The hardest part is making this a challenge

Last year I was somehow able to produce a significant amount of writing each week. Having seemingly nothing for yet another week in my new hometown, I took a look back at what I was writing this time last year. It seems I was much better at getting myself into shenanigans last year. I really have to try to make things exciting anymore. This time last year was I making a whirlwind trip to Japan, trying to find things to write about for a more professional blog, and continually getting myself lost in urban jungle of Seoul. Now, my biggest adventure is a 15km ride to township of less than a thousand people in the center of this quiet little island I’ve found myself on.

This doesn’t mean I’m enjoying myself any less. I can’t remember the last time I was this comfortable in a place. My house almost feels like a real home, the city actually gets quiet at night, I watch the incredible colors of the sunset from my balcony every night, I’m making friends with some great people, and I have ample time to study the things that interest me.

However, it’s much more tame. The challenge is to make it a challenge. Forcing myself to speak Swedish when I have the chance, exploring the city and the island in my free time, and taking up new hobbies like rock climbing are all that add excitement to this new life. Even keeping this blog up to date is a challenge in itself.

So, I don’t have much to share this week (again), but I do have a few photos. Enjoy!

 

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On my way to Roma, I caught sight of a lone wind turbine. Gotland has plenty of wind, and the people take advantage.

Roma tree tunnel

The area around Roma is criss-crossed with quaint roadways that look like paths to another world.

monastery arches

The ruins of this abbey still stand after over 800 years. The Cistenciencer monastery housed monks between 1164 and some time in the sixteenth century. Only one of the buildings remains, but the foundations of the rest of the complex can still be seen. Today, the monastery is used for plays and other cultural activities.

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Morning is still my favorite time of day. The fresh air of this quiet little island is especially crisp at dawn.

What’s the point?

Atop the 16th floor of this apartment building in Gangnam, with my feet dangling from the edge, I still feel secure. The solid faces of the office buildings that rise even higher than my lofty perch shield me like the firm reassurance of the wall beside a warm bed. It’s the feeling that nothing can sneak up behind me. It’s a comforting warmth like the rays of the sun that have begun to peek over the rooftops. Grey and green and brown, these quiet giants stand sentinel against the fantastical pursuers of imagination. Despite their comfort, though, my heart does not fully rest. A sour anxiety digs deep into my gut when I face my greatest challenge: myself. I am the only thing that stands between life and death in this precarious position of extreme potential. Below the untied laces of my shoes, I see solid pavement, sixteen stories down. The fall would take under four seconds. By the time my helpless body began to flatten in contact with the hard ground, the distance would be closing at the speed of a car on the freeway. The laws of physics hold me safely on this stationary ledge, but they could just as easily carry me to the end of my conscious experience if I so stupidly shifted my weight beyond the threshold of security. Even more frightening than the possibility of the fall or even its proximity is the absurd fact that I feel the urge to send my body into this fatal free fall. Fighting this urge takes a conscious effort to resist the temptation to place my hands on the cold, dirty metal ledge, lean forward, and push.

This is not a post about jumping off buildings, suicide, or even about physics. This is about feeling. I’ve taken pictures from rooftops of skylines, of the sky, and of the ground directly below. None of them remotely captures the sensation described above. If I have done what I aimed to do, many of you currently feel the anxiety I felt while sitting on the roof this morning. Recently I have lost sight of why I write, why I photograph, and why I try to capture the moments of my life. It has nothing to do with showing off the exotic locations I have been so privy to visit or telling impressive tales of adventure. It’s about sharing this human experience. It’s about telling the part of the story that I have to share. It’s about uncovering parts of the world that intrigue, impel, and inspire both others and myself.

I noticed recently that my photographs were severely lacking in comparison to some of my earlier work. This became extremely noticeable in review of the hundreds of photos I took over the border into North Korea. I deleted almost all of them. I had this pressing sensation that what I was looking at was so incredibly important and meaningful that I must capture it on my own personal SD card despite the fact that I could not actually pick out any feature or shape in my frame that remotely represented what that importance. Recognizing the limitation of my lens’ zoom, I snapped hundreds of photos in RAW format, hoping that a few would be focused enough to digitally zoom later. It was futile. All I got were a mass of data that overloaded my computer’s processor and a series of grainy images of a North Korean town 10 kilometers away. What inspiring story was I telling with those shots?

None.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA – where North and South Korean officials meet on the rare occasion that they do), I snapped dozens of photos of the North Korean buildings and South Korean guards inside the meeting room. I kept taking the exact same shot because I had nothing else to shoot. I didn’t have my camera directed there because I saw something particularly meaningful, but because I couldn’t turn it anywhere else. When I attempted to take pictures I actually thought might intrigue those who could not join such a tour, I got reprimanded by the American soldier who was supervising our tour group. Instead of powerful images, I ended up with a hundred photographs that look exactly like the ones you’ll find if you just Google “JSA,” so what part of the story was I able to share that others have not already told?

None.

Indeed, now that I look back on my experience, I may have been better served simply leaving the camera at home. I could have snapped a few shots with my phone for the sake of helping me remember, but that’s not why I spent the better part of my savings on a new camera. I bought that camera to capture moments of my life in such a way that others could share in those experiences.

William Howard Taft is quoted as saying, “Do not write so that you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” This sentiment applies to all forms of self-expression. Whether through writing, photography, speech, music or otherwise, our goal should always be to clearly and accurately pass what we know, think, and feel to the rest of the world. Simply snapping away at whatever puts itself before our lens or mechanically describing the events of our past is not sharing our story. To truly uncover something about the world, to make sense of it; and to feel it, we must use these incredible minds that nature has designed for us to capture to quintessence of life.

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.

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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.