Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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How did I get here?

My 11am class didn’t show up again. It happens fairly regularly. My one consistent student broke her ankle earlier this week, and the others are on and off. Given that it’s the short week between two holidays, I didn’t expect much. This morning, though, I had one guest. An occasional sit-in student from another class, she hesitantly crept into the empty classroom five minutes after the hour just as I was getting hopeful that I could take off early to make it to the Russian visa office in the city.

Only half prepared to give a lesson, I welcomed her and started the usual small talk. We glossed over the lesson quickly and moved on to the conversation portion of the day. In guiding was was effectively more small talk, I helped her get out her thoughts on the day’s topic of manners and etiquette. Much to my surprise, in response to a question about the transformation of manners, she told me that she thought people were becoming more polite. Growing up in a society in which complaints of rude and undisciplined youth are incessant, I had expected the opposite answer. However, she made a good point that the older generations grew up in rural areas where etiquette and decorum were unimportant while kids now grow up in huge cities like Seoul where they now have to figure out how to live alongside each other. She actually used my own hypothesis (refer to my synopsis of China) to show my initial misconception when applied to the rapidly developed countries of East Asia. She seemed to revere the ingrained politeness of Western culture, so I naturally asked if she would like to work or live abroad someday. She immediately shook her head in embarrassment.

“Why not?” I asked.

“My English is not good,” she insisted.

“Ok, let’s say that you graduated from this program, you were certified at a C2 fluency, and you felt comfortable speaking English all the time. Would you go abroad?”


“You like it in Korea?”

She shrugged. “It’s ok.”

“Where do you think it would be better?”

“I don’t know. It’s ok in Korea.”

“Why don’t you want to go abroad?” I asked, now perplexed by her contradictions.

“I don’t like when things to be changed,” she stumbled out.

“You don’t like change?” I corrected.

“Yes. I just do the same thing. Every day. That’s my life.”

“That’s your life? That sounds like death!”

“Death?! Oh no!” She laughed, starting to blush. “You like change?”

“Yes. Absolutely”

“Don’t you miss your home? Your friends?”

I paused, thinking of my positive mood, lack of anxiety, and the excitement that I have found in my small adventures.

“Yes.” I answered. “But staying there wouldn’t be worth all of the incredible, amazing
experiences I’ve had since I left. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

That is a true statement. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. This was my first attempt at casting off the moorings of my old life, and I have made landfall in the most exotic of places. All things must end though, and I do not fear those endings. They are only transitions to new beginnings.

Leaving my old life in 2014 was probably the hardest thing I ever did, but it has opened me to a new world of possibilities, and I am eternally grateful that my partner and I both had the strength to do what needed to be done. When that door opened, this new life became visible. The far side was distant and the space between clouded, but I could see that it was good. It held wishes for a future that was impossible on the other side of that door. It may be true that the grass is always greener on the other side, and the pastures I saw were full of the sweet long grass that my hungry spirit longed for.

My new direction shared little in the way of its secrets for the future, but I was certain that I would seek them in whatever corner of the globe I could reach. The choice of South Korea was one of pure rationality. Teaching English was the most viable way to leave the comfort of my home country, and South Korea offered the most lucrative jobs for my experience level. In seeking this new life abroad I had three goals: pay off my school debt, experience living abroad, and determine a new path for my life.

I am proud to state that I have accomplished all of those goals.

On a cool Sunday evening in early September, I stood hunched over my computer, shoved between the potted plants on the stairway window sill. Taking advantage of the building’s wifi that doesn’t quite reach my room, I searched excitedly for train schedules, ferries, and hostels. Flipping between pages of university advertisements and transportation options, I totaled the cost of each leg of my proposed route. With each new interesting course of study, I added a leg to the journey. This being the last in a long string of nights of this type of research, I finally reached the point at which I was satisfied that I had located all of the stops I intended to make. The route was set and the costs tallied, and now I needed to know if it was was possible. Sifting through my bank accounts and hidden pockets of money, I totaled my net worth. In a spreadsheet, I compiled all of this information: destinations, transportation, lodging, visas, penalties, and the sum of all my current holdings and incomes. In a clearly marked cell, I wrote the formula to find the difference between my current debts, coming expenses, and available funds. If negative, the numbers would turn red, and I would start figuring out how to save the rest of the money. If black, my life would change immediately.

When I hit enter, the numbers stayed black.

I stood back and stared at the screen in awe. It’s positive.

For several months, I had struggled with the weight of a profession I now know I am in now way intended for. In a matter of months, my future plans which had once stretched for the better part of a decade in which I would bounce around Asia teaching English or sojourn in Australia to work the fruit farms had deteriorated into a race to get my life back on track as soon as possible.

It was earlier this summer that a completely rational and reasonable idea overcame me. In my haste to flee my old life, I had overlooked an entire region of the pasture that laid on the other side of my proverbial door. In pushing science and engineering to the back of my considerations for building a future, I confined myself to wandering incoherence as I tried to pin down potential careers for which I was wholly unqualified. It was on a fateful day of daydreaming about a future beyond the sweltering heat of this Korean summer and pervasive anxiety from entering another classroom full of screaming demon spawn that the veil was lifted. Like the myth of the shaman who revealed to the Native Americans the Spanish ships on the horizon, a chance reading of the name of a potential graduate program opened my eyes to a field I had never considered. Now it seems so painfully obvious that I can hardly imagine my life before this revelation. Today, any of the fields I had tossed around over the preceding year seem frivolous and petty in comparison.

One day in mid-summer, T’ew and I sat lethargically at a back alley cafe on the south side of the city. Neither of us had plans, so the sipping at the melting ice of our coffees continued with deep conversation about futures and philosophical struggles. He had recently returned from a jaunt in Northern Europe during which he felt his first real desire for a place of more permanent resettlement. It challenged his moral compass in that such a life would mean modern comforts and European privilege. It weighed on him that so many of his countrymen remained in poverty, under threat of disease and natural disaster, and that he had the opportunity to escape all of it. I shared this kind of guilt, knowing that the life I have lived was only possible because of the good fortune of my birth: a stable home, responsible parents, a solid education. Most Americans do not have the combination of good luck that I had when I was born. Though I felt this, I spoke not for myself when I reassured him that he should not feel guilty for trying to better his life. He should do so by all means and take solace in the fact that his work will benefit those whom he has left behind. We whom have been graced with this good fortune ought to use it to its fullest for the betterment of ourselves and the world.

Even at the time of stating it, I was blind to the ways in which I was limiting myself. With a degree in engineering, I was looking for ways to build a life as a political scientist, journalist, or hapless nomad. It was only on a fateful day of perusing fanciful future courses of study that I became aware of my ignorance. The title of the program was International Environmental Engineering. In most instances, I would have scrolled right past anything with “engineering” in it, but this one was buried deep in a list of international policy and sociology programs. I read it only seconds before putting away my phone to get on the train. As I stood in the gently swaying car, the beats of my headphones silencing the sounds of the other passengers, the idea twisted and weaved through my mind. Why had I run so vehemently from engineering? I love science. I love creating. I dream of doing something that will impact the world. What could be more perfect?

When I got to a place where I could open my computer, I started looking, and what I found excited me more than anything I had glossed over in all my months of searching. Piles of educational and career opportunities were open to me, and they all sat square in the middle of the three traits I think any appropriate career should have: passion, ability, and salary. The fields of environmental or energy technology engineering both cut at the heart of solving our climate crisis, an issue over which I become lividly impassioned when I hear doubters spew their ignorant rhetoric. My past education has laid the foundation for understanding the systems and technologies that those in these fields have used, currently use, and are still developing. Life is not cheap, but careers in engineering continue to be some of the most dependably lucrative in the world.

It had become clear that I was now headed back on the path of engineering, and one more objective became struck through in the mark of accomplishment.

Standing in the stairwell, staring at the single number on my computer screen, I felt an impending excitement welling inside me. I forced it below as I touched the keypad again and revisited the numbers. They were all correct. My brain jumped through the logical hoops in an instant. I have now lived abroad for over six months. CHECK. I have determined unequivocally that I will pursue a career in sustainable development. CHECK. I have now confirmed that all of my debts can be paid. CHECK.

I am leaving Korea.

Taking a break

Hello, all. I hope you have enjoyed what has been coming through the line recently. I have had an extended vacation over the past week, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Yesterday I returned from a quick jaunt to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan. It was a fascinating experience, and I hope to have a recap up soon.

I have been staying busy with posts over at the Reach to Teach blog. Here are the last two:

What You Should Consider for Teaching in a Hagwon

Hiking the Walls in Seoul

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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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

summer (1)

A Guide to Exploring Jeonju


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.)