Don’t chase cool, chase snow.

These days I meet a lot of guys who are living the digital nomad dream, who are in open relationships, dating multiple women, flying off to cities on different continents on a moment’s notice, on a whim, because they forgot their luggage, because they wanted another excuse to see that girl they met, because the food is excellent, because the nightlife is amazing, or the fashion, or whatever.

It all seems so… pointless. What are they doing all that running around for? What’s the point? Everything feels so special, when you talk to them, so amazingly cool: that gorgeous alluring exotic perfect girl, that hip-yet-timeless city, that club, oh my god it was the coolest thing, finding that secret nightclub hidden behind a vending machine and miles of abandoned hallways. It’s easy to get pulled into their tales of their crazy wild life, be in awe of how cool they are.

It took me a while to figure it out. These people (not only guys, I guess I just talk to guys more), they’re insatiable. They just follow their appetite wherever it will lead them. And their appetites are never satisfied. They’re always taken in by the next thing, anything that will make a good story later, or seems appealing in the moment. And especially in chasing women, always the image, never the reality. They chase the high, but nothing substantial.

Compare to a different guy I met, many years ago. He was on his way to New Zealand for the summer. I asked him, why New Zealand?

He said, “For the snowboarding. I’ll go to New Zealand for the summer, work at a ski lift, and come back north for the winter, and just keep chasing snow for as long as I possibly can.”

He never told me any “cool” stories. The only story he told me in our brief acquaintanceship was a rather humiliating story about how he was so broke this winter he couldn’t afford a pass to the mountain, and tried to sneak onto the lift, and got caught and had to talk the workers down from banning him, buying them all rounds of beers.

Yeah, snowboarding is a high, like any other. But everything in this guy’s life was aimed at that one singular purpose. That’s not a “high” anymore. That’s passion.

Living abroad these past few years (and actually making a decent living) has opened my life up to incredible possibilities. There are so many paths I could explore. Having been broke my whole life, it’s been tricky having extra money, and deciding what’s meaningful to spend it on.

“The universe is so abundant,” one of my digital nomad acquaintances waxed poetic, “It’s absolutely limitless. There’s never any end to the things you can do.”

Well, yes and no- there’s incredible abundance, yes, but there’s an incredible limit, too: your time, your youth, your life (not to mention money, for those of us less solvent).

Yes, of course, there are so many places I want to travel, so many things I want to see. Of course the list is endless.

But there’s a difference between chasing cool, and chasing snow

Because in the end, flitting around from one thing to another, you’re not listening to your own voice, you’re just chasing what others have deemed cool. How can you tell? The cool-chasers are all exactly alike. The passion chasers? Each totally different, with a unique story, their life a unique fabric that feels different from everyone else- unique and authentic.

I don’t want to be taken in by every beautiful-looking place, idea or person. I want only the things that I hunger for deeply- the things that haunt me year after year. I want to chase the dreams that have waited for me, all this time. The dreams that pull me wholeheartedly into my future.

In other words, I want to chase snow.

 

It’s the people you will meet.

A well-known traveler was once asked, “What’s the most important place you’ve ever traveled to?”
The traveler answered, “The next place.”

I’ve always been too loyal. My six closest friends- one of them my brother, three of them from childhood- their names are like a mantra I’ve recited my whole life. I love them more than anyone. But I haven’t seen any of them in years and some of them I only talk to twice a year. Why am I so loyal? Why are those names burned into my heart?

Yes, they deserve it- yes, they’ve seen me through my worst years.

But I’ve realized recently, my philosophy about friendship needs to change.

None of those friends share my life path anymore. So, in considering them the most important people in my life, I consider my past to be the most important part of my life.

I can always love them and always will, but my loyalty needs to be to the future. My actions are loyal to the future. I chase dreams and am unafraid to leave everything behind.

But if you asked me, who are the most important people in your life? I would name my Six.

Somehow, I must unlearn this truth.  

If you ask me, who are the most important people in your life? I must answer:
“It’s the people I will meet.”

I get why people don’t chase their dreams.

Life feels rough, these days. Rougher than I expected.

I am in Seoul for one more month. I moved to a tiny dorm-style room south of the Han and am free of obligations (except preparing for my black belt test) until I move to China in November.

No job, for a whole month! I haven’t had a month off from working, since I was fifteen.

But every morning I wake up with a sinking heart.

In pursuit of my dreams, I’ve left my job, my life, everything I’ve become accustomed to: my colleagues, my amazing students, my beautifully lit apartment, the mountain just up the hill, where a buddhist temple hides. My neighborhood with the gorgeous views; the sound of the crickets along the tree-lined pathways. The skyscrapers, huddled together in the distance like the shy kids at school.

Dream-chasing often comes with a price. You can have everything you ever wanted, you can have it all- you just have to give up everything. 

A lot of people express envy or fascination at my life. I lived in Paris at 19. When I was 22 I left my home and everyone I knew to move across the continent with nothing but a car and a thousand dollars to my name.

Then, two years ago I moved to the other side of the planet, to pursue my dream of teaching abroad. Now, I’m moving again.

Pursuing your dreams, pursuing the things you believe in, is so exciting, such a huge adventure- but the separation from your former life is like being punched in the stomach over and over. Your net, the things that grounded you, that gave you purpose, are gone.

I do it without fear- because I’ve done it many times before. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t grief.

My adorable kindergartners- their smiles, their laughter, their progress, their play- I’ll miss that the most. My older students- their wit, their enthusiasm, the gears turning behind their eyes- that’s next. And my colleagues, their antics, their support, the idea-exchanging, the rapport, the decompressing over soju, the memories.

Now, I’m alone again, starting from scratch. Until November, when I move to China, there’s nothing but me, my tiny goshiwon apartment (66 square feet!), taekwondo, and my thoughts. And time, lots and lots of time to think about everything I’ve pulled myself away from, to pursue an unknown future.

What is this strange space? Not regret, not fear- but so much that was meaningful in my life is now gone.

I get why people don’t do it. Why they don’t make that move that they dream of, whether it’s a job or relationship or physical move. Giving up everything you’ve worked so hard to build is not easy, and maybe not worth it.

Me, though? I’ve done this before, I know what comes next.

Build new meaning. Build from scratch, a whole new life. And don’t look back.

And I know, like so many times before- I’ll find my heart again.

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

 

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.