What I Learned After I Left My Home: Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about what I learned after leaving home for a year-long trip to South Korea, the first time I’d been away from home for longer than a two-week period. Click here to read the first five lessons I learned from surveying the wide-open world and challenging myself in unexpected ways.

And here’s part two:

I don’t need to be high-maintenance.
I come from a family of individuals with OCD tendencies and an appreciation for convenience, so I tend to prefer things a certain way. For a mild example, I had to shower every single morning—I didn’t feel like myself if I wasn’t absolutely clean—and almost always made my bed before I went to sleep at night—usually right before I crawled into it—just because I couldn’t stand sleeping in untucked-in sheets. Spontaneity was tedious, and changing up my small daily routines was uncomfortable.

But those kinds of needs change when you’re backpacking on an island in the Philippines, drenched in sweat 100% of the day, and your only shower comes from a tiny closet-sized bathroom, the floor probably splashed in other tourists’ urine, with a broken lock on the door. There comes a time when you have to risk the potential diseases and the possibility that someone will walk in on you so that you can get the sand out of your hair. I also learned to sleep anywhere: on planes wedged in between strangers; on dusty airport floors snuggled under a nylon hammock, backpack pillowed under my head; in a van rattling so hard as it sped up and down hills that I woke every 20 minutes when I cracked my head on the window.

And crowds, they used to stress me out. When everyone’s taller than you, it’s easy to feel claustrophobic in the middle of a mob. The population in Korea is so dense, though, that you can rarely escape the crowds, and I got used to being swept along by the people like floating on an inner-tube in a lazy-river, or darting in and out of them like a fish.

I would say that germs don’t bother me like they used to (since the Korean way is to share bars of soap at the sinks in public restrooms and not wear gloves when taking a patient’s blood at a hospital), but now that I’m working with American kids on a daily basis, I spend half my day at a bathroom sink, washing away the germs that are constantly sneezed in my direction. So, in that sense, nothing’s changed; I just have more patience.

I am comfortable in my body.
Being a bit of a chubster my whole life (and just being human in general), I’ve always struggled with having a positive self-image. While I was away in Korea, though, training in jiu jitsu made me healthier, and for the first time in my life, I could feel my waist getting smaller and my arms getting stronger. It was weird. And awesome. I’m not saying that everyone with a negative body image just needs to go exercise to fix their problems, because I still struggle and will probably never love my body every day of my life no matter how healthy my weight, but for me, exercising helped. Knowing that I was working hard towards making myself healthier and seeing the results I had wanted for a long time, but never had either the motivation or the resources to achieve, encouraged me to love not only my stronger, more energetic body, but also my more perseverant and courageous inward self.

One of the strangest experiences I had in Korea was going to the bathhouses/saunas called jjimjilbangs. In these saunas, women stride around completely naked, enjoying the herb-infused pools of water ranging from you-could-cook-noodles-in-here hot to depths-of-the-arctic cold. I went to the Korean saunas often for someone who didn’t even like changing her clothes in front of other women. Even though it’s strange in American culture, it was actually a very relaxing and beautifying experience. And it made me realize that none of us have anything to be ashamed of. Like, I’m not about to join a nudist colony, and I’m still a huge advocate for wearing clothes in public, or just wearing clothes in general, but it’s nice to be confident enough in your own body that you can willingly go to a place like that and forget, for a while, how strange it is to be in the buck with a bunch of other women who are similarly vulnerable.

I don’t have to be friends with everyone.
I lived with my parents most of my way through college, so I never experienced the dorm life, at least until I moved to Korea and discovered that even grown adults, ages 23 to 40-something, could still have petty arguments and drama.

My trip abroad brought forth the first person I had ever struggled to get along with since my 6th grade P.E. class when another Sara (no “h”, it figures) threw a ball at my face, knocking my glasses onto the cold gym floor, and said, “See? That’s why you shouldn’t wear glasses in P.E.”

At my school’s teacher dorms in Korea, being patronized by a girl who was known for her gossip-addiction and competitive nature in her friendships, feeling her calculate me from near and afar, was too much to take seriously. So, I admit, making fun of the fake-laughter photos she took with her friends by way of parody was over the line and immature on my part, but in the end, it was healthy for me to learn that, against the wishes of my people-pleasing personality, I don’t have to be friends with everyone.

I can be friends with anyone, in spite of communication barriers.
Thankfully, the friends I made brought me so, so much joy, laughter, support, and adventure, while putting up with my dorkiness, puns, and Walking Dead-inspired fan-fiction I wrote about them and our lives at DGEV. Living and working and traveling and jiu jitsuing and churching with the same people meant so many became family to me.

But not all of my friends spoke English. Some I communicated with through a hurdle of translating and copy-and-pasting from phone apps, or through verbally exchanging phrases from the small mental list we had from each other’s languages. When it became a hastle, we just shared emojis or teased each other during jiu jitsu practice.

I was blessed to never have to be lonely in Korea, even if the only thing I had in common with someone was that we had both chosen to leave our homes and take on Korea.

I can say goodbye. I can endure heartache. I can heal.
As I packed my bags when my year in Korea ended, I cleaned out my dorm room and said goodbye after goodbye, constantly fighting sadness over leaving. I wasn’t sure when I’d be back. (I’m still not sure exactly when I’ll be back). It was so hard to say goodbye with that uncertainty.

Before I left Colorado and throughout most of my stay in Korea, I prayed and prayed that my family dog, Kody, would live until I got back. I didn’t want him to die while I was away and to not get to say goodbye. I buried my face in his fur before leaving for the airport, his warm body riddled with the hard lumps the vet said would each be a thousand dollars to remove. When my parents made the decision to put him down six months into my adventure abroad, my heart was painfully bruised. It was the hardest Skype call I had ever made, just me and my parents crying and my dog since childhood, for the slightest moment, looking into the computer screen before laying his head back down on his blanket, heavy.

Sadness dries up sometimes, but there are always moments when you remember what it felt like to say goodbye for the last time, or to be the one to leave in the first place, to turn away from tear-stained parents and walk another direction and know that it’s okay to look back once or twice, as long as you give yourself the chance to face something new. I’m learning to embrace that now, the good and bad of leaving home.

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What I Learned After I Left My Home: Part 1

 

I returned home to Colorado Springs a little over four months ago from my year-long trip to South Korea. Everyone warned me about reverse cultural shock. I’m void of anecdotes about readjusting to the ease of English everywhere I turn or feeling stressed because America went on without me. Nevertheless, my time in Korea somehow seeps into my every day, and I want to whine “bali-wa” to make people hustle or give objects to people with both my hands, or I miss the plethora of green tea options in every coffee shop. I’m not shocked, but I ache for what and who I left behind. I’m stuck between two different senses of home, and that weighs heavy some days.

I’ll never, ever regret living in Daegu, or spending Christmas in Palawan, or spending my birthday in Osaka, or exploring Hanoi alone. In fact, I don’t have any regrets from that year, despite the challenges. I learned about myself. I learned about the world. I learned about God’s grace. In some ways, I feel possessive of my experiences because I don’t want to lose it to my current decrease in independence, to feeling aimless in this new chapter of my life. Upon reflection, I’ve discovered what I can summarize in about ten statements. Here’s the first five:

God is faithful.
From the moment I applied for a job in South Korea to the lingering sense of obligation I feel toward my loved ones after returning, I’ve been pressured to stay in my hometown. In leaving, my parents feared for my well-being, and I feared all that could happen in a year and loneliness and regretting my decision.

But God never once failed me. He answered every prayer for safe travel, for safety when I was on my own. He gave me every basic need, and he answered my pleas more greatly than I could have imagined. I asked for even just one Christian friend, and he gave me two strong believers and a whole congregation to encourage me in my faith. I had asked to see some place new, and I saw South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam. I had asked for a dip in the ocean, and he showed me islands with coconut-bursting trees and fish in sparkling water. He let me scuba dive and showed me its depths and His magnificence.

And even though he didn’t give me everything I wanted, he helped me through all of it. He helped me face what I feared and walk through it as a whole person in His image.

I have endurance beyond the limits I’d imagined.
I hate to be that person who talks too much about their “fitness routine”, but just stick with me for these two short paragraphs. When I trained in jiu jitsu for the first time for eight months while living in Korea, I grew to be in the best shape of my life. My muscles became stronger, and the aggression necessary for jiu jitsu strengthened my confidence, my mental perseverance, and my physical strength to keep going even when I thought I would pass out from exhaustion.

I don’t quit easily now. Dangle a belt stripe in front of me, and I’ll keep fighting even though I’m nauseous and got kicked in the face. I became determined through hard work and trying something I never thought I’d like in the first place. Which brings me to believe that. . .

I can try almost anything.
After living in Korea for a year, I am no longer the picky eater that I was. Even though I still have preferences, I will try it if it won’t kill me, even if it’s a tentacle that’s still wiggling and gets stuck between my teeth, or if it’s fermented beans of a vomit-like consistency on a sushi roll.

I tried jiu jitsu, even though I hated fighting and touching people. I met up with a stranger for a language exchange, even though it gave me social anxiety. I planned trips, even though it seemed overwhelming and complicated. I traveled through a chaotic city on my own for a week. I can try almost anything.

I am resourceful. I can survive. I can improvise. I can make choices for myself.
When I first arrived in Korea, a lot of things seemed very difficult and confusing, like figuring out the subway system or how to communicate through a language barrier or how to find what I needed in a huge, maze-like city. I was lucky to have so many other foreigners to patiently help me with everything. This empowered me to realize that you can figure out almost anything if you take a step back and look for directions or just, simply, ask someone for help.*

I learned to be aware and alert while traveling and to know what to anticipate. I also learned to relax and not worry about the unknown. Because I can be proactive, and I can blend in.

*Or use your smartphone. That definitely helps, too.

Every country is simultaneously beautiful and horrific.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in seeing the garbage in your own country and start to idealize other countries, as though their systems work better or their landscape is more beautiful or their people are less obese.

But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that no country is perfect. Sometimes people would have certain expectations when they arrived in Korea, and then when those expectations weren’t met, they were let down and disappointed, or even grew really angry and resentful. I came to Korea with an open-mind (though it helped that I was really, really excited to experience a different culture). This gave me a lot of patience with the challenges that Korea offers. I found much beauty in the surroundings, whether they were green tea fields rising up a hill or ramshackle buildings that looked like they smelled bad (and probably did). I found wonderful things about Korea’s group-oriented culture, and really dark, scary things. I was fascinated by some of their traditional attitudes but was also road-blocked by them.

The Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, the U.S. are all the same in this vein. There are things to admire and things to question and things to disapprove of. Realizing that no place was perfect helped me better understand and appreciate the world and my home in Colorado.

. . .Stay tuned for the next five lessons learned.

My Padlock Body

Three weeks have passed since my return home. It took half this time to twist the dial on my padlock body, unlocking my self into a different time zone, listening to each tick as the numbers rotate at four in the morning. Now I can’t stop sleeping, sinking into my too-soft mattress, the feel of Korea leaving me with every layer of bedding, every thick carpet with shoes parked presumptuously.

My padlock body has not adjusted yet. It holds fast to codes set in Daegu, a mystery in Colorado. I rattle with politics, calorific foods, and the ghost of Kody: I hear his collar jingle when I open my bedroom door, insert the key quietly at night so as not to set him barking. I hear him sigh against the bathroom door. I look for what isn’t there.

Everyone’s the same with changing combinations. I look for how I now fit into the equation. When I left, I entered a maze of unknowns. And here I wander each path in Konglish clothes, wrapped in a cloak of souvenirs, and realize my experiences are internal, unprojectable. I washed out the smell of adventure in my parents’ washing machines, and I’m left still spinning slowly, back and forth between directions, far from settling.

Goodbyes Are Injuries

Goodbyes are injuries. Envisioning goodbye hurts, speaking farewell words and embracing hurts. Preparing to say goodbye is the slow peel of a band-aid.

I’m hastening to wring every last drop of memory out of going-away get-togethers with friends. I’m saying progressive goodbyes to Timmy and Rachel, each weekend visit to Incheon closer to the finale. Goodbyes to Alisha and Liz and Kristi and JQ and everyone an explosive BANG scheduled for a certain time, a certain day: a count down. I’m handing my jiu jitsu instructor my last monthly payment, and I unravel from anticipating that place, those people becoming stories my people back in the U.S. will not understand. Black belt master Hyung Gal Lee. Byeong Ho, Chicken Face, Guk Jin, Sang Hyeok, Min Chae, Eric, Luke. Shin Gu. Beautiful characters in my head.

Goodbyes are heavy like hoisting swollen suitcases into an overhead compartment, heavy like the Daegu air in July. I admire those who move from place to place and have the abandon to invest in people, knowing they will all some day vanish but for Internet reminders that they’re living on without you. My conversations with God dissolve from “please grant me friends in this new place” to “please don’t let this be the last time I see them.”

I want to live a thousand lives at once, so I can explore every friendship. But that’s the sacrifice of travel, of short-term, of meeting hikers on Mount Hallasan who fed me granola bars and wondered at my toe-shoes and knowing I’ll only see these strangers once in my life. It’s the pain drawn out over days and beaches and mountain sides, over cafes and bingsu and karaoke rooms, over classrooms and barbecue and friends’ couches.

It leaves me breathless, my heart letting go, like sand through my fingers.

Churches without All the Noise

My church in Daegu, Korea is very modest. Besides the geometric stained glass behind the altar, it has the feel of most Protestant churches that were built in the 50’s: the architecture and decor is built for function more than religious expression. For the English service, the congregation of about 20 people meets on the third floor and are seated behind folding tables draped in flower-patterned table cloths. The worship team, which anyone who mentions they play an instrument will be encouraged to join, nearly outnumbers those in the congregation.

Growing up, I rarely went to church, even though my family was Christian. In college, I accepted that, unless I joined a community of Christians, I wasn’t going to develop my relationship with God. I was constantly faced with a sense of loneliness and laziness in my faith and started seeking a community that would support and encourage me. I had witnessed a drastic change in heart and attitude of an acquaintance on Facebook after he started attending a church in Colorado Springs, where I lived, so when he invited me to attend that church’s Bible study, I was excited. However, I had experienced Bible studies held in people’s homes before, and they always seemed insincere or lacking in meaningful discussions, so I didn’t know what to expect from this one.

I was struck when I walked through the door, very hesitantly taking off my shoes in the entryway, and I heard my name called out. Two friends from high school, who I hadn’t talked to since right after we graduated, greeted me. It started to dawn on me that most of the people here were tied to my high school, which normally would fill me with panic and dread, but it felt welcoming and familiar. Who would have thought that my old friend, Kim, would be here? (Well, God did…)

I started attending their church services with the accountability of Kim, who also became my roommate later on, the year before I left for South Korea to teach English for a year. Having this connection to a church was vital to my future in Korea, because, as I was preparing for this transition, I always had people praying with me and encouraging me. So when I left the States, I was hoping to find a church where I also felt a sense of belonging.

And I discovered, as I continue to discover, that prayer works. My first day in Korea, I met my best friends, Timmy and Rachel, who became like my brother and sister, and they invited me to a church they had chosen out of a few they had visited.

When I had attended church irregularly in high school, before I started going out of the desire of my heart instead of out of guilt, I went to a mega church: a church famous for the Ted Haggard scandal, when the pastor was found guilty of engaging in prostitution and drug use; a church that used up tens of thousands of dollars buying world flags so that we could pray over/at/to (?) them in the auditorium, and then following it up with a “Move the Mountain [of Facilities Debt]” series wherein they emphasized the importance of tithing; a church that hosted guest speakers that prioritized salesmanship over teaching; a church that believed strongly in pleasing the masses over addressing difficult questions of Christianity; a church that produces cirque du soleil-magnitudinal performances of the salvation story and sells pricey tickets; a church that people flock to because their worship services are rock concerts with colored spotlights and fog machines. From this, my experience with the church was that it was a business. It was a corrupt government. It was a popularity contest.

So I learned to love churches without all the noise.

God led me to these small, welcoming churches. This church in Daegu, where the Korean pastor tries so hard to speak our language and apologizes because his English is “short,” and it doesn’t matter because he’s so kind and joyful. Where my favorite pastor is a woman because she knows how to get to the point of her message and talks to us like it’s a conversation, a devotional, rather than a lecture. Where the worship service is led by passionate people from Uganda, the Philippines, Korea, the United States. Where we all speak in different tongues to worship our Lord. Where, afterwards, we gather together and pray and converse over rolls of kimbap and Costco muffins.

And that’s how I want to worship the Lord on Sundays.

Social Media Slave: Broadcasting My Adventures in Japan

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One of the million photos I took while traveling Kyoto and Osaka.

“Social media: It’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here. Perform everything to each other. All the time. For no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. […] If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” – Bo Burnham, Make Happy

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When it comes to social media, I am always late to the party. I joined Facebook my last year of high school, years after it gained world-wide popularity (and I lived in Colorado Springs, where people were already usually behind the times). I then joined Twitter and Snapchat more or less than a year ago, although I use each infrequently. And I joined WordPress last September to begin this travel blog. Although I joined Instagram about a year ago, I didn’t start using it until recently. In fact, I had a little over 70 followers and had only posted two pictures (my friends are so supportive…or unaware).

Compared to your average middle-aged person, I’m quite social media-savvy. I was a marketing intern; I’m open-minded and understand the spoken and unspoken rules of each medium. However, I’m always hesitant to add another social media platform to my life because it can become a burden. I dread being at the beck and call of smartphone notifications and find it easy to get sucked into scrolling through post after post after post, reliving moments I was a part of just moments ago, as well as moments in people’s lives who I haven’t talked to in ten years. But as soon as I’m sucked in, I admit I enjoy it, for better or worse.

During my trip to Japan in May, I decided to experiment with my use of social media. Usually when traveling, I will take a few poorly-lit pictures (when I can be bothered to) and then upload them later (when I can be bothered to) on Facebook, after my mom has requested I do so through multiple messenger apps (because she, however, isn’t as social-media savvy). That about sums up my travel cataloging. I had joked about live tweeting my trip to my friend Shelby, and she said, “DO IT!” I’m happy to entertain, so I decided to live tweet my trip with two girls I work with at the English Village. I guess I also have Shelby to thank for my decision to Instagram my trip, too. When we took a tour around a few spots in Korea together, she would snap a picture of the destination and then go sit in a coffee shop the rest of the time, because she was just “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram.” I wanted to do it for the ‘Gram, too (but also explore each destination beyond the nearest coffee shop).

The following sections address what I learned by becoming a slave to social media during my week-long trip to Japan:

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THE PROS

Online Scrapbooking

One benefit of using social media whenever you go on adventures, big or small, is that it allows you space to reflect on significant moments, to consider the best parts and comment on them. You share them with people and are able to recall them later. It’s like a scrapbook, but, well, broadcasted for anyone in the world to see. Our obsession with cataloguing our lives is fascinating, but maybe a topic for another time.

Updating My Loved Ones, Who Are Invested in Me

My parents are terrified that I’m going to be Taken, so they like to know my whereabouts. Also, they just want to see what I’m seeing and know about my adventures. The obligation to social media benefits my family and friends who actually care about what I’m up to. Coincidentally, that’s what I’ve accepted about my WordPress blog: it’s really just for my own personal reflection, my mom, and the few people who stumble upon it and care enough to give it a “like” (thanks, guys *tiny finger hearts*).

I really don’t have a significant number of followers on any platform, so I’m not “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram” because my followers don’t really care if my posts are few (see above 70 (friend) followers for my two, whole pictures). Even on Twitter, my audience is mainly the people I interact with in real life. I live-tweeted not because I’m a comedian or well-known travel blogger; I live tweeted because four of my friends thought my commentary was funny. It’s the same reason for why I’m currently writing a series of Walking Dead fan-fiction episodes centered around my co-workers. They enjoy it, but who else cares? My audiences are very specific, and they’re the only ones I really care to impress.

I think you could argue, then, that social media allows us more intimacy with people; I get to share so many moments and experiences in my life that I wouldn’t be able to if I wasn’t connected with friends and family on the Internet. However, social media isn’t very honest. It’s not truly intimate because we’re just taking the best parts of everything and throwing it in each other’s faces with no warning. Even though I feel like I use social media for myself and for my loved ones to keep up with my life outside of our Skype chats, I admit I also really do just love the attention. The notifications to my phone may be annoying, but they’re also gratifying, pathetic as it is to say so. And sharing our lives just for attention isn’t real intimacy or honesty.

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THE CONS

Wifi Is Key

It took me all of a day of exploring Kyoto to accept that the wifi there is undependable. Unlike in Korea, the many wifi spots in Kyoto were impossible to connect to or tried to lure me in and get my money. Korea seems to be a lot more upfront and simplistic with wifi spots. And since I wasn’t willing to pay for pricey data for the week, everything qualified as a #LaterGram or #NotActuallyLiveTweet.

Eating Up Time

Social media is such a great distraction from the world, but when you actually want to be in the world, experiencing what’s around you, a one-time experience, it’s all just such a burden. Using social media to catalogue and broadcast your adventure is like having to check up on something all the time, like caring for a child. I had to pause everywhere to take pictures, and then sort through the photos later for the best one to put on the ‘Gram. I had to hold back the impulse to eat my food like a normal person when it arrived at the table, because I had to get the perfect shot of it. Every adventure is a photo shoot. It’s a bummer if the lighting is bad or my pictures were more blurry than I realized. And after I posted it, the notifications of ‘likes’ are like someone tapping on your shoulder every ten minutes or so. “Hey! Hey….Nice post. *thumbs up*” I don’t mean to sound like I don’t appreciate people’s appreciation of my posts, but the notifications got me like, “Thanks, but I’m trying to answer these Japanese school children’s English questions so they can finish their assignment, and also I need to concentrate on finding green tea ice cream, because that stuff rocks.”

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So, basically: I like to reflect on moments of adventure and I like to connect with friends and family, but social media is a time-waster and demands a lot of energy. Why do we need to broadcast everything? Why not make an actual scrapbook and share it with my family when I return home? Do I actually use these mediums because I want to prove to the world that I’m not boring? That I’m worth paying attention to? That I’m not the shy, quiet girl I was in high school?

I’m actually a little bit terrified that I’m attention-starved. That we’re all attention-starved, despite the constant attention that is drawn to the life we project on the Internet. On social media, we have a voice; people listen to and validate us. You feel like your life matters, that you have value that should be appreciated. And that’s a scary way to feed our insecurities, constantly begging to be loved superficially. I can dig all the way down to the root of social media culture and admit that my dedication to social media is keeping me from seeking validation and fulfillment from God; instead of one big dose of perfect, lasting love, I keep shooting myself up with tiny doses of likes and comments whenever I feel alone. Or left out. Or insecure. Or bored.

I like one of my favorite comedians, Bo Burnham’s, challenge: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” How would our lives change if we became social media hermits, instead of slaves? Maybe that will be my next experiment. But, first, let me take a selfie.

Good Fun and, Also, Baseball

Baseball games were always a traditional part of my childhood summers. At my brothers’ ball games, I would cartwheel on the hot, weedy dirt behind the bleachers or climb on a nearby playground, because sports are, well, boring. Even at my own games, I would practice handstands at my uneventful position in the outfield. (Later, I would play softball in junior high and was benched in the dugout where cartwheels are generally frowned upon and nearly impossible to do.) And then at professional games, I sat in the stadium seats, talking to my best friend and coloring or reading books, because, hey, sports can be mind-numbing.

Even though I’ve always been uninterested in sports, my childhood memories of baseball games are still happy ones. I wasn’t actually trying to follow the game or the score or the people running around on the field who all look the same at a distance, but I enjoyed being entertained by my friends, popcorn, and the atmosphere. And after a long hiatus from baseball-watching, in the past few weeks, I found myself at not one, but two, Samsung Lions games, cheering my face off for no particular reason.

Let me explain how Korean baseball lures you in:

  1. It’s impossible to be sad when you’re surrounded by the enthusiasm of Samsung Lions fans. Adults and small children alike shout all the cheers, while hitting blow-up spirit bats together. Let me tell you, those spirit bats are way more fun than they seem (queue photos of me and my 20-something friends hitting them together like excited children). My Korean friend, Ji, informed me that she didn’t, in fact, have all the cheers memorized; when you’re feeling lost, you can follow along with the lyrics on screens surrounding the field. However, it’s even better if you can’t read Korean because then you can just scream nonsense that you hope sounds like what the crowds are saying. Which brings us to…
  2. Ironic fandom is significantly more fun when you don’t speak the language. Maybe we just enjoyed the silliness of not really fitting in but feeling as though we belonged at the same time. Everyone around us was caring so loudly. We did our best to join in the cheers, many ripped off from popular songs, like “The Sound of Silence.” (Which is ironic because there is never silence at a Korean baseball game, especially when players are at bat. I think Korean baseball is one of the few times where Koreans are comfortable being loud.) Plus, I bet it’s easy to write cheers for players that each have the exact same number of syllables in their names. I cheered so much ironically for Park Hae Min that I really started to hope he would get a home run. (He didn’t, even though we repeatedly pointed at him and then pointed at the outfield, while shouting his name. I don’t know what was up with that.)
  3. The food is very…Korean…in the best of ways. Hot dogs? Yes (but on a skewer and add rice cakes). Popcorn? Yes (but add a sweet coating over all of it). Oh, and also lots of chicken. And spicy rice cakes. And more chicken.
  4. Cute kiss cams. Koreans are typically so shy about PDAing, so it’s kind of funny to watch the couples get really embarrassed, the women covering their faces with their hands. When the guys just go for it, though, everyone in the crowd loses it (queue tiny finger hearts).

This all probably sounds like I’m just describing baseball fan culture, which is probably true. It’s been a hot second since I’ve been to an American game. However, it seems to me that Korean baseball is a more amped-up version of American baseball. But, then again, maybe I’m just discovering fan psychology for the first time and how entertaining it can be.

So I wouldn’t say that I enjoy watching sports, per say. I will still make fun of you if you wear a football jersey on the reg or get upset when “your team” doesn’t score as many points as the other team. It’s safe to say, though, that I love the combination of spending time with friends, eating junk food, and supporting random Korean men with silly chants while they run around a field (and then crouch ashamedly in the dirt for an uncomfortably long time when they mess up).

It’s a fun atmosphere. Also, a news cameraman got a load of our extra-enthusiasm, so tune in to your local Korean news channel to see us hit each other with blow-up bats. #foreignersection #noregrets #noshame

Why Jiu Jitsu

I’ve had a lot of experiences lately that are worth writing about. However, I’ve been terribly inconsistent about actually writing. Even though I have a lot to catch up on, I want to talk about something that’s taken over my life almost as much as teaching English has: jiu jitsu.

Almost every weekday, after I finish teaching at 5:30 pm, I rush to my room to change into my exercise clothes and pack my gi in my duffle bag, and then I eat a very hasty dinner to make it on the 6:05 shuttle from campus to Chilgok, where it’s a 15 minute walk from the bus stop to the gym. I’m usually there three to four times a week, and I always have to reach the shuttle stop to head back home by 9:15, exhausted and with a few new bruises. I get gross: sweaty and germy from rolling on the mats.

So what’s the appeal? I’ve been asked this question fairly often, because my stories from jiu jitsu class often include such phrases as “I almost gagged when I swallowed someone’s hair,” “Teacher made us swivel on our butts all the way across the gym and it was torture,” “we learned this awesome choke-hold,” and “Shin-Gu bit me*.” Not to mention, there’s almost no way to talk about jiu jitsu moves without it sounding sexual.
*Not a thing that is encouraged or legal in jiu jitsu

So, why jiu jitsu? I’ll give you five reasons:

Jiu Jitsu is amazing exercise.
I think I’ve finally accepted that I have no self-control when it comes to food. Like, I’ve gotten much better as far as stopping when I’m full, but if I have the opportunity to buy a macaroon ice cream sandwich or eat a pizza, I’m going to devour that thing with no regrets. Training in jiu jitsu for the past five months has caused me to lose more weight and get more in shape than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel great, minus the bruises and near-constant soreness. It’s rewarding to see how baggy some of my clothes now look on my frame.

Jiu Jitsu is a game.
I can be motivated to do almost anything if it’s turned into a game. The only reason I got into running for a few months was because I had an iPhone app that told me zombies were chasing me. The only reason I like drinking water is because I can log it on my Plant Nanny app and see my cute lil’ plants grow in the pots I bought with virtual seeds. I love games, and I love challenges. And that’s what jiu jitsu is. You’re trying to win, using strategy and technique. Jiu jitsu has been deemed a perfect martial art for women, because it doesn’t require brute strength to win. You can be little and fast; as long as your technique is solid, you can throw someone off balance enough to defeat them. It feels good to learn a move and, after a lot of practice, use it to beat someone in a fight. We compare it to chess sometimes, because you have to be constantly paying attention to what your opponent is doing and thinking through strategies. There are actual options for reacting to a person’s attack, if you learn and practice those moves.

Jiu Jitsu Is What I’ve Deemed a “Fun” Sport
Sports. Bleh, right? I’ve never really been into sports. I played softball in junior high and for a season in high school, but I was always awful. I lacked motivation because I didn’t like competing with my own teammates for playing time and, in the end, I just decided I was not comfortable with balls of rubber being thrown at my face. And all that running. And paying attention to my surroundings. Ick.

I like jiu jitsu as a sport because I’m responsible for my own victories. It’s not that I have an aversion to working towards a shared goal, but I just didn’t like the pressure that fell on my shoulders to not screw anything up. In jiu jitsu, if I screw up, I’m the only one who’s let down. In softball, everyone is mad if you “didn’t swing because you thought the pitch was too high when really you just paniced” or you “didn’t catch the fly ball because you value the bone structure in your face more than getting the batter out.”

The only pressure that exists is what you put on yourself. It’s nice. It’s self-paced. You don’t have to carry a heavy bag of equipment. People don’t automatically assume you’re lesbian. You don’t have to sing a cheer and clap every time you’re watching a teammate do their thing. It’s sports without all the annoying parts.

Jiu Jitsu is the self-defense that my dad has always wanted me to learn.
Being my dad’s only daughter of his four children, I think I’ve been a constant worry for him. His desire for my well-being and wholeness manifests in being hyper-aware of menace in this world and being very, very protective. Learning self-defense was something he always wanted me to do, probably because my personality has always been very non-confrontational, non-aggressive. I don’t like fights and it takes a lot to make me angry. But my dad is discerning; he knows what’s up. It’s obviously not good to go around paranoid about the world, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this world can be really, really, really scary. You drink a little too much, and you’re raped by a dumpster. You order a drink, turn away, and wake up in the morning without knowing where you are or who’s touched you. Or maybe you’re just shot to death because anywhere, any time, there could be a loaded gun pointing somewhere, and who knows where the bullets will land.

I know jiu jitsu won’t save me from any of those situations. Probably not. But I have a little less fear knowing that if I was attacked, I would have hope of escaping. Even though I’m not learning punches or kicking or how to dodge a bullet, I could throw someone off balance enough to run away. I could break someone’s arm or choke them in self-defense. And if anything, I have more confidence and healthy aggression that I can stand up for myself more and fight, fight, fight for my needs and the needs of others. That feels better than going down a pants size from all this exercise.

Jiu Jitsu Satisfies My Nostalgia for Dance Class
I took dance classes from age four to twelve, and then off and on throughout middle school and high school when the opportunity arose (theater productions, a semester here and there at a dance studio). I miss it a lot, and I wish there were non-awkward adult classes out there for modern and contemporary, because I’d love to train in those types of dance styles someday. But dance classes are a serious commitment and are also much more expensive than jiu jitsu. But the point is, learning jiu jitsu moves is a lot like learning choreography. Where it’s lacking in music and exact beats, it makes up for in a certain kind of rhythm, preciseness, flexibility, and awareness of one’s own body that makes it feel like dancing. Sometimes I feel like this when I’m sparring (basically about half of the dance moves in Sia’s Elastic Heart music video). There are drills we’ve learned that could be mistaken for a dance duet if the people were dressed in leotards, rathern than gis. It’s graceful, but aggressive. It’s precise, but demands flexibility. It’s like dancing.

If nothing else makes sense, at least know that it’s been a great way for me to interact with handsome Korean men and, you know, crawl all over their bodies (in a completely platonic way. Get your head out of the gutter, geez). The gym I belong to is a great community of hard-working, kind, and humble people, with a very skilled and patient teacher. Even though very few of them speak English, I feel like I belong and am constantly encouraged and supported. I earned the first stripe in white belt last night, and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.

So, go out there and learn jiu jitsu. Or at least try something different that you never would have thought you would like.

Read more about how I got into jiu jitsu here.

Black Day 2016

The reason why you can’t pressure me to talk to the cute guy in the navy blue gi at jiu jitsu training is because in my head I’m facing a battle with my 23 years of never having dated, wondering why men I’m attracted to are never attracted to me, even though I’m blessed with a confidence in myself grown of so much support around me by my loved ones, because who needs lovers anyway when your heart is already bursting from the laughs and truth shared with your own people, and I think celebrating Black Day on April 14th in Korea (following Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and White Day, March 14th) is a perfect way to illustrate every interaction I’ve ever had with someone I’ve pursued, in that my friends, all six of us crowded around a table in a restaurant in Chilgok, awaiting our jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), urged me to invite the one single man we spotted to come eat with us, in observation of the custom where singles dine together, and when I expressed my doubts, they dared me that if the waitress delivered him jjajangmyeon, I would have to invite him to eat with us, and so when his noodles arrived, black bean sauce a dark abyss in his bowl, I swiftly got up from the table and crossed the room–because confidence sometimes takes swiftness–and asked him if he wanted to join us, hoping that English was a thing that he spoke; I waited for him to finish the huge pile of noodles he had just chopsticked into his mouth, and after the awkwardness grew drops of sweat on the nape of my neck, he responded, “I have an appointment soon,” and I thanked him and traipsed back to my friends at our table now crowded with beer and jjajangmyeon, and so I’m not saying that this rejection traumatized me–and, really, the spirit of this Black Day could only be compared to my birthday, I was so excited about it and had been looking forward to it for months–but this scene of a man being more interested in his noodles and his “appointment” than in my socially-stilted invitation is right on point with the mystery and confusion and fear and inconvenience that conglomerates for me on days like this, when I happen to be eating jjajangmyeon, too independent to be sad, but too lonely to overlook such a lifestyle-acknowledging day, and maybe I’m just too unaware of how romance works or maybe I’m confused about how to be lonely, because talking to the guy in the navy blue gi with the really good English and the three stripes on his belt just seems like so much work and effort that I believe in my heart of heart of hearts that he has a girlfriend and/or there will be no opportunity for him to like me because, really, I’m not interesting until you get to know me or I’m comfortable enough to be witty, and why do you care anyways, when I just want to celebrate Black Day every day because what a fun way to observe a lack of romance in your life, with a heaping bowl of black bean noodles and your friends around you helping you be more than you think you can be.

How I Know

When salt-water tears stung my eyes because at the age of 22 I still had never seen the ocean, I never would have guessed, imagined, that in less than a year I would be peering through goggles, 20 meters below the surface of the South China sea, at a turtle paddling in a soft current with sleepy eyes, my breathing slow and steady, wrapped in the ocean, suspended by the ocean. A paradise risen up around me with palm trees aching with unripened coconuts.

And that’s how I know that I am loved, even when the moment is a desert with sinking sand and parched tongue, where hope becomes a mirage and faith the pulsing in my temples.

Because that moment of smallness, struck by the ocean, humbled by the creatures living below the surface, flipped upside-down in awe, feeds me the promise of a future. I know I am loved when I face great things, like the thought of someone dying for me with the pain of mothers giving birth, of sons sent across the seas to face mortality at the end of a gun barrel, aching with love that is burdened with fear and driven by holiness. I know I am loved through sacrifice. When, in the midst of despair, someone fought for me.

No matter what pain sears through life, I know I am loved because good remains. When children and mothers laugh, when battles are won, when a Savior breathes life after waging war against incomprehensible evil. Good remaining despite anguish. I know I am loved when good overcomes. When the story doesn’t end in defeat. When everything He gave led me to know love manifested in turtles who don’t worry about tomorrow, in oceans of blessings, in each new breath that inhales grace, in the sunlight of hope making a whole world glow, even in the depths.

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!