Home is everywhere; home is nowhere

Today’s featured image: Sunset over Copenhagen from Malmö.


There is a palpable, if ineffable, sensation that strikes when coming home. It’s in the way the scenery flows by from a vehicle, the familiar shapes and shadows of a home, and the unique scent of walking in the front door. It strikes immediately, deeply, and unavoidably.

It has been almost 10 months since I departed my first long-term home in Sweden, but yesterday I returned. The view from the train as I crossed the Swedish countryside elicited a feeling of comfort in the familiarity. The seven-week stay in Norway was not enough to instill this feeling for the distinct western half of the Scandinavian peninsula. Riding back to Flogsta, where I sincerely felt at home for the duration of last August, brought me right back to the mechanical motions of navigating the maze of trails that criss-cross Uppsala. When I stepped inside of the small apartment where I had started to build routines, I unconsciously stated in a dreamy tone, “Smells like home.”

I know that Sweden is not a permanent home. Next weekend, I will pass back through Sweden with no plans to return. This country has, however, played a generous and welcoming host, and I look forward to the day that plans for my return do materialize.

Last week, I realized that I have now been abroad for the longest stretch yet. It has gotten to the point that it just feels normal. As excited as I am to see my family, my friends, and Fort Collins again, I know there will be some readjusting.

The differences are subtle but they’re real, and they add up. From the change from cooking on the almost ubiquitous induction stoves in Sweden to the fact that almost everyone around me will be speaking my native language in a dialect that is almost annoyingly understandable, the adjustment will take time.

I still have about 10 weeks until I see Fort Collins again, but I’m already thinking about my reintegration. It was difficult last time. Coming back from eight months in East Asia and six weeks in Europe, I wasn’t ready for a reintroduction to American culture. Nothing had changed back home, and that was probably the hardest part. Everything was exactly the same, but I had changed. I had become a professional in a career unlike anything I had ever done. I had started to learn a new language and communicated daily in conversations in which either I, my counterpart, or both of us needed to speak in a second (or third, or fourth) language. I had learned myriad new customs and bits of etiquette significantly different from the ones I had grown up with, and I had developed a sensitivity to them from consistently embarrassing myself through my ignorance of them. The most mundane and banal bits of American and even Coloradan culture that I had overlooked for years suddenly stood out and became foundational aspects of an ethnographic analysis of the people whom I grew up with.

The feeling of familiarity in coming home at the end of 2015 was wonderful, but it was also unnerving. I had left that land behind, and by the time I returned, I had become a stranger, a visitor. As a friend once told me, once you’ve lived abroad, nowhere is really home again.

The hardest part is making this a challenge

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

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

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

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

 

vindturbin

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

Roma tree tunnel

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

monastery arches

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

DSC_0278

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

Mina första dagar på Gotland

I knew there was a catch. There had to be a catch. This place was too perfect. My room is small but clean and just big enough for all my stuff. The house is cozy and well-equipped. My roommates are fun, engaging, and mature. My landlords are incredibly kind. The town has been just lovely. It takes only a quarter of an hour to cross the cobblestone streets of the inner city, protected from the fully modern world by a stone wall that has stood for over seven centuries. Yet, within these walls, I’ve found all I need. On my first day I was able to secure a reliable bicycle that will be my means of touring the island and order the necessary part to repair my guitar. I had almost fallen in love with this city when I realized the catch: undergrads.

It was only a matter of time before I got sick. The pattern continues as my immune system crumbles after about a month in a new country. It hasn’t been horrible. I’ve even been able to tour a bit outside the city on my bike in the depths of the illness, and I think I’m just about out of it. However, not wanting to be sniffling my way through the first day of class, I’ve been strict about resting over the past few days. My neighbors, however, had other ideas.

I had shaken off the headphones that had helped lull me to sleep. I had turned in before 9pm, intending on getting a solid eight or nine hours of sleep. Yet, with my ears again exposed, my mind awoke to the shrill shredding guitars of death metal. The paper thin windows made it seems as though the party were on my balcony, not two doors down. I awoke feeling surprisingly rested, but a glance at the clock told me I would regret starting my day. It was just past 2 am.

The music had come from a different party last night, and it must have ended earlier because I was able to sleep through the night. This fest, however, was more persistent. With a cup of chamomile tea, I gazed at the stars from my balcony until the music subsided at nearly 3 am.

The strangest part of the episode was, however, that I kept my frustration in check. Perhaps it has been post-adolescent calming of nerves, but a significant factor last night was the fact that I was enjoying the music. As I tried to fall asleep again before resigning myself to tea, I found my feet bouncing in rhythm as they hung off the edge of the bed to the rapid thundering of Pantera. Yet, good music keeps me up just as much as bad at that volume. When someone finally had the sense to turn it down, I could only hope that this was only a final celebration before classes resume. Yes, I understand it’s Saturday night. I guess I’m just getting too old for this shit.


Anyway, I’ve used my weekend to do a bit of exploring and get some active rest. My trusty bike already has several dozen kilometers on its old wheels. I intend to make it worth every crown I paid for it.

Yesterday’s exploration took me south along the coast. I first located an ecovillage called Suderbyn. They are a sustainable community that strives to show how small communities can operate in harmony with their environment by growing their food using sustainable farming practices, generating their own power or tapping into renewable energy sources, and sharing their knowledge through local and international seminars. It was still early when I arrived, so I just read a few of the informational posters, but I will have to return to get a full tour.

On my way back, I detoured out to the coast to Högklint, the tallest cliff in the area from which much of Visby is visible. Already windy inland, the gusts whipped the straps of my bag violently as I tried to snap photos. Trails below me and anchors on top indicate that this area is popular for rock climbing. I plan to join a local climbing club (which has build a climbing was inside an old grain silo), so perhaps I’ll make the next ascent vertically.

This morning, I just went for a stroll through the city. It was very quiet on this Sunday morning; just the way I like it. There are ruins dotting the old city. They are mostly churches from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were fourteen in all, but now only the large cathedral remains in tact and still holds services.

I wandered outside the wall on my way back. It still amazes me that the wall is in such good repair after centuries of neglect. It was originally erected at the end of the thirteenth century by the wealthy merchants to defend the city against the peasant farmers who would eventually be competed out of the trans-Baltic trade. The wall succeeded in protecting the merchants in an early fourteenth century civil war, but it did little when the Danes invaded in 1361. It was not siege warfare that brought down the city, but the display of brutality when the Danes slaughtered thousands of farmers (whose numbers had plummeted after the plague struck a decade earlier) just outside the walls. The people of Visby capitulated, and the island fell under Danish control for two centuries.

I’ll try to add these tidbits of history to these posts. This island has an incredibly interesting past. As a hub of trans-Baltic trade, it changed hands several times during the centuries when northern and eastern Europe depended on this trade route.

cykel stor

My new steed

DSC_0247

The Gotland countryside is basically a vast array of farms.

högklite

A windy blue day on cliffs

Visby vägg

The wall remains mostly intact despite Gotland’s collapse after the Danish invasion in 1361.

visby väggstor

Many of the 13th century buildings remain because no one had the means to tear them down after Gotland’s economy collapsed after the Danish invasion of 1361.

 

 

Connected

Gently, the ripples of the surface of the fjord water splash against the jagged rocks of the seawall. On my perch atop the round dyke of dark rock, I gaze out to a mountain reaching out of the sea, its flat peak blanketed in downy white cloud like the tumbling snow of an avalanche frozen in time. But I struggle to remain with it in this moment. My mind yearns for a touch, a signal, a confirmation that I am not alone. It needs a Facebook notification. I reach into my pocket almost reflexively to give my reptilian brain its fix, but my evolved prefrontal cortex intervenes. I don’t need it. I now theres nothing there anyway.

My attention returns to the water. Beneath its surface, strands of kelp sway in the gentle current. My mind eases back into the slow rhythm of swishing water amidst the rocks, the murmur of passers by at my back, and the pulsing whirr of traffic. Yet underneath my forced calm is a thick, tangled anxiety, stretching deep into my psyche. The weight of its primitive nature holds it down, but when the tide goes out, it will smear the exposed surface with its unsightly, torpid weight.


I’ve been abroad for over two weeks now, and I’ve yet to be disconnected. My international phone service from Google has brought a new luxury to international travel, but it’s also taken out some of the adventure. The last time I was in Iceland, I needed to jump from wifi to wifi to connect to the outside world. Not wanting to pay the high prices of cafes for a secure connection, I either found public buildings or stayed at the hostel. If I left without a plan, it was up to pure chance to happen upon something out of the ordinary. Being such a touristy city, Reykjavík offers little for the stingy backpacker. Very rarely did I find anyone with whom I could connect. Podcasts and music blocked out the world through my earbuds as I wandered alone and snapped the occasional photograph of an unsuspecting stranger or non human landscape. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings even in the buzz of the city.

This time, however, I returned to a comfortable place by the water and, with my mobile data active, arranged a meeting on the fly. Although I’m very glad I made these acquaintances, this expedited form of rendezvous has set the tone for my current travels. As some of my family has noticed, I’ve been rather silent about my new life abroad. When I first cast off last year and during my winter travels, I seemed to have much more to say. This time, however, I just don’t have much to share.

This is not because my time has ben uneventful. Like in Iceland, I have been able to arrange multiple meetings with minimal effort. The difference is that I have already recapped the adventures. My host always asks about the plans I have made and my explorations of the city. My classmates engage in the obligatory smalltalk when I can share the travails of adaptation. I’ve even had my fill of intellectual discussion from the cultural and genetic aspects of libido to the precarious geopolitical landscape. This is not a place where signs read in a strange string of characters or where servers struggle helplessly to decipher my memorized and butchered phrases. No, this is a place of only slight discomfort in learning new customs and where my self-deprecating joke to follow my mistakes get a sincere chuckle. Though I’ve had to listen carefully to understand new accents and limit my use of idioms, I have mostly found ways to express my thoughts and feelings.

I’m sorry, readers, but you’re not my only audience anymore. I have listening ears all around me. What little my reflections produce find an outlet long before I can get to my keyboard, and I don’t have much to wrestle with that would demand the kind of reflective organizing I used to turn to. I’m comfortable here. This is now the second time I’ve lived abroad, and my new home is far more similar to my origin than my stint overseas. As well as externally, internally my life is in order. My priorities are in place and are congruent with my actions.

I just don’t have much to say, but I have a lot to do. I’ll do my best to recap the most eventful adventures, but for now, just know this:

I am exactly where I want to be. Just about a year ago, I mentioned to a close friend in all sincerity that I was the happiest I had ever been. I’ve returned to that state of mind. The daily challenges I face are only the welcomed exercise I must endure to continue on the path I have chosen. The life I have dreamed of for the past year is now a reality. This is literally a dream come true.

 

Dark as Night, Let the Lightning Guide You

Hot tears spatter my bare chest as a recline against the oversize pillow, sitting half naked with my feet dangling over the edge of my undersize bed. I shudder and shake with the convulsions of some absurd action between sobbing uncontrollably and laughing hysterically. Unashamedly, I admit that this is not the first time a film has moved me to tears, but this feeling is altogether different from anything I have experienced. Shielded from the world by my Bose headphones, the credits of the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty roll for one song, two songs, and then three. Despite my constant attempts in my normal life to carry myself with the cool confidence espoused by silver screen heroes, this moment is in no way film-worthy. Despite that, it was a moment in which I did not fear the ever-present eyes and ears of those who were just on the other side of my open window.

If you have never seen Walter Mitty, I urge you to go find it now. If you have found your way to my blog, you probably share the spirit of adventure that this film perfectly captures. After reading the first blog of a fellow traveler who cast off from his stagnant life last spring, I decided to make time to watch the movie again. After tossing and turning on my stiff mattress for an hour (a dance that has become a Sunday night routine), I decided to pick up where I had left off earlier in the day. Throughout the course of those two hours, scene after scene resonated with something that I knew had been stirring deep inside me.

frumpy

Walter deliberating over his wink

Right from the beginning, we see the frumpy Walter Mitty in his unattractive short sleeve oxford and tie as he deliberates over sending a “wink” to his new coworker on a fictionalized eHarmony. Finally finding the resolve, he clicks. Nothing. It doesn’t work. After a few more attempts, he finally gives up and heads off to work. This situation precipitates our introduction to the recurring injection of the snotty antics of Patton Oswald as the eHarmony phone representative, Todd Maher. In their first conversation, Walter “zones out” as he has a prolonged daydream of action hero stunts to rescue his crush’s love from a burning building. Throughout these first few minutes, we see not only Walter’s painful ordinariness, but his dreams of grandeur and exceptionalism. A recent post from Mark Manson hilariously catalogs the reasons we all desperately crave this kind of greatness and the reasons that, in the end, we should accept our place among the average. I hope I am not the only one to identify so strongly with both the feeling of anxiety in sending a message to a stranger or even the mindless zoning out as I envision something I wish I could do at that moment. Although I typically do not like Ben Stiller as an actor, in this film that he also directed, I found myself involuntarily placed in Walter Mitty’s shoes.

For the first thirty minutes, we must endure Walter’s painful subjugation under a new management staff of bearded douchebags. Finally, at a point of helpless desperation (assuaged by the fact that I had seen the film once before), we get our first taste of incredible storyline movers that feed our need for grand adventure. As Walter leans defeated over his desk, he looks at a picture on his wall of the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). In what is  the first unreal event that happens outside of Walter’s daydreams, the picture comes to life as Sean beckons Walter to come find him. Inspired and entranced, he does. An inspirational montage later, we are in Greenland, the North Atlantic island country that has “eight people in it.” (Yes, it’s a country. It gained its independence from Denmark in 2009.) This obvious juxtaposition between Walter’s ordinary predictability with his extraordinary spontaneity should be an inspiration to all of us. Especially in this globalized, interconnected world of the twenty-first century, even the simplest of us laypeople can jet off to a far-away land for a small fee.

The beckoning of Sean O'Connell

The beckoning of Sean O’Connell

Although Walter has taken the crucial first step of casting off into the world beyond his borders, many of his shenanigans arise as he learns that on his own, he is helpless. What I think may be the most important lesson from this film is fact that Walter is rarely alone on his adventure. He is often wholly dependent on the good will of others, being rescued multiple times. From a drunken helicopter pilot to a crew of Nordic fisherman to a couple Afghani men whom he “rented.” In one of the final scenes of his adventures, he acknowledges this, paying well-deserved respects to his mother. When Sean asks how Walter found him (hiding out on a random ridge in the upper Himalayas), Walter responds, “My mom.” As he had been trekking on his own for many kilometers, it would have been easy for him to tell Sean how much effort he had put into his search. Recognizing that none of this would have possible without the continued support of all of those who have been with him since the beginning and those whom he has met along his journey, he pays due respect. This fact is crucial to remember for any traveler. Whether it be a random lady in the subway station who translates for the station attendant or a couchsurfing host who asks nothing but cleanliness and common courtesy in exchange for free lodging and an invaluable experience, the life of travel reminds us that we are inevitably interdependent.

Renting two strong little men

Renting two strong little men

In contrast to the independence that many of us have learned to associate with strength and masculinity, Walter’s dependence does not make him weak, but immeasurably strong. The decision to cast off from his perfunctory life is not only a transformation of values but a transformation of confidence. Whereas in the beginning he was constantly the victim of cocky superiors, at the end of the film, we get to see a collected and confident Walter Mitty, who does not shy away from a challenge to stand up for what he believes is right or take a jab at someone who could learn a lesson or two about civility. From the man who was too afraid to send a “wink” over the internet to the man who casually chases after the same woman when he sees her at the bottom of the stairs, Walter’s adventures have given him the courage to face the challenge of personal interaction that so many of us fear. For anyone who followed the beginnings of my blogging earlier this year, you’ll remember my horridly anxious experiences with trying to start a conversation with a stranger. Though I was successful on a few occasions, the fear won out on many others. Travel breaks down these walls. It is not even something that we must learn over time. It comes with the journey. On the very first day of my travels, I approached multiple strangers to ask questions. After an afternoon of wandering San Francisco with my second cousin, I returned to my couchsurfing host’s house to find a group of guys standing in front of the door that I was fairly sure was his. Since I did not meet them when I first arrived, I was tempted to just keep walking and wait for them to disperse before continuing my search for the apartment. Instead I decided to stop and ask if I was in the right place, which was fortunate for them because those were my host’s friends, and I had the key to the front door! Within the next week, I would have sparked conversations with countless new strangers, each with only a fraction of the anxiety I had felt when forcing the exercise back home. It is the recognition that we are wholly dependent on each other that frees us from the dependence on our own anxiety.

A new, confident Walter - complete with beard

A new, confident Walter – complete with beard

By the end of the film, we feel as if we have been on this grand adventure with our average yet bold hero. Despite the salient way the film relates to the average person, the scenes of adventure that we suppose are real in Walter’s adventures are highly implausible. From the unlikely ease with which Walter fights off sharks in North Atlantic and runs dozens of kilometers to a volcano to the sheer absurdity that Walter would just stumble upon the guy he was tracking in a brutally inhospitable region of the world probably spanning hundreds of square kilometers, Walter’s adventures are just too epic for real life.

Dwarfed by the unfathomable scale of the Himalayas

Dwarfed by the unfathomable scale of the Himalayas

Or are they? Perhaps the literal depiction of events were only possible on a Hollywood set, but maybe they needed to be so exaggerated to evoke in the comfortably seated audience the feeling of global exploration and discovery. For those who have trekked abroad, particularly in undeveloped areas of the world, you’ll know that even the smallest of events can elicit the highest sense of euphoria. Though I have only tasted a small piece of the adventure I hope to live, I know that feeling, and that is what led me to the absurd situation in which I found myself at the beginning of this post. Though a trek through the crooked peaks of the upper Himalayas in warring areas of ungoverned Afghanistan may be quite unrealistic, it is equally as unrealistic as moving abroad for most Americans. When I first watched the film, it was the same for me. Now these grand adventures are not daydreams, they are legitimate pieces of my life plan. It was this realization that sparked an elation in me so intense that I could not contain the howls of agonizing hysteria.

That is why, if you have ever dreamed of a life without borders, filled with adventure, lost deep in the unknown, I urge you to cast off. Break free of your stagnant life. You need not drop everything as I did. As any responsible adult, I understand that bills must be paid and responsibilities must be stewarded. However, like our hero, maybe wild jaunt into the unknown will add not only epic stories for your new resume but meaning in a life of repetition. When the opportunity presents itself to seek out a new adventure, like a flash of lightning briefly illuminating a dark horizon, do not shy away. Instead, let the lightning guide you.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of LIFE.”

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 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!