A Brief Update: 21 July 2015

Last week, I shared some of the changes in my life. While they are making my life a bit hectic, they have been a welcomed return to a time when my work took nearly every waking moment of my life. The pace was exhilarating, and the constant struggle always reminded me that I was earning my place. While I am certainly proud of the achievements that came out of that time, I have since recognized that in addition to being unhealthy, it just wasn’t worth the pain. I can run on all cylinders for weeks, even months, at a time if needed, but when I finally look back on that time, I start to realize that my holding the throttle wide open allowed me to scream past some valuable insights and knowledge along the way.

In college, it was academics and extracurricular responsibilities that required more hours than there were in the day. Now, it is a combination of a full teaching schedule, attempts to keep personal writing alive, writing assignments for the Reach to Teach blog, maintaining relationships, and most recently, an addiction to podcasts. These bite-size audio downloads provide satisfaction for the new information and stories that I constantly crave. From a selected history of the world and a detailed recounting of the exploitations of the Mongols to the latest news broadcasts and in-depth reporting, my podcasts spanned the spectrum of intellectual indulgences. Every free second, I would pop in my headphones and let the inexhaustible list of unplayed episodes pump distant voices into my half-focused brain.

That ended yesterday. If you have an iPhone, you may have experienced the bug in the recent update that can kill your phone’s ability to identify and connect to wireless networks. Given that I do not have the money to pay for the network data required to download hours of audio every day, I started going to extreme lengths to solve this problem immediately. I even reinstalled the operating system, but it was to no avail. The only consequence was that all the data from my apps had been removed; my podcasts, my audiobooks, my PDFs, and my Kindle library were all sitting useless in the cloud. When I got on the long subway ride to Seoul to meet a friend for dinner, I quickly realized that my phone was more or less useless for providing entertainment.

After stewing in my frustrated self-pity for a couple minutes, I realized that it may have been the best thing to happen to me recently. Sitting silently, motionlessly staring at my reflection in the opposite window of the subway car, I allowed my mind to wander. Without direction, it floated through the requisite preparations for work the next day, texts I needed to respond to, and the week’s schedule. With gentle encouragement, I was able get my mind to let go of the immediate worries and venture off a little further. By the time the train reached my first transfer station, my mind’s journey had spanned decades both into the future and into the past. From memories of youth athletics to still comforts of home to unfinished travel plans years in the future, my mind had experienced a taste of freedom that I had withheld from it for the past few weeks.

As I walked to the next train, I remembered the sheer volume of writing I had produced during the first seven months of my new life. Between the 500+ words per day in my very first 30-day blogging challenge, the ghost-written book on economics, and my dossier on America’s problems, I had churned out tens of thousands of words. While I have continued writing, I am certain I have not matched that kind of volume. It became plainly obvious that the time spent clicking away at the keyboard was only a fraction of the time spent in actually drafting anything. When I first started writing, I had hours of free time to contemplate the meaning of the smallest events in my life. While that is certainly no longer feasible, filling the limited time I do have with esoteric broadcasts was useless in providing what I needed. I like to think that my brain is subconsciously compiling all of this information flooding into my ears so that I’ll be able to build on it someday, but I know that the vast majority is lost as soon as I wrap up my headphones and move on to the next task. The incessantly busy schedule was feasible during my undergraduate studies when everything was straightforward and getting more done simply meant working harder. Now, my career revolves around creative output, and creativity needs space for the mind to wander.

I promise I’ll begin posting more again soon. Beyond the necessity of creative lack of focus, the time I spend in relaxed contemplation allows me to be grateful for the life I have. Although I still struggle with some of my past decisions, I know that I am in the happiest time of my life, and I will not to let it pass by without notice.

Staying Busy

Good morning, friends and family.

As many of you know, I have recently moved to a new school on the southern edge of Seoul. My schedule has also changed drastically. I am now teaching a longer and more spread out schedule. Plus, I’m teaching kids, kindergarten through middle school. Trying to stay active, continue traveling, and balance this new schedule has been a challenge. Not only that, but I have taken on a new responsibility as a blog contributor for the recruiting company that got me hired here, Reach to Teach Recruiting.

I will try to keep adding to this blog. I am working on a few new traveler stories at the moment, but most of my writing will probably appear on the RTT blog.

Here are my first two posts:

Summer School: The Perpetual Studies of Students in South Korea

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A Guide to Exploring Jeonju

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I’m Korean. My hobby is eating.

I hate leaving food on the table. From where I got the habit, I have no idea, but I always clean whatever dish is in front of me. Eating with Koreans for the past four months in traditional family style has often led to my continued picking at a shared dish while my compatriot sits watching in bloated discomfort. Only my recent conscious effort to cut back and start a demanding exercise program has stemmed the weight gain. This past weekend though, my diet went out the window somewhere along the highway between Seoul and Jeonju.

Jeonju is an ancient city about 150km south of Seoul. Taking a free foreigner shuttle on Saturday, my Thai expat friend and I found ourselves in the thick of the culture. Meeting our host at the museum where our bus dropped us off, we made the short walk to the iconic hanok village, a showcase of traditional Korean housing with the modern addition of shops and restaurants. While many tourists are content spending their day here learning about Joseon history and dining on anachronistic fare, my fellow backpacker and I were determined to uncover the real Jeonju. I think we found the depths of the real Korea as well.

As we would quickly learn, our host distinguishes himself from what he knows to be the average Korean. After working for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary for seven years, he received a generous severance package amidst a round of layoffs a few months ago. With extra resources and time, he has been in no rush to launch a new career. In fact, his first impulse was to take a month and half to travel Europe, making extended stops to see Couchsurfing friends from Stockholm to Barcelona. Much like many of us travelers, he finally capitalized on an opportunity to realize a dream he had envisioned for years. The experience redefined his goals, and now he and his fiancee are planning an extended travel when she can escape her job, potentially settling in Spain to open a guest house.

Despite the noble adventurousness of his goals, there are issues of practicality to wrestle with. For one thing, he doesn’t speak Spanish, his English is good but far from perfect, and he has never worked in business management. These are not blocks for him, though. They are but challenges to be overcome. He is studying Spanish on his own, he practices English frequently with couchsurfers like us, and he reads extensively on business and economics. In addition to his studies, he has become a veritable chef, and he is an avid amateur photographer.

Our host, admittedly, is nothing like most of the Korean men of his age you may encounter. As an English teacher and a couchsurfer, I have been exposed to a microcosm of Korean culture. These communities are quite separate from the standard. The Korean social structure is extremely rigid, and people are expected to meet certain “social alarms” throughout their lives. Like deadlines in a lifetime project, these social alarms tell Koreans that they shall graduate college, secure a good job, find a spouse, start a family, reach career milestones, and own a home by certain acceptable checkpoints. Missing these social alarms is cause for loss of respect and trustworthiness. Because of this, many Koreans trudge along the same path to accepted ideals of success.

There is a causal chain here that I would like to flesh out more fully in the future, but here are a few quick data points I learned from my host. The chain may begin with these rigid ideals of socially acceptable forms of success (a stable corporate job, a small family, and status symbols like a nice car and designer fashion items), but it penetrates deep. The best way to begin this life is to get a degree from the highly respected SKY universities (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei), the Ivy League of South Korea. To have an alma mater such as these on a resume is a golden ticket to large corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, and POSCO. Though a college degree is not a guarantee of a good job here, it is the surest (and often the only) way.

Here we link to primary education. College admissions are much different in Korea than in the western world. Like Americans take the SAT and ACT, all college hopefuls in Korea must take the CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). However, a low SAT/ACT score is not the end of the road to many respectable colleges and universities. Good grades, an exceptional essay, and a myriad of extracurricular activities may bolster an application. While these things are necessary in Korea, they are not sufficient. Without the requisite CSAT score, the rest of an application is just another layer in the recycling bin. While the CSAT tests many useful subjects (math, science, social studies, and language among them), anyone who has taken an SAT prep course knows that studying for the test works. In Korea, it has gotten to the point of replacing much of the rest of the education. For those aspiring to the SKY universities, they will need the highest CSAT scores, and simply attending public school is far from sufficient. Before kids are even old enough for first grade, hopeful parents push them into private preschools. The pattern continues until the CSAT at the end of high school, and the load steadily increases until students are regularly staring at a book for more than 12 hours a day. This is where we return to hobbies.

If you ask a Korean about their hobbies, you will often get responses such as watching dramas, playing computer games, and chatting with friends. What many westerners would consider hobbies – sports, music, art, continuing education, etc. – are simply too time-intensive for Koreans. While many students participate in sports and music, these activities have become part of the daily grind, not pleasurable activities to be continued in one’s leisure time. All available time should be committed to study or work. What little time they can sneak away gets used for anything that doesn’t require cognitive strain.

As we traversed Jeonju last weekend in search for food, we quickly realized that eating was the best thing around. Granted, the food in Jeonju is exceptional, but in our search for the local experience, we started to notice that this was the norm. In the hanok village, we had choco-pies and fried squid. At lunch, we ate a massive bowl of bibimbap complemented by cinnamon makgeoli and an array of side dishes. For an after-lunch desert, we shared a giant bowl of frozen fruit, shaved ice, and ice cream. Within a couple hours, we were back out, gorging ourselves on plate after plate of food as we sipped a copper kettle full of more makgeoli. Finding a popular market, we indulged in some sweet street food snacks. Too early to call it a night, we wandered to a Jeonju-style bar where we munched on dried fish and squid jerky over a few beers. I’m sure I consumed more calories that day than I had in the past five.

We had asked if the people of Jeonju had any other leisure activities. We were met with a bit of a sarcastic laugh. The running joke, coined by our cynical host, became, “I’m Korean. My hobby is eating.”

(How Koreans stay so thin is a mystery I will have to address later.)