A Look Ahead: The Last Month in Korea

book coffee happiness

It’s the end of November and it has been for the past week, but this November has absolutely flown by. The everyday blogging, the everyday work, the weekend commitments and events, book-binging and the daily routine of having a dog have all contributed to the light speed with which the month disappeared. More and more, I’m looking ahead.

This December isn’t just the end of the year, it’s also the end of my time as a middle school ESL teacher in Korea. I’m making that very specific on purpose; I will very likely be returning to Korea and ESL is a pretty marketable skill, but I can’t say I want to do it in this context again. It’s just not my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the experience and wouldn’t trade it for much. (Maybe mashed potatoes, though…)

Let’s take a look at what’s coming up this next month:

A trip to Jeju Island. Technically I leave tonight, November, but I come back on Sunday, the first day of December. I’ll be trying to see as much as possible, eating as much as possible, and generally just going against my usual travel philosophy of spending all of my time at a coffee shop watching people.

– My November Reading Roundup! Look for that within a few days.

Selling my precious, bright green car with a maroon pleather interior. I’m going to be so sad to see it go. Princess Fiona has treated me quite well, this past year.

– Running a benefit pancake brunch for friends in town to try to raise some cash for Typhoon Haiyan victims. Pancakes will be involved, so that makes up for the stress of cooking things that people need to eat.

– Ridding my apartment of extra things. I’ve got clothes, books, general things and I live outside of town, so a “garage sale”/come-to-my-house-take-my-things-for-free situation won’t be possible. I have a feeling this may be my biggest stresser.

– Other general preparation, like finding and buying Mary a dog crate for the flight over (suggestions? please tell me!), those last dinners and one-on-ones with friends, shipping things home for which there is no room in my suitcase, making sure to eat everything delicious ever, one last time. (If only I could eat Bingsu again!)

– Eating three meals of macaroni and cheese, because my mom sent me some Easy Mac from the USA. I am actually quite excited about this, it may be one of those (three of those) bright spots in the midst of a hectic and stressful month.

– Finishing all of my Christmas shopping; buying online and making sure it’s delivered on time or grabbing any last-minute souvenirs from Seoul for family members.

– A goodbye party which will be super sad and hopefully also involve cake, because cake is delicious.

– A 36 hour Christmas in Korea and Pittsburgh (due to a Christmas flight and the time difference), my birthday in Pittsburgh, and the beginning of a very unplanned and crazy year to come.

Well, December, you’re pretty much already here, so come at me! Bring it on!

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Do you have suggestions for keeping stress levels down this month? How about for a good airplane dog carrier? What does your December look like?

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7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me

I’ve been a little retrospective lately, as my contract comes to a close this Christmas. A year and a half isn’t really a long time and the time has certainly flown by, but when sit down and really think about my earlier self, I realize that I have changed a lot. Some of these changes are surprising and others simply hilarious. (I also suspect that landing in the USA will reveal an entirely new host of transitions that I didn’t even realize I’d gone through.) For those hoping that my weird, not that funny sense of humor would be one of the things vanquished during my time in Asia, I have some sad news for you: my jokes are still horrible. Get over it.

I Stopped (Binge) Drinking

I mentioned this shortly in my earlier reflections after a year post, but this is a huge contrast to my college years. Grandma plug your ears, but oh my gosh did I drink a lot and do some really, really dumb shit. I guess everyone does, but my senior year most people had cleaned up their act and I was still drunkenly stubbing toes and getting rides in police cars. Anyways, those days are over. Either it was my overwhelming and new-found maturity, the $25 price tag on a taxi home (living in the countryside does that) or perhaps the uncomfortable reality of Korean-made beer that tastes like water, but it isn’t actually refreshing. By some strange combination of elements, I stopped drinking anything but occasionally and now actually enjoy my sobriety. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.
I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.

Road Rage

I’ve always been a patient driver in the USA, allowing people to be stupid, slow down in the middle of the freeway and calmly maneuvering around them. I used to let strangers merge ahead of me during rush hour, and condescendingly reprimand my cousin when she screamed at cars on the way to Denny’s. Those days are also over. Driving in Korea has made me an angry, angry, unforgiving and ruthless driver. My mouth is about as clean as my bathroom floor 95% of the year and thank goodness my windows are tinted because I have flicked a lot of birds. As soon as I step out of my vehicle, though, all is well and I’m a content, zen-like human being again. Still to be determined: if my road rage will diminish in the USA or if it’s here to stay.

Nothing Sudden Phases Me

I’m not talking about ghosts popping out from behind a tree here. I’m talking about life’s little surprises, also known as the tendency of fellow Koreans to not tell you what’s going on until immediately before it happens. Like when I have several extra classes and I’m told at 9:15am that morning. Like when my coworkers are missing, I go to find them and discover it’s picture day, my turn to sit and I haven’t showered. Like when all of my classes are cancelled for unexplained reasons, then rescheduled, then cancelled again, all within a three hour time span. I’ve become a strange life-events Gumby and sometimes it weirds me out. Today, some martial art competition was happening next to the building where my class was and some strange competitor decided to show me his abs. I calmly shut the classroom door and continued with teaching. Sometimes I walk around a corner and see the building that was there yesterday has now burned to the ground. Interesting. Next week it’s two new restaurants. Korea’s taught me to just roll with it.

So you went camping on the sidewalk... interesting.
So you went camping on the sidewalk… interesting.

I Understand How Studying Works

Yes, this was the skill set that I was supposed to learn in high school so that I could use it in college. In reality, I was too smart for my own good and somehow just remembered enough from class to get by with A’s and B’s. I honestly graduated university without knowing how to really, hardcore study. Insane, right? That’s not to say I’ve never studied in my life, I have, but not for long periods of time and never on a schedule. Korea, land of kimchi and student suicides because they study too much, made me realize that I totally didn’t even know what real studying was. Learning Korean to the less-than-stellar level that I’m at now required me to really sit down, study and then repeat. Regularly.

Honestly, I still really suck at studying. But at least I understand now how the whole thing works, and how to do it successfully, even if I’m not always able to execute it well.

I’m a Modest Dresser

The USA and South Korea have a complete opposite view of modesty. Arms and shoulders and chest are scandalous when they’re shown off too much in Korea, but in the USA, a v-neck shirt is pretty standard and certainly nothing to look twice at. Tank tops are everywhere. Hell, belly shirts are totally in fashion now. But none of that flies in South Korea, particularly in a professional setting, even more particularly in a rural professional setting where you work with a bunch of middle school kids. Even outside of work, I live in a building full of single, middle aged laborers and a town equally as populated with grandmothers. I just don’t feel comfortable going anywhere in a shirt without sleeves. Or shorts that look sexy. Or a shirt that is v-necked and wide shouldered. Yeah, that tube top I packed has definitely not been put to good use, and I honestly don’t even feel comfortable in it anymore. I don’t see us having a very promising future, that tube top and I.

I Like Spicy Food (or at least can always tolerate it)

My older brother was always the one with sixteen different hot sauces from Arizona sitting in the family kitchen. At least one of them had a skull and crossbones on it. I always, always ordered mild salsa with my burrito and did not participate in the extended family Quaker, Steak and Lube atomic wings challenge. (Yes, this really happened.) Well, in Korea I’ve had no choice but to eat spicy food all the time. Spicy chili paste is a staple ingredient in, well, everything. Ever. To enjoy my time and food in Korea, I’ve had no choice but to go in with an optimistic, “Yes! Spicy! I’LL EAT THE SPICIEST THING YOU HAVE AND LIKE IT, MUAHAHA!” attitude. Somehow it worked and now I kind of like spicy food. Some of it. Anyhow, I’ll be trying that medium Mexican salsa from now on.

Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.
Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.

I Don’t Care About Beauty

Korea is a really superficial culture sometimes and rocks their plastic surgery capital of the world title with no shame. Even more uncomfortable, the only compliment I get when I meet someone is that I’m pretty. The people I least expect sometimes surprise me by whipping out their new Dior brand foundation with a big smile. To add to it all, South Korean women are straight up tiny. I’m officially an extra large size in pants when I go shopping, as opposed to my usual single digit pants size in the USA. Instead of worrying about being up to snuff, I’ve found myself completely rejecting this obsession with image. I haven’t touched my high heels in months and partially in an effort to be an example for my students, mostly because I stopped caring, I haven’t worn make up more than three times in the last six months. I don’t even know how much I weigh, because I can’t justify spending money on a scale. My style has now become the style of being clean, wearing clothes and brushing my hair regularly. I just can’t be bothered to care about looking more “beautiful”, because it simply doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m a free spirit, ya’ll! Who wants free eye shadow? Because there’s no way I’m making space for something so useless in my suitcase, this time around.

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My Really Vague, Noncommital Future Plans

The speed at which I am committing to my future plans.
The speed at which I am committing to my future plans.

I’ve still got a solid four months left in South Korea, and that’s nothing to balk at. But as the summer winds down and flights home are booked, stray thoughts pester me with more and more frequency. What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? When I sit down for a moment on my laptop, I find myself searching for information about strange destinations, apartment rental prices, the best library system and volunteer opportunities. Leaving Korea, I’ll have a tiny bit of financial padding, but no impending bills to pay. I’ll essentially be very, very free. (Until 2015, when loan payments will be due again…) What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

I have nailed down nothing, but I’ve come up with some vague plans that may come to fruition. Some more vague than others. Some fairly certain, yet without a timeline. First things first, I’ll celebrate Christmas with my family and visit friends and relatives whom I haven’t seen in ages. That should take me through about a month, I’m guessing, and hopefully doesn’t burn through too much of my baby nest egg, either.

Then, I’m headed to Mexico.

Awww yeah. I’m currently researching volunteer projects in the area that are free/in exchange for accommodation and food when possible. (And if you know of any, you’ve got to let me know!) I’m hoping to find something more along the lines of an internship, where I can really invest myself for 3 or so months and learn about the organization (or organizations). I’d love to see some parts of Mexico while I’m there, too, but I’m not sure that really in depth travel through the country is possible at the moment. Either some Mexican Cartels will chop me up or my parents will for risking anything in the first place. So I’ll be sticking to major cities, the districts without travel warnings and anywhere recommended to me by someone who’s gone and enjoyed the place. I’m sure they’ll still be no shortage of experiences, regardless.

As for the timeline, I’m giving myself anywhere between three and eight months to be in Mexico. I have a non negotiable wedding to attend in June, which I may fly back for or be home already, but other than that, I’m free. My plans are wide open. I’m going to travel until my time or money runs out. (I’m rooting for time. Go time! Run out first! Time, yeahhh!) I’ll also get that Spanish practice in, since my language skills have seriously lapsed since my semester in Argentina. But it’s in my brain somewhere and I intend to dig it out, dust it off, and make it shiny again. And then?

I’m applying to graduate school in South Korea.

While technically I’m applying this January/February, I’ll hear back in April/May and the program I want to do begins in September. This plan is definitely in limbo and is walking the edge of a cliff at the moment. First, I have to get into the program, which is competitive. Second, I have to see if I’ll receive enough scholarship to actually attend. This is very competitive. Third, I have to decide that this is really what I want to do for the next two years. I’ve been in Korea for a while and I’d like to see some new sights, but perhaps a Mexico-breather and moving to Seoul will be enough.

Maybe not, though. My mind yo-yos.

Where's the Eingang (entrance) to see what the future holds?
Where’s the Eingang (entrance) to see what the future holds?

There are also some other thoughts that bounce around my head.

I’d really, really love to catch up on my to-read list. I’ve always wanted to do a kind of book hermitage, where I hang out alone in some city and solely read books and feed myself for two months. The USA would be the best place to do that, obviously: public libraries are the only way I could afford it. This upcoming year may be the perfect time to do that.

I do want to “finish” Korean, or learn it to a level that would get me into the professional world (would I so choose). Doing graduate school for two years in Seoul would certainly put me on that level, but so would taking some hardcore, 4-hours-a-day Korean lessons at the same university in Seoul, 3 months at a time, for less than 2 years. The downside of that would be $$$ and not being able to work for the initial 6 months because of visa regulations. I could also find a new job teaching English in Korea, save up and “finish” Korean, but I feel like I really need a break. Classroom EFL is not my cup of tea; I cringe at having to do another year so quickly after finishing this contract.

I also desperately want to see more of the world. I can’t help but see pictures of Prague and feel as though I should be there. Or Vietnam. Or London. Or Morocco. One day I’d like to work in a career that involves the world (vague, once again, Sally!), but I can’t imagine doing so without getting to know it. I can’t read about places and pretend that I understand the culture; it just doesn’t work that way. But money. Because the way I want to see the world involves a month or two with a local roommate, several books for context and a lot of delicious food… per country. And then volunteer work. So this idea, fully implemented, could take a really, really long time and cost a lot. I don’t have the start up funds for such a venture, yet.

Then there are the random ideas of interning with a political campaign (one of my future fields of interest), finding a job in the USA that allows me to travel sometimes (HAH!), writing a book, visiting Denmark, moving to France to learn French and all matters of nonsensical craziness that is coursing through my thoughts. My brain feels like a two year old’s piece of crayon “art”.

This is significantly more orderly than the inside of my head at the moment.
This is significantly more orderly than the inside of my head at the moment.

So the point of this convoluted word purge is that my brain is swimming, and I have no idea what the future holds.

Really, no one should know or we’d all be bored out of our minds. I’ve made some tentative plans and I’m excited to see what happens. But I can’t shake this strange feeling that all of my planning is soon going to go to crap. Like my whole life is going to implode. Like I’m going to end up in some country, somewhere completely different than anything I’ve planned and it’s going to be weird and unexpected and impulsive.

I’m just trusting that whatever happens, it’s also going to be good.

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Reflections on One Year in Korea

pagodasunset
The country I knew nothing about before arriving on an airplane, one day in June: South Korea.

Before I left for Korea, I had little idea what I was getting myself into; actually, let’s be honest, I had none. I thought that by learning Hangeul ahead of time (the Korean writing system) and just being a flexible person would get me through whatever I needed to handle. I even read a book about Korean culture, which turned out to be barely helpful. While I’ve survived, clearly, a lot of those assumptions that I’d have an easy adjustment were oh so wrong. Korea is a roller coaster that’s been rocking my world for the past year… and will be for another six months, at least.

Continue reading Reflections on One Year in Korea

An Accidental Visit to the Princes’ Islands

When life gives you passage on the wrong ferry, look out the window and enjoy the ride.
When life gives you passage on the wrong ferry, look out the window and enjoy the ride.

My mom and I had been talking about visiting the Asian side of Istanbul for the entirety of our trip. We’d seen it shortly, on a guided tour, and we’d taken a bunch of ferries here and there, although not by ourselves. We woke up on a Saturday, a beautiful day, and had our plans in hand, literally, in the form of my Frommer’s day-by-day book: an Üsküdar walking tour.

Continue reading An Accidental Visit to the Princes’ Islands

On Losing Touch with Friends

Since I was seventeen, it feels like I’ve been constantly on the move. I ventured out to Austria, became infatuated with a world I could never see enough of, and began a series of geographic shifts that came with no less frequency than every year. I’ve spend five years like this; in and out and on to the next. Sometimes I moved away, and sometimes I returned back home and left something behind. I’ve had a whole lot of hellos and I’m no stranger to goodbyes. Continue reading On Losing Touch with Friends

what I do every minute of every day

being in South Korea, employed, is quite a change from being back home, unemployed, half packing and half hanging out with all my friends. my social schedule used to be my entire schedule… no longer. I’ve got myself a real schedule.

so I’ll go ahead and outline what I do / will be doing on weekdays (at least until I have friends) for you guys/stalkers.

5-7am : wake up for no reason, stay awake (this is actually typical of me) Continue reading what I do every minute of every day

moving home is for losers / goodbye, college

my lease on the house that I was renting ends tomorrow. I don’t leave for South Korea for another two weeks or so. this means that I have three options: refuse to vacate my house (occupy 3328!), find, interior decorate and live in a box-house in the streets of Pittsburgh (preferably PPG Plaza), or do what all the losers do after they graduate: move home.

obviously I picked the hottest, most humid day in weeks to move out of my so-not-air-conditioned house. yesterday I labored for hours, taking breaks only to drink powerade and eat freezy pops. I loaded up my tiny Subaru to it’s brim, fitting nearly all my things, and drove the grueling 20 minutes to my suburban family home. Continue reading moving home is for losers / goodbye, college