difficulty believing that something will line up until it is a physical reality. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to acknowledge that I’m actually leaving Korea, without any job or apartment to return to. It definitely has something to do with the reason why I work so independently and take on a lot of responsibility.
At the same time, it means I’m that much more grateful when things pan out, or I find kindness in unexpected places. Sometimes your colleagues come through for you big time, like my main co-teacher this last week. Sometimes a stranger wishes you good luck on your next step. Sometimes a friend offers to let you stay at her home while you’re in her town, and will show you around when you hadn’t expected it.
And I am lucky to have many friends, from all around the world. People come and go a lot in Korea, and I’ve said goodbye so many times. It’s my turn now. But knowing that my friends here are all travelers like me, I always say how confident I am that we’ll see each other again. I’ve already had invitations to come back and visit for the Winter Olympics. Hey, why not?
Catching the tail end of the bell at Waseda University, Haruki Murakami’s alma mater in Tokyo (January ’15).
As for me, my next stop is graduate school, where I’ll be studying creative writing. I’m grateful for my teaching job in Korea, and it’s changed me a lot (mostly for the better), but being here has proved to me more strongly than ever that being a writer is what I most want to do. It’s a little scary to chase after your dreams, but I’ve got the incentive to do it. Three years in Korea went by like lightning. I’m not willing to wait any longer to do what I need to do.
This is the end of the blog, but not the end of my writing about Korea. I’ve drafted some short stories inspired by my time here, and there are more that have yet to take form. Someday, when I’ve processed all of this, I’ll probably write a book. For now, I have to make the long flight across the Pacific once more.
Thanks for sticking with me. I hope to see you again sometime, too.