Hiking in Jindo


I’d hoped for the next post I wrote to introduce a new, semi-regular feature to my blog. Unfortunately, I climbed a mountain on Saturday.

“May,” you’re thinking, deadpan, “It’s your blog. No one is making you write about the bloody mountain.”

Actually, they are. When I initially got the “request,” I thought my hiking companions were just being fun; that maybe they wanted to see our shared adventure on my blog, so they could practice their English/feel special because this really awesome American woman wrote about them. So I in turn didn’t think much of it, indulged the group photographer who insisted on taking travel magazine-style photos of me at every opportunity, and then went home and forgot all about it.

Until about two hours ago, when I got this text: “Miss May, how are you today? Did you write an essay about mt. climbing? They want to get essay by today.”

At which point I stared at the phone in a mix of confusion and disbelief, realized they actually wanted something publishable, texted back something along the lines of “WTF?!&$X*#” and immediately went into panicked writer mode.

And here is the result.

*****

Jindo is South Korea’s third largest island, known mainly for two things: a special breed of dog that is native to there, and an annual event in which, for about one hour each year, the tides ebb enough to reveal a narrow land bridge. The latter attracts innumerable tourists who want to walk across from Jindo to Modo.

Other than these things, however, Jindo seems to be a quiet, rural place with a wealth of natural beauty. From my experience hiking in Korea, it is difficult to find a mountain not already inundated with casual hikers, where one can simply feel secluded in nature. The Jindo mountain trail allows for this. Though my group was fairly large, we ran into few others during the four-hour trek up, down, and around the mountain. At times I would find myself a little separated from the others; in those moments I heard nothing but wind-rustled leaves, the crash of waves down on the shore, and the occasional birdcall.

Visual charm, too, was not found lacking. Our trail took us first through a vibrant green wood dotted with orange flowers on long, free-standing stems. From almost every vantage point, be it a sunny peak or just a break in the trees, a bright blue ocean reached out toward the horizon. Later, the path took us right down to the water’s edge, allowing us to traverse the tide-carved rock and stare up from the base of the mountain’s impressive cliffs. A natural cave here allowed us to hide from the hot sun while we lunched.

As we delved back into the woods for the final leg of our journey, we found the difficulty level increasing. The dry dirt and rock that had stabilized our footsteps on the other side of the mountain were now wet leaves, mud, and slippery wooden steps. Going upward, I hoisted myself with the guide rope to take some weight off my weary feet. On downward courses I often found my momentum building out of control, and so grabbed hold of every tree small enough to fit in my hands for the sake of balance. Once I slid several feet across the slick detritus, right to the edge of a sheer drop. Fortunately I remained on my feet and was able to stop on time; but this became the most memorable point of the hike for me.

In the city, we can meet with injury in a million different ways: car accidents, bicycle accidents, falling down the stairs, burning ourselves on the stove. Doing any one of countless little tasks. Really, a mountain presents no more danger than we already face every day. And yet the risk, I feel, is more worthwhile for the good that hiking does to your soul.

I would hike in Jindo again. Despite the danger, which really was mild compared to what I experienced climbing Mount Fuji; and despite the sunburn, which I suffer, ironically, only in those places where I swathed on sunblock. In fact, I think that overall my experience was such that this hike, out of all my hikes in Korea, was my favorite.

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My New Perspective on Transience


The trouble with having a blog that focuses largely on one’s wild adventures abroad is that the novelty wears off. All those things that were strange and exciting when you first arrived become mundane. You find yourself taking for granted just how different things actually are from home. And because nothing seems worth writing about, you stop writing.

Even though you still feel like an outsider.

I have now been living in Korea for almost one full year, in which time I’ve tried to be a high school teacher, a writer, and a decent human being, at varying levels of success. I’ve traveled to big cities and rural islands, climbed mountains, gone spelunking, toured the DMZ, survived snow and half a year of winter. I’ve eaten octopus bits that were still moving, and taught my kids about Doctor Who, and been severely disappointed in Korean coffee. I’ve lost both parents. I’ve looked out my office window, seen sunlight on green mountains, and felt so lucky to be here. I’ve fought to hold on to someone I love, and wished desperately that I was with them instead.

In many ways, my life in Korea was always going to be a transient thing. One year ago, even before I arrived, I knew this was not going to be the country I settled down in. That knowledge led me to give up on learning Korean. It led me to brush off those little cultural tensions with my host mom. (I’m just a visitor here; she can’t expect me to know this little thing, and it’s okay if she doesn’t bother to explain it because I won’t be here long.)

It led me to feel, sometimes, that I wasn’t really living.

It’s only now that I feel I might have gotten the hang of this whole 우리나라 thing. Now I can tell host mom what time I’ll be home without mixing up the numbers. Now she knows not to feed me fish for any meal. Now I can intuit what clothes I can wear to school without giving my first graders “culture shock,” and when to pursue conversation with my kids versus when to stop at hello, and what flavor of candy they want from my reward box.

Now, when I’m only two weeks away from never seeing them again.

This is a reminder to myself, and a word of advice for anyone about to embark on an extended journey abroad; for anyone who’s already living a life in a foreign country, and who didn’t expect it to pan out quite how it is; for anyone, anywhere in the world, who feels like they’re just passing through, and that it doesn’t matter:

STOP. Look up from the screen. Look at the knick knacks you’ve collected on your desk, or on your shelves, and remember where they came from. Look at the people around you and remember their small gestures of kindness. Look out the nearest window and put yourself in the shoes of a random person on the street.

Everything is transient, but we shouldn’t go through life alienating ourselves, or letting ourselves feel alienated by our environments. The world is strange, and people are strange, and everyone is a stranger to someone else. Don’t let the little things discourage you from living your life where you’ve chosen, at least for a while, to live it. Don’t even let the big things discourage you.

This is your LIFE, that thing you only get one shot at. Stop thinking “it’s just one year, I can get through it” and start thinking “this is a whole year of my life, and I don’t have time for blah attitudes.”

Inspiration, Slice-of-Life Style


I have not posted in three months.

I began several posts, but the motivation for them just petered out each time. And I know why: life honestly sucked for a while. The odd thing is, people who knew my situation had preconceived notions of the suckiness, and of what sucked the most. They were full of feelings for me. And I, for a while, just felt nothing, or felt sad about other things. The way I was supposed to feel about my sucky life was nowhere near the reality.

And that’s something that’s still the case. Because of this fact, other people have taken me to be a strong person. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it’s nice to entertain the thought.

***

I’ve always wanted to be strong. Not beautiful, not a genius, not even kind. Strength was always the most valuable thing to me, maybe because I felt that the people around me lacked it. I grew up with super heroes and not-super heroes and war stories and history books and movies and literature and manga and always there was one simple message: be strong, fight back, succeed.

Some people think I’m pretty. Test scores and a Master’s degree say that I’m smart. And apparently I’ve been kind enough to make an impact on others. But those things all seem so easy to assess. Strength? Who even knows what strength is, really? Who has a right to define it? Is it even something you can have and keep, or does it ebb and flow with the situation?

Can someone tell me that I’m strong, and actually be right? Or is that something I determine for myself?

***

You can spend your entire life hearing the words “be strong.” People say it like a magic spell. You make it your incantation, hoping the words themselves will make you unshakable. And you never really realize what you’re saying.

“Be strong.” Sometimes it’s actually quite a simple thing to do. It means don’t run away; just plant your feet and let the world come at you. Sometimes you don’t even have to move forward, you just have to not be pushed down.

Sometimes you have to fight gravity itself.

***

A few weeks ago I got fed up with having no motivation to write. I had a novel on submission, it’s sequel with a couple of chapters done, and an older project that I’d put on hold upon conceiving the former. I tried working on all three of these for months with no success. It wasn’t even that I hated the words I put down — it was that the words would not come out for anything. Like they didn’t even exist inside of me anymore.

And then I had a dream. I woke up with characters and a situation and a setting all right there on a silver platter, and wrote it all down as fast as I could.

But it wasn’t until later, when I started consciously developing the main character, that I realized the story was more than just a story. There was an idea behind it. One central, humanizing theme, what John Scalzi would call the Big Idea: strength. Strength lost, battered, bullied, trapped behind dark memories and fear. Strength and the girl who needs it. Strength and the boy who doubts it.

***

Through everything, I am a writer. And through being a writer, I become more of a human being. I live other lives, I see other perspectives. I learn by doing, even if I only ever act in a fictional world. It’s not an escape; it’s a translation.

Writing is a translation of life.

Stories are the lives in them.

Every main character in a story has a sucky life, or they’d have nothing to tell you; nothing to change their perspective and make them grow. And how else do they grow, except by being strong?

日本語第3章:お帰り


私が信じることは、いつでも日本に帰れるのだ。

2007、初回の来遊が終わったとき、そう思った。「どうしても、京都に帰るよ。」

二年振りになったけど、やっと帰って、半年京都で勉強して嬉しかった。たくさんよさこいを踊った。富士山に登って危うく死ぬところだった。そして、人間に成人することができた。

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Mt. Fuji — January 20, 2013

三回目は、この世界で一番愛してる人に会うために行った。それが去年の1月だった。

今年、韓国に住んでて大阪まで飛行機で2時間しかかからないからまた行った。しないとはバカだろう?

そして、毎回行くと同じ気がくる。それが、この世界では私の帰るところはアメリカじゃなくて、断然韓国じゃなくて、日本だ。でも、なんども行ってこれを思い出すも、出るとだんだん忘れちゃう。

今度、忘れたくない。今年、フルブライトの一年契約が終わったらすぐに日本で契約を作るつもり。日本語能力試験2級を受ける。そして、私の夢を結局実現にする。

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Kinkakuji — January 12, 2013

A Floridian’s First Snowfall


Many people (Koreans especially) tend not to believe me when I tell them that I’d never seen snow before coming to Korea. The concept seems just as foreign to them as that of stepping foot outside in anything less than 50 degree weather once was to me.

And to be fair, the above is something I’m still fighting to get over. “What is winter like in Naju?” I used to ask people. They would always release the same heavy sigh.

“Ah. So much snow.”

I’m a Floridian with poor blood circulation and the apt title of Miss Tropical. Getting this as a consistent response terrified me. December loomed closer and every day the sun shone weaker. The warmth around me dwindled, pulling closer and closer like light around a dying candle flame even as I wrapped myself in more and more layers. Meanwhile, my friends from Maine, Michigan, and the other freezing M state laughed. #Floridianproblems became the new hashtag trend.

Then, on Wednesday, I stepped into the chilly corridor outside my office at school, and white diamonds were glistening in the sunshine as they drifted past the window. My friend and I watched. She explained that people tend to feel warmer when it snows, even though the temperature might be the same as a snowless day. I thought about how easily things can be taken for granted; for all that my fingers were turning blue, I felt it a fair tradeoff for the serenity I took with me afterward. I was experiencing snow for the first time in my life, and my friend’s amazement made it all the more potent that life has so much to offer.

I was later to be told that this first encounter “barely counted as snow.” The thunderstorm I walked home in afterwards, with its confusion of pouring rain and gentle snowflakes, didn’t seem to count either. But overnight that storm became a true snowfall. Thursday morning I awoke to a world of white.

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This is the pedestrian bridge I cross in order to get to school. I fear it on a typical rainy day because it’s made of metal. Add ice to that, and it becomes a promise for a bruised tailbone.

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And this is Geumseong Mountain. My school sits at the base of this.

So now that I have experienced “real” snow for the first time, as my Maine friend has finally conceded, I feel it may be worth sharing my thoughts on it as a Floridian.

1) Falling snow is beautiful.

2) Iced-up snow on hills and pedestrian bridges is not.

3) Flowers can live through snow. WHAT. I can barely do that!

4) Wow, real snow looks just like the fake stuff they put in the shop windows!

5) Fresh snow is SOFT. I was not expecting to put my finger through it and immediately compare it to a cloud, but I did. I also took the opportunity to write “English rocks” on the hill outside my school.

6) The lifecycle of snow would seem to be: fall, compact, melt, refreeze into ice, melt, evaporate, and fall again. This should have been obvious considering we all learned about precipitation in first grade, but being Floridian I’ve never had cause to appreciate it before. This stuff spends a lot of time on the ground.

7) I wonder if snow ever piles up on telephone lines, then melts into icicles and spears people through the head.

My northerner friends find my naiveté endearing. But I feel I’ve come a long way since asking whether one could bicycle in the snow.

The Marble Mansion: Days 1 and 2


It is the rainy afternoon of my second day in Goesan, Korea. Since my last post I’ve:

  • spent more than 30 hours in transit
  • arrived at Goesan university, the orientation site, to discover that I will be living in a single enormous building made entirely out of marble for the next six and a half weeks
  • seen more rain in two days than in the past six months, and no sunshine at all
  • met at least 60 of the other 80 Fulbrighters here with me
  • made a few new friends, one of whom I’m lucky enough to have as a room mate
  • eaten four entirely Korean meals without dying (though there were two close calls with boney fish soup and cartilage-filled pork)
  • bought Beauty and the Beast with Korean audio!
  • discovered there is a brand of Korean canned coffee that has flavor — 프롄치카페
  • discovered, contrarily, that there is no way to make Cuban coffee on this campus
  • signed up for an archery lesson!
  • taken my Korean language class placement test
  • and taken one photo — of the mountains outside my dorm room window.

That’s the interesting stuff so far. And yes, this university really is made entirely of marble: the walls, the floors, the windowsills, the halls, the classrooms, even my dorm room! Fortunately they stopped short of giving us marble mattresses, though granted it’s a little difficult to tell. 😉

The rest of today will consist of workshops (one of which is called Vignettes — not sure whether to expect a writing assignment or not), the language exam results, and a club mixer I’ll be checking out to see if I want to join. I’m interested because the club’s theme is language exchange, something I’d always tried to get going with Japan Club back home. We’ll see how it goes. 🙂

*

UPDATE: Well, it seems I will not be joining the club due to it having the same problem JLS did — too many English speakers and too few Korean speakers. In fact, several of us wound up leaving to read poetry at each other. XD I also made two failed attempts to go back into town tonight, which resulted in playing Bananagrams in the ETA lounge. So all in all, a pretty good day.

Anticipation


In exactly twelve days I will be sitting at the airport, waiting to board the first of three planes for a twenty-five hour journey to South Korea.

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting much about this little adventure. In a word, this is because I haven’t managed to be honestly excited about it until the past couple days. Instead I’ve been scared, stressed, or just plain busy with other things. But now that the time is so close, and I’ve nothing left to do but wait, I’m realizing just how great this opportunity really is.

First, I’ll be riding the plane over with a number of other Fulbrighters, hopefully making friends before even entering the country. Over the following six weeks of orientation, I’ll learn Korean, acquire some new teaching methods, and basically ease into the culture of my new home.

Sometime toward the end of orientation, I’ll learn where my placement will be. I’m holding out hope for Daegu or a nearby town. 🙂 But as long as it’s not a place I’ll freeze to death or have to walk an hour to find a train, anywhere is fine.

Then will come the actual teaching. Even now I think of that and feel anxious, but maybe I’ll feel more prepared after orientation.

I know I won’t be alone. Not only will I have my 79 fellow ETA’s, several of my friends from Miami, as well as my former student, will all be there as well. And Japan, where I have other dear friends, will be only a short trip away.

So now that the anticipation outweighs the fear, you’ll see me posting a lot more about Korea. Some of these are likely to be in story format (and hopefully, unlike the Mt. Fuji story, complete). I’ll try to keep this blog interesting, at the very least!

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