Comfort

Coming off of a very long Saturday and an even longer week, I was grateful to have time to sleep in this Sunday. After spending some time at the office preparing for class and taking an hour to catch up with my parents, I wandered around to corner to a restaurant I had previously visited with some of my coworkers. A detail I had forgotten, this restaurant was a favorite of the locals. With no English to be seen and a staff that spoken exclusively Korean, this cozy little eatery was the full Korean experience. Though glad to enjoy the delicious food of this nation, I am always a bit anxious about dining alone because I know I am doing something wrong. Today was no exception. Recognizing half of the name of a dish different from what I had eaten the last time, I did my best to sound out the name while ordering. In response to a follow up question from the waitress, I did my best to politely tell her that I did not understand. Assuming it was a question about wanting another food item, I answered in the affirmative.

When the meal arrived, I realized that it was completely different from what I had expected. Noticing my confusion, the waitress tried to explain what I was supposed to do with the array of dishes she had laid before me. No less confused, I timidly picked at the bowl of plain lettuce, bowls of boiling stew, and set of side dishes. Recognizing that some people at other tables had begun to notice my ineptitude, I resolved to start eating quickly to finish as quickly as possible. However, after only a couple minutes, an elderly man came by my table on his way to the register to pay. He gestured at the different bowls until I took the correct action to put these unfamiliar foods together. Seeing that I understood, he smiled kindly, nodded, and turned back to the register to pay and leave without another word. This helpfulness has become all but incessant since I arrived here. I came here to learn, and the Korean people have done their best to teach me.

Despite all of this welcoming kindness (and perhaps because of it), this week has been the first week that I have felt the emotional challenge of being abroad. My mind has been constantly wandering back to the comfortable life I once lived. Even the life in Florida that I could not wait to escape has been flashing nostalgically with emotions of longing for return. Images of pulling on my flight boots, watching Pearl Jam in New Orleans, sitting in front of our lit Christmas tree, bringing Langley to the dog park, and meeting VIPs at the Confucius Institute’s inaugural dinner on Pensacola Beach. Even images from my lonely new life in the fall – running to the gym before sunrise, watching movies alone on Friday nights, spending hours in the kitchen with my culinary experiments, and falling asleep on a slowly deflating air mattress with Napoleon on my chest – have infiltrated my consciousness on a daily basis. Though prominent when my mind comes to rest, even in the middle of leading a class, these flashbacks derail my train of thought. At first, it was benign. However, now that I have been pushing them away for days, the emotional baggage they carry has begun to pile up. Even here, while writing in a busy coffee shop, I had to stop for a minute or two after writing each moment mentioned above for fear of having a complete emotional breakdown here in the cafe.

I will not try to deny that I enjoyed my life before moving out here. Things were good. Often, they were very good. Yet, this life of adventure and new experience is exactly what I had dreamed for so many months. Now that I am realizing, I cannot stop thinking about the life I left. Even though I recognize that I could never have that life again, my irrational desire infects my conscious mind with a longing that sucks like a parasite on my happiness.

All of these moments share the attached feeling of comfort. These were the routines and simple moments of my life in the United States. These were the moments in which I felt relaxed because I could do them without thinking. These moments have been nearly unseen since my move to Korea. Even when I have met with Americans or other English-speaking expats, my introverted anxiety keeps me from finding those moments of comfort. Though I have cleaned up my apartment, I am still not completely comfortable there. Teaching remains an ever-changing challenge, and my athletic releases have either required the creativity of finding ways to work out in a new city or the conquering of my lack of confidence on the soccer field. Even writing and playing music have their unsettling nuances. Everything in my life is new. Nothing is familiar.

This is exactly what I asked for. I have cast off from that comfort. I have set my sails toward new horizons over which I expect all to be new and nothing the same. To learn is my objective, and it is through this immersion that I will do as much learning as fast as I can. It feels like I have so little time to see so much in this world. To settle in the comforts of a home is to sit still, watching the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years tick away while my biological clock slowly winds down to its end, devoid of mind-opening experience upon which my soul feeds. Chris McCandless, brought to fame in the novel and film Into the Wild, once wrote, “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experience.” I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Supertramp. Though I feel anxiety, I feel excitement. Though I struggle with the stress, I feel resilient. Though the work fatigues me, I feel alive.

I have traded my comfort for adventure, and I refuse to look back. Sooner or later, I will need to deal with the emotional pile-up that is taking place in my subconscious, but even then, I will know that this is the price I pay. This constant adjustment, subtle and not-so-subtle anxiety, and the continuous struggle of learning are all part of investment I am making in a fuller and more meaningful life. Tonight, I am hosting another pair of backpackers. When I look at them, I see the constant change that is in their life, and I know that I am not far behind. Perhaps by the end of my year here in Korea, I will have found places and moments that feel comfortable, but this time next year, I will be off again into the unknown. It is my life for the foreseeable future, and learning to accept it will be part of the growth into the person I want to be.

This Week in Pictures

Hello, friends and family. I apologize for the sporadicity of my posts. This past week has been insane. Long nights, new friends, and lots of class have kept me busy. I haven’t had my camera out as much as I would have liked, but I have snapped a few photos of some of the more prominent sites I have visited. Here is a quick recap of the past few days of travel here in Seoul.

 

The walk up Nam Mountain in the center of Seoul took us about an hour from the base. It was a perfect day for a hike.

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At the top of the mountain is a wonderfully touristy area complete with Cold Stone ice cream. Like I haven’t even left.

The view from the top of Namsan Tower. The ride up was horridly cheesy and was clearly meant for couples, but we two homeboys made the most of it.

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Although I am thoroughly enjoying my travels, I can’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia when I see a reference to home, even if it’s 6,000 miles away.

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When Koreans make a billboard, they really make a billboard.

A changing of the guard ceremony and some ancient buildings at Gyeongbuk Palace, a jewel of tradition in the heart of this futuristic city.

Out for a run through Hangangsimin Park on the Han River, taking advantage of this beautiful 20 degree day. Spring is in the air.

(yes, I’m switching to metric)

This is why. 

Sitting silently in a surprisingly cozy chair of the McDonalds on the third floor of a Hongdae office building, I caught myself smiling unashamedly at the words, ignorant of my eager ears, crossing the table before me. Both speakers were German, but they were casually tossing perfect English excitedly at their unexpected friend. With the cold night outside, they remained bundled in their limited winter clothing. He in his sweatpants and heavily-pocketed wool coat, she in her leggings and utilitarian scarf. They came together through concurrent requests to stay with me, but they shared so much more. It turns out that they grew up in towns not far from each other, they share a distaste for all things German, and they both have a deep attraction to ancient East Asian meditative practices. As they swapped ideas and advice, I lost myself in wonder at the amazing stories with which these two were filling the pages of their lives.

Two weeks ago, I moved into a 400-square-foot studio apartment in an area near Konkuk University (Kondae) in the southeast part of Seoul. Though the heated faux-wooden floors, stiff twin mattress, and bathroom-shower combination is quite cozy for my lonely life, I couldn’t imagine that a guest (much less two) would be able to sleep comfortably here. Doubts aside, I had the urge to open my home to travelers as Couchsurfing hosts have for me in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, and San Francisco. Of what types of travelers, if any, I would expect to receive, I had no idea. In the description of my home, I made sure to note that there was no comfortable sleeping surface for my guest and that we would be sharing this closet of a room. Despite my warnings, Joel’s request came only hours after I had updated my profile. He noted that he was fine sleeping on the floor or the kitchen counter, and I believed that he wouldn’t get much better than that in my apartment.

Over the past few days, I have gotten to know Joel as I know some of my closest friends. Born and raised in a small town outside Hamburg, Germany, this young gentlemen speaks with an accent that would have most unsuspecting acquaintances sifting through names of English cities to guess his origin. Practically self-taught in conversational English, Joel often uses words that strain my lexical repository. Straight out of high school, he set off from his home country practically as fast as he could, on a mission to explore every corner of this beautiful planet we share. His second stop on the Asian tour, Seoul proved to be a very useful week, and I am fortunate to have had the pleasure of exploring this city with him.

Although also born in Germany and carrying a German passport, Caroline primarily grew up in the United States and claims New York City as her home. Fluent in both English and German (though her accent betrays her as a native speaker of the other), Caroline has lived and worked in the United States for decades. With experience walking the runway at major fashion shows, designing clothing for the same, and publishing photographs of basically everything, Caroline is all things art and fashion. That in addition to her experience in dance, music, writing, extreme sports, and just about any other hobby you have ever though about picking up, she is a vast library of knowledge. After a very difficult year in 2013, she began to rebuild herself in Munich, but she came to realize that she needed to allow her path to wander outside the confines of her professional life and her original country. Last fall, she cast off for Asia and has since seen the edge of the Earth on a pristine Indochinese island, spent weeks in silence with Buddhist monks in Thailand, and worked the beaches of Cambodia entertaining guests to maintain her travel until her uncertain return to New York. Like a young art student meeting an idol painter, Caroline brought a youthful energy and enthusiasm that would not betray her age.

After our excessive stay in the Hongdae McDonalds, we made our way out to meet a Dutch woman whom Joel met at the airport in Tokyo and who is now working as a model in Seoul. We finally found a table around 10:00, and used our combined infantile Korean (complete with clownish gesturing) to order food and alcohol. We spent three hours discussing plans and experiences that took our minds around the world and back. Having started the conversation at the McDonalds, Joel continued to inquire about Caroline’s time on a silent meditative retreat in a Thai Buddhist temple. Only a few hours before, he had mentioned to me that he was searching for ways to get involved in something precisely of that nature. Joel talked of his plans to work his way through Southeast Asia to land himself in Australia and work to save enough money to continue his travels through Canada and the U.S. I, having already spilled the juiciest details of my short and comparatively dull life story, listened intently as I fantasized about the adventures I too am soon to have.

That evening was my first experience with the sleepless Seoul nightlife, but it was the next night that made me feel connected. Through a bit of a scheduling miscommunication, Joel was supposed to move out on Sunday when Caroline was supposed to move in. Through a series of technical failures, Joel ended up being left with nowhere to go. As the three of us had already gotten to know each other quite well, we had no problem taking him in for another night. He made himself a cozy corner of blankets under the kitchen sink as Caroline and I split the bed and memory foam mattress pad. He claims it was the best night of sleep he got. I don’t understand how, but I do understand that we successfully shared the space I had thought was only enough for one, and none of us was worse off the next day. I made my way to work before sunrise, Caroline met her next host mid-morning, and Joel slept until nearly noon still waiting on his German bank to sort out its problems. We shared lunch and a jaunt out to Gyeongbok Palace before we said goodbye as I went back to class, and he met his new host. Oddly enough, the apartment felt a bit lonely that night

These were my first two guests, and I have already made a pair of friends whom I will never forget and with whom I hope I never lose touch. Some may call me crazy for opening my home to strangers so willingly. Perhaps I am a bit too trusting, but I believe that this happiness was worth it.

Perhaps, one day, I will get burned and find only great pain and loss when some cold soul uses for his or her gain the faith I have put in them. However, when I feel that sting, I will think back to this moment, and I will remember that it was this trust – nay, this naivete – that enabled the happiness of myself, my guests, and the all of those with whom our paths cross due to our encounter. And so, perhaps you, dear reader, have asked, “Why would this young man open his life, his home, and his heart to strangers in such a way?”

This is why. These moments, sitting silently in a third-floor McDonalds, listening to the stories of strangers – nay, friends – are the ones in which I feel wholly, thoroughly, and completely alive.

 

I’m so embarrassed…

After a few games of keep away, we circled up to stretch. It was a beautiful afternoon that felt more like spring than winter. We shared the turf field with two other practices, but we ten had all the space we needed. Fumbling around with balls, it was clear that I was completely out of place. I can’t play soccer. I’m a klutz with my feet. Despite my awkwardness and lack of proper gear (cleats are still in the mail), I came out because I am bound and determined to become moderately proficient in the world’s game. During the keep away drills, I spent more time chasing the ball than anyone else, and it was clear that I had no idea what I was doing. That, however, was only the beginning of my embarrassment.

Before starting, the coach asked all the new players to introduce themselves. The first few people to speak were Koreans, and they of course introduced themselves in Korean. I struggled mightily to keep up with the basic intros, but my listening skills are still below those of a Korean toddler. When it came to me, the coach asked me to say hello in English or Korean. Deciding I wanted to be brave, I tried both. The English was easy, but only the American, the German, and a couple Koreans in the group understood me. I tried my tongue at the new language I’ve been working on: “안녕하세요. 나는 제프리예요. 미국사람예요.” A brief pause, and a few sideways glances. The coach just smiled pityingly and turned to the person beside me. I immediately recognized my folly. Those who speak Korean will too.

Korean has a range of politeness levels that are used based on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. The introduction I gave used the informal version of “I,” 나. Because I was speaking to a group of people, mostly older than I, whom I did not know, this was incorrect. Instead of humbly using the formal form, 저, I came off like another arrogant American prick.

This experience, however, is one of my proudest moments. Growing up as a perfectionist, I obsessively prepare for every experience I know is on my horizon because I am terrified of failure. The idea of taking a risk and not succeeding makes me sick with anxiety, and frankly I’m not used to not being good at things. Yes, I was embarrassed yesterday, but that did not stop me from continuing with the rest of practice, during which I continued to embarrass myself as I missed passes and turned over the ball. More importantly, it has not stopped me from practicing my broken, elementary language skills. This is one of the biggest hurdles for language learners to conquer: speaking even when they’re unsure. Making mistakes is the only way to improve. This fact proved itself when the coach kindly corrected me after the introductions had finished. I may have made an embarrassing mistake, but I gained so much more. I got confirmation that I actually did say intelligible Korean words, I learned a lesson I am not likely soon to forget, and I proved to myself that I can speak Korean to Koreans. I have 51 more weeks to learn how to say more useful things and to say them properly. To me, this willingness to take risks in the face of embarrassment has been the greatest achievement in my never-ending journey of self-improvement.

Despite my progress in learning the language of my host country, I still face moments that encourage me to redouble my efforts. Sitting alone at a late lunch, I looked over the array of dishes that had just been laid out before me. Unsure of what any of them were, I started trying things. Many were quite tasty, but I honestly have no idea what was in them. The waitress brought out the bowl of mystery soup that I had ordered at random. It came in a stone bowl, and she shortly brought another stone bowl with a thick wooden lid over it. She politely explained something in Korean with a few hand gestures, and I pretended to understand. It was clear, though, that I had no idea what was going on. I did quickly figure out that the egg she brought was uncooked, and the idea was to break the egg into the soup, which was still boiling when it hit the table. What I was supposed to do with the other bowl, continued to confound me. Seeing my confusion as I lifted lids and examined the variety of bowls, pots, and cups on the table, the waitress kindly came to my aid. She removed the wooden lid that covered a bowl full of rice, scooped the rice into an empty metal bowl that she had brought earlier. She then poured steaming hot water from a teapot she had left me into the emptied stone bowl. From what I gathered by the hand gestures, the lid  was supposed to stay on the hot water, so that I could replenish my soup water when it got. As I never quite figured out how to make this transition, I ended up just eating the soup and leaving the bowl of water covered. I was slightly embarrassed at my ignorance, but her kindness alleviated that. My real embarrassment came when I was about halfway through the meal.

Standing near the register, the kind waitress leaned toward me and started to ask a question in Korean. I think she was asking if it was good. I responded with what little I knew, and she continued on. I tried to smile politely, but my face contorted into that helpless expression one makes when they simply don’t know what to do. She spoke for about twenty seconds, and I am ashamed to say that I legitimately did not understand a word she said. My great embarrassment was that I could not even acknowledge my gratitude for this woman’s help, not only for serving me but for teaching me.

This is why I want to learn foreign languages: I am a guest in this people’s home. Since I have arrived, I have received nothing but the kindest welcome (except the daily attempts by drivers to run me over). The least I can do is make an honest effort to communicate with my hosts in their language.

I am embarrassed, but I am also hopeful. I can see that I have overcome my fear of looking stupid or doing something poorly. The logic is as follows: my goal in life is to learn; I learn from my mistakes; therefore, I should strive to make mistakes. This realization will enable me to achieve my goals, but it will take continued effort to realize them. In learning how to become multilingual, how to be a better teacher, and how to behave as a truly cultured individual, I have a great challenge ahead of me. However, I believe that the conquering of this challenge will make my year in Korea one of greatest of my life.