Monday, July 18, 2016

All That You Can't (But Must) Leave Behind

Moving to Korea was one of the best decisions of my life, but that doesn't mean it's always sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. It's a trade-off, I suppose-- for every step I take toward building a life for myself here, I'm taking one more step away from the life I had back in the states. I know I've written about this before, but it's something I keep spiraling back to. I have a bizarre form of that trendy new malady FOMO, a fear of missing out on the things I'd have been doing had I not moved to Korea.

The most obvious thing to miss is family events. No matter how much you email and check Facebook and Skype, so many things fall through the cracks. My aunt went through a huge medical situation and I had no idea how serious it was until I visited home well after the fact and heard the whole story. That really spooked me.

While I must admit I don't miss my family as much as I feel I should (sorry mom!), my younger sister is the one who really gets to me. She's 5 years younger, at that age when she's changing so fast and learning so much about herself and the world, and I really wish I could be closer, to step back into my role of Cool Older Sister who Already Made All The Mistakes. Not that she won't make mistakes...but I could at least save her a bit of time on some of them.

I guess every decision has two sides. Huh. That sounded much deeper and more revelatory in my head. This has always been an issue for me, for as long as I can remember. I don't regret taking the road less traveled, and neither would I regret taking the road more traveled, but I get really anxious about the road not traveled. The second I choose one, I'm POSITIVE the other would have been better. If I choose to stay home for vacation, a nagging voice tells me I should have traveled. If I choose to travel, the same voice says I should have stayed home and saved my money. I'm the human version of a cat-- the moment I'm let outside, all I want in the world is to be let back in.

This is probably nothing special, but it drives me crazy, as much as I've learned to ignore it. It's a basic problem of not being able to trust myself. I don't know what I want, or maybe I'm too easily satisfied. But is being satisfied enough? Who knows.

I'm 26 now, almost 27, and while I know that that's not old any way you count it, the speed at which time passes is starting to get to me. It doesn't help that so many of my friends and coworkers in Korea who are around the same age as me are getting married and having children, and many of the people I know back home are buying houses and moving up in their careers, while I'm just sitting a life that hasn't changed much in two years. Sure, I'm a better teacher than I was 3 years ago. My apartment is nicer. My Korean has improved. But to go back to a metaphor I use too often, all of this just feels like grinding for XP. I've been leveling up my abilities and now it's time to start a new questline, but I can't seem to find anyone with that telltale exclamation point above their heads.

There are all sorts of new life stages to move into. Getting married is one that a lot of people around me are doing, and while I'm certainly not ready for that, I feel a similar push to start moving toward something bigger. More and more I think that something is grad school, but that means letters of recommendation and a great deal of money and every time I think about it I feel immediately overwhelmed and end up scrolling through tumblr mindlessly for an hour. This, unfortunately, is my main response to hardship and difficulty.

I suppose the real issue here is that I hate uncertainty. Once I have a goal, I'm stubborn enough that I generally pull it off even though I'm a bit of a human tire fire with a tendency to do things wrong in new and creative ways! I guess if you fuck up enough times in a row it makes a positive? So far, that seems to be the way I've worked my way through life, but since it's gotten me this far, I guess it works. Plus I have no idea how to change.

So, that's where I am right now, older than I ever considered myself being. When you're sixteen and dreaming of a better future, 25 seems like a lifetime away. Now that I'm past that, the world is stretching out before me like an overused first snow metaphor, and I'm stuck in place, afraid to leave the wrong footprints.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

This Accelerating Contradiction

Being alone has never really bothered me. I was an only child growing up, and whenever a play-date wasn't an option, I was perfectly happy playing pretend in my room for hours, reading, or (most embarrassingly) learning how to make databases on my mom's Windows 3.1 computer. There were so many floppy disks. It wasn't even connected to the internet. Am I dating myself?

Maybe I'm getting more introverted as I get older, or maybe I'm just noticing it more, but these days it's getting harder and harder to force myself out of the house. Through all my years of shared bedrooms and roommates, I always knew I'd love living alone--I just never knew how much. I spend all day turned up to eleven at school; I have to keep my students energized, talk to coworkers, and constantly switch back and forth between Korean and English (and sometimes Japanese when the kids try to mess with me). It is, in a word, socially exhausting. The feeling of stepping into my apartment and closing the door to the outside world is magical.

Most people who've met me have a hard time believing this, because I have an uncanny ability to talk to just about anyone, but socializing is not something I'm naturally good at. I had to train myself, and going to a party or even just going to work still requires a certain...different persona. When I worked in cafes and restaurants, I called it my Customer Service Face. It's the face that smiles at rude customers, that cracks cheerful jokes no matter what's going on behind the scenes, that can run on autopilot through most types of small talk. It's convenient, but exhausting to keep up. When it's cranked into overdrive, I can get home from a party or a day at work and barely remember a thing I said to anyone.

The reason for my aforementioned talk-to-anyone skill is likely my knack for reading people, reading the room, and modulating myself to match. I have to be careful, though, or I'll change so much I don't recognize myself anymore. It's hard for me to stop thinking about how others are perceiving me, how the way I act influences the atmosphere around me. With all but the absolute closest of friends, socializing is like solving a constantly changing puzzle. I'm jealous of those people who seem to always just "be themselves" no matter the occasion. But then again, maybe people think that of me? Who knows.

The upside of having a no-roommate apartment to go back to is that I can more easily recharge after these daily bouts with humanity. The downside is that in order to have friends/any social life at all, it's sort of important to, you know, leave the house. Ever. I know that once I get to the party, to the class, to the bar, what have you, I'll have fun. Usually, socializing is fun, no matter how exhausted I am afterwards. But the problem is, staying home alone is fun 99.99% of the time, and it requires neither a bra nor pants. So you see my problem. I also genuinely enjoy traveling alone. Sure, it's harder to take pictures and eat out in restaurants, but isn't that what the selfie-stick was invented for?

When they invent something that makes eating alone less awkward, I'll be first in line to buy 10.

I may be able to talk to anyone, but making friends has always been difficult for me. It takes me a long time to get close to someone, and my tendency to drop off the face of the earth (socially) from time to time means I lose a lot of friendships that don't have a strong enough foundation yet. Living in Korea has added a bonus boss battle: my friends keep leaving.

It's totally natural. The average stay for native teachers over here is 1-3 years, so it's to be expected that people will come and go. If I were better at making and keeping friends, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but when it takes at least a year for me to feel really close to someone, if they leave right after it's almost like losing out on an investment. This is kind of horrible to say, but it's almost as if I'm an employer who's spent a year training a new recruit only to have them quit. Eventually, I don't want to hire any new people, even though I know I need them. Does that make sense?

There's clearly some lack of logic between what I want to happen and what I do. Case in point: I want to have friends, but what do I do? Avoid my nice neighbor who just wants to get brunch with me because I want to...what? Go for a walk by myself? Stay home and play videogames? I honestly can't understand my motivations in a lot of these situations, and yet they keep happening in the same way. Anxiety is tricky that way, I suppose.

So I guess that's where I am now; trying to find a balance between enjoying solitude and cutting myself off from humanity. Where do I draw the line? When does self-care turn into something bad? Tune in next never for the answer.

Monday, June 20, 2016

How To: Avoid Feeling Homesick

"Don't you miss your family? Aren't you homesick?" These are in the top 10 of questions everyone over here asks me, and while it's nice to know someone is concerned about my well-being, it makes me wonder if I'm the odd one out for not being homesick. This isn't new; I've been wondering about this same topic almost since I first arrived in Korea.

"Now, in the “Counseling Booklet” that Epik has provided me with, they give a very thorough explanation of the various phases of culture shock. The first phase? The “Honeymoon Phase”. The booklet describes this time as “the period just after arrival in a new country…everything appears to be exciting and novel. The individual rarely finds any problems with the new country and may feel euphoric. Many people believe that the new country is flawless.” Ever since I read that passage last week, it’s been floating around in the back of my head. Is my love affair with Korea going to fade into the more negative aspects of culture shock? Am I just romanticising things that, in a few months, I will realize I secretly hate?"

Well, I'm coming up on three years, and while the honeymoon phase is over, I can honestly say that I don't often feel homesick, and when I do, it's not crushing. Instead of ruining my day, it can be an almost enjoyable melancholy or nostalgia. Anyways, since I know that homesickness is a problem that many people deal with, I thought I'd write about my own experiences and how I fend off homesickness. Now, I can't say if any of these will be helpful for you, or even possible, but this is how I, personally, stay so positive in Korea.

Reason the first: Seattle Sucks

My life since middle school has been a long string of getting out of wherever I was. Getting out of middle school, getting out of high school, out of my hometown, and finally out of Seattle, where I went to college. Why a person might not enjoy life in a small town is pretty obvious. With a graduating class of 100, it didn't leave many options as far as friends went, and with a dwindling population and zero job prospects outside of barista, drug dealer, or starving artist (or the triple threat combo) ...well, I didn't waste any time shipping my own self off to college.

After graduating from the University of Washington with a BA in English and the newly kindled desire to teach, I made the big dumb mistake of taking a year off to "rest". Seeing as neither me nor my parents are independently wealthy, I couldn't just sit around for a year reading Marvel comics and drinking coffee, as much as that appealed to me. I needed a job, and with a degree in English from a great school, I was able to get a totally relevant job in the service industry. By relevant I mean totally irrelevant and by service industry I mean a tiny cafe that made crepes. As I was one of the only employees not in school at the time, I ended up going months without a full day off, working 50-60 hours a week, and still barely having the money to cover rent and life expenses. Minimum wage is just so awesome like that.

But at least now I am a certified crepist. Wait...

I was, in a word, miserable. It doesn't help that the weather in Seattle shares most of its characteristics with a damp sock. Even when things are going well in your life, unless you really enjoy overcast gray weather, it's hard to stay positive during the interminably long Seattle winters. And springs. And falls. And sometimes it stays cloudy even though summer, because the other 9 months just weren't enough!

What I'm saying is, probably the biggest reason for my lack of homesickness is that...well...there honestly isn't much for me to miss about home. Yes, I miss my friends and family, but with things like Skype and Facebook and Kakaotalk and email, it's easy to stay in touch on a level that keeps me from feeling the distance. Maybe this isn't the best kind of advice to give, since it boils down to "hate your home" and I know that's not something that most people are going to be able to do. I guess I'm just lucky to have had such a terrible time before I moved.

Get Busy

As they say, idle hands are the devil's...instruments? Playground? Idle minds are the devil's gymnasium? Look, I'm no expert in old sayings but you get what I mean. I think one of the biggest challenges, especially when you first move to a new place, is keeping yourself busy. Everything is going fine, you're feeling good, and then suddenly the weekend comes and you're on your own for two whole days. Personally, I start to feel down in the dumps when I don't have a lot to do, no matter where I'm living, but I feel like this is something that really matters for people who are trying to live in a foreign country. It's easy to feel isolated, and if you're just sitting around in your tiny apartment, that isolation only intensifies. So, instead of spending the whole time laying on your bed watching the English language movie channel and moaning about how much you miss your family/Taco Bell/good cheese, get your butt outside and do something!

"But I don't know Korean!" 

No excuse! Just go for it! Want to order food? Just point at something and hope for the best. Ursula the seawitch had it right: never underestimate the importance of body language. When I first got to Korea I was limited to "Hello" and "Thank you" as far as speaking went, but I was still able to joke with a coworker about mosquitoes, entirely through sound effects and acting.

This bit of advice is harder to follow the smaller your town is. Life in the middle of Seoul is about as similar to life in the rural country village as my students are to actual humans. Which is to say, not at all. But hey, this country is tiny. Do some traveling! Explore your (albeit) tiny town! Take up a hobby. Join a gym and get super buff (then teach me your secrets). 

Mr. and Mrs. Brightside

Lastly, and this is advice for pretty much everyone in any type of situation, try to find the positive part of what's happening to you. Bad thing will happen. Annoying things will happen. That's to be expected. Taxi drivers will try to cheat you on your fare. Classes will be changed and cancelled with no notice. Your coworkers will be passive-aggressive. Your students will make you cry. That's normal, and it sucks.

But the way I see it, focusing ONLY on the things that suck just makes them seem bigger. I really like the way Simon, from the Eat Your Kimchi folks, puts it in a blog post about staying positive

"I could be upset about dealing with our landlord, buuuut I have a soft kitty here[...]I could be upset that a project I had been planning fell through, but look at that sunset. Once you realize that all things are of equal significance[...]then the playing field is levelled. Good experiences and bad experiences have the same weight, so why not put my energies into experiencing the positives?"

I've always hated the saying "it takes more muscles to frown than to smile" because a lot of time, it's utter BS. Sometimes it's hard to smile. Sometimes pipes burst or cars break down or things just Go Wrong for seemingly No Reason. There's nothing you can do about that. It already happened. The best thing to do is to find the part of your day that didn't suck. Was there one funny thing a student said? Did you eat the most delicious strawberry ever? Did your mom send a photo of her new poodle? Focus on that. It takes practice, but trust me, it works out better in the long run.

I think this kind of thinking is especially important when you're living in South Korea, and probably any foreign country. Sorry Korea, but you're pretty...racist? I hate to pull out the R card, so maybe we can stick to xenophobic? Unaware that there are other types of people out there and that's okay? Whatever you want to call it, it's hard to be the one different person in a sea of similarity. I never realized how diverse the US was until I moved to Korea. As an American over here, as any type of foreigner I'm sure, it's easy to feel victimized or singled out. Any negative experience can be viewed through the lens of "it happened to be because I'm not Korean."

Sometimes, that's true. Other times, it's not. All I ask is that you take a second to consider if the taxi driver didn't stop for you because he hates Americans, or if maybe he just didn't see you. And even if its the former, will knowing that somehow make you happier? Personally, I know it won't. Even if I have to lie to myself once in a while, I'd rather assume the best in order to feel better, instead of assuming the worst and getting bitter.

So go out and enjoy life. Experience things, and when you miss friends and family back home, go do something interesting so you'll have the best stories to tell them when you meet again. Why do you think I've had so many adventures?

Monday, June 13, 2016

How Long Does It Take?

Phelan M. Ebenhack—AP

I'm so tired. I'm so sad. The same terrible things keep happening to the same people, to different people, to MY people. I want to be positive, I try to stay hopeful, but for every wonderful story I feel like I read 5 stories of violence and hatred and just pure ignorance. When are things going to reach the tipping point? Or are we just going to destroy ourselves out of existence?

Sometimes I feel bad, because I'm just not capable of crusading and fighting on the front lines like so many of my friends are. I can't read the news every day. I can barely check Facebook. I want to be stronger, to be more resilient, but it's hard enough to keep my inner sadness and anxiety at bay without adding in politics, mass shootings, racism, and all the things I'm supposed to be yelling about. Is this part of getting older? Does it all accrete like the mercury that's apparently filling the fish we eat, does each exposure increase the reaction like my shellfish allergy until a single bite leaves me sick for a day?

I want to be angry but I'm tired. So tired. I've been angry about this for so long. I've written the words. I've shared experiences, educated the uninformed, and made mindful choices. I've learned from my mistakes and helped others to learn from theirs. But what's the point? Is it getting any better? I've believed in movements and hashtags and leaders, but everything disappoints. Every fave will eventually be problematic. Eventually I just don't want to hear it. There's a saying about ignorance for a reason.

Sometimes, I feel like a coward for running away to Korea. If you care so much about these issues in the US, why don't you go home and fight for them? My mom even straight up asked me why I'm spending my time teaching Korean kids when the kids back home need teachers too. HYDRA really is the perfect villain for a modern fantasy; for every injustice or world problem we begin to right, a thousand more appear to take the place. This will always be the case, and I'm sick of being criticized for not talking about the "important" issues, for not fighting the "right" fights.

I'm sick of all these false equivalency arguments. If you've ever looked at the internet or spoken to a human, I'm sure you've encountered them. For your reading pleasure, I will recreate one here:

Person A: Wow, I really hate how women in the US are slut-shamed for wearing short skirts.
Person B: Well at least you don't live in a totalitarian regime where you're forced to dress like a prisoner!
Person A: Um...yes?

Even better are the accusations of calling attention to causes that aren't "important enough," whatever that means.

Person A: Check out this article about teenage girls getting sent home from school for stupid dress code violations!
Person B: I can't believe we're so upset about this when there are people dying in [insert country] and no one is talking about it!!?!
People are dying EVERYWHERE. Bad things are happening EVERYWHERE. None of us is capable of caring about every single cause at the same level, and shaming people for trying to bring attention to what is important to them is just mean. If someone tells you they are bleeding, do you tell them that someone else is bleeding more, or do you give them a bandage?

I'm writing all this in the wake of the horrible tragedy in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub, but these feelings are nothing new. This is just the most recent tragedy. I'm not here to talk about gun rights or the US's lack of response to mass shootings. Other people have done that better than I ever could. I'm just here because I'm tired and sad I want to feel like someone is listening.

There are two main sentence structures I'm teaching my students this week, and seeing them on the board was rather poignant today. Or heartbreaking. The first is "What's up? You look upset." Yes, I am upset. I'm upset that the media is refusing to accept that the shooting in Orlando was fueled by homophobia. I'm upset that even after so many mass shootings we haven't done anything. I'm upset about the underlying political corruption that allowed that to happen. I'm upset and I'm angry and scared.

The other sentence, which struck me even harder, was "How long does it take?" How long does it take, America, before you realize that you have a problem? How long does it take for things to change? How long before we stop allowing children and parents and friends be killed for the crime of living?

How long?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

NaPoWriMo Day 25: With Your Airplane Parts

With Shovels and Bricks

I never thought I was fluent
In getting better
Lemon water and clothes hanging to dry
Just in time, but
This wrinkled cotton duvet, signs of adulthood
Mixed with tragedy, cool against my unmarked arms
Says something different

Here is something that’s true:
We were in love and I forgot
My heart breaking like confetti, pull the edges
Take the crown and I’ll keep
The bad joke

A spiral that goes up
Is still a spiral circling, bird-like
wingtips tapping
A beat with which the fear
Had nothing to do

The shadows are getting longer
So are the days—a cat stretching on the sill
Black hair glinting brown in sudden sunshine
Thinking: we are not our tragedies, an emergency
Is a collision with a doorframe
Walk through
True of heart and best foot forward
Don’t worry; you are the hero
Of this story

I packed a bag, essentials
Waxy fingertips and worn canvas
All the things that once made up a life
I could count on, down from five
Until zero

Coffeemaker gurgles and spits
Grounds and grit, a point of completed pattern
In static motion and slices of pie

Turns out, heaven was at capacity
So I went on home

Here is something that’s true:
The happy ending never comes
In the middle of the story
Slow down, listen between the stations
And stops
Forget the jagged pieces fitting together
You’re already here.

This poem inspired by the work of Buddy Wakefield.

NaPoWriMo Day 24: American Sentences

On the Way to School
She ran into my car! The side mirror—no, I didn’t move an inch!

Laying in Bed on a Stormy Night After Taking Out the Recycling
As the wind picks up, I can hear bottles and cans making their escape.

Outside Padelford Hall
Vegan power! His shirt proclaims, as he smokes, huddled against the rain.

Secret Admirer
A Valentine’s Day surprise at my front door; the letter reads “Love you, Mom”.

So I just learned about this poetic form called the American sentence and I decided to try it out. It's a bit of a play on the haiku form, with 17 syllables, but it's done as just one line instead of the 5-7-5 form of a haiku. It's fun! Read more about it here.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

NaPoWriMo Day 23: Yes, I'm Incorrigible

A Stick and a String

You know you’ll miss the shot you never took
So take the leap, the plunge toward the unknown
I thought that I could read you like a book
But words I couldn’t hear were stick and stone.
You’ve got to make your own stuff work, I said
This messy pile of taped together junk.
The more I look, the more I’ve found misread
By me, yours truly, this embittered chunk
Of fraying hopes left rusting on the vine.
You turned away—I didn’t take the shot.
The ledger, red and dripping, wasn’t mine
My debts to you were merely afterthought
So what’s the use of wond’ring where to go?
I’ll carry on—the one skill that I know.

Once again, I was challenged to write a sonnet. Because of who I am as a person, I wrote it about one Clint Barton, the Hawkguy we know and love.