Go for a walk

We walked a lot yesterday. My legs are tired. It’s a good tired. I also didn’t eat much this morning. I don’t like to eat a lot when I haven’t been exercising. I’ve mostly been resting. Well, except yesterday, but that was just a curious exploration, like today. But today is different. It feels different. I wanted to get productive today, but it was too beautiful. Addison and I sat at a cafe for a couple hours, he with his green tea, I with my coffee. My computer was open, but I wasn’t doing much. It wasn’t totally because of his constant distractions. He warned me that would happen. I kinda wanted it to. He’s fun to talk to. But the main killer was just that I couldn’t believe how wonderful the air felt on that patio. It was cool, even dry. I haven’t felt this kind of cool, crisp breeze since before I came to Korea. After he left to catch his flight back to the States, I decided to go for a walk. It was too nice not to.

I found this path along this man-made river. It’s not completely natural, but you gotta respect the people who thought to put something like this here. Walking along the soft-paved path, I could feel a small pang of hunger in my stomach. I kinda like that feeling. It makes me feel light. Though my legs were tired, they carried me easily, a bit lazily, really. I got no where to be, except here. The Koreans like to put these stone step bridges across these artificial rivers. These big, blocky boulders that appear to be left over from somewhere line up to let you step across the water that jets between them while the shallow stream ebbs along like glass just upstream. Downstream, the ripples from the bubbling rapids carry on for a couple hundred meters, but they settle out, and the stream carries on in its smooth-topped ambling toward some basin or confluence somewhere far away from here. But right here, it has been kind enough to give me a comfortable place to dip my feet in the water and think. It ain’t quiet, but the sound of rushing water is a hell of a lot better than traffic. Though the occasional flyover from the nearby military base and the random boom of some construction somewhere beyond the trees behind me remind me that this is still a sprawling metropolis, this place is nice. Sometimes we need to just go for a walk. Especially on a day like this, I can’t let this feeling go to waste.

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Half Way

It has now been six months that I have lived abroad. Not only is this now my longest sojourn away from my birthplace, but I mark the halfway point in my life in South Korea. If plans don’t change drastically, it will be another eight months until I return to Colorado, but I will save discussion on those particular plans in hopes that I will be able to share them with you as I live them.

As my last few posts have noted, this segment of my life has been a bit crazy. I’m actually not quite sure how this situation has developed, but I seem to be as busy as I was back in college, and those were the longest days of my life until now. I can’t blame it on work because technically, I am only working about 32 hours a week. That’s a part time job. If I were as productive as so many working class Americans, I would be able to hold a parallel job. In a way, I’m trying to prepare myself for my next career, but this post is not about the future. For a few minutes, I’m going to look back.

For the past few weeks, I have been consumed by an idea. It involves a life that is effectively eons away, but that will require my constant preparation until it begins. In my efforts, I have completely abandoned one of the most important parts of progress: recognizing how far we have come. I set off from my safe shoreline not purely to run from the things that scared me (though that was part of it) nor did I seek out new areas of the world for the sake of pure curiosity. I set sail in this new life as a way to force upon myself a growth that was impossible in the stagnation of my old ways. At first glance, the changes have not been so fundamental. In fact, many of the changes I experienced during my break from the old life I led over a year ago have drifted strongly back into this one. Some of my old tastes in music have returned, my addiction to Facebook and social media is flaring up, and my tendency to find a quiet corner of a cafe to plug in my earbuds and shut out the world has become routine. These things though are quite superficial in light of the ways that my entire life has changed.

During my final year at the Academy, I had settled into a twisted sort of comfort in the routine. Wake up around 6:00 am, get dressed in the dark because my roommate was the night owl, go to formation at 7:00, go to breakfast, go to class, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It was strenuous and demanding, but it was comfortable. When I describe my life to people who have never seen the inner workings of a military college, they are astounded that I endured four years of it. By the end, though, it was just another daily routine. Honestly, sometimes I miss it.

I have started to reach that point again with my new life. I recently read my the first two posts that I published from Korea on this blog. I was still one of those outsiders, amazed by everything and unable to imagine life as a local. Though I still try to stay in that space between tourist and local, the comfort that comes with even the most draining of routines has set in. In the same way, the days are long, the weeks are fast, and the months run like water through my fingers.

Finally, the madness has stopped for just a moment. I will take this moment to look back in critical evaluation of where I have been and how far I have come.

There is a feeling associated with the two weeks of orientation I attended when I first arrived in Korea. It’s the rush of excitement slathered in pure anxiety. Over a few days of rushed, over-lectured training sessions, I had to mentally prepare myself for a life of what many people have listed as their greatest fear: public speaking. Though I had gotten small bits of practice in college, the idea of leading half a dozen classes of business professionals through lessons in a subject I never seriously studied terrified me.

As I sat on the second floor of what would become my favorite cafe in Keondae, I stared out the window at the scores of coupled college kids strolling the brightly lit street, my pulse unsteadiable and my mind ungatherable. In less than 10 hours, I would meet my first class, and I had no idea what I was doing.

There was no screaming cadre or running classmates as there had been when I arrived at my military college, and that almost made the experience worse. I’ve learned how to take a stern correction, but in my classroom, there would be no one to make those corrections. It would just be me, completely dependent on my own preparation (which proved to be useless) and my ability to improvise.

At this morning’s daybreak, I sauntered out of my apartment relieved that I would only have to speak in front of college kids, engineers, CEOs, and housewives instead of handling a roomful of kids. When I left the military, I knew I needed to learn some new skills. Language fell through, and writing is to me a basic necessity for anything I want to do. I had never considered how useful six months of public speaking could be for if not mastering, at least becoming comfortable with the task most people fear more than death.

I have also come to view money and time in a vastly different light than I had before. Sometimes I think back to my college days or even the months after, and I remember how damn stingy I was. I often didn’t have a good reason, but I was always saving for something at some indeterminate time in the future. In my life of pseudo-nomadic travel, I have learned new principles of spending currencies of both monetary and temporal value.

When I spent a semester on exchange at the US Air Force Academy, I was only 100 miles from my home. That’s about half the distance from Seoul to Busan. Yet, I was acutely aware of the fact that each journey would cost about $40 and four hours round trip. I made the journey maybe half a dozen times over the semester. I recently, without hesitation, spend double the time and money for half the vacation to meet an acquaintance whom I had met only twice before. Granted, Felix and I got along quite well, but the deliberation was somehow always harder when visiting my family and the woman whom I had recently asked to be my wife.

In the commodified world of the stable consumerist society from which I come, money was the great determiner, and time was only money’s ever-passing manifestation that must be harnessed for optimum productivity. Today, there is no such definition. Though my work, my studies, and my preparation demand me to be responsible with both my time and money, a moment of mindless leisure or a brief meeting with a friend is always worth the cost if the resources are available. Leisure should not be something we schedule around work, but precisely the converse. A jaunt across the city to see a friend for a few minutes is always worth the cost of travel because a friend who only comes when it is convenient is no friend at all.

In a similar vein, I have set myself on a path consistent with a goal I had set before I began this journey. In college, I was an exceptionally successful student. I mastered the subjects my instructors told me to, and I succeeded in just about every challenge the Academy threw at me. When I graduated, though, I may have had a pretty resume and some extra fancy pieces of paper, but was conspicuously short on friends.

In a way, I was extremely lucky to have graduated when I did. With the condition of the military, training moved slowly, and I had a lot of time to kill while I waited my turn to start. I used that time to contemplate such questions as secular morality, religious belief, and the meaning of life. I came to the conclusion that we, as sentient beings with no definitive predestination, must determine our own purpose. Though a full development of the idea is beyond the scope of this post, our evolutionary origins, modern progress, and future potential lead me to believe that our purpose is inherently social. To arrive where we have today and to go where we can tomorrow, we must have worked and must continue to work together.

When I set off, I recognized that my new life would no longer be one in which I must choose between work and society. It must be one in which one is inextricably intertwined with the other. Now that I have begun a career in education, my days necessarily lead me through hours of intimate social interaction with my students, colleagues, and other friends. My constant participation in Couchsurfing has helped me make close connections with friends around the world. An explanation is necessary and soon to be forthcoming, but my next career almost certainly will involve science education.

These days, I am constantly looking forward – I have much to look forward to – but my gaze has caused an inability to focus on the present. As has been spread through many progressive circles and as I have experienced myself, living in the present is the surest method of maintaining a satisfied and comfortable life. However, unvarying focus on the present misses out on life attributes like fulfillment and accomplishment, two things that I know make me a happier person. The best route, as in almost anything else, is balance. This has been an attempt to balance my obsession with the future with a motivational look at the past.

I have come a long way, but I have a long way to go. Soon you will read of my new direction, and in a few short months, I will be casting off for yet another new horizon. This is, though, only the halfway point in my current adventure. There will be plenty more stories to come, hopefully each one even more amazing than the last.

A Reminder

“Shinpal!” the man shouted while pointing at my feet. He was not angry – in fact, he was quite amused – but he was also reasonably concerned about the cleanliness of his restaurant. As is common in Korean custom, he expected me to take off my shoes before entering. Being the first patron of the morning, I did not have a lead to follow and completely overlooked the empty shelves in the entryway. Like a child having just been scolded for tracking mud into the house, I lightly padded my way out of the dining area to slip off my shoes and stow them like a civilized human being.

When I returned, the man was smiling congenially, and asked what I wanted. I ordered the dish featured on the sign outside of the tiny restaurant, and he passed the order along to his wife who had begun preparing the kitchen. He turned to me and said a few things, one of which I think was asking if I liked this particular dish. I shrugged my shoulders in ignorance. He asked if I spoke Korean, and tried to politely tell him that I did not. He smiled and, recognizing that our communication had reached its zenith, remained more or less quiet for the remainder of my visit.

As I sat at the table sipping water, I started to recognize that this was not only the couple’s restaurant, it was their home. The man was sitting at a computer in a corner of the dining area that looked like any home office. Behind him was the entrance to what appeared to be a guest room and a narrow stairway that led presumably to their living space. The couple had brought that homey feel into the dining room with clean floors (barring the intrusion of uneducated foreigners), an open kitchen, and bright lights. When the man brought out the stew and rice, I politely thanked him and proceeded slowly to enjoy the spicy yet savory bowl.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about occupying that space between tourist and resident. Since my move to the outskirts of Seoul, I have had fewer opportunities to wander and explore as I once had. The settling into my new life has pushed me much further into the category or resident than I think I should be. This area of self-identification becomes far too comfortable to allow the continued personal growth that I came here in search of. In fact, I have begun to settle into my ways that directly conflict with those of the local population. While I stand by the idea that there are certain cultural factors that the West just does better, my complacency has begun to form within me an intolerance that helps no one. In my stagnation, I have started to see the world through a lens of closed-minded biases. Instead of invoking curiosity, new experiences have elicited a frustration that has only added to the stresses of my already overwhelming life.

During the very last class of this term, I only had one student (I usually only have two – it’s basically a private tutoring class). We were talking about travel. She longs for a life abroad. In fact, she is studying English in order to become a flight attendant with an international airline like Etihad or Qantas. I mentioned that one of the greatest things I have learned from living abroad is the ability to throw myself into uncertain situations. Unless I accept complete dependence on a friend, I inevitably will enter situations in which I have no idea what I am supposed to do at a rate much greater than I would if I were still living in the United States. Over the first couple months here, I had gotten to the point at which I would walk into an establishment because I didn’t know what it was. As I was telling my student this, I began to realize that I had lost that adventurousness. Even on the other side of the world, I was starting to behave like someone who has never left their hometown. I would either have to accept the fact that I had lost something I had worked so hard to gain or go out to prove that I had not lost it.

Of course, I chose the latter, and the next day I made it a point to explore a new area of the city. When I passed by this quaint establishment advertising an unknown dish for a very reasonable price, I halted defiantly, put my camera away, and walked up the steps. The ensuing shenanigans were exactly the kind of misstep that I needed in order to remind myself that a little embarrassment won’t kill me. I got a tasty meal, some practice of my limited Korean language skills, and a much-needed reminder that I shan’t forget why I came to the opposite side of the world in the first place.

Change Is in the Air

Korean summers are hot. Especially here in the city, the damp air from the shoreline of this small peninsula stagnates between the surrounding hills creating a natural sauna in which the sun, cars, and hot earth below heat us poor pawns who must crawl about at its mercy. In a sick pretense of decorum, I slog my way to the school every morning, afternoon, and evening, arriving with my decreasingly professional attire drenched in sweat. In a temporary kind of mercy, I escape the heat in the air conditioned building to face a whole new set of challenges. As I bounce from room to room for my obligatory time with mangy herds of rugrats, I thank the dear technologists who have kept the air conditioning unit above my head in working order. Allowed to bake in what would become a veritable oven, I would not survive the day without strangling one of these little monsters.

Today, however, is different. It’s warm, yes, it’s always warm. But today, the air of this sauna does not stand still. Mentally preparing myself on the patio of a nearby cafe, I can feel the steady breeze shooting between the buildings dry the sweat that had gathered under the stifling straps of my backpack. The air is changing. One muggy mass of air is giving way to another, but the change is pleasant. I can only hope that the incoming volume of air will be just a bit milder than its predecessor.

Question the Mystery

Through the broken clouds of the mid-evening sky, rays from a hidden sun fan out like venetian blinds shuttering a glimpse of the glory of Heaven above a watery horizon. Soaring gently over the high tide lapping at the sandy shoreline, a lone gull pulls its way upwind in search of necessity or perhaps desire. Across the shallow water stands a chain of forested islands, silhouetted against the perpetual gray haze of the western Korean coastline. Beyond, only imagination can tell us what lie in the space past the edge of the Earth.

Actually, I know what lie beyond: China. Just a few hundred kilometers over this sea sits the Middle Kingdom, a few hundred more lie Indochina and the Indian Ocean, then Antarctica, the Atlantic, North America, the Bering Strait, and finally Korea. It’s a simple exercise of tracing a line on a globe. This procedure, however, is far less wondrous or inspiring than the mystery of the unknown.

Looking out over this beach, I am trying to catch a brief respite from the camp I have agreed to attend. The campsite belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church, an organization of which I am an employee. I hold no ill will against the church or my school. In fact, the school has an exceptional reputation for treating its employees well, and my observation confirms the testimony. That said, I have yet to find a comfortable way to operate within a religious community. In addition to the stress of teaching several hours a day, the discomfort of standing silently with eyes lifted through a group prayer or listening distantly to worship songs constantly adds to the pressures of my life.

When I agreed to participate in the camp, I thought it would be a quiet escape to nature. Little did I know, the beach on which we would be camping shared the space with a large dormitory and chapel at which a hundred young campers and families are participating in a church seminar. In no way are they rude or particularly inconsiderate, but after hoping for silence, I find the excited shouts of children or the gay chatting of a group of new friends less joyous. Lost opportunities for silent solitude have ruined my hope for much needed stress relief.

The camp, though, has not been a waste. I have been able to share some great conversation with my coworkers, encounter some beautiful views, and restart my photographic habits. I will share some of my pictures at the end, but I would like to share my reflections of one discussion that shed a bit more light on the reasons behind my discomfort in the religious community.

In the packed wet sand of the exposed shoreline, my gregarious colleague had dug a pit and started a fire around which the two dozen or so campers gathered last night. In proud introduction of the great American pastime of making s’mores, my American colleagues and I taught our students and coworkers how to properly roast a marshmallow and sandwich it between cookies that served as graham crackers with a slab of melting milk chocolate. Glad I had not lost the touch of preparing a perfectly golden-brown, crispy yet gooey marshmallow, I enjoyed more sugar than I needed as we chatted.

I wonder how many thousands of generations did just this; sitting around a fire, roasting food, sharing the stories of their lives, and discussing the most distant ideas their brains could fathom. I imagine those conversations were not much different from those we had here on the beach.

A memorable conversation began when I asked a devout colleague why the SDA church observes the sabbath on Saturday while most other Christian denominations observe it on Sunday. With a bit more prodding, I was able to elicit the story of how the early church under Roman rule changed the day to Sunday to appeal to the pagan masses whose celebratory day to worship the Sun was (of course) Sunday. They mentioned a few other ideas from the old pagan religions that Christianity adopted during this time to make it more appealing to the masses, but I didn’t dig into it. I simply enjoyed the historical recitation of how this apparently minor change would have future ramifications that ranged from the immense as in the case of armies that would not fight on the sabbath to the inane like the lack of bus service on Sunday in my hometown.

The conversation continued to wander, sometimes departing from my attention when it changed to Korean, but I would end the night with a very deep discussion about life, love, and geopolitics with a new acquaintance from another school. Though it was entertaining, I left the conversation with a sense of dissatisfaction. I decided to follow up today. I asked the original devout fellow teacher why it matters what day we call the sabbath. She and a couple of our colleagues tried to explain the biblical roots of the Saturday sabbath; its practice among the original “chosen people,” the Jews; and the SDA church’s commitment to adhering to scripture. These are all interesting tidbits, but none of them answered the question Why does God care what day we keep holy? Maybe the question is exceptionally basic, but I thought that should make it all the easier to answer. Despite this, I continued asking the same questions in as many different ways as I could contrive because the responses continually dodged them. After going in circles from tradition to scripture to tradition to scripture, I finally asked what answer satisfies them when they ask these questions. The discussion ended with the explanation that the important part was the relationship to God and that we could talk with God on any day of the week. But the sabbath should still be Saturday.

Herein lies another reason why religion will never satisfy my wonder. Mystery is beautiful, and the unknown commands incredible feelings of wonder, fear, and hope. For me, though, that unknown is not the end; it is the beginning. It is the beginning of discovery. The wonder is for the incredible things that are waiting to be known, the fear is for the feeling that I might never find them, and the hope is that I will.

I will not try to make a value judgment of this trait, but my colleagues do not share the same thirst for further answers. Because it has always been done this way or Because someone important said so is sufficient. For me, it is not. Though some aspects of The Bible have escaped my criticism, the lack of logical explanation in its immense collection of writings fails to satisfy my needs.

When the words of The Bible were written down, there were no globes detailing the continents and expansive oceans (at least in that part of the world). What lie over the horizon was indeed a mystery. However, we have come a long way in the ensuing millennia. A product of centuries of years of exploration, the modern globe is a testament to those who did not accept the answers given by wisemen and prophets. These explorers saw mystery and wanted answers. When asked the tough questions, they did not dodge and rationalize; they cast off in search of answers. They did not take for granted the knowledge that we had gained, but knew that humanity’s continued advance depended upon the steady expansion of the collective body of knowledge on which we draw when we invent new technology or solve new problems. I will not accept the regurgitated answers of antiquity or authority. I want to know the true nature of this world, and that involves continuing to ask the tough questions and find their answers. To stop questioning is to stop learning, and to stop learning is to stop living.

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