Remembering Korea: 1 Year Later

More and more lately I find myself thinking about my life in Korea. Bits of it come back at the most random moments, and I get a pang of…not quite homesickness, but close to it. I miss life in Korea in many ways. I’m glad to be back, but there will always be that part of me that loved living in a foreign country and making my home there.

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This is the view up the street where I lived. The bakery on the corner, Paris Baguette, was a place I often went after school to grab dinner, and I got to know the owners a little, since their English wasn’t good and my Korean was terrible. But they were very kind to the foreigner who didn’t understand about the tray and the tongs the first time she went in (grab a tray and tongs and then put the things you want on them).

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This is near the bakery, down the other way to the Tancheon river. Apparently, you can bike all the way to Seoul on the paths, but I just walked, mostly, probably a dozen or so times the two years I was there. It was usually busy, crowded with walkers and families, or the air was full of clouds of gnats, but the rushing water was always soothing, and once I saw the most unusual black water bird hunched in the middle of the river.

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I have a lot of memories of Jukjeon cafe street. I celebrated the first birthday after coming to Korea with a couple of coworkers there. We had sandwiches and awkward silence. But later, I would go to that street often and walk about the old European style streets, looking at the restaurants and checking out the handmade jewelry at the tables. It was most beautiful near Halloween, when decorations would go up and the lights would wind around trees. And let’s not forget the date I had there, where, at the end of the night, I was informed that my date “had nothing else to say” and thus closed the evening.

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The walk to school – one I took close to a thousand times – was always a good part of my day. It was twelve minutes long, and unless there was snow to slip on, was a peaceful early morning kind of meditation. This house above, and its near twin next door, fascinated me every time I walked by. Small brick houses, so tiny, with gardens and plants everywhere. Hollyhocks, roses, trailing vines, bleeding hearts, and all other manner of plant life spilled over the fences and were glimpsed between the slats. I watched the growth of the squash on the corner with interest, seeing every day how it had changed. Though we lived in the city (see the skyscraper apartment buildings in the background), there were these pockets of garden and nature that kept me happy.

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This is an earlier portion of my walk to work. Down the street and to the left is the road that leads past those houses, but before that, I would pass under the cherry trees, which, in spring, would dust the road with pink sprinkles and create whirls of magic as cars rushed by. It was breathtaking for a first-timer, and magical every year after.

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This was taken at the mall in Jamsil. They had several of these flying unicorn statues, for what reason, I’ve no idea, but it was a fun and unique part of the huge complex. Jamsil was where I did nearly all my clothes shopping, as it had Zara and H&M and I could find clothes to fit my American body. It was also where I spent a lot of time with my two best friends in Korea, hanging out in the coffee shop run by a car designer (or something) with cars on display, or at the Kakao friends store giggling over Apeach cushions, eating huge meals at On the Border, or just wandering around and talking. I was never one for hanging out at malls until I moved to Korea.

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And then there was this. This place, and this group of people, and this new hobby, Dungeons and Dragons. I started watching Critical Role while I lived in Korea, and after several months was aching to play, so I posted a question on the local foreigners facebook page, just on a long shot, and lo and behold, there was a group. The rest is history. I got hooked, and had the best time with some of the best people, and had the best food at Lagniappe, a cajun/mexican eatery run by a woman from New Orleans. Seriously, the best food.20160329_121557(1)

And of course, Jeju. The first vacation I took with friends. A week of bliss, riding in a rental car, singing along to Cake by the Ocean five times a day, eating black pork twice in a week because it was so good, cringing through the chocolate museum that reminded me of my grandmother’s closet floor, and laughing with each other in our fabulous suite rooms. Not to mention the oranges, the black beaches, the gardens, the hiking, the rafting, and the multitude of cherry blossoms.

Everyday

Then there was my life at home in my tiny apartment. I spent most of my time on my laptop, writing, watching TV, or using it to put a bit of nature in the background while I read. I started bullet journaling while in Korea too, hoping to insert a bit of meaning through organization. That bedspread was one of my favorite purchases. Cream colored with dusty purple accents, it was calming and warm and meant home to me. If I could have brought it back to America, I would have.

I still remember the feeling of waking up, looking at the wall next to my bed, at the lightly raised pattern on the wallpaper. I would roll over and sit up, feeling the quilted floral rug next to my bed, over the warped faux-wood flooring that covered the ondol heating. I would meditate like that, sitting in bed with my feet on the rug, anchoring myself to reality, before getting up and walking ten paces to start my coffee maker, a small red two-cup maker, while listening to my friend down the hall grind her coffee. I would sit at my desk and put my makeup on using the small standing mirror, since my bathroom mirror had permanent water stains all over it and no surface to hold my makeup.

I would drink a cup of coffee while putting on makeup, do my hair quickly, since it did so well in Korea, and then pour the rest of my coffee into a thermos to take with me. After the cafe went in at the school, breakfast was there. I would buy two chicken sandwiches, specially made by the dear lady who worked there, previously our office coordinator, and save one for lunch. I would eat the first after Quiet Time at 8:50, while the kids had their snack, and drink my coffee or tea and prepare myself for the day. Strange how those habits still remain so clear.

Yes, writing all this makes me miss Korea terribly. Even the problems. But the problems were very real, and I know my hindsight is rose-colored, and I needed to move on, move out, or make some kind of change. Maybe I could go back one day to teach in a different school. Maybe I could live there for several months on a sabbatical. I don’t know. All I know is that even memories of walking through the grocery aisles while listening to my brother tell me his latest D&D story brings a pang of longing very deep. I can remember so clearly buying tuna and milk tea and those excellent caesar salads and laughing at the antics of his group, thinking one day I might join them (I did).

Korea will remain a bright memory for me. No matter how it ended, no matter what happened there, it was an amazing time in my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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Excerpts from my journal; Early August 2017

August 1

Happy August. Happy, happy, blessed, long-awaited August. The beginning of Fall, the life breath I needed to get back on track. This morning I meditated. This morning I got up and wrote 350 words. This morning I felt peaceful and ready to write again.

I measure the success of my life by how willing I am to write, and whether I actually do so. I can be eager about it or feel like I’d rather pull my hair out, but if I actually sit down and write my novel, I’m in a good place.

Until last night though, I hadn’t even wanted to think about anything even remotely novel adjacent. I was okay blogging. I was okay thinking about blogging. But thinking about my novel was just depressing. I didn’t feel like working on it. I didn’t like it anymore. I’m still out of love with it, but I’m in love with the idea of using it as practice. Practice revising, practice editing, practice working on something I don’t love. Good practice. I’m giving myself more grace as well to wait it out. I wanted to have it published this year. That won’t happen. Maybe not next year either. Maybe never for this book. And that’s okay. If I can revise and edit a whole novel, I’ll count that lucky.

Honestly, summer camp has been a huge mental hassle for the past three months. In May I started seriously planning for it, and with the end of school approaching at that time it was hectic and stressful, not even knowing what I needed to do.

In June, with the end of school upon us, I was busy trying to get everything done I could do, figure out the trip to NZ, and also finish up the semester well. It was intensely crazy and stressful.

Then in July I had my vacation, which was amazing and a much-needed break, but what with getting sick and figuring stuff out, and the impending loom of the imminent summer camp with the lack of days to plan, that was just the worst. I went down a deep dark rabbit hole of self-hatred, confusion, and guilt.

So, now that we’re a week in, and it’s gone well, and I don’t have to worry about anyone blaming me for not working hard, I can finally get back to the place I was in April. A soft, happy place of peace and writing and meditating and focus. At least a goal.

Today it all goes away. Today I get my nails done, eat Subway, work out and get back on track.

August 2

Today has gone well. Yesterday went well. I went out to get my nails done with friends, bought two pairs of indoor sandals on sale, bought snacks and moar hazelnoot coffee, and got the novel study schedule down pat. As pat as it can be. I never know exactly how long a book will take me to read. I can read a three hundred page-ish book in two-ish hours, but that’s a lot of ishes. But I have an order and I have the steps, so as long as it takes me it takes me.

I’m excited about it. I hope it will help. I know that analyzing novels is an excellent way to get better at the craft, but never having done it before, I don’t know how excellent it could be.

It seems like this year is a year of experimentation. Experimenting by traveling with the brother to a totally new place. Experimenting dating more than once. Experimenting with my hair and makeup. Experimenting with writing, editing, and studying. Experimenting having a really good guy friend and working on a new project with someone else. This is all very good. I need to expand more. I’m still working on not living like I still live with my parents. 

The past few days I’ve hit an all-time energy low around 2pm. The hottest part of the day indeed. All my energy just goes right out my feet and slips soggily onto the floor.

August 4

Today is the last day. That makes it the best day we’ve had so far. I’m hiding in my room, because while I could go down and run around checking on everything all the time, in the end, this is the teacher’s’ job. I don’t need to get involved. I did my bit, now I’m done. I just have to lead the stupid presentation. It’s not like I’m nervous about presenting, it’s not like I’m even a little bad at it (I’m amazing at it), it’s not like I wish someone else would do it. I just want it to be over. That’s all. I want to stop being in charge and take a damn breath. I want to go home and eat chips and watch TV and read my book and breathhhhhh. 

Last night I had a shock of memory looking a picture. It wasn’t my picture, but the angle and the subject were so similar it triggered it.

I remembered the spare room where I always stayed in my granny’s house. She had kept her kids’ rooms the same, so I was sleeping in my Aunt’s room. It was all white and pink, with a rickety metal bed with a white coverlet that was such a pain to make I had to have my mom help every time.

My brother stayed in our dad’s old room, paneled wood and so 70s. He had a gun rack, and old board games and an electrical wiring kit for kids. Even back then he knew what he wanted to do, I guess.

August 8

It’s been a few days since I wrote last. Huh. I guess those days were good.

Saturday, the 5th, I met up with friends and we went shopping. That was fun! We had to wait like an hour and a half for food, which was not so fun, but I bought some cute stuff and the food was excellent. Last cheat before eating healthy. More on that in a minute.

Monday was the best day though. I did play some games, but I also set goals, got my calendar set up, cleaned up, cooked, made an awesome health plan, exercised, and basically got my life back on track. It was like making New Year’s Resolutions. I decided how I want to feel for this semester. I want to feel focused. I want to feel forward moving. I want to feel ready to go home by the end of it. I want to feel flexible and expansive, allowing changes to come into my life with grace.

It’s been good. I got back to writing and even wrote physically on note cards for the first time in a very long time.

I also started the life coach book study! Finally. I don’t know why it was such a block in my head to do that. Maybe since it’s been so long since I did any studying, and my mind has such bad memories of school. But it was fine! And even fun! I’m glad I discovered bullet journaling. I can make my notes pretty and it helps me take more time with them.

Today was full of meetings. No joke, we had a meeting every period, pretty much, until 3:15. By that time, I had no energy and no strength, so I just faffed around until 4. The meetings are mostly unnecessary. The useful stuff took around an hour or two altogether, not the five we spent. Too much gubbins.

But I’m happy. This year will be easier by far. This year I’m not going to be in charge of any events, and so won’t have to think about anything but teaching. I want to try to get better at that. At the planning and activities and such. I’m already really good at the leading and style of it.

Here’s to meditating every day. Here’s to prayer and getting back on track and fulfilling dreams. Here’s to the rest of my life!

August 9

Here we go. Another round of meetings. Hopefully not all day this time. I would like to get some school work done, thanks.

I’ve meditated three days in a row now. I forget how much it helps keep my overall state of wellbeing calm.

I’m not sure about the shirt I’m wearing today. It’s more complicated than usual. I like big baggy shirts or flowy comfortable ones. This one has full sleeves, is nipped at the waist and has a loose peplum. All serving to make me feel more self-conscious than I usually do. It’s a good exercise in not caring what I wear. The color is nice though, and my hair turned out amazing.

It’s daunting to look at the previous teacher’s stack of binders and materials. I’ll need to go through it slowly, but I can’t even get started until I know I have a few good hours to do it. I hate doing projects in bits.

Most of my creative classroom organizing work will come after school starts. I don’t know why, but that’s typically what happens. I think I have to get through the moment of beginning, and then things will calm down into the routine for the rest of the year. But right now is too full of anticipation to relax in. I need another month.

Excerpt from my journal; July 2017

I decided it was time to start this series again, especially as I’m documenting my recovery from panic disorder. I feel that sharing exactly what was going through my head in the months leading up to it and after would be helpful.

I stopped originally because I’d reached the point of my vacation to New Zealand, and had this big idea to do a whole post on what I did and where I went (along with sharing all the best pictures), but it was such a huge undertaking I never got around to it, and I felt like skipping that would have been…bad? I’m not sure. It just didn’t seem right. But NZ will have to wait. In the meantime, I’m going to pick up where I left off after the vacation (you can read the first in the series here and the most recent post here).

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July 18

My words are caught up behind my hands again. It feels like I just opened the floodgates. All the words are rushing up, and I can’t sift through them. I want to tear my throat out to let them pour out, bloody and mangled, onto the floor.

It’s just a bad day. Not a bad life. Not a bad year. Just a bad…month, maybe. You don’t even know that yet. Don’t borrow tomorrow’s troubles. Just…just.

I don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to start.

I got back from New Zealand. I was going to do so much. But I collapsed into a ball of nothing yet again. A sleeping, tv watching, bean eating nothing. I can’t even be sarcastic about it. All my life lines have dried up.

What do I want? What do I want from the rest of this year? What are my goals? I can’t even begin to decide. My head is warped, wrapped around the bud of my silence, holding so tightly, afraid of letting it bloom into truth.

Hose me down. Rip me up. Tear my skin to pieces, leave them scattered for someone to follow to my fleshly corpse. I need to burn my heart out. Call it out. Stop it. Grow up and work. Laughing in our face saying wake up you need to make money. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

Sunfire on my skin, racing to the beat of my heart, racing up my arms to my head to blind me. Blinding, bright, burning, stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I can’t bring my head and heart to heel. I want…something I can’t name. Something I can’t identify. Something that feels cheap and shitty.  I don’t know whether to find poetry in the prose or chuck it all up and live in my head.

What what what what what do I want? Who who who stares back at me with such deep hatred of my shallow thoughts? Who is that monster in the mirror, so cheaply fat and lazy and cliche? Is that really me? That’s my body? Meanwhile inside I’m a caged monster on the prowl, growling threats and spewing hate at that image. Such a battle can’t be good for the host. I will die some time. Better on my own terms. But which “my?”

Asking all these dumb questions. Asking, always asking and avoiding answers. Avoiding answering. I hate you, mirror girl. I hate what you stand for. What you’ve done to me in the past to make me see you in the reflection.

Such vitriol is childish. Miserable. Victimizing. Selfish and wanton and undesirable. Grow up. Work. Live. Laugh. There is no shame in joy. There is no shame. There is no virtue in misery. No virtue.

Well, anyway, returning to real life, tomorrow school starts for real. I’m bringing lots of personal work.

July 26

Briefly, summer camp is going pretty well. In many ways. Of course, there are problems, and I should have sat down and specifically realized that, so it wouldn’t come as such a blow, but it’s okay. I got over it. Am getting over it.

I had a night terror the other night. I had a dream a man was breaking in. I was near my front door and saw it was unlocked. It was the middle of the night, but just before I could get to it, it opened and a faceless old Korean man came in and toward me. He didn’t do anything in the dream, but I think I tried to raise something up to stop him and he batted it aside, and my arms were limp and heavy, and I woke panicked. I wasn’t moving – sleep paralysis – but I was screaming softly. Then I went back to sleep again.

I’m not sleeping well, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s just stress from camp but I wish it wasn’t. It’s stupid to be so stressed and know the cause and not be able to handle it.

It might also be the heat. It just reaches in and saps my strength away.

July 27

The last few weeks I’ve had these occasions where I don’t know who the person is in me. Or the body I am in. I feel disconnected. I don’t know who this body is. I don’t know what this mind is. I don’t know which part is feeling and thinking and acting, and the first two seem entirely separate from the last. I’m dissociating. Huh. Apparently, it happens during stress, even stress from boredom.

For me, I would guess the cause is too much immersion in a world not my own, too much investment in people not myself. So not enough time in my own head, and not enough time letting me out. No writing, no art, no creation. Nothing but work, TV, and stress the past two weeks. Also not enough sleep. That’s a big one.

I need to read. I need to write. I need to create. I need to get the flowing waters going.

I would like to be a stone.

Stone

Charles Simic, 1938

Go inside a stone

That would be my way.

Let somebody else become a dove

Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.

I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:

No one knows how to answer it.

Yet within, it must be cool and quiet

Even though a cow steps on it full weight,

Even though a child throws it in a river,

The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed

To the river bottom

Where the fishes come to knock on it

And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out

When two stones are rubbed.

So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;

Perhaps there is a moon shining

From somewhere, as though behind a hill—

Just enough light to make out

The strange writings, the star charts

On the inner walls.

July 31

I dyed my hair this weekend. Honestly, being totally and one hundred percent truthful, I’m not happy with it. It looks good, and it’s fun, so it’s okay, but it’s not what I wanted.

However, let me give the full story. I was waffling between rose gold and strawberry blonde, and ended up going blonde. A couple of friends took me to their stylist, who was very nice and did pretty much what the picture looked like…but it was so orange. Maybe it was the bleaching, or the dye he used, or just my hair, but while the ends were a very pretty gold, the bangs and crown were just…orange. Like sherbert orange. Scoop me up and pop me in a bowl. I hated it. I felt ugly, I felt weird, I felt super uncomfortable.

I decided to get it changed the next day. I know that’s a big no no and it might have damaged my hair, but I didn’t care. I wanted darker. I went to a foreigner-friendly salon in Gangnam that was much better. It’s now a darker red, but almost fire engine. Fun, but too vibrant for me. I just don’t look at myself and see this color ever. I have to tap into another side of my personality now.

I guess the journey to perfect hair takes time. I was hoping for insta perfect though. Like a salon could see a picture and make that EXACT color.

I need to get back to normal. This camp is throwing me off. I keep waiting to be ready to deal with problems that come up, I can’t settle in my mind to anything. Even journaling is hard around the mental hypervigilance.

The Truth About Living Abroad

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Aspiration – a stock photo (I imagine the photographer telling this girl to pose like she’s about to toss a large rock as hard as she can. Or maybe she’s yelling therapeutically about ex-boyfriends).

Everyday

Reality (actual picture of what I do most of the time – compute, read, plan, have dangly cords messing up my bed, and wear not so galactic leggings).

Alright friends, let me sit you down and share with you some truths about living abroad. That term, “living abroad,” conjures up ALL kinds of fantasies and images of beaches and train cars and minimalist backpacks and inspirational quotes with people holding their arms up in the background. Personally, I have never felt the need to hold my arms up to show I’m inspired, but that’s beside the point.

Growing up, I too held these lofty and longing-filled ideals of what a traveling life was. I dreamed about moving to England or Japan or France and being hip, and somehow always being out walking around neat streets or sitting in cafes, and never actually living. I dreamed of baskets on bikes or tote bags on arms full of fresh produce with, somehow, that baguette positioned so perfectly right, just peeking out the top, like a shout to the world that I TOO AM MODERN AND ADVENTUROUS.

Baguettes. Why is bread a symbol of adventure? I don’t know.

What I do know, intimately well, is that traveling around and living abroad are two different creatures. I know the every day of living an adventure. Actually, among my friends, “living the adventure” is kind of a euphemism for all the strange and irritating crap we deal with as permanent foreigners. Like the fact that I can only buy what I can carry home from the grocery store or have to deal with getting taxis since I can’t figure out the home delivery service and am too independent to ask a Korean to do it for me. And I hate taxis, but that’s another story.

That is one truth. The truth that living the adventure often means the really annoying, mundane stuff we deal with every day. Sure, it might be fun and exciting and thrilling the first time your heart hammers at the checkout line, but after the two-hundredth time, it loses its charm.

JUST LEARN THE LANGUAGE, you shout at me, smiling indulgently at this whining white girl who is so lucky she gets to live in a foreign country. But when? I should take night classes, except I get off work at 5 and get up at 6, so I do need to sleep at some point, and work is so tiring my brain probably couldn’t even retain what I hear, and all those projects I need to do, like writing and art and oh yeah, cooking and working out and stuff, would need to be put on hold, and never mind about relaxing because you can sleep when you’re DEAD, but in reality I get stressed out without sleep and then get sick and….alright, a series of unfortunate excuses. That’s my tagline. But it’s true. It’s all very well to say it, but quite another to do it. Yes, another excuse. The series continues…

Here’s the next truth; I will always be a foreigner here. Always. Even if I learned the language so well I could write Korean poetry. So I will always get stared at, always be spoken to in English or avoided because they don’t speak English and I’m SO SCARY, and always be the subject of amazed amusement when I divulge that yes, I do like watching Running Man.

Another truth; even the most exotic thing is normal to someone. So that means that after a while, it will be normal to you too. After a while, when you go back to the US, you will also bow and use both hands with cashiers, and it will be REALLY HARD not to. After a while, you will have a harder time telling the difference between two blondes you meet than two Koreans. I swear this is true. Everyone at the American airport looked the same to me.

Here’s another truth; if you’re an introvert like me, you will still spend all your time at home, and it will be even harder to get out. Living somewhere else does not turn an introvert magically into an extrovert just because there might be interesting things out there. There are way more interesting things in my own head, thanks.

Whew, you think, sitting back and doing that half-frown people do when they think, this girl is so NEGATIVE.

Well, here’s the last truth; it’s all hard. And it’s all AMAZING. Despite all these hard truths, I love living here. People ask me all the time why I moved overseas. It’s a hard question to answer, but the truest answer I can give is that I wanted to grow as a person, and by gosh, living alone in a foreign country helps. Living here has pushed me to mature in so many ways. I’ve learned about myself, about others, about relationships and work ethics, about everything. It’s incredible, and it wouldn’t have happened so easily at home.

Is living abroad easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes.

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