The Mess of Minimalism

It’s Sunday morning- outside my window, crickets sing a sweet tune under an overcast sky, a melody over the distant hum of traffic. A gardener somewhere nearby is digging into soil with a spade. The sound of the spade hitting the ground seems to echo.

Outside, the day will gain heat and strength with the afternoon sunshine, but the wind will keep it cool enough to walk around all day, adventuring around the city. Summer’s dragonflies still zoom and swirl, but the cicadas are gone. Outside sings the lush beauty, order and balance of the Equinox.

Inside my house, however, I am surrounded by mess. Getting ready to move, I’ve taken out everything hidden away in drawers and closets, preparing for a reckoning of all my items.

And I’ve realized, most of my “mess” comes from unfinished projects. Bits of stories started on scrap papers. Packages half-prepared to send to friends. Language textbooks unfinished. Half-used bottles of vitamins, make-up; sewing projects- even paperwork for back taxes needing to be filed.

If I count these things as projects, I have dozens of unfinished projects.

The truth is, I kind-of hate the term minimalism, and associate it with the judgmental tone of its most popular gurus and promoters. But perhaps minimalism is, by nature, judgmental. Because here I am, facing so many poor decisions I’ve made in the past two years I’ve lived here, being silently judged by the mess around me.

So in reducing my life once again to two suitcases, it looks like I have two options for these projects: finish them, or abandon them.

Except I’ve run out of time. I move in a matter of days.

So I need one more thing: forgiveness.

Forgive myself, and abandon the project. Appreciate what I was trying to accomplish- the cool project for my students, the desire to be healthier (vitamins), or to look more professional (make-up), the feeling I was trying to convey with the aborted story.

Minimalism is dirty work. I have to confront my failures.

Everything I want to keep can fit into two suitcases. The rest? It’s the mess of minimalism.

(By next year, I will pare down my possessions to a carry-on and a backpack.)

 

Finding the Words for Love, Part One

A view of the rooftops of the city of Seoul, from the window of the taekwondojang where I study, at sunset.

We trained together for eight months before I finally worked up the nerve to invite him out. It’s not that I was afraid- but I was asleep to men, still untying the knots in my heart from recent heartbreaks. Taekwondo was my boyfriend, now, and the perfect offering to the gods of rage that seemed to loom over me these days. In the spring I stopped training for a while, and those gods punished me with all sorts of bad luck- another story for another time. But Henri’s black belt test was coming up, and I would not miss that for anything.

I showed up at the dojang at 8am in a dress and blazer- the Grandmaster always wore a suit and tie outside of teaching, so I was following his lead. Henri showed up a little later, and we- him, me, the Grandmaster and his wife, Master Ko- headed to Kukkiwon, the Taekwondo world headquarters where Korean martial artists (and those studying in Korea) went to test for black belt- first degree and beyond. Henri had more than earned it, studying in France for years in competitive sparring. His muscles were hard as rocks- I knew because simple blocks hurt like hell and left black and blue welts on my arms and legs.

But Henri was incredibly humble, always gentle towards me and restrained, and his grace and control meant I could trust him. There were never ego games, there was never an arrogant comment, there was never a word directed at me as a lower-rank, or as woman- always as a human, and even his superior. He always bowed when he saw me, and whenever we said goodbye.

And that attitude slowly started to haunt me- and the slow change over the months, as gaze and touch became more prolonged, but more importantly, as it became clear: the consistency, the discipline, the devotion he showed towards martial arts. His complete singularity of focus. I admired that, I wanted that for myself. He walked me to my bus stop every night after practice and we talked more and more. He was a traveler, too. He’d spend a year here, in Korea- then a year in Japan, then Taiwan, then Hong Kong, then mainland China. Working odd jobs and studying Taekwondo, Karate, Shaolin, Jeet Kune Do. The idea thrilled me. Could do something like that? I didn’t know people could do that. I thought that was a fantasy I wasn’t allowed to have anymore once I turned fourteen.

At some point, I noticed the line of his brow, the little wrinkles on his cheeks when he smiled. Hazel eyes.

At the black belt test, we paced and agonized. Sweat drenched my clothes from heat and anxiousness. It was late June. The Grandmaster sat in a section for Grandmaster judges only. He sat there alone on that early Sunday morning. Parents and photographers shuffled for the best views as candidates came to the mats in groups of nine and ten to perform the complicated forms and techniques they had practiced for months. My heart was in my throat, watching him when it was finally his turn.

Later, we ate cold noodles, watched the videos Master Ko took, laughed at the awkward sparring between him and a ill-matched partner. Dissected the forms, responded encouragingly to small mistakes, admired kicks, stances. Long into the afternoon, we decompressed together, over dessert, over coffee.

Only on the subway, right before we were all about to part ways, did I finally have the courage to invite him out.

“Let’s go to the river,” I said, a little embarrassed to ask in front of the Grandmaster and his wife, but he said yes, and it was simple as that.

There’s a place on the Han under a bridge where the concrete slopes down in a square tile pattern and the sound of the water lapping up at it seems to wash away the traffic noise and the talk of passersby. The Han is wide and deep, too wide for its length from the headwaters. It dominates the city; it looks like if it catches the mood, it might one of these days just reach out at all sides and swallow the city with a yawn. We arrived late in the afternoon, when the sky and the river competed for more stunning shades of blue.

And we talked for hours, about travel, about why we travel- about martial arts, the different styles and our different experiences, which is our favorite (we both agree: taekwondo, although for different reasons). Where we’ve been, where we’re going. We talked about France, where he is from and where I lived years ago. And we talked about China, at which point I found out how, for way cheaper and more possible than I ever imagined, I could study Shaolin full-time.

I wrote in an earlier post about how this one new piece of information caused a complete paradigm shift for me. Perhaps I would have found out about this at some point, but I hadn’t been looking, because I thought it was a fantasy. And the timing of this information was perfect. In just a few months, my contract was up, and by then I would have just enough money saved to do it.

I went home that evening and looked at everything around my little apartment that I had accumulated in the past two years, and started to make give-away piles. Once again, I’d have to pare down my life to two suitcases.

Among my childhood things I found an old necklace- a yin yang, red and black, that a teacher at my martial arts dojo had given me over twenty years ago. He said, “I understand that you need to quit, for the time being, but Laurie, life is long. Don’t quit forever.”

Henri’s black belt test was on a Sunday and the day after, I came back to the dojang, ready to start again.

***

The thing about falling in love with your sparring partner is that it’s tricky. Are my feelings returned? A smile, a gaze, a lingering touch- are these signs of deep feeling? Am I seeing this accurately? Is there something between us, or is it just our shared passion for martial arts?

And there were more practical matters: I was working overtime, and Henri worked weekends, so the only time that either of us had to spare that overlapped was, of course, taekwondo. And why go out on a date when you could be practicing taekwondo? And most importantly, I knew it was doomed anyway. He was leaving in two months for Japan. And though we were both bumming around Asia studying martial arts, it’d be years before we might see each other again, if ever.

But if there was one thing I learned about love, it’s this: never let your feelings go unsaid. Maybe that was the wrong thing to learn- maybe it had never done me any good at all- but I knew if I wasn’t honest with him about how I felt, I’d regret it. Not because anything could happen, but because people should know these things. People should know, when they’re loved- when they’ve inspired someone, when they’ve changed someone

The opportunity came during a national holiday in August. My work was closed, the dojang was closed. It was a Wednesday. On Tuesday during training, I said to Henri, “There’s no taekwondo tomorrow! Let’s hang out.” And he said, sure. And because we would meet at sunset, and because I lack  imagination, I took him back to the river.

And what happened next, I’ll never, ever, ever forget, because I’ve learned to sniff out death and so these days, when death is hiding near, it can never hide long.

***

Part Two coming tomorrow <3

Why do we Travel?

Why do we travel? Why do we need to travel, why is the yearning in our hearts?

Where can we go to hide from the Self? It cannot be done.

Traveling is best done to confront, not hide.

In this way travel becomes a double-edged sword: you confront not only what is ahead of you, but what you left behind.

What, of the world you left behind, do you miss? And what still angers you?

In what ways did your friends, your family, or your society betray you?

What aspects of your society, your family, and your friends, utterly irreplaceable, and cannot but be longed for, deeply missed?

These are the things you find out when you move away to another part of the world. The answer to both questions is eerily similar.

The thing that society, and even sometimes your family and friends tends to reject, is your uniqueness. They want you to be things you are not. Society regulates for orderliness and safety. Your family and friends have hopes for you that don’t speak to who you really are. Out of love, you are rejected. Strange, no?

And the things you miss are always unique details. The smell of your mom’s hair, your best friend’s smile, which lovely strangers on the street can approximate but never duplicate. The way the smell of rain lingers in your hometown. The way the vines fall from the trees in the woods. The way the old buildings feel haunted. Or the glitter of the new buildings in the afternoon sky. The glimpses of sunset you can catch on your commute and the feeling you will soon be home, to see your parents, or your roommates, or your cat, again soon. These cannot be found anywhere else. And it’s these details that ground us and give us the rhythm of our lives.

Love can be found very particularly. The details are what ignite the heart.

But let us say these details are mired or lost in the intense stress and murkiness of daily life. You cannot run away from your problems, for they will surely follow you. So if you can’t travel to run away, what do we travel for?

We travel to find the uniqueness in ourselves. To find again the parts of us that we buried because they were rejected by loved ones or society. Many of these are small things, little details- that got stuffed in a closet and forgotten about when we were young, and have thus grown big and ugly and overwhelming in the shadows. Others were huge to begin with, and always set us apart. These are the parts of us that need parenting, loving and accepting.

Some things I’ve had to learn how to tell myself, big and small:

You don’t need to wear make-up, even if everyone around you does, and by wearing no make-up you’re considered ugly and you get mistaken regularly for a guy.

You don’t need a practical job. You don’t need a career, you are not built for just one thing.

You don’t need to save for retirement. You don’t thrive when there’s too much safety, and you don’t want to retire, anyway. And yes, you can know that about yourself at 34.

You don’t need to wear dress shoes. You need shoes you can run, jump and kick in.

Same goes for dress clothes. You’d better be able to do a high kick in that outfit.

You can love a city and still move away from it. You can love a boyfriend and still break up with him. You can love everything and still leave it all behind- not because you’re looking for something better, but because you know that nothing is for keeps, anyway.

 

You can do this without traveling, you can go through this process of finally giving yourself permission to be different from society, different from how your parents and loved ones want you to be. But traveling and living abroad can certainly help. And more importantly, when you travel, if you travel, keep this search in mind, this endless internal search for the yet unaccepted and unloved details of the self. I am convinced that when we travel, when we go on a quest of any kind, this is what we’re looking for.

How to Really Save Money Teaching in Korea

There are many reasons why people want to teach in Korea, but one of the main ones, that makes Korea stand out from other places in the world, is money. The potential to save money teaching in Korea is among the highest in the world.

But Korea has sooooo much to offer, besides money, it’s too easy to fall in love with the culture, the food, the nightlife…

In one way, this makes the decision to drop everything and live away from your home and family for a year that much easier. You’ll have amazing life and cultural experiences, you’ll be able to travel to much of Asia for relatively cheap, and especially if you’re in a larger city, you will never, ever, ever be bored.

This, however, is where the problem lies. With all of these amazing once-in-a-lifetime possibilities, there arises a conflict of interests.

Here is the Hard Truth- if you want to save money, you have to make a decision.

What is your life going to be about, while you are in Korea?

LivinginKoreaGoals

There is no magic bullet to solve all the problems of life. But Korea looks deceptively like one.

Those of us who come to Korea often realize our lives aren’t just lacking funds- we are starving for experience. We want to meet people, eat amazing food, go out, see the city, see the country, meet more people, fall in love, get drunk, go dancing, travel to other countries, experience other cultures. It feels like we can do that here, because everything is pretty cheap… but how can we do that, and save money?

The Hard Truth- You Can’t. 

You have to make a decision- how much money do you want to save? How much culture do you want to experience? How much travel? You can’t have all three- you can’t even have two. Here are the two steps you must take to accomplish your goals in Korea:

  1. PICK YOUR PRIORITY
    • Be very clear about the amount of money you want to save, and for at least the first few months, write down everything you spend so you know where your money is going, whether you want to save a little or a lot.
  2. MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR CHOICE
    • You must let go of something- if you decide culture and travel are more important than saving money, DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF! The same is true of the opposite- don’t let others with FOMO make you feel bad about prioritizing your savings over going out all the time.

 

The one thing you must avoid is falling asleep to your goals and then waking up at the end of the year realizing you didn’t save anything, or you missed out on amazing cultural opportunities because you were too worried about money. You must do the hard work of soul-searching, and make a choice. 

Good luck, and safe journey <3 <3 <3

-Laurie