A Cultural Ambassador Story


Today, students in two separate classes stole entire bags of potato chips from me. In another class, some Trolli gummy hamburgers that I’d bought specially (and for a pretty penny) in Itaewon also disappeared before I’d even opened the snack bag. I was so angry and disappointed, I almost cried.

After class, a quiet/shy first grade girl came to my desk. She comes by often, but until now had always been dragged by her more talkative and outgoing friend. This time she came alone. “Teacher,” she said, “I heard you have American snacks. Can I try?”

I gave her a Combo from a pack that I’d bought in Itaewon. The saltiness was such a shock that her face transfigured, and for a moment I thought she was going to spit it out. When we’d finished laughing, she asked for another one — to give to a friend and get a reaction from her, as well. I gave her the saltiest one in the bag.

It was a short exchange and easily could have been buried under a landslide of other experiences I’ve had in Korea. But it was so, so important, because it’s the perfect example of why I came to this country: to make kids actually want to speak English and try new things.

This story is quite possibly the best reminder of something I’ve been telling myself through all the trials and tribulations my students put me through:

It’s worth it. It’s worth it even on the bad days.

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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。

kinkakuji_2013

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.

IMG_3843

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.

Rejection Dejection?


This was my horoscope this morning:

The power of your positive thoughts can save you from a difficult situation today, yet it still might be hard to hold on to your dream.”

I knew right away, without a doubt, what it was referring to. Sure enough, I opened my email to find two new rejection letters, including one from the agent I’ve been dying to win over for the past two years.

To be honest, though, this wasn’t as painful as I was expecting it to be. Maybe it’s because this is the second book I’m querying for (the first one had no success) and I’m just getting used to rejection. Maybe it’s because I have faith still that Ciphers is good enough to catch someone’s interest. Or maybe it’s all those articles I’ve been reading online that insist that a dozen rejections are better than a dozen luke-warm agents expressing interest — because the only agent that should matter is the one who loves my novel as much as I do. Anyone else is a waste of time and, essentially, not right for me.

So what does that mean if no agent winds up expressing interest in my novel?

Two years ago, after one too many rejections for my first novel, Lavender, I gave up the ghost. Even to me, the plot of that first completed work was wishy-washy, almost every detail cliché, and the only reason I hadn’t shelved it yet was that I’d spent eight years on the cursed thing and couldn’t bear to let all that hard work go to waste. There was no way this wouldn’t be seen through in the query letter, but I had to at least try, right?

But because I already had those doubts, I stopped after only a handful of queries.

This time, I know my novel is publishable. I have a strong plot, good characters, and a fresh concept. My betas, all honest, constructive readers, tell me they enjoyed reading it. And okay, the manuscript can still use a little work. But there’s always something that can be better, and honestly if an editor said “let’s publish this just as it is” then I’d only be mildly embarrassed rather than mortified. (And considering one of my best friends once referred to my editing process as “sterilization,” this is no small detail.)

That’s why this time I’m not going to quit. If I query every single agent who represents YA fantasy and get nothing but rejections, I’ll move on to editors. If all the editors reject me, I’ll find another route. Self-publishing, in my opinion, should only ever be a last resort; but I don’t think it’s completely off the table, either.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, writers should believe in their writing. If you can’t, then scrap it; but if you can, then don’t give up. As long as there’s someone out there who can enjoy it, it’s your duty as an author to share it with them one way or another. Yes, I realize this is defending stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray in a roundabout way — and for the record I still think both series are crap and would never want my name associated with them in any way — but guess what? People enjoy them. This is a sad but undeniable truth. And both series are published, and both authors are now making more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Some bittersweet food for thought.

Moral of the story: Never give up!

Goesan, Day 24: Things I’ve done today AND Identity part 2


Starting at midnight, I:

  • walked home drunk for the first time ever. Fortunately, I was not as drunk as I could have been, but I did drunk-talk the entire way. Largely about Linguistics.
  • drunk-talked with one of my closest friends here as soon as I got back to campus. I don’t even KNOW what I said to her.
  • got back to my room and thought my roomie was already in bed, and hence stumbled around in the dark trying not to wake her. She came in some time after I’d fallen asleep.
  • woke up blissfully not hungover at 7:30.
  • blew up about 40 balloons for the Camp Fulbright Olympics.
  • ran around in the sun and heat for two hours, trying to control up to 20 screaming Korean kids at a time while they played soccer… five times in a row with only water breaks.
  • got sunburnt, as expected. @D (Though it was worth it for the kids who got really into it — especially one tiny elementary school girl with a love for bugs, who refused to back down in a game against boys literally twice her size! Tough as nails. >^_^<)
  • forgot I’d left the shower head on instead of the faucet and accidentally sprayed ice water all over my left side… for the second time since coming here.
  • hung out with my writer friend, Andrea, and had a “writers’ afternoon.”
  • took a much needed nap.
  • wound up talking gossip with my friend Kristal over dinner.
  • and just got back from watching the movie UP, several parts of which made me cry and several others of which made me think of a certain someone. I predict lots of introspection over the next few days.

Well, the list started out entertaining enough.

At some point during the writers’ afternoon, I mentioned to Andrea something that I realized for myself not too long ago: the fact that I’ve been given the rare opportunity to start anew and choose who I want to be.

Back in the states, I went by my real name more often than not; even friends who called me May only did so in certain circumstances, like in KakaoTalk. So when I mentioned, in a rather offhand way, that I liked to be called that on the Fulbright forum, I had no idea that I would actually arrive in Korea to find my nice, official name tag stamped with “May Myers.”

It took longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that this was a real life Call to Adventure, Joseph Campbell style. I wrote here that it felt like my true self had been smothered by the pressure of trying not earn a negative reputation (not in those words, though). Since then, I’ve gradually become more outgoing, more confident, and more satisfied with my experiences here. All the while, there was a single question in my head, wanting to be answered:

Who do I want to be?

At this point, the answer could be anything. Sweet or bitchy; brave or cowardly; innocent or wise; lazy or motivated; a victim, or a strong, independent woman. All of these aspects exist within me right now, just as they exist, to varying degrees, in everyone. My identity lies in the ones that I will choose to foster. The ones I deign important enough to actively strive for, rather than giving in to their opposites. In some cases, though, opposite does not mean bad; just that I want to be one more than the other. And sometimes the middle road is alright, too.

So my next step is to actively consider these aspects, their pros and cons, and how to work toward becoming my ideal self.

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