Dark as Night, Let the Lightning Guide You

Hot tears spatter my bare chest as a recline against the oversize pillow, sitting half naked with my feet dangling over the edge of my undersize bed. I shudder and shake with the convulsions of some absurd action between sobbing uncontrollably and laughing hysterically. Unashamedly, I admit that this is not the first time a film has moved me to tears, but this feeling is altogether different from anything I have experienced. Shielded from the world by my Bose headphones, the credits of the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty roll for one song, two songs, and then three. Despite my constant attempts in my normal life to carry myself with the cool confidence espoused by silver screen heroes, this moment is in no way film-worthy. Despite that, it was a moment in which I did not fear the ever-present eyes and ears of those who were just on the other side of my open window.

If you have never seen Walter Mitty, I urge you to go find it now. If you have found your way to my blog, you probably share the spirit of adventure that this film perfectly captures. After reading the first blog of a fellow traveler who cast off from his stagnant life last spring, I decided to make time to watch the movie again. After tossing and turning on my stiff mattress for an hour (a dance that has become a Sunday night routine), I decided to pick up where I had left off earlier in the day. Throughout the course of those two hours, scene after scene resonated with something that I knew had been stirring deep inside me.

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Walter deliberating over his wink

Right from the beginning, we see the frumpy Walter Mitty in his unattractive short sleeve oxford and tie as he deliberates over sending a “wink” to his new coworker on a fictionalized eHarmony. Finally finding the resolve, he clicks. Nothing. It doesn’t work. After a few more attempts, he finally gives up and heads off to work. This situation precipitates our introduction to the recurring injection of the snotty antics of Patton Oswald as the eHarmony phone representative, Todd Maher. In their first conversation, Walter “zones out” as he has a prolonged daydream of action hero stunts to rescue his crush’s love from a burning building. Throughout these first few minutes, we see not only Walter’s painful ordinariness, but his dreams of grandeur and exceptionalism. A recent post from Mark Manson hilariously catalogs the reasons we all desperately crave this kind of greatness and the reasons that, in the end, we should accept our place among the average. I hope I am not the only one to identify so strongly with both the feeling of anxiety in sending a message to a stranger or even the mindless zoning out as I envision something I wish I could do at that moment. Although I typically do not like Ben Stiller as an actor, in this film that he also directed, I found myself involuntarily placed in Walter Mitty’s shoes.

For the first thirty minutes, we must endure Walter’s painful subjugation under a new management staff of bearded douchebags. Finally, at a point of helpless desperation (assuaged by the fact that I had seen the film once before), we get our first taste of incredible storyline movers that feed our need for grand adventure. As Walter leans defeated over his desk, he looks at a picture on his wall of the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). In what is  the first unreal event that happens outside of Walter’s daydreams, the picture comes to life as Sean beckons Walter to come find him. Inspired and entranced, he does. An inspirational montage later, we are in Greenland, the North Atlantic island country that has “eight people in it.” (Yes, it’s a country. It gained its independence from Denmark in 2009.) This obvious juxtaposition between Walter’s ordinary predictability with his extraordinary spontaneity should be an inspiration to all of us. Especially in this globalized, interconnected world of the twenty-first century, even the simplest of us laypeople can jet off to a far-away land for a small fee.

The beckoning of Sean O'Connell

The beckoning of Sean O’Connell

Although Walter has taken the crucial first step of casting off into the world beyond his borders, many of his shenanigans arise as he learns that on his own, he is helpless. What I think may be the most important lesson from this film is fact that Walter is rarely alone on his adventure. He is often wholly dependent on the good will of others, being rescued multiple times. From a drunken helicopter pilot to a crew of Nordic fisherman to a couple Afghani men whom he “rented.” In one of the final scenes of his adventures, he acknowledges this, paying well-deserved respects to his mother. When Sean asks how Walter found him (hiding out on a random ridge in the upper Himalayas), Walter responds, “My mom.” As he had been trekking on his own for many kilometers, it would have been easy for him to tell Sean how much effort he had put into his search. Recognizing that none of this would have possible without the continued support of all of those who have been with him since the beginning and those whom he has met along his journey, he pays due respect. This fact is crucial to remember for any traveler. Whether it be a random lady in the subway station who translates for the station attendant or a couchsurfing host who asks nothing but cleanliness and common courtesy in exchange for free lodging and an invaluable experience, the life of travel reminds us that we are inevitably interdependent.

Renting two strong little men

Renting two strong little men

In contrast to the independence that many of us have learned to associate with strength and masculinity, Walter’s dependence does not make him weak, but immeasurably strong. The decision to cast off from his perfunctory life is not only a transformation of values but a transformation of confidence. Whereas in the beginning he was constantly the victim of cocky superiors, at the end of the film, we get to see a collected and confident Walter Mitty, who does not shy away from a challenge to stand up for what he believes is right or take a jab at someone who could learn a lesson or two about civility. From the man who was too afraid to send a “wink” over the internet to the man who casually chases after the same woman when he sees her at the bottom of the stairs, Walter’s adventures have given him the courage to face the challenge of personal interaction that so many of us fear. For anyone who followed the beginnings of my blogging earlier this year, you’ll remember my horridly anxious experiences with trying to start a conversation with a stranger. Though I was successful on a few occasions, the fear won out on many others. Travel breaks down these walls. It is not even something that we must learn over time. It comes with the journey. On the very first day of my travels, I approached multiple strangers to ask questions. After an afternoon of wandering San Francisco with my second cousin, I returned to my couchsurfing host’s house to find a group of guys standing in front of the door that I was fairly sure was his. Since I did not meet them when I first arrived, I was tempted to just keep walking and wait for them to disperse before continuing my search for the apartment. Instead I decided to stop and ask if I was in the right place, which was fortunate for them because those were my host’s friends, and I had the key to the front door! Within the next week, I would have sparked conversations with countless new strangers, each with only a fraction of the anxiety I had felt when forcing the exercise back home. It is the recognition that we are wholly dependent on each other that frees us from the dependence on our own anxiety.

A new, confident Walter - complete with beard

A new, confident Walter – complete with beard

By the end of the film, we feel as if we have been on this grand adventure with our average yet bold hero. Despite the salient way the film relates to the average person, the scenes of adventure that we suppose are real in Walter’s adventures are highly implausible. From the unlikely ease with which Walter fights off sharks in North Atlantic and runs dozens of kilometers to a volcano to the sheer absurdity that Walter would just stumble upon the guy he was tracking in a brutally inhospitable region of the world probably spanning hundreds of square kilometers, Walter’s adventures are just too epic for real life.

Dwarfed by the unfathomable scale of the Himalayas

Dwarfed by the unfathomable scale of the Himalayas

Or are they? Perhaps the literal depiction of events were only possible on a Hollywood set, but maybe they needed to be so exaggerated to evoke in the comfortably seated audience the feeling of global exploration and discovery. For those who have trekked abroad, particularly in undeveloped areas of the world, you’ll know that even the smallest of events can elicit the highest sense of euphoria. Though I have only tasted a small piece of the adventure I hope to live, I know that feeling, and that is what led me to the absurd situation in which I found myself at the beginning of this post. Though a trek through the crooked peaks of the upper Himalayas in warring areas of ungoverned Afghanistan may be quite unrealistic, it is equally as unrealistic as moving abroad for most Americans. When I first watched the film, it was the same for me. Now these grand adventures are not daydreams, they are legitimate pieces of my life plan. It was this realization that sparked an elation in me so intense that I could not contain the howls of agonizing hysteria.

That is why, if you have ever dreamed of a life without borders, filled with adventure, lost deep in the unknown, I urge you to cast off. Break free of your stagnant life. You need not drop everything as I did. As any responsible adult, I understand that bills must be paid and responsibilities must be stewarded. However, like our hero, maybe wild jaunt into the unknown will add not only epic stories for your new resume but meaning in a life of repetition. When the opportunity presents itself to seek out a new adventure, like a flash of lightning briefly illuminating a dark horizon, do not shy away. Instead, let the lightning guide you.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of LIFE.”

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Through My Lens: Lessons of Context from Gwacheon

Its red-tile roof and soft exterior walls give it a distinctly Mediterranean look as it dominates this quaint farming area at the foot of a prodigious peak, accentuated by massive power line towers. In fact, this entire area seems to resemble something out of an Italian hillside, complete with pasta restaurants, streetside produce vendors, and cozy outdoor cafes. This tiny village is, however, on the opposite side of the Eurasian landmass, and just a few blocks away, the stacks of competing mandu, bulgogi, and samgyeopsal restaurants remind visitors that we are still, indeed, in Seoul.

Gwacheon is a small city in the Moonwon division of Gyeonggi-do Province about halfway out of the city on the 4 line of the Seoul subway system. A suburban area with 1970s-era business structures alongside flashy new apartments and office buildings, it has one main thoroughfare along which much of the business has attached itself. On the east of side of the road, a public park provides walking trails and picnic areas. On the other side is a maze of restaurants and boutique shops, both authentically Korean and distinctly Western. As I have a soccer match here this afternoon, I decided to use the morning to explore the area. As I explored in search of a cafe in which I could work on some research, I found a host of attractive establishments. On a hidden corner, I found Cafe Tortoni, tended by a single older gentleman, who courteously prepared my americano for a very reasonable price. On the small patio with rain dappling the street, I got to work on my next traveler post. I hope to have it up within the next few weeks.

After getting distracted by articles about recent US Supreme Court decisions from one of my new favorite news sources, Slate Magazine, I decided to find lunch. Just a few blocks down, I found a row of tiny eateries that all competed for my attention. Settling on the smallest of them: a 12-seat boutique with the owner preparing dozens of tiny mandu (dumplings) at the window. As I read the menu from outside the door, he stepped into the doorframe and politely asked what I would like. I ordered a bowl of mandu soup – I had to repeat it multiple times as my Korean pronunciation is still a work in progress – and took a seat crammed between his prep table and the refrigerator.

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Mandu Soup (민두국)

As I ate, I began to realize that this entire encounter has been occurring in a foreign language. He did not appear to speak any English, and no English was present in the restaurant. In fact, I didn’t even have a menu at which I could simply point. Though my Korean is far from conversational, it is useful.

Yesterday, I had yet another lesson with my new language partner. After successfully using a series of new verbs in sentences (which I primarily was writing, not speaking) we attempted our first session of Korean-only dialogue. Although it lasted only 12 minutes and she had to slow down to uncomfortable pace, it was probably the best practice I have gotten since we began a few weeks ago. Minkyeong and I have been meeting once or twice a week in different places around the city, first sharing lunch then finding a cafe in which to study. For an hour or so, we review new words and practice using them in sentences. My vocabulary is expanding rapidly, but my ability to understand and to use that vocabulary is progressing much more slowly. These Korean-only sessions, which I knew were to be the most important from the beginning, will certainly become the centerpiece of our lessons in the future.

Back in the restaurant, I began to think about my fellow expats who have not made the efforts to learn the language that I have. They may be perfectly content with finding other ways around the language barrier, and I do not mean to make myself sound superior. In fact, my method is probably the least efficient way around the language barrier. However, it has emboldened me to hold true to the reason I moved abroad: to learn and explore every inch of this world. Without it, I most likely would have settled for one of the many restaurants along the main route that clearly displayed menus in English. It wasn’t the best mandu soup I’ve had, but it was quite tasty, and seeing this man work at his craft was an education in Korean culture. It was nothing profound, but it was another small piece, like the jigsawed tile of a puzzle that I can lay on the table as I slowly fit together the image that creates my understanding of the world.

These pieces, and the parts of the image they form, are a lens through which I understand what my eyes see. Red roofs, like the one capping the house here in Gwacheon, are not exclusively European. I remember one that sits on a corner along Scenic Highway in Pensacola, I’ve seen them  buried in neighborhoods of my hometown, and I know they dot the coastlines of many seas apart from the Mediterranean. However, that is my lens. Right or wrong, I still cling to an ideal that I hope to find in the cultures of Europe. I recently changed the wallpaper on my phone to a shot along the cobblestones of the Charles Bridge at dusk. Anyone who knows me well will know that I have had an unhealthy obsession with Prague and the Czech Republic since I spent a far-too-short weekend there exactly two years ago.

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Prague Sunrise – Courtesy of Eller College of Management, Arizona State University

This preoccupation with everything European is now my lens. It is the section of the puzzle on which I intently focus when I look at the world. When I see these small farming areas even in Korea, I am looking for something that resembles that idyllic future home. As much as I may try, I cannot free myself from these biases. However, I can expand them to include more of the real world. Europe is not all I see in these hidden streets. I see a crosswalk that resembles one I drove over when I had to borrow a classmate’s car while at a conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. I see a rockwall on the side of a youth center that resembles the one in the auxiliary gym of Cache La Poudre Junior High. I see a museum information desk that resembles the one at a Mississippi welcome center along I-10 that I stopped at when I took my solo jaunt to New Orleans just shy of one year ago.

Those are memories of a distant past projected onto the world as I see it today. With each new exploration and every new part of this city that soccer or a language lesson will bring me to, I form a new past that adjusts – if only an imperceptible amount – the lens through which I see the world. Perhaps one day, as I continue my travels, I will sit down in a restaurant in some distant corner of the globe that resembles the one I ate at on a hidden sidestreet of Gwacheon where I spent a morning before a soccer match.

Five Lucky Korean Dreams

She couldn’t sleep. It was not for lack of fatigue or a worthy pillow; it was the haunting knowledge of a predator in her midst. As she lay shivering under her sweat-soaked sheets, the agitated groans of a full grown tiger emanated from her bathroom. Inexplicably, she decided she must confront her fear. She pulled her reluctant legs from the tangle of her bed and inched, step by step, toward the open bathroom door. To her surprise, her brother was already there. Smiling pleasantly, he welcomed her closer to the door frame. Now in both confusion and fear she obliged, peering around the corner, seeing first the enormous orange paws of the big cat, then its broad face and its gleaming curved teeth as it groaned again. As the full body of the beast came in sight, she saw that it was not alone. On its back lay a cub, resting comfortably among the fur of its mother. Calmly, her brother reached out to the feline couple, gently hoisting the cub. As he did, the mother looked at her, and their eyes met in a sudden moment of understanding. Her brother lifted the cub over her head and placed it on her back, and all was clear: she was to be a mother.

Eight months later, she gave birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy.

Of course, this story is that of a dream. This was the experience of one of my students. She shared after a discussion about superstition. I had given the students an article from the American Psychological Association that discussed humans’ natural predisposition for superstition. We inherently find patterns in the inexplicable. As Michael Shermer explains in his book The Believing Brain, it was an evolutionary advantage to see patterns even when they weren’t there. Those who were best at it survived and are our ancestors. Though our rational world has developed to the point that we no longer need to predict whether or not a predator is lurking in the tall grass, the wiring of our brains that makes us think that way still exists. As such, superstition has persisted to the modern day. Though my students insisted that they didn’t believe in supernatural events, they all agreed that dreams are a window into the future. Though we might disagree about the definition of supernatural, it got me interested in what exactly Koreans believe that our dreams can tell us about our future. Here are a few things surrounding the culture of dreams in Korea.

1. Pigs

The Korean lunar calendar follows that of the Chinese zodiac, utilizing 12 animals rotating on every lunar new year (설날, “Seolnal”), which occurs in late January or early February. The year of the pig is often expected to be a particularly lucky year, especially for having children. The Korean calendar also uses the five elements (fire, water, earth, sun, and sky), which rotate every decade. 2007 was the year of the “fire pig,” but was more commonly known as the Year of the Golden Pig (fire is represented by the colors red and gold), which occurs only once every 600 years. It was expected to be a great year financially and a particularly lucky year to be born. Perhaps they are on to something given that Korea weathered the global economic crisis of that year quite well in comparison to their western counterparts.

In general, though, pigs are seen to be a sign of wealth and health. The Chinese symbol for pig even represents the same word in Korean for money (돈 “don”). Dreaming of pigs is said to lead to financial prosperity and general well-being. It is said that if you dream of a pig, you ought to take a financial risk or play the lottery because you are likely to get lucky.

2. Dragons

Dragons have been prevalent throughout Korean mythological history, most likely owing its origins to Chinese culture, in which the dragon is a key figure. However, Korean dragons play a bit of a different role. The story is closer to that of the story of the naga, a cobra-like figure in the mythology surrounding the Buddha (whose teachings nearly a quarter of Koreans follow). The naga was said to have protected the Buddha during a rainstorm and eventually invited him to his underwater palace, where he became the Buddha’s first follower. Today, dragons are often associated with water and rain.

In dreams, seeing a dragon is said to be an omen of future success. Particularly with regard to personal goals and ambitions, dreaming of dragons reassures Koreans that they are on the path to success.

3. Natural Disasters

Although watching our house burn to the ground and then be washed away in a torrential flood would probably be the worst of nightmares in real life, it is a sign of good things to come in a dream. Similar to the Biblical and Mesopotamian flood stories of western culture, Korea has its own flood myth. Namu Doryeong, the son of a laurel tree spirit, saved all the animals in the world during a great flood. As in Western mythology, this is a moment of rebirth for the world.

In dreams, Koreans believe that fire and flood are omens of burning down the troubles in your life or washing away bad luck so that good luck can come. However, seeing the ashes of the burned structure may mean that the troubles will return, and unless the flood waters are clean, they may be bringing more bad luck.

4. Feces

Yes, I do mean poop. As my student also shared, she had a dreamstate experience of rescuing a toddler from fetid waste pit of a traditional toilet (essentially a hole in the floor). In the Western world, it is common practice to use manure from animals to fertilize fields. In Korea, using human excrement was an accepted practice, and if done right, it can yield equally positive results. Though it is unclear how long Koreans have been farming the land, records of rice farming go back nearly 2,000 years. Understandably, a good harvest was essential to the survival of a community, and with the use of human excrement as fertilizer, good poop meant good food.

In dreams, seeing excrement or a toilet can mean a future of good luck. Perhaps playing they lottery or taking a chance on something new ought to be on your to do list after a dream about solid biowaste.

5. Sex of a child

As with my student, the stories of her dreams were connected to the conception of her children. Many Koreans perceive dreams early in a pregnancy to be strong determiners for the future and even the sex of the child. My student dreamed of tigers when she was pregnant with her son. It is also believed that dreaming of snakes or pigs may mean raising a boy in a woman’s future. For those expectant mothers who have dreams of fish, flowers, or jewelry, they should start searching Gmarket (a Korean online marketplace like Amazon.com) for dolls and dresses. These lists are often expanded depending on family tradition, but Korean women insist that dreams they had around the time of conception accurately reflect the sex of the child they would have three seasons later.

These are only a small sample of the omens Koreans believe will impact their future. Although all of these tend to be positive, there are certainly negative futures associated with ghosts, the loss of teeth, and animated dolls.

If you don’t like your omens or if you believe that someone else needs them more, you can indeed sell your dreams. My student’s sister dreamed of dragons not long before my student was to take her college entrance exams. Her mother insisted that she buy the dragon omen from her sister. For a small fee, she did so, and she did quite well on the exam. Whether the high marks were due to the dragons or her relentless studies is for the reader to decide, but the sale of dreams is not uncommon.

Though only about half of Koreans are religious, most of them hold on to mythology from their past. Korea has a rich cultural heritage, and they are very proud of it. And so, I say to you, may all of your dreams be pig dreams, especially ones that involve dragons soaring over burning houses and piles of poop.

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Given that I have so few things to keep track of, it should follow that I indeed can keep track of all of them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A couple of months ago, I lost a notepad and an umbrella because I left them outside of a store. Last week, I nearly lost my day pack, which was carrying my computer and camera, because I forgot I had placed it on a chair as I was taking a rest at a convenience store near my apartment. Today, I lost the camera. On the bleachers by the field where our latest pickup soccer match took place, it must have sat undisturbed for hours, receiving the attention of none, including me. Upon realizing that it was not in my bag when I returned home, I felt an immense pang of loss. Strangely, though, that thought was not of the money it would cost to replace such a camera or even of the object itself. The loss was that of the photos held on its memory card. Not merely just bits of data or rows of pixels, they were a representation of a part of my life. Though relatively uneventful and certainly not my best work, they were a tangible piece of how I had spent the most precious of commodities, time. Certainly I can capture the much of these sentiments in writing, but despite my best efforts to paint pictures with my words, I will never capture all of them. The photographs serve as both complements of my memories but also cues for the memories that have faded below the realm of consciousness.

A year ago, I owned a home and nearly enough stuff to fill it. I owned two cars and a garage full of lawn-care equipment. I owned shelves full of knick knacks and a closet full of clothes I hadn’t worn in years. Over the course of several months, I liquidated almost all of these things to the point that I could relocate myself to the other side of the world with all of my worldly possessions (discounting the small handful of things I left at my parents’ house) hung from my shoulders. In fact, I can inventory every item, save maybe the exact numbers of socks and underwear, from memory if I need to. With only a small fraction of the items I once had, I find that I am even happier and my life more fulfilled than ever.

I will not try to argue that things cannot make us happy, but I will argue that it is not the things themselves that make us happy. Instead, it is the experiences they enable. I may say that I miss my bike, but it is in fact the feeling of pulling its chassis and machinery up a long climb that I miss. I may say that I miss my car, but it is in fact the sensation of a smooth operation of the gearbox and the force of acceleration against my back that I miss. I may say that I miss my snowboard, but it is in fact the feeling of soft powder under my toes as I engage my full concentration on the conquering of a difficult bit of terrain that I miss. What I long for are not things, they are experiences.

After beginning a new life in a new country with a new profession and new hobbies, I have had no shortage of these experiences. It has been this experience that has led that change in me that explains the reason why my first thought upon losing my camera was not of its monetary value but of its experiential value. It has proven to me the folly of my old values. Whereas once I would think of my expenditures as investments in things from which I hoped to reap further monetary benefit in the future, now I see my paycheck as the enabler of experiences that give value to my time.

However, these experiences are not with us all the time. We can hold many in our memories, and many we can recall instantly. For others though, it will take some assistance. Over the course of our romantic relationship, Luisa always insisted that I take more pictures because I would want to look back on them one day. I never really understood. Though it made sense, it took me a long time to build the habit of recording things that I knew I would want to remember. As imperfect as I am about having a camera ready, I have greatly improved. In fact, I recently realized just how many of these memories I have stored with my little digital companion. Last week, as I was uploading some of the newest photos, I took a look through my library. Brain-dead tired, I just held down the right arrow and let the photos flash by at a dozen frames per second. In a powerful time lapse of my life over the past couple years, each frame brought back the memories of a hundred different moments, the emotions tied to them piling up on top of each other. From Poland to Annapolis to New York City to Pensacola to Korea, each shot carried with it a story from the life I had once lived and the life I am currently living. If someone were to ask me to tell my life story, I might be able to give a brief answer of where I grew up, where I went to school, and the jobs I have done, but these are not who I am. They are simply categories that represent where I have existed. If instead I were to use my photo album as the basis for my story, it would last for days as I explained the context, meaning, and outcome of each frame that represents a piece of who I truly am.

Over the course of the past year, I have undergone a litany of changes. Today, I found out just how thorough this change has been. I have realized that my ability to capture my life with the lens is an invaluable tool for the storage of my life and its stories. Though I will continue to exploit my passion and skill for writing, sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words.