Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thank you, Korea

‎"You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place." -Miriam Adeney

I don't know why I'm so emotional as I write this. I think it's because I've just celebrated my 11 month anniversary here in Korea, meaning my time in this incredible country is slowly but surely coming to an end. But I don't know if it was more celebratory or mournful.

I have fallen absolutely, unequivocally, head over heels in love with this country. I have met some of the most amazing people imaginable and they have taught me more about myself than I could have ever dreamt possible.

This experience has taught me that I can be independent. I can live on my own, for the first time, in a completely foreign country. I can live away from friends and family. I can come to the realization that they mean the world to me. I can say to myself every day, it's okay.

I love travel, there's no denying that. But as the quote above states, it's difficult in a strange, inexplicable kind of way. Until you experience the lifestyle, make the friends and leave them behind, it's hard to understand the paradox.

I moved to Italy and met people that changed my life forever. I traveled through Europe and made friends that I will never lose touch with. I lived in Korea and had the most remarkable year of my life.

It's so hard to leave Korea behind. As ready as I am to travel and explore new places and ultimately return home, I'm not ready to say goodbye to Korea forever. I realize I could easily come back but I don't think that's in the cards for me. I don't want this as a career and I can't imagine leaving home for another year.

I don't want to blemish this memory. I don't want to try to recreate it or duplicate it. Because I don't think I could ever top it, nor do I want to attempt. My friends are irreplaceable, my memories are pristine and leaving seems damn near impossible. That's how I always want to remember this.

Most importantly, Korea taught me about myself. Not only what I'm capable of independently, but as a human being. I've learned that not only can I make friends from around the country but around the world. I've called people "friend" from all walks of life and that's the true beauty of travel. I have loved and cared for people on a human level, based only on their heart; not their race, skin color, background or heritage. I will never discriminate against someone and I will encourage others to do the same.

Throughout my travels I have become more open minded, but Korea has truly taught me the meaning of acceptance. Because this country has accepted me and it has made me feel at home. I'm going to have a very difficult time saying goodbye to friends that will remain here. They looked past my exterior just as I did with them and to me, that's the greatest gift I could ask for.

I will continue to travel. Truthfully, I don't think I'll ever stop. Had I not experienced this year and had the pleasure of meeting these extraordinary people, I would be nothing like I am today. I can never thank any one person, culture or collective society enough for the knowledge I have been granted. All I can do is continue to see the world and share that love with everyone I meet along the way.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

(More) A day in the life

I can't believe how fast this year has gone; I'm only a few days away from my 11-month anniversary in Korea. The last month will be full of errands, tearful goodbyes and preparations to travel. But for now, things are still calm and I've had time to reflect.

Here are a few of those reflections, continued from the previous two lists of everyday observations I've made here in the ROK.

-The kids we teach will often time have English names. Of course, this isn't the name they were born with, but sometimes it's hard for us foreigners to pronounce (and remember) every student's Korean name. Perhaps to make it easier on everyone (and for the sake of being at an English academy), we give them Western names. Sally, John, Amy and Steve are popular selections. Though I've had my fair share of odd names, having taught a Label, North and Sponge. I've even had the honor of "naming" a few of my students. The class works together to come up with a list of names and then the new student can pick the one they like best. I'll admit, I lack creativity when it comes to giving names and the list usually consists of the same ones (mostly names of friends or family from home).

-Fan death. I made a small reference to fan death when I first arrived, but it's crept up on me a few times since then. As I understand the urban legend, many people believe that it's possible to die if you sleep in a room with no ventilation (i.e. windows closed) and a fan circulating. I've heard different theories about why this happens, each more bizarre than the last.

-Sharing things is quite common here. I don't mean sharing pencils or erasers (because students are actually quite serious about their school supplies. Never mess with a child's pencil case). I mean sharing things that foreigners would usually like to have only to themselves. My best examples come from school. We have a water cooler that anyone can use to fill their cups or waterbottles, but it also has two community cups that students will fill up, use, then put back for the next student. No washing or cleaning in between uses. There's also community soap in the bathroom. No, not a soap dispenser, an actual bar of soap. This is the norm throughout all of Korea, including a communal towel. Hand sanitizer has been my friend.

-Eating out was a little hard to adjust to at first. At home, you're accostumed to being waited on. After all, these people are working for tips and they usually do a great job earning it. There is no tipping system in Korea (something I admit, I will miss). Therefore in restaurants, waiters aren't coming over to your table every once and a while to make sure your meal is okay or you need anything in the mean time. Instead, they only come over when you call them. How do you get their attention? Press a button! At most restaurants, there's a button you can press to get your waiter's attention and they will come over swiftly to get you whatever you need. If there's no button (or you're feeling brave) just say "yeogi-yo" which basically means "here!" It seemed rude to me at first to yell come here to the person working, but this is quite common in Korea, and may actually be rude if you do it any different.

-"Bongs" A bong is a room in Korean. There are several different specialized rooms here, the most popular (I think) being a "noraebong," or a singing room. Go and sing karaoke and drink beer with your friends for a few hours (a craze that certainly needs to be brought to America). There are also DVD-bongs, which you might think would be a good way to relax after a hard day at work. It's cheap, easy and you don't have to wait for the movie to download. But beware! Many young couples will sneak off to DVD-bongs and do certain things they wouldn't be allowed to do at home. You'll be used to the idea of sharing by this point, so a community couch should be no problem.

-All men are required to do military service. I believe it's a minimum of two years. Therefore, a lot of men will start their higher education after their time in the military is done. While visiting the DMZ, I was a little shocked by how young some of the soldiers appeared to be. It breaks my heart to imagine my students in those uniforms...

-Smoking. I'm not a smoker and I've been pretty grateful for that while living here. Unfortunately, it seems that Korea is still archaic in many ways and for some reason, it's frowned upon when women smoke openly. I can't say why this is, but I've witnessed friends being stared and even yelled at because they chose to smoke a cigarette in public. Because of this, there are often ashtrays in the women's bathroom. I suppose if a lady is feeling to urge to light up, it's better if she sneaks off to the bathroom instead of doing it for all to see.

-Korea has been incredibly accommodating over the last year. Besides food and people, I can't say I've really missed anything; most everything that you need can be found somewhere in this country. Language hasn't been much of a problem. Many, many people speak English, even if it's simple phrases. I've learned a little Korean, enough to order in restaurants or get home in a cab. Other than that, most communication has been done in English. But besides that, the people have been overwhelmingly accepting. There have been rare occasions when I've been scolded on the subway or people have said inappropriate things. Yes, it made me feel stupid, unwanted and foolish for being an intruder. But then I realize that out of the last 300+ days I've lived here, this has only happened twice. Those few incidents aren't going to ruin my perception of this country and to be quite honest, it could have happened at home, too. Instead, I'm going to always be grateful for Korea, the people, and the opportunities it has given me to learn about their amazing culture and myself.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

So I could fly far. Far, far away from... Busan.

Another small update on life here in 부산.

Nothing much has happened since I last updated. I'm patiently going to and from work every day, counting down until it's time to travel once again. I absolutely love Korea and I will miss it dearly but I'm certainly ready to experience something new.

Since my friends and I have been wanting to do something different (and perhaps a bit adventurous) we decided to go paragliding! Melissa found an awesome company that picked us up in Busan and took us to jump near Ulsan. We didn't quite know what to expect and I think some of us were close to backing out, but we all went through with it and we're all so happy we did.

We basically drove to the top of a mountain, put on a backpack, chose a partner and jumped! No real instruction, no rules. It was very laidback but professional; I felt safe the entire time (except I did see two different people literally crash into trees, but they were solo jumpers not with our company). We had to go in groups of two; Alix, Kavita and Lindsey went first then Melissa and I jumped second. I think the wait and anticipation was worse than actually running off the mountain.

I wanted to go with the "daredevil" of the group, just because he seemed fun. He put my safety gear on, gave me a very quick rundown on what to do, and we were off! It was pretty hard to run off the mountain, not because of a lack of nerve, but because the wind and the parachute was pushing you back. I finally made it off and what an incredible experience it was! It was almost as if you were sitting in a lawn chair in the air with a man strapped to your back, guiding you along the way.

My tandem partner definitely was a little "psycho" like the rest of the instructors were calling him. He told me we were "rolling" and "pitching" and before we landed we did a "spiral," but I had a great time and a lot of laughs (between almost losing my breakfast).

All the girls had a lot of fun and we're glad we went out on a limb and did something different. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, anywhere. It's a lot easier than you would think! And the view is hard to beat.

Other than that, I guess I do have another small bit of news. When I wrote last, I was going to return to Jeju for my long vacation in two weeks. I didn't see enough of it and I wanted a nice, relaxing vacation before leaving Korea. But I'm always prone to change my mind and I've never really enjoyed relaxing (especially by myself) because those who know me know how bored I get.

Instead, I'm going to Tokyo with Alix! It would be a shame not to visit Japan, living so close. I tried to convince myself that I would be okay with not having gone to Tokyo during my time abroad, but realistically, I would have been bummed if I didn't go. We leave two weeks from today. If I thought Korea was a bit bizarre at times, I can't imagine what Japan will be like.