Hello from Osaka!


Well, here’s a boring but obligatory update:

After my end-of-the-schoolyear adventures with Naju friends and coworkers, I went to Daegu for three weeks and took one last stab at studying Korean. It was a lot of fun, and after a whole year of aversion to the language I was able to rediscover my passion for it. 🙂

On Wednesday, I got on a plane (as well as a taxi, a bus, and a couple trains) and came to Osaka, where I’ll spend the next year teaching at an eikaiwa. For now I’m staying at a guesthouse, but will move to my new apartment on Friday. In the meantime, I go into town almost every weekday in order to register the address, find a cellphone, open a bank account, and various other errands I need to have done by next Tuesday in order to begin working.

I can hardly describe how it feels to be back in Japan for the long haul; in some strange, embarrassing-to-admit way, I feel like I’m coming home. And even though I know my job is going to be neither prestigious nor easy, I’m so glad I have it because that means I’m here where I want to be.

It’s hard to say when I’ll next be able to post about writing (or that new special feature I hinted at before) but I’ll try to have something before long.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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?

“What is your life sometimes?”


So. Here’s an anecdote from a few months back.

One night in Naju, I went to bed excited that I’d spend the next day at my school’s annual festival, watching my students perform musical numbers and skits and various other things. Despite a semester in Japan, I’d never had the opportunity to experience such a thing and so wanted to go even though my presence was not in any way required.

At 2:00am exactly, I woke to my phone ringing. It was a Korean cell phone number, so I assumed the caller had just made a mistake. I let them call back twice before finally picking up.

“Hullo…?”

There was a pause, then a click.

A moment later, the same number called. I answered in Korean, and a woman’s voice responded likewise. “Hello?” I said again, clawing through sleep-veiled layers of my brain for the translation of what I wanted to say. After an awkward pause, I gave up. “Um, wrong number.”

*click*

She didn’t call back. Unfortunately, I was now wide awake. I twisted beneath the covers for a while, sticking my feet out when they felt too warm and pulling them back in when they iced up. Finally I pulled my phone back over and started reading World War Z. Surely I’d feel tired again soon.

5:00 hit before sleep decided to humor me.

8:00 hit and my host mom came in with breakfast. At 8:30 I woke up long enough to pull the try onto my bed and eat it. Some time around mid-morning, I sleep-texted my Korean friend.

I awoke for real just after 11:30, when my host mom exploded through my bedroom door, screeched “오메!” and then rushed out again, shouting to someone else that I was still home.

I still have no idea why she did that.

I was already late, but remembered seeing that the festival would go until 6:30, so I wasn’t worried. I faffed around, checking Facebook and email, taking a long time to decide just how warmly I should dress. By pure accident I found the festival pamphlet my school had given me and saw that I hadn’t seen 6:30 — I’d seen 16:30.

After having a friend translate the schedule for me (via text) I decided that it would still be worth it to go, if only for the last part. All my students’ performances were scheduled between 2:00 and 4:30.

1:00 — I go to take a quick shower. The shower head is broken.

Host mom, I think, weren’t you at the store buying a replacement when your son called you about it three days ago?!

All I had at my disposal now was a spigot and a small plastic basin. I’d taken numerous so-called “spit baths” before, when camping and when hurricanes did away with the hot water at home, so I decided to just suck it up.

The water was almost ice.

Sure, I spent my childhood trolling snake-infested forests (and back yards) and sharing murky swimming holes with gators — but that was just Florida. Such a childhood paled in comparison to a cold bath in Korean winter. By the time I had finished wringing the (metaphorical) icicles from my hair I was shivering so badly that Survival Mode Brain made an executive decision: Forget going outside. We’re turning on the mattress heater and getting right back in bed.

And that is how this wimp missed school festival day.

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。

fuji_2013

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

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: