Bus Ride to Boramae

Evening. Sunset. Around me gather and disperse the commuters- the students, the travelers, the aged. Out the window: fabric, sandals, small dogs, nose rings, girls and guys flirting, school uniforms, light reflecting off the buildings, shimmering gold.

Dresses on mannequins outside, hems lifting gently in the wind. Young men having a serious conversation over a cigarette, leaning on an old railing too close to the street. Construction, skinny trees, fountains, street food.

People having experiences, or searching for them. Bearing the crowds, rushing through the crowds- laughing, texting, carrying gifts, making choices. Leaving not-taken paths on the ground like discarded flyers.

For the time that you are alive, what will you do?

What do you want to be remembered for?

I don’t want to be remembered. I want to be forgotten. 

As long as I want to be remembered, I will always have those loved ones, those friends, or those strangers in mind, and I will have to be a certain way.

If I rejoice in one day being forgotten, I can be anything I want.

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

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

 

Culture Shock

A neighborhood in Seoul lighting up at dusk with a thousand neon signs. The sources of culture shock are varied and subtle. One blogger's thoughts on adjusting to life on the other side of the planet.

I’m awake at 6:30, there is a mosquito net over my bed. A thousand finches are outside my window singing hello. Or, more likely, anyong haseyo. I get up. I don’t have any food or drinkable water. I have no pot to boil water. My apartment is covered in clothes hung on every surface to dry. I haven’t gotten an adapter yet and my phone is at 9%. Hopefully I can borrow someone’s adapter at work so I know my alarm will go off tomorrow. Not that I need an alarm, I have finches for an alarm now.

I walk down to Starbucks. I sit and stare at my coffee for a while. I watch the people go by. The people are endlessly fascinating to me. I turn back to my cup. One decision at a time, one thought at a time. The birds here really sound beautiful. I wasn’t expecting that.

Culture shock is different for everyone and different every time you venture into a new country, or even just out of your comfort zone for a prolonged period of time. Many factors influence how it hits you, but one that has surprised me is how well (or poorly) a culture aligns with your values.

On the surface (which is all I’ll be able to see for a while), a lot of Korean values resonate with me. I perceive Koreans to be kind in their daily interactions; hard-working and yes, overworked; strict but affectionate towards their children; openly affectionate in the streets; proud of their country, their culture, and their accomplishments. What I’ve seen of the city itself, so far: crowded and chaotic in some neighborhoods, quiet in others, as in any city. But the streets are clean; plants, trees and bits of forest are everywhere; trash is sorted into recyclables, garbage and food waste, which is fed as scrap to livestock. The people on the streets are quiet, considerate, dignified (note: I don’t participate in the nightlife :P.) I have not seen anyone try to jump a ticket-point for a subway like in some cities, or openly thieve (which, yes, has happened right in front of me in other places). Of course I’m vigilant but that doesn’t take away the feeling that I’m safe.

On one hand, I am constantly seeing my values reflected in so much of what I see around me, and I find this thrilling. I had forgotten that this is a quality in a place that could be missed. Is this lack of feeling part of what kept me so restless in Ashland?

What’s funny, too: when I first moved to Ashland, I thought it aligned with my values much more than where I was previously. It took a long time to see that the town, to put it gently, wasn’t right for me. Maybe it was just that I was growing up, into a different person than I was at 22.

So then the question is: am I just seeing a surface that, once I look more deeply, I’ll find will not be right for me? Will I end up feeling betrayed, as I did many times in my small town? Will it work for a while, until I outgrow it?

Something tells me Seoul is not the kind of place one can easily outgrow <3

On the other hand (returning to culture shock in general), aside from the thrill, I am constantly mentally exhausted as I try to navigate this place with only a handful of phrases at my command and a four-year old’s ability to read hangul. I studied vocabulary a while back but I find it almost completely useless. Great! I can say the colors. Woo.

Hangul is both useful and beautiful- incredibly beautiful! Talk about reflecting one’s values!! But that’s an entry for another day.

The effort that goes into every single action and interaction is draining. Yesterday I spent half an hour trying to figure out which bottles in what looked like the cleaning section of a store was laundry detergent and which ones were top loading vs. drum loading, which is apparently something I have to care about, according to my landlord.

Mostly, this isn’t a problem: I mean, it doesn’t affect my level of excitement or optimism. But the exhaustion leaves me particularly vulnerable when things get rough. On Thursday I found out there was a problem with my paperwork and my alien registration would be delayed. That meant delays in getting a banking account and having access to much-needed money. I felt so deflated, finding that out, it took me the whole evening to get my motivation back.

Last night (when buying the previously mentioned hopefully-drum-loading laundry detergent), I had my first bad interaction with someone: the check-out girl was basically a jerk to me because I didn’t know what she was saying (“Do you need a bag?” which could have been easily solved by just pointing at the bags and also it was pretty obvious I would need one since I was buying fifteen things). She gave me attitude and embarrassed me in front of a whole line of people. I was torn between anger that she felt justified in treating me that way, compassion for her because she probably hates her job (as a former cashier myself, I’ve been there), and shame that I hadn’t made more effort to learn such a commonly used phrase or at least been quick enough to pick it up from context.

(Let me also point out, I know how tame an interaction that was. On my first night in Paris my roommate and I were aggressively approached by two guys demanding sex from us! We argued for a half-mile of fast walking- through a public park at 8 pm with families around, no less!- before they left off. So yeah Check-out Girl will always get patience and a friendly smile from me!)

I want to believe that this city encompasses the philosophies that I hold most dear: that is why people find themselves drawn to certain places, right? It’s like falling in love: you don’t even know the person, you just saw them and were pulled irresistibly in their direction- but there’s that apprehension too, because only one thing can tell you if it’s the real deal, if this person shares enough of your hopes, values, beliefs and standards: time.

This is how I feel about Seoul right now. In love. Apprehensive.

All I can do is wait and see. And, in the meantime, ride these waves of culture shock.