Vlog (n): a video blog

Hey everyone. If you’re subscribed to this blog, get ready. The spam flood is nigh. One of the things that I really liked about being an English teacher is that I had ample opportunity to practice my speech. When I gave my first presentation in several months after having left Korea, I felt like I was constantly stumbling over my words, not finding the ones I wanted, and leaving concepts poorly explained. I hope I can go back to teaching in the future, partly because I like the challenge of lecturing.

Well, one does not need a classroom to practice public speaking in our digital age, so here it goes!

30-day vlog challenge!

Almost four years ago, I started a blog by doing a 30-day writing challenge, and it was one of the best things I ever did. By the end of that month, I could actually see the improvement in my writing, and I definitely felt how much easier cranking out 500 words at the end of the day had become. I would like to have the feeling with speaking to a camera.

So, here it is: for the next 28 days (I’m already two days in), I’ll post a video of at least one minute. There are no other requirements such as topic, fluency, location, etc., but knowing me, I’ll try my best to limit verbal pauses, make the sentences flow together, and have something interesting to talk about. I’m on this philosophy kick pertaining to progress and ideals, so I’ll probably pontificate on that for a while.

If you want to get links directly to the videos, hit the “Subscribe” button below the video. I’ll try my best not to make these a waste of your time, but in the end, you can always just ignore me. Youtube has literally billions of other things for you to watch, and probably some number of millions of them are actually worth watching.

Unplugged

Today’s featured image: Uppsala. It’s good to be back.


Bare skin littered the thick grass, brilliantly green in the afternoon sun. From the other side of the park, a salsa dance class laid a tropical background theme to the shouts and calls from the soccer fields. The heat of the sun brightened the transporting music, and I could hardly believe that this was Stockholm. The park bustled with the smiling faces and chatty groups of friends out for a Sunday stroll. The abundance of sunshine was not taken for granted.

I sat between my friends who had treated me to a delicious brunch at a classy little joint that allowed us to begin our day outside, and we had continued to soak up as much of sun as possible. Our conversation often lapsed both because of their severe jetlag and because of my frequent mental departure, my mind drawn away to the soothing sensation of the sun’s warmth and the shining beauty of the park’s colors.

Then Alex said something that brought a sudden realization. “They pick the sunniest day to sit in the shadow.”

“Huh? Who?” I asked, trying to figure out whom he was referring to.

“That couple,” he answered, nodding toward a couple that had huddled together behind a thick tree on the low cement wall.

“They wouldn’t be able to see their phones in the sun,” Gabriella chided. “They need to do their social media.”

My obligatory laugh came from the self-satisfying habit of mocking the social media addicts always glued to their phones. Though I often fall prey to my devices, I reserve a bit of superiority when I spot a group of friends ignoring each other to browse the lives of others. My train of thought sent me looking for another of these groups.

I didn’t see any.

Of the dozens of sunbathers, walkers, and diners of dripping ice cream, only a small handful was plugged into their mobile device. Almost all who were sat alone. Only one other pair stared at their phones instead of each other, and I couldn’t even be sure that they were, in fact, sitting together or if the angle just made it look that way.

“They’re all unplugged,” I muttered in disbelief. “For the first time in a while, I actually have a bit of hope for humanity.”


Just last week, I had discussed with my host in Malmö the topic of our technological infancy. We have only had these newfangled devices that keep us incessantly connected to the world of not-here for perhaps a decade. Can we really expect that people are just going to figure out how to harness this technology for their own benefit without falling into destructive habits? Of course not. But the constant chatter in many media circles about the perils of over-connectedness and the rapid rise of mindfulness indicate to me that the trend away from self-destructive social media consumption is reaching a broader swathe of the population.

Today, I found more evidence of my hypothesis. Droves of unplugged Swedes flooded the natural areas of the city to disconnect from their digital lives and experience the real world with real friends.

Occasionally, I see glimmers of hope for our species.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Despite our religious apathy, many of us have grown up in a culture of “holy” days that have come to mean something far different from that which was originally meant or that contemporary believers may wish. Regardless, these holidays have come to mark significant times of the year, and for me, Christmas will always be a special time. Not all Christmases have been great, and some have been flat out disappointing, but my first Christmas abroad was sure to be different. In all honesty, I was a bit apprehensive.

I first cast off from the US almost two years ago with the intention of spending a full year abroad (I had even contemplated spending Christmas in North Korea!). However, massive change of heart and change of life direction sent me rushing back home to arrive just in time for Christmas for the second year in a row. This time, however, I will do no such mad dash around the globe.

No, this year, Christmas has come and mostly passed as I mill about comfortably at Joel’s home in Germany. The relatively warm weather and persistent gray gloom have suppressed the Christmas feeling, and the ubiquitous Christmas markets in the towns I’ve traveled through in Scandinavia and in a couple cities here in Germany have bespoken only the gaudy consumerist veneer I hate about Christmas. Even last night, on Christmas Eve, I spent most of the evening alone while my host family visited the grandparents. An experimental meal of avocado and jalapeño poppers with failed thumbprint cookies was hardly the Christmas Eve fare I’ve grown accustomed to (although it was delicious).

Things all started to come together this morning. A cute little tree had been set up when I returned from my run, and Joel’s mom, Michaela, was in full frenzy in the kitchen. The smell of roasting sweets and sauteeing delectables filled the house as the boys strung one strand of white lights around the tree. The family proceeded to decorate the Charlie-Brown-esque evergreen with simple orbs and ribbons as I watched unobtrusively from the corner.

Feeling the need to contribute, I began to prepare a batch of cookies by darting into the kitchen to grab tools and ingredients each time Michaela stepped out. When Joel’s dad returned with his 91-year-old mother, I was just finishing up the dough, and the table had been prepared with a gorgeous ad hoc centerpiece of fallen bark, boughs, and leftover ornaments. The bubbly grandmother, who shuffled about a full head shorter than anyone else, prattled incessantly to the whole family, even me, who understood only a few words of her rough but joyful German.

Dinner was simple but delicious, and Michaela even accommodated Joel and me (I have been conforming to his pescatarian/vegan diet) by preparing two plates of salmon separate from the pork roast. As we finished up the main course, I tossed the prepped cookies in the oven for a few minutes, and the hearty oatmeal cookies were well-received when the attempt at ice cream didn’t quite pan out.

Just as I might have done on a typical Christmas Eve, we then gathered in the living room to open gifts. I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who obsessively unwraps gifts without tearing the paper (the whole family did so). I was also pleased to see the unashamed gifting of alcohol (grandmother got each member of the family a bottle).

But most of all, I was stunned when two of the presents were delivered to me. Having spent much of the evening quietly observing from the corner, I felt dragged warmly into the scene when Michaela handed me a small black and silver package with a bow. It was a small journal and pen, perfectly timed as I’m filling the final pages of the one I brought to Korea. As I hooked the pen over the soft moleskin cover just as I had done for so many months on my previous travels, I couldn’t stop smiling.

This family has already been unbelievably generous in hosting me in their home for nearly a week now, and I feel I can hardly repay their hospitality. Yet, they even went the extra step to bring me into their family tradition with this small gesture. Though I’m not with my family this Christmas, I have found a family, and I am forever grateful for their kindness.

Whether you’ve gotten together to worship or just to share time and food with family and friends, I hope your time is joyful, and I wish you the best on this Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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I’m Korean. My hobby is eating.

I hate leaving food on the table. From where I got the habit, I have no idea, but I always clean whatever dish is in front of me. Eating with Koreans for the past four months in traditional family style has often led to my continued picking at a shared dish while my compatriot sits watching in bloated discomfort. Only my recent conscious effort to cut back and start a demanding exercise program has stemmed the weight gain. This past weekend though, my diet went out the window somewhere along the highway between Seoul and Jeonju.

Jeonju is an ancient city about 150km south of Seoul. Taking a free foreigner shuttle on Saturday, my Thai expat friend and I found ourselves in the thick of the culture. Meeting our host at the museum where our bus dropped us off, we made the short walk to the iconic hanok village, a showcase of traditional Korean housing with the modern addition of shops and restaurants. While many tourists are content spending their day here learning about Joseon history and dining on anachronistic fare, my fellow backpacker and I were determined to uncover the real Jeonju. I think we found the depths of the real Korea as well.

As we would quickly learn, our host distinguishes himself from what he knows to be the average Korean. After working for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary for seven years, he received a generous severance package amidst a round of layoffs a few months ago. With extra resources and time, he has been in no rush to launch a new career. In fact, his first impulse was to take a month and half to travel Europe, making extended stops to see Couchsurfing friends from Stockholm to Barcelona. Much like many of us travelers, he finally capitalized on an opportunity to realize a dream he had envisioned for years. The experience redefined his goals, and now he and his fiancee are planning an extended travel when she can escape her job, potentially settling in Spain to open a guest house.

Despite the noble adventurousness of his goals, there are issues of practicality to wrestle with. For one thing, he doesn’t speak Spanish, his English is good but far from perfect, and he has never worked in business management. These are not blocks for him, though. They are but challenges to be overcome. He is studying Spanish on his own, he practices English frequently with couchsurfers like us, and he reads extensively on business and economics. In addition to his studies, he has become a veritable chef, and he is an avid amateur photographer.

Our host, admittedly, is nothing like most of the Korean men of his age you may encounter. As an English teacher and a couchsurfer, I have been exposed to a microcosm of Korean culture. These communities are quite separate from the standard. The Korean social structure is extremely rigid, and people are expected to meet certain “social alarms” throughout their lives. Like deadlines in a lifetime project, these social alarms tell Koreans that they shall graduate college, secure a good job, find a spouse, start a family, reach career milestones, and own a home by certain acceptable checkpoints. Missing these social alarms is cause for loss of respect and trustworthiness. Because of this, many Koreans trudge along the same path to accepted ideals of success.

There is a causal chain here that I would like to flesh out more fully in the future, but here are a few quick data points I learned from my host. The chain may begin with these rigid ideals of socially acceptable forms of success (a stable corporate job, a small family, and status symbols like a nice car and designer fashion items), but it penetrates deep. The best way to begin this life is to get a degree from the highly respected SKY universities (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei), the Ivy League of South Korea. To have an alma mater such as these on a resume is a golden ticket to large corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, and POSCO. Though a college degree is not a guarantee of a good job here, it is the surest (and often the only) way.

Here we link to primary education. College admissions are much different in Korea than in the western world. Like Americans take the SAT and ACT, all college hopefuls in Korea must take the CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). However, a low SAT/ACT score is not the end of the road to many respectable colleges and universities. Good grades, an exceptional essay, and a myriad of extracurricular activities may bolster an application. While these things are necessary in Korea, they are not sufficient. Without the requisite CSAT score, the rest of an application is just another layer in the recycling bin. While the CSAT tests many useful subjects (math, science, social studies, and language among them), anyone who has taken an SAT prep course knows that studying for the test works. In Korea, it has gotten to the point of replacing much of the rest of the education. For those aspiring to the SKY universities, they will need the highest CSAT scores, and simply attending public school is far from sufficient. Before kids are even old enough for first grade, hopeful parents push them into private preschools. The pattern continues until the CSAT at the end of high school, and the load steadily increases until students are regularly staring at a book for more than 12 hours a day. This is where we return to hobbies.

If you ask a Korean about their hobbies, you will often get responses such as watching dramas, playing computer games, and chatting with friends. What many westerners would consider hobbies – sports, music, art, continuing education, etc. – are simply too time-intensive for Koreans. While many students participate in sports and music, these activities have become part of the daily grind, not pleasurable activities to be continued in one’s leisure time. All available time should be committed to study or work. What little time they can sneak away gets used for anything that doesn’t require cognitive strain.

As we traversed Jeonju last weekend in search for food, we quickly realized that eating was the best thing around. Granted, the food in Jeonju is exceptional, but in our search for the local experience, we started to notice that this was the norm. In the hanok village, we had choco-pies and fried squid. At lunch, we ate a massive bowl of bibimbap complemented by cinnamon makgeoli and an array of side dishes. For an after-lunch desert, we shared a giant bowl of frozen fruit, shaved ice, and ice cream. Within a couple hours, we were back out, gorging ourselves on plate after plate of food as we sipped a copper kettle full of more makgeoli. Finding a popular market, we indulged in some sweet street food snacks. Too early to call it a night, we wandered to a Jeonju-style bar where we munched on dried fish and squid jerky over a few beers. I’m sure I consumed more calories that day than I had in the past five.

We had asked if the people of Jeonju had any other leisure activities. We were met with a bit of a sarcastic laugh. The running joke, coined by our cynical host, became, “I’m Korean. My hobby is eating.”

(How Koreans stay so thin is a mystery I will have to address later.)