Through My Lens: Lessons of Context from Gwacheon

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

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

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

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Mandu Soup (민두국)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Lucky Korean Dreams

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

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

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

1. Pigs

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

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

2. Dragons

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

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

3. Natural Disasters

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

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

4. Feces

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

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

5. Sex of a child

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

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

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

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

When Complacency Strikes, Part II: The Space Between

Her name is Olivia. She’s not my new language partner; she is a senior interior design student at one of Seoul’s myriad universities, and she spends her Saturday afternoons at cafes like this one with her boyfriend making bracelets and other creative jewelry. Understandably, she makes far more than her petite arms could carry, so she gives them away to friends, family, and the occasional stranger.

I had shared the back corner of this cafe with the couple for the past few hours. As I packed my bag, she frantically slid beads onto the latest elastic thread. Unaware of her efforts, I carried my trash to the counter, sorted the recycling, and turned to leave. But as I turned, she caught my eye. Seeing her waving both hands anxiously, I was unsure if she was saying hello or goodbye. Inquisitively, I hesitated, and she asked if I had a few minutes. I said that I wasn’t busy, and she presented a black-bead bracelet that she had made for me. As she feared, it was too small, but she offered to add a few beads if I would stay for just a few minutes. Humbled, I happily obliged, and we chatted briefly as she worked and the glue dried.

I’m not one for jewelry (I’ve even stopped wearing a watch), but I will hold on to Olivia’s gift as a reminder of where I fit in this society.

Though I have a resident card (an Alien Registration Card to be exact), and I have my own space to call a temporary home, I am far from being a true resident of this country. What I don’t know about this culture far outweighs what I do, but that ratio changes just a bit every day. Despite my short tenure, I have found a way to make a living and how to live in Seoul. It my be elementary, but my language ability is slowly improving. As a Couchsurfing host, I have shown multiple travelers what I do know of this city, and the next nine months will be full of even more of these experiences. I am not quite a resident but not just a tourist either. I fit somewhere in the space between, and that’s exactly where I want to be.

Last time, I told you that I was set to meet with a new language partner who would guide me through the pain of learning language through pure immersion. There was a piece of that discussion that was not exactly true. I had expected my new language partner to know about as much English as I knew Korean so that I would be forced to use my limited language to its full extent. That situation didn’t come to be. Her English is fantastic, and into that language we relapsed within minutes.

Though I did not achieve my intended goal, this arrangement is far from a waste. Although we use English, she is a great teacher and becoming a good friend. We have had two lessons since, and each strained the limits of my cognitive capacity. Improvement will be slow, but steady if we stay with it.

Today my new friend asked if I had any foreign friends who also wanted to learn Korean. When I thought about it, I realized that I only have two foreign friends here; one lives an hour away, and the other is soon finishing up a three-year stay. Though they are my only foreign friends, I am not want for companionship. In fact, I have made many friends here, and my web of connections continues to grow. From this, it would seem that I am moving more and more toward resident, but my reinvigoration for becoming more resident-like has been matched by new efforts to keep alive the touring spirit.

Last weekend, I began a new project that will help me learn what this city has to offer. A couple months ago, I grabbed a stack of city guides from a visitor center. Finally tossing one in by travel bag, I have started checking off the sites one-by-one. Last weekend, I ambled around Sorae Village, a few blocks that supposedly house half of the French expatriate community in Seoul and home to classic French restaurants and cafes. Although you may find some fine French cuisine on a luxury traveler’s budget, this analysis is highly overstated. I ended up drinking a bitter coffee at a faux-French cafe, sampling a mediocre grilled cheese (with American cheese) from the most French-looking bakery Seoul probably has to offer, and finally eating an undersized and overpriced lunch complete with a watery beer at Mexican restaurant. If your looking for French, I don’t think you’ll find it in Seoul.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the mere act of rekindling this spirit has brought new joy to my expatriate life. While doing my best to assimilate – learning the language and culture through an expanding circle of local friends – I shall not forget that this is but the first stop of a worldwide adventure. My place, therefore, is in the space between resident and tourist.

As a foreigner and a native speaker of English, I still wield that exotic charm of being able to provide eager learners the ability to practice their abilities with a language that is not merely a curiosity, but a necessity in the globalized world. But as a temporary resident, I have the opportunity to make friends from whom I may learn this culture on a far deeper level than any tourist.

Olivia is not a friend, just a kind young woman with whom I have had the honor of making acquaintance. At the same time, though, she is far more than just a stranger in a coffee shop. The bracelet is not made entirely of black beads. She also added an iron cross flanked by two conical cylinders, each five black beads apart. As the iron cross sits equidistant from two extremes, I balance my life in the space between.

When Complacency Strikes, Part I: The Third Month Abroad

Last Friday marked my third month living abroad. In that time, I have stepped in front of a dozen classes full of strangers to pretend that I know how to teach them my language, made a dozen new friends from four different continents, and experienced the depths of both Korea and China. Though my time is still shy of 100 days, I feel like I have been here for years. When I think about my lives back in Florida and Colorado, they seem to be years in the past instead of mere months. I say that not to show that this time has felt interminable, but to show that I have experienced more in these three months than I am used to experiencing in year.

Although there have been adjustments, life in Seoul has not been a dramatic culture shock. Sure, things are different, but the differences are more subtle that I think many would expect. Though this may be my first extended trip abroad, I have not been shaken of the belief that we humans are all more or less the same. From a genetic standpoint, we are practically identical, and my experiences have supported that humans express that fact outwardly. There is no remarkable way that people behave or interact here. The technology and infrastructure more or less resemble those that I would expect to see back in the U.S., and once the language barrier is broken, communicating is much the same.

Though the differences may be subtle, they are absolutely real. I will not pretend that I have not noticed the difference in the way organizations run, coworkers communicate, and even motorists drive. As a Confucian society, Koreans are extremely hierarchical. Companies run on seniority, and I have seen the way that junior employees plan their lives on the beck and call of their superiors. If that employee is a woman, her life is all the more dependent. On the personal level, coworkers appear to operate in an almost haphazard dance around the task of the day. I may be jaded because of my own inefficient workplace, but I have a feeling that I am not the only one who has sensed that initiative and preemption are not common virtues in the Korean workplace. That lack of initiative translates to the roadways, and not in an obedient following of the rules. Streets appear as uncontrolled chaos in which motorists set a desired direction and simply react to the flow around them, regardless of traffic laws or signals. Though South Korea is still figuring out this whole driving thing (continually ranking at the top of traffic accident rates in the OECD), it’s not so bad that I’m terrified of getting in a taxi. These are all subtle differences that are not immediately obvious to those who are here for only a short period of time.

Albeit my desire to keep moving and exploring other regions of the globe has made my stay a bit uncomfortable, I continue to remind myself that I have gained knowledge and insight that many people will never have. Given that my life objective is to learn as much about this world as possible, I am grateful for the opportunity to delve into the inner working of a society in this manner. However, I have recently found it difficult to continue to pursue these aims. I have recently concocted a new plan for my future that would land me on five continents, take me through a couple dozen countries, and carry me over 10,000 miles of railroads over the next four years. As exhilarating as the thought of setting off on this grand adventure may be, I still have nine more months working a quotidian grind here in South Korea. As someone who constantly worries about the seconds of my life that are ticking away, I am determined to prevent these nine months from going to waste.

While bold and honorable, those words are empty. I have told them to you and to myself in nearly every post since I began consistently blogging. Since returning from China a couple weeks ago, I started to realize how comfortable I have become here. Though experiencing Chongqing was well worth every penny and second I spent, and I wouldn’t trade the chance to visit Luisa for anything, it was an incredibly uncomfortable four days. My Korean language skills may be limited, but they are leagues beyond what I could do with my small handful of Chinese. (Not to mention that the words I did know were only spoken; the written word was a challenge I didn’t even attempt.) At least in Korea, I can sound things out and toss together a rudimentary sentence well enough to get what I want (and many Koreans speak just as much English). Though basic, I have gotten comfortable with this method, but even that simple task I have begun to avoid. Recently I found a restaurant that serves a mixed vegetable and noodle dish to which I have become completely addicted. The best part about that restaurant, however, is that I can order via a kiosk by the front door, no human interaction required. Instead of exploring the city like I used to, I now get my machine-ordered noodles, find a coffee shop, and spend my afternoons sucking data from my computer screen. Though intellectually stimulating, I can get that information from anywhere with an internet connection. The opportunity to truly understand Korea on a personal level is just on the other side of this screen, and I have this opportunity for nine more months.

Perhaps motivated by the enthusiasm I have had for my new global adventure or perhaps out of fear of the possibility that I may allow this complacency to become permanent, I pulled out the oldest trick in the book: remove the option of complacency.

Many months ago, I wrote about my first steps along this journey when I walked clueless into a Korean church in Pensacola, Florida. When I passed through the front doors of the stuffy little block structure, the option to keep moving forward suddenly became infinitely preferred to turning back. In the depths of this third-month complacency – as I had been in the complacency of my perfunctory life in Pensacola – I have taken another first step to resume my movement forward.

It has become painfully clear that the only – not simply the best, but the only – way to learn a language quickly and effectively is through immersion. It does not need to be constant. A little practice a few times a week will do, but it needs to be fully immersive. You do not need to sell everything and move to another country (an apposite line that these polyglots used in their exposition of this phenomenon), but the fact that I did gives me no excuse. So, I have reached out. If you have done the same and are looking to make the most of it, here’s where to pay attention:

I found some language partners on italki.com. It is a simple website that connects language learners to other students and teachers to build a massive global community of people who want to learn a new language and share their mother tongue. A really cool note is that one of the first things I did when I got to Korea was to meet in person the language partner I had been practicing with while I was back in the U.S. Now I have a few language partners, but we operate on the “language exchange” idea. We’ll work on Korean for a little while, but most of our conversation is in English. (If I were better at Korean, it would probably be half and half). It was moderately helpful, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. After meeting a language partner whom I get along with particularly well, I asked her for help in finding a new Korean friend who will forgo the exchange part of the partnership and speak to me exclusively in Korean. I knew she could not fill the role because her English is excellent, and I knew I would constantly relapse into English when I panicked. I requested that her friend speak very little English. It took her a mere 24 hours to find an excited friend who wants to teach me Korean. She texted me, and we organized (completely in Korean) a meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Follow this blog to hear how it went!

Sex Sells

Off their slick red plastic tops and short, slitted skirts gleamed the bright lights of the dim performance hall. Stiffly poised while sitting on their heels, clad in matching red platforms, their heads bowed to one side, the six slender young ladies displayed a cool confidence as they mentally rehearsed their routine yet again. As they waited for the music to start, one of the ladies shifted uncomfortably, her sheer black thigh-high stockings offering no protection against the hard wood stage. Her dark brown hair, lightened by repeated colorings, hung perfectly across one half of her face as if her director had positioned it just so. As their backdrop, a jutting overhang of massive digital screens flashed red and black letters, shouting the group’s title and the song’s name, both deep in the bowels of the production machine. As they slowed their breathing, still rapid from the previous take of the same three-minute entertainment show, their short skirts shimmered under stacked hands, pressed gently on top of their sex.

At the characteristic siren cue, the ladies lifted their gaze toward the empty seats at the back of the hall. Adorning their characters, they painted seductive half smiles across their heavily made-up faces. With the first beat of the song, they thrust their hips in unison, exaggerating the movement with levitating hands. Thrusting once; thrusting twice, and on the third, their right hands came to up next to their faces with one slender finger extended. As the background track murmured, “Jo-ker, Jo-ker” with punctuated consonants, the fingers drew a J while pointing instructively to open lascivious red-painted lips.

The sweet seductive trance in which I had found myself lost broke disappointingly with the monotone – nay, toneless – shout of a young fan boy in front of me: “JOKER! JOKER!” His enthusiasm echoed from the rest of the male-dominated crowd as they read from the scripts that had been provided before the recording session. The group was called Dal Shabet (a Konglish translation for “sweet sherbert”), and the new song, as you may have guessed, was named “Joker.” We in the pen – the entertainment company staff had literally penned the one hundred of us in the middle of all the cameras on the floor in front of the stage – were there to act as extras for the promotion video that was being made on the fly. Indeed, after the second performance, when the managers were satisfied with the camera angles, the instantly-produced video played on screens on the sides of the hall. This was not a music show. This was the inner workings of an entertainment production. Instead of art on display on a stage, there were only the requisite variables being plugged into a prewritten function, designed to sell records and expand the consumer base of this particular entertainment company.

I am not an expert on this subject. In fact, I can’t say I really understand the K-pop phenomenon at all, but from my limited experience, there is one thing that is painfully clear: this industry operates on a tried and true design. Reminiscent of the “bubble-gum” pop of the early 2000s in the U.S., these girl groups exploit the uncontrollable desire of young people across the world when they see the subtle and not-so-subtle sexual imagery overlaid on the sweet innocence of the baby-doll faces plastered on music and merchandise disseminated to any market that will accept it.

I enjoyed the time I spent with these self-titled “fanboys,” but I now understand at least enough to know why I will never buy into the pop scene. Among the few guys I was able to interview, the consensus was clear: cute girls in short skirts jumping around on stage while singing catchy songs created such an emotion that drew them thousands of miles from home in order to meet these idols in person. With no hope of any deeper relationship, these young men are chasing that feeling they get when they get their thirty seconds and photographic evidence with the particular group of girls they are “going for” that day. With rivalries between the groups more like high school cliques than even the pointless bravado of sports team loyalties, there is a certain shallowness that pervades the community that appears to be all too delicate a facade. Not even a pretense of intellectual depth exists in the music or the events. These companies are selling that teenage hormonal emotion that makes your heart flutter. It’s that chemical chain reaction that floods the brain with pleasure that is on the menu. I won’t try to pretend that I’ve grown out of that phase of my life, but that feeling doesn’t have such control over me. Maybe I’m just sick of romance, but I don’t feel that rush.

Things I Don’t Understand – Art and Music in Seoul

After picking up my visa from from the Chinese consulate on Friday afternoon, I decided to see if there was anything of interest in the area around Seoul Station, what appears to be the central hub of the expansive Seoul subway system. Finding a cozy table outside a coffee shop just down the street, I spent a couple hours responding to waiting text messages and continuing the adventure in Into the Wild. Once my phone had sucked enough charge from my portable recharge battery, I set off again. It turns out that there isn’t much for tourists in the area. There are a few restaurants that looked appealing, but I was meeting a friend for dinner in a couple hours. Deciding to return to the station, I noticed a classy building that seemed to be attached to massive clump of stores and restaurants that sits on top of Seoul Station.

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It didn’t take long to realize that there was an art exhibit inside. Seeing a sign that read “Admission free of charge,” I figured I didn’t have much to lose. Inside I found two full floors of modern art. Some exhibits were rather impressive and showed wonderful creative skill and effort.

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As for most of the others, I must confess that I just do not understand art. Opposite the image above was a pair 5′ x  5′ photographs of while bowls on a white table in front a white wall. Sure, the shadows looked kind of cool, but the guy literally just took a picture of a cup on a table. To me, art requires some sort of creative effort. It was when I reached the center of the building, though, that I realized that I would not comprehend what was going to happen for the rest of the exhibit. From a performance hall, I could here a very calm music looping in trance-inducing repetition. When I looked through the window, I saw a dozen musicians lying flat on their backs with their instruments. It appeared to be a rehearsal for a performance that I gathered would be happening that weekend. I stayed for a few minutes to see if anything would happen, but I couldn’t see much peering through the door, and I couldn’t see if anything was actually happening.

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Having another hour to kill, I decided to continue on. The art continued to become more abstract, and despite my continued efforts to understand what the artist was thinking when he/she was conceiving the idea for each piece, I was at a loss. Unable to convince myself that there was anything to take a picture of, I failed to capture an image of the blank off-white canvass that stretched over two full walls of an upstairs room. Blank canvass seemed to be a theme as I wandered into another room that had many blank canvasses strewn apparently at random.

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Though I did not understand the art, I was mesmerized when I found a second story window from which I could watch the rehearsal that was still going on downstairs.

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I will have to find a way to share the video with you. That man in the middle is in the process of agonizingly slowly getting himself to a standing position. He then looked about the room mechanically and started to move away. The whole process took a little over two minutes. When he had found his new position, standing, another musician started the same process. Expecting that the procedure would continue to repeat, I moved quickly through the rest of the exhibit, unable to spend anymore mental effort trying to make sense of the strange things I was seeing. When I left the building, I had the strangest feeling of discontent, like I had missed something. Unlike the feeling of failing to grasp an important concept after a complicated lecture, this, this had the added uncertainty of whether or not there was anything to grasp. By the time I got on the next train home, I had accepted the fact that I simply do not understand art.

This past Sunday, the feeling of confusion returned to me when my current guest invited me to a “sign event” of an up-and-coming girl group called Laboum. Wanting the experience, I bought a CD at the nearby bookstore and returned to the event to get in line. Along with about 75 other people, almost exclusively young men, I was able to get my CD book signed by each member of the group and have a brief conversation with them. They spoke only a few phrases of English, and my Korean survival phrases did nothing to facilitate communication. They were all very nice and very pretty, but it was an incredibly awkward experience.

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To be honest, I really can’t stand the music, but as a social phenomenon, the whole idea of this idol worship is incredibly fascinating. Just watching the girls of Laboum on stage at the sign event, it was clear that they are all very well trained. Although they have only been on the scene for a couple years, they embrace the attention of the camera with well-practice cutsie smiles and adorable pouty faces. They respond attentively to the constant shouts from the crowd and happily pose for pictures as friends of the fans who are on stage with the idols wait eagerly in the crowd. The exact source of the allure draws all of this attention escapes me. I don’t understand the lyrics of these songs, but I can’t imagine they are particularly deep or thought-provoking. Not to mention, the overwhelming majority of the songs are the products of well-paid expert pop writers, who know exactly what sells. I want to give these so-called “fan boys” more credit than to say that they are willing to indulge in these fantasies fanatically for some reason other than the rush they get from watching these pretty girls dance around on stage in short skirts. Sure, many of them have wonderful voices, but they all seem to be quite interchangeable. What is the inescapable attraction? Why do they draw such fawning attention? How is this such a profitable business?

I have another post in the works that recaps my experience at a live recording of Dal Shabet’s newest single. It should be coming soon.

The Power of Silence

Through my clean, dry socks, the warmth of the heated linoleum floor penetrates the soles of my feet, wanton for this brief moment of respite. In a cozy room alone, I have taken the opportunity to spill some thoughts, unhampered by the anxieties of tomorrow’s responsibilities. More than anything though, the greatest relief is the silence. Though the window is open, the loudest sound in the room is the scratching of my pen against paper. Above the constant ring of my ears, the gentle whir of a water cooler slips under the thin wooden door. An occasional joyous outburst from the room upstairs reminds me I am not completely alone up here, but this has been my first time away from the energy and activity of the city in over six weeks. I had forgotten what it was like to stand near an open window and hear nothing but the gentle scratching of dry branches at the beckon of a gentle breeze or the distant whistle of a lonely animal calling expectantly for a companion. I had forgotten the scent that a cool night air carries over an artificial settlement such as this one, placed so brashly in the bosom of these wooded hills. In this quiet, clean calmness, I can listen to my busy mind, desperate for an open ear.

I penned these words in a small journal as I was sitting in my dorm room at the Yongpyeong English Village, a small collection of a brick buildings, stereotypically fashioned after the architecture common along the American East Coast. In the mountains to the east of Seoul, this little village serves as the site for intensive English language courses, a meeting place for faculty and staff, and even a popular television drama. Surrounded only by mountains and rural farming towns, the English Village is particularly quiet at night. Especially on a night such as that one, when the skies were clear and the wind was calm, there was almost no sound coming from outside the buildings. On an impulse, after I spent some time thinking and writing in my room, I decided to go for a walk. With only my notepad and a pen, I wandered up into the woods above the village. There were scattered camping areas and a small obstacle course, which I of course had to play on. After startling a dog whose bark was probably much bigger than his bite, I decided it was best to return to my room. I did little writing over the course of those two hours, but the walk through the natural stillness, listening to the gentle murmur of a small creek and tramping over the wet leaves shed last autumn, I was able to release much of the stress and pent up emotion that had been plaguing me over the past couple weeks.

The next day, I went out again to see the forest in the daylight. While most of the rest of my colleagues were in sabbath day activities, I ambled through the forest in a Thoreau-like contemplation to read of the adventures of Alexander Supertramp in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and admire the natural beauty that I no longer get to observe so often as I once did. While exploring, I snapped a few pictures. Let me know what you think.

Last time, I shared with you some of the flashbacks of my multiple lives in the United States that had been taking an emotional toll on me. Since Friday, when our retreat started, those have been much less frequent. Today, however, I had a little time back in the city as I was walking to a footy match (which I had failed to notice had been cancelled), and I got to thinking about a conversation I am currently having with Joel about prestigious universities. I have realized that few of the things I have done over the past decade have been for any deeper reason than “because I can.” I have fully embodied the “Type A” personality: simply for the fact that the mountain exists, I must climb it.

College math courses are available to me in high school, you say? I shall pass them.

The Naval Academy only accepts 1,500 students a year, you say? I shall get accepted.

Aerospace engineering is the toughest major, you say? I shall master it.

I did these things primarily out of the need to prove that I could do them. Fortunately, I did not accept such challenges as becoming a Navy SEAL, becoming a fighter pilot, or even dropping literally everything to start from scratch as a hobo somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After all of this, I began thinking about how much of this current journey is led by the same motivation. Although some of that certainly still hangs with me, I do not believe this journey is any longer at the will of the latest challenge to be accepted. I recently narrowed down my objectives while I am here in Korea. These are all pragmatic goals that stem from a quest for liberty and a sense of belonging.

1. Pay off my debts. Living with the thousands of dollars that still hang over my head because of decisions that were exactly right for a life I no longer lead restricts my dream of experiencing the world. The monthly payments I must maintain dictate the jobs that I may accept and thus the places I may find employment. When these debts are gone, I will only need to earn the money sufficient to maintain my livelihood, which may be a very small amount depending on my current place of residence.

2. Learn Korean. Though I have a desire to communicate with the Korean people out of respect, this is really the first step in a journey to become multilingual. As is the purpose of this blog, my aim is to learn and tell the stories of those whom I meet along my journey. Currently, I cannot tell the story of anyone who does not speak very good English. By learning Korean and the languages of the countries in which I will live, all of these lives will become available to me.

3. Write. The more I write and the more I think, the more I realize that I my future profession will be based in the written word. Whether it be in publishing research as a professional academician, telling the stories the public needs to hear as a journalist, or sharing my continued explorations as a travel writer, my future career will depend upon the skills I am honing here. Also, I know my family likes to hear what I’m doing. 🙂

4. Stay fit. Too often, I see people debilitated by their failing bodies. I pity them because I know that for many, it was the sum of disrespect for their bodies that has now crippled their lives and freedom of movement. I know that I have many years, probably decades, left of exploring the world. I want my body to be ready when I need it.

None of these goals calls for the conquering of towering mountains – although I would love to see Everest on my travels. These are the ways I am preparing for the life that is right for me, a life in which I may explore great swaths of this beautiful Earth, tell the stories of the people who are its stewards, and search for a home among the community that shares these beliefs about the world.

In the brief instant of our lives, we are meant to roam and explore beyond our boundaries.

Comfort

Coming off of a very long Saturday and an even longer week, I was grateful to have time to sleep in this Sunday. After spending some time at the office preparing for class and taking an hour to catch up with my parents, I wandered around to corner to a restaurant I had previously visited with some of my coworkers. A detail I had forgotten, this restaurant was a favorite of the locals. With no English to be seen and a staff that spoken exclusively Korean, this cozy little eatery was the full Korean experience. Though glad to enjoy the delicious food of this nation, I am always a bit anxious about dining alone because I know I am doing something wrong. Today was no exception. Recognizing half of the name of a dish different from what I had eaten the last time, I did my best to sound out the name while ordering. In response to a follow up question from the waitress, I did my best to politely tell her that I did not understand. Assuming it was a question about wanting another food item, I answered in the affirmative.

When the meal arrived, I realized that it was completely different from what I had expected. Noticing my confusion, the waitress tried to explain what I was supposed to do with the array of dishes she had laid before me. No less confused, I timidly picked at the bowl of plain lettuce, bowls of boiling stew, and set of side dishes. Recognizing that some people at other tables had begun to notice my ineptitude, I resolved to start eating quickly to finish as quickly as possible. However, after only a couple minutes, an elderly man came by my table on his way to the register to pay. He gestured at the different bowls until I took the correct action to put these unfamiliar foods together. Seeing that I understood, he smiled kindly, nodded, and turned back to the register to pay and leave without another word. This helpfulness has become all but incessant since I arrived here. I came here to learn, and the Korean people have done their best to teach me.

Despite all of this welcoming kindness (and perhaps because of it), this week has been the first week that I have felt the emotional challenge of being abroad. My mind has been constantly wandering back to the comfortable life I once lived. Even the life in Florida that I could not wait to escape has been flashing nostalgically with emotions of longing for return. Images of pulling on my flight boots, watching Pearl Jam in New Orleans, sitting in front of our lit Christmas tree, bringing Langley to the dog park, and meeting VIPs at the Confucius Institute’s inaugural dinner on Pensacola Beach. Even images from my lonely new life in the fall – running to the gym before sunrise, watching movies alone on Friday nights, spending hours in the kitchen with my culinary experiments, and falling asleep on a slowly deflating air mattress with Napoleon on my chest – have infiltrated my consciousness on a daily basis. Though prominent when my mind comes to rest, even in the middle of leading a class, these flashbacks derail my train of thought. At first, it was benign. However, now that I have been pushing them away for days, the emotional baggage they carry has begun to pile up. Even here, while writing in a busy coffee shop, I had to stop for a minute or two after writing each moment mentioned above for fear of having a complete emotional breakdown here in the cafe.

I will not try to deny that I enjoyed my life before moving out here. Things were good. Often, they were very good. Yet, this life of adventure and new experience is exactly what I had dreamed for so many months. Now that I am realizing, I cannot stop thinking about the life I left. Even though I recognize that I could never have that life again, my irrational desire infects my conscious mind with a longing that sucks like a parasite on my happiness.

All of these moments share the attached feeling of comfort. These were the routines and simple moments of my life in the United States. These were the moments in which I felt relaxed because I could do them without thinking. These moments have been nearly unseen since my move to Korea. Even when I have met with Americans or other English-speaking expats, my introverted anxiety keeps me from finding those moments of comfort. Though I have cleaned up my apartment, I am still not completely comfortable there. Teaching remains an ever-changing challenge, and my athletic releases have either required the creativity of finding ways to work out in a new city or the conquering of my lack of confidence on the soccer field. Even writing and playing music have their unsettling nuances. Everything in my life is new. Nothing is familiar.

This is exactly what I asked for. I have cast off from that comfort. I have set my sails toward new horizons over which I expect all to be new and nothing the same. To learn is my objective, and it is through this immersion that I will do as much learning as fast as I can. It feels like I have so little time to see so much in this world. To settle in the comforts of a home is to sit still, watching the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years tick away while my biological clock slowly winds down to its end, devoid of mind-opening experience upon which my soul feeds. Chris McCandless, brought to fame in the novel and film Into the Wild, once wrote, “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experience.” I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Supertramp. Though I feel anxiety, I feel excitement. Though I struggle with the stress, I feel resilient. Though the work fatigues me, I feel alive.

I have traded my comfort for adventure, and I refuse to look back. Sooner or later, I will need to deal with the emotional pile-up that is taking place in my subconscious, but even then, I will know that this is the price I pay. This constant adjustment, subtle and not-so-subtle anxiety, and the continuous struggle of learning are all part of investment I am making in a fuller and more meaningful life. Tonight, I am hosting another pair of backpackers. When I look at them, I see the constant change that is in their life, and I know that I am not far behind. Perhaps by the end of my year here in Korea, I will have found places and moments that feel comfortable, but this time next year, I will be off again into the unknown. It is my life for the foreseeable future, and learning to accept it will be part of the growth into the person I want to be.