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.

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.”

~

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.

Being an Ugly White Girl in a Pretty Korean World

My eyes are round and two different colors; one is blue and one is greenish-brown, depending on the lighting in the room. The students notice this a lot and point and ooh and ahh over it. They tell me my eyes are beautiful. I know compliments always seem less sincere when they’re immediately returned, but when I tell these girls that their eyes are beautiful, too, they are firm when they tell me “no.” They shake their heads and pull their eyelids down, forcing the delicate ovals into the coin-shape they are told is more valuable.

I don’t spend much time looking at my eyes. I’ve had them for almost 23 years, so they’re just a part of my body. What I do notice when I look in the mirror, or when I notice other women’s faces, is my blotchy skin sprinkled with big pores. I notice my eyebrows, which I have carefully constructed to avoid looking like those of the men in my family. I notice my big, Italian nose, my fat layers, my unmanageable hair, and the way my natural, relaxed facial expression makes me look either manically depressed or super pissed off.

So when these young girls sherk my compliments, I start to resent the both of us for wanting what we don’t have. Koreans are so freaking gorgeous in ways that I fear they don’t realize, just like any person of any ethnicity doesn’t realize about themselves when they’ve been picked apart by their culture, or other cultures, for as long as they can remember. What if I complimented these Korean girls on their honey-brown eyes or their glowing skin or their dainty noses or their soft brown hair or the fact that the vast majority of them are slim and fit into any clothes they choose? Would this build self-esteem and send a message of “don’t change a thing”? Because sometimes Korean women have achieved what is called beautiful only because they changed and changed their bodies until they could fit themselves into the puzzle of social acceptability, where every piece has the same shape and each molds together to create one mindset, one concept of perfection, lacking creativity and complexity.

And Koreans are complex people, just like everyone else. There are short Koreans. There are very tall Koreans. There are skinny Koreans, tubby Koreans, hot Koreans, not-as-hot Koreans. Koreans with flawless skin, Koreans with acne. By no means are all Koreans the perfect, petite, doll-like creatures that culture tries to make them represent. Here in Korea, there are a lot of beautiful men and women, sure, but few actually look like that. But there is undoubtedly a significant pressure for Koreans to look a certain way, so there are inevitably going to be many people who just look so…clean. And put together. And well-dressed.

Moving to a new country where there is a specific, demanding standard of beauty can play tricks with your mind. My insecurities stem from many years of wishing I was skinnier or wore better clothes; the U.S. is not exempt from these standards of beauty. We all want to be skinny and in shape and have pretty faces, but the concept of “pretty faces” is more general than in Korea, because America has a social makeup of so many different ethnicities that it’s impossible to demand each girl have similar facial qualities. Yes, we all want good, healthy, probably tan skin, and tiny, toned bodies. However, when I left the U.S., it seemed like many of us were rocking out to “All About That Bass” and were starting to greet ourselves in the mirror with a “Hey, there, beautiful” instead of looking at our reflections like they were an unwanted love child.

So in Korea, there have been times where I’m like, wow. I should probably wear more makeup. My skin is disgusting because I don’t have an hour-long daily routine to take care of it. I need to lose 50 pounds so I can fit into the one-size-fits-all clothing in so many Korean stores. I need to smear on some lipstick so I can look successful and put-together. I need to wear skirts so people don’t think I’m a lesbian (?).

These thoughts have crossed my mind when I see girls primping in the bathroom mirrors, or hear my male co-workers talk about how pretty Korean women are, talk about white women and their comparative frumpiness and hairiness.

In the end, I’ve had to ask myself the following questions: Do I want to attract the type of men who think women are better if they spend hours on their bodies? (Ew. No.) Do I want to sacrifice precious time on this earth taking extra care of and altering a body that’s just going to die in the end? (No. I have too many people to meet, places to see, and things to write about to waste that time.) Do I want to feel healthy and happy with my body? (Yes. Maybe I’ll step it up a little. Continue my jiu-jitsu training. Buy a quality face scrub. Shave my legs a little more often, when I feel like it.) Do I want to kick some ass and take some names? (Yes and yes.)

No matter how long your eyelash extensions are, no matter how many meals you skip, no matter how much a surgeon tweaks your face, you are always going to be you. It only matters how you feel about yourself, inside and out, heart and mind and face and thighs.

So I’m going to appreciate when people compliment my eyes, but I hope that if they do so, they’re not doing it at the expense of their own self-perception, their own beautiful body, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Jiu Jitsu in Daegu

The gym is a few flights up a stairwell that smells like cigarettes. It isn’t very large, so by the time the fifteen to twenty students arrive, it will be crowded. It’s winter, so it’s cold inside until we warm up and begin sparring. The windows and mirror fog over from the body heat.

The gym is like a small apartment; Teacher instructs classes until midnight and then sleeps until the late afternoon in his office tucked into the corner of the room. It’s like we’re learning jiu jitsu in his living room, except there’s nothing but a fridge and couch in his office to make it a home. The gym has waist-high padded walls and a floor covered with thick, gray mat material. There are two punching bags and a watercooler. Outside, Daegu boasts its most ramshackle view: buildings that look unplanned, the Daegu Health College more like a shady warehouse disguised as a school.

Class begins and we form a circle. Teacher gives instructions and commands in Korean, so I just try to follow what everyone else is doing. According to my foreigner friends who recently encouraged me to try out jiu jitsu, Teacher has learned a lot more English than he knew when they first joined this gym. He seems to know some basic conversational phrases and anatomical terminology related to jiu jitsu training (knee, head, arm, etc.) and directional terms (push, turn). Thankfully, though, the routine is almost always the same, so it’s easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do next. It also helps that there are some Koreans who are pretty fluent in English and they are quick to translate if the language barrier becomes too real.

After we form our circle, Teacher sets a timer and we do push ups, crunches, and squats, taking turns counting to ten for each exercise, the Korean hana, tul, set, etc. occasionally interrupted by an English one, two, three. There are about five of us from the English Village who attend jiu jitsu, but everyone else is Korean. We go through a few more exercises like this.

And then Teacher shows us two to three moves, always demonstrating on Harry, a high schooler whose English is strong and who takes a lot of falls for the class while Teacher flips him this way and that, locking his leg and pulling him down or knocking him forward. Then we get into pairs and practice on each other.

It took me a little while to not feel awkward crawling all over a person. During my first trip to the gym when it was open mat, I had to bite back my giggles as my friend Rachel and Timmy, her husband, instructed me to kneel between Rachel’s legs. And being comfortable with someone coming at you with the intention of pinning you down also took at least a few times before I began to build any sense of aggression within myself.

This is not something I ever imagined myself doing. I have the George Michael from Arrested Development syndrome where, if someone throws something at me or generally tries to get in my face, my instinct is to essentially curl up in the fetal position (which, for your information, is an effective strategy in jiu jitsu, on occasion). But my friend Timmy wore me down into coming with them and trying it out, because I also have a syndrome that makes me bad at saying no. In this case, though, I was persuaded because I like to try new things, even if physical exertion just seems like the worst way to spend my time. I can be persuaded to do most anything if I figure I’m spending time with friends. For instance, one time I went to a barbershop concert with a friend just to spend time with her (another event in which I had to stifle my giggles and be mature about things).

So we practice the moves with each other, usually stumbling about and pausing to say something like, “And then I do…that? My leg goes here, and I sweep yours back? Wait, I’m missing a step.”

And the best/worst part of this whole experience is the position game and sparring. Either way, your goal is to just go at it and try to get a dominate or fatal position (i.e. triangle choke hold, where their head is between your knees, or arm bar, in a position where you could break their arm but don’t). This part is fun because it’s all about technique and thinking your way out of difficult positions. It’s not about strength as much as knowing how to throw someone off balance and prevent them from getting control over you. Rachel described it as chess: everyone has their own style of approaching this “duel” and you have to consider your own strategies. Even though I’m terrible compared to everyone else, I can feel myself get a little bit faster each class and use more effective strategies against my opponent.

Sparring was really intimidating the first few classes I attended. I wasn’t expecting to have the teacher point at me and pair me up with a man, Korean and sweaty and non-English-speaking. I felt very stupid not knowing even how to attack. I was dragged by my feet a lot and put in choke holds where I wasn’t sure if I had lost or not, only because no one ever goes full force on choke-holds and they sometimes just tell you to “tap out” because they don’t want to actually hurt you. I spar with at least three or four people each class. The students are a mix of ages, mostly men and a couple women in their twenties, some middle-aged men, and a few young boys who play on their phones a lot because their parents are paying for these classes.

When I stood on the sidelines that first day and looked at Timmy in panic, saying “Is this optional?!” He asked me, “What are you paying for?” So I walked up to this Korean guy Teacher paired me with, slapped our hands together and then fist-bumped (as you do to start a “spar” or “battle” or “brawl” or whatever), and then I proceeded to get dragged around and put in a choke-hold.

People seem a lot stronger when you feel completely helpless in protecting yourself. But even after just a week, I feel a lot less helpless–still really inexperienced, and I get taken down really easily, like when another supposedly “new” guy grabbed the edges of my sleeves and made it almost impossible to defend myself–but still stronger and a little more capable.

And then there’s Shin-gu, or “Bully” as he’s referred to outside of class by my friends. His big build, very pale skin, and completely hairless head, usually with sweat dripping down his scalp, is an intimidating presence. He’s a blue belt, higher than most, and his favorite pasttime is laying his entire body weight on his opponents (newcomers are no exception) and crushing them while laughing. He did this to me the first time we sparred, and the next time he spun me in circles while I tried to choke-hold him with my arms.

Which is weirdly one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Not this Korean man with no hair, but the fact that jiu jitsu is a lot like dancing, an art form I miss partaking in. The moves we learn are like choreography, however violent, and you have to learn to work with your opponent like a dance partner. There’s a certain amount of trust that you grow because you’re learning from each other and testing your own skills with someone else.

But Bully’s actually a pretty nice guy. He tries to get to know the foreigners with his limited English and you can tell he enjoys this sport. He calls me “Sarah Puma”, which might be endearing or might be an insult, I don’t know. I guess he just likes to, you know, prey on people’s weaknesses and stuff. Classic Shin-gu.

When we’re finished sparring, most of us are huffing and puffing on the ground, faces red and sweaty. The gis (gees) we wear as our uniform make everything so much hotter and sweatier. We begin the exercises we did for the warm-up all over again. This time I’m exhausted and sore. We usually have to hold a plank for a minute, meaning I usually hear Teacher yell, “Sah-dah!” once or twice because I’ve taken too long of a break and am basically just napping on the hair- and sweat-covered floor.

So this is me, trying new things in a foreign country.

Seoul: Part Two

This is the continuation of my first trip to Seoul. Read Seoul: Part One here.

There can be a fair amount of confusion when two people whose native languages are not the same converse. Even though Yongseok’s English is really strong, there were still times where we were not on the same page.

When we Skype-called our friend, Kate, on Sunday morning, she said, “Yongseok, sometimes when you laugh I think it’s because you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Kate tends to talk even faster than I do. Yongseok responded with a laugh.IMG_3221

All of this to say that, when we passed the statues on the street that led to Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Yongseok told me that Yi Sun-Sin’s ship was a “cuttle” ship, I just smiled and nodded, and when I went to look up this guy’s name later on the internet, I realized Yongseok had been saying “turtle.” Turtle ship. Ooooooooh. Got it.

We also saw the statue of King Sejong, who created Hangul so that Koreans could express themselves beyond the limits of Chinese. He was an advocate for education and technological advancement and sponsored inventions like the rain gauge, sundial, water clock, celestial globes, and astronomical maps.

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IMG_3273Throughout the day, we had stormed Gyeongbokgung Palace and Deoksu Palace, so it was late in the evening by the time we visited modern parts of Seoul. We ventured through Insadong, one of the shopping districts. There’s always so much to take in when shopping in Korea. Layers and layers of stores clustered together sell things you never thought you would need, but feel compelled to buy since it’s adorable and reasonably priced. The shops are not like those in Colorado, where everything is one level and spread miles apart. In Seoul, and Daegu for that matter, cafes are stacked on top of shops stacked on top of other shops. This first time in Seoul, I didn’t buy too much, but I did pick up a few souvenirs for my people back home (i.e. socks with Big Bang on them, because adorable and reasonably priced).

IMG_3272Insadong was also where I ate poop bread for the first time, or rather dong bang. Koreans have a fascination with poop that is lost to my Western mind, but the fried bread and chocolate, however unfortunately shaped, was quite delicious.

Taking pictures in a hanbok was probably the most unexpected thing I did during this trip. It took me a hot second to understand what was happening: What are we doing? We’re renting hanboks? Like, leaving the store with them? What? Oh, we’re taking pictures in them. That makes more sense. Do I put this on myself–okay, kamsamnida, I’m just a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to wear this thing. How many pictures do we take? What poses should we do? Um, obviously Charlie’s Angels pose??? Sure, also the double Korean peace-signs, of course. Wait, now we decorate the pictures on this computer? How does this work? Sure, I can put some flowers in the background. Make this as colorful as possible? Okay. Nice.IMG_3508

Lastly, we visited Seoul N(amsan) Tower. It loomed above us in glowing green light. There was a platform with a fence surrounding it that had thousands of locks all knotted together, symbolizing the love of visitors that came before us. Beyond this platform was a fantastic view of Seoul.

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We arrived around 11:00 pm to Yongseok’s grandmother’s house in Gangnam.
She greeted me at the door and took my hand in hers, rubbing it gently. This is a welcoming Korean gesture. His mother was there, too, and she hugged me hello. They were very beautiful and sweet, these two women. Neither spoke English.IMG_3319

We sat at the dining room table and his mother fed us chocolate bread, a pretzel, and warm lemon tea. Yongseok translated back and forth. “She wants to hear more,” he told me after I had practiced a few words and phrases I had learned in Korean. I stumbled over a few more phrases I could think of to try to impress her.

We sat in the living room a while before bed. The big TV, exercise bike, and pictures of grandchildren that decorated the room reminded me of my own grandmother’s living room, and it made me think that all grandmother’s had similar taste in living room necessities. Yongseok’s grandmother made sure I had a toothbrush; Koreans are very dental hygiene-conscience. I soon went to bed, though, and somewhere in a neighboring apartment, an older, male Korean actor who’s name I can’t remember, also slept.

*

The last stop, before dinner and my return to Seoul Station to take the KTX to Daegu, was at a Korean Folk Village, where we spent most of the day. It reminded me of the colonial museums in the U.S. that I’d been to when I was a kid, where people dressed up and reenacted the lifestyle of that time period, washing clothes on a washboard, milking cows, shooting cannons in the town square. Except this was a Korean version.

There were huts and small buildings scattered beside dirt paths and had low ceilings and a variety of traditional Korean roofing styles. The ancient, rural feeling of the set-up was a stark contrast to the modern, energetic Korea that we know now. It was quiet with just a few people exploring the village, the rain soaking into the dirt path and our coats.IMG_3398

We stood under our umbrellas and watched the reenactment of a traditional wedding, the man clad in a blue handbok, the woman in a red one, bowing to each other. I wondered how many times this man and woman had pretended to marry each other, and whether they were actually married in real life, to each other or to other people.

This folk village has provided the setting for some historical dramas. It was the film location for Korean movies like The King and I (2007) and Jewel in the Palace (2003). I haven’t seen either of these, but it was interesting to see this aspect of Korean culture preserved. Even though the weather prevented us from seeing some of the other performances and events, we were able to see the village in quiet, a river flowing through with purple leaves covering the ground.

We left when it got dark, a hundred new pictures on my phone.

The First Layover

Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at cjsweetwood@yahoo.com.

In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.

This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.

First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.

I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.

Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.

I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.

I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.

I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.

Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.

Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.

A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”

Ahh…Fuck it.

I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”

He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”

I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.

I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.

I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.

It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.

I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.

Jjimjilbang: A Weird Dream I Had?

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Not Pictured: Lots of Naked Women

When I explain my first time at a Korean jjimjilbang to my friends and family, it feels like I’m describing a weird dream I had. “So I entered this room and everyone was naked. And I was naked, too. And we just sat in weird pools of water until Lee Pace showed up and asked me to marry him.” Because all of that is true…except the Lee Pace part.

I went to a jjimjilbang, called Lavender, in Daegu with four of my foreigner co-workers. Two of them had been to a jjimjilbang before, so, thankfully, my first experience wasn’t by myself. Even though seeing your friends naked is a strange way to bond, I was glad I wasn’t going alone since it’s always better to gape in confusion with someone else when you don’t understand why an ajumma is handing you a pile of used soap, or to be peer-pressured if you start to doubt whether or not you have the courage to strip off your underwear.

And so we burst through the door of the building that had the jjimjilbang on a higher floor, the cold air rushing in with us. We were bundled up in coats, scarves, and hats. We took an elevator up, and then put our shoes in tiny lockers, because Koreans don’t seem to like shoes near places they want to feel clean and cozy. So we went inside, shoeless, me feeling like this was all happening too fast, and we quickly saw that everyone was clothesless. Naked women everywhere. The next thing I know, I’m naked, too. We’re all naked. Old naked ajummas. Middle-aged naked women. Young naked women. Naked children. Naked me.

We shuffled, very naked, past women who were blow-drying their hair in the mirrors and through a door that led us into the jjimjilbang itself. The room was heavy with steam, every inch of the floor wet. We strode past women sitting on little plastic seats, like booster chairs, scrubbing their bodies with cloth, basins full of cloudy water. Red lights beamed down in the middle of the room, where women were lying face-up, snoozing with towels over their junk, while other women enjoyed the pools behind them.

The first pool we entered was a perfect hot-tub temperature. It was nice to finally be submerged and hide my body while I tried to process how naked we all were. Eventually we felt overheated, so we tiptoed out and into another pool that was ice-cold. Getting waist deep was as difficult as descending into a vat of needles. Overhead, the ceiling was designed like a cave and a stream of water poured out of it like a serious roofing problem. Every drop that splashed us stung our skin. We grimaced at each other, nakedly.

Then we proceeded into a lukewarm, dark-blue pool off to the side of the room, enveloped by a translucent wall. We never found out what was happening with this water. Some kind of sea salt? Food coloring? Kool-Aid?

And then an imitation waterfall where high pressure faucets beat/massaged our skin. I stood there, under the stream, like an old dog getting its head rubbed real nice.

After almost passing out from the heat of a different pool, I ventured into another that might have been camomile- or cucumber-infused? At this point, I’d decided two things: (1) If America had jjimjilbangs, they would fill them with fruit, probably, and just be like, “Enjoy our infusion hot tubs!” and then you would float in a tub of mushy strawberries or orange slices for $200. (By the way, it was only about $6 to get into this jjimjilbang.) And (2), jjimjilbang’s are half relaxing and half uncomfortable to me, because some things, like the massage waterfalls or the blue pool, are perfect, but other features, like the extreme hotness or coldness of some of the pools and sauna rooms made me feel kind of bad about life while I was in them.

Those sauna rooms were not really my cup of tea. One was like sitting inside an oven (I think I could see the air glistening with sweat?), which is never a thing I would recommend a person do, and one was freezing cold, with an ice wall spanning the perimeter of the room and a cold floor that just made me want slippers.

But the best and worst part of this adventure was getting scrubbed. First, we used bars of soap and scratchy cloths to scrub ourselves down, while we witnessed a girl cake a carton of Yoplait onto her face. Later, we were shown to the scrubbing tables in a private corner of the facility. Like Conan O’Brien says in his trip to a jjimjilbang with Steven Yeun, the tables do, in fact, look like they could have been used for dolphin autopsies. So I layed down, very naked, on a slippery table and pretended like this was all perfectly normal for me, and the scrubbing woman, clad in nothing but granny-panties, scrubbed every surface of my body three times with a cloth that felt like sandpaper, although it was painless. I’m pretty sure the words, “Um, woah there,” came out of my mouth more than once. And I almost gagged when I saw rolls of dead skin coming off my body, splashing to the floor when she chucked warm water from a large bowl at me, and my dead skin joined that of whoever else came before me, pooling into a dead skin sea. *gag* But my skin has never been so smooth.

Wow, what a strange dream, you might be thinking to yourself. I know. I never would have expected to find myself so physically vulnerable to a bunch of other women. But this experience is real life and, after awhile, it’s easy to relax. Korean culture doesn’t sexualize this aspect of their culture. It’s a normal and healthy way for them to spend time and take care of their bodies. Once I had the confidence to join them in nudity, I became comfortable in accepting that we’re all, in a way, the same, and there should never be any shame in vulnerability and self-care.

After we were showered and dressed again, swaddled in layers of clothes to face winter outside the jjimjilbang, I had never felt so cozy and clean in my entire life. Like a baby who’d had its first bath.

Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

El Nido, The Nest

In Palawan, the province in the southwest of the Philippines, a small town called El Nido rests on the coast of the South China sea. The ramshackle buildings crouch in the sun, surrounded by a dense jungle of palm trees and lowland evergreens. The ocean spends all day gathering the strength to kiss the sand at the feet of restaurants, bars, and guest houses facing the shore.

Tourists–French, Danish, Dutch, American–shuffle through the streets, taking in the sights through sunglasses. Their skin is sunscreen, sea water, and sweat.

The local Filipinos stand on the sides of the narrow streets and call out destinations to tourists, advertising their transportation services. They drive tricycles: a motorbike attached to a carriage, which whole Filipino families will cram themselves inside or a tourist or two will sit in cautiously. The tricycle drivers compete for the road with motorbikes, people, and dogs.

The roads are paved, but rough and frayed. On the right and left, restaurants serve fresh fruit shakes, stores sell brightly-colored clothing, dive shops promise an introduction to a hidden world, and boat tour offices offer island-hopping adventures, and if you walk far enough out of the town to the east, when the road turns into dirt, you can see children pretending to be monkeys in the palm trees and dogs trotting like they have business of their own and homes behind fences shaded by sky-soaring palm trees. Behind the fences, the Filipinos know they’re on display, but they watch you, too, like the strange, sunburnt creature that you are.

El Nido swarms with tourists, but if you walk far enough away from the town, you’re bound to find a beach where the water stretches out with a soft, sandy floor and the waves toss gently and there is maybe no one else around. If you’re lucky, you can find fresh coconuts and a Filipino man with a machete who will slice open its deep green shell. And you can sip the coconut juice and gnaw it into sweet, white shavings with your teeth, like the strange, out-of-place foreigner you are.

Eventually you’ll make your way back into town, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other foreigners on a boat tour. The boats for island hopping are called bangkas, or pump-boats. Long and narrow, they have bamboo outriggers on each side for balance. They tote you from island to island, the motor humming through your skin. When the boat stops, there is snorkeling in crystal-clear water, fish flitting back and forth. Nemo hides in his anemone, a Surgeon nips calves and ankles to protect her nest, a pastel rainbow fish swims carefree.

There are beaches with resorts where people paid more than you ever could to stay, only to have you stomp through the sand and hog their cozy, sun-warmed hammock for a half hour. And there are beaches where you would be happy to spend your life, eating fish you caught in a hut you built from dried palm leaves. And beaches where you can buy ice cream cones for 50 pesos and play with the sand between your toes and fingers. Feeling like flour or cookie dough, the sand molds together like crisp snow.

There are lagoons, where the water is turquoise and milky and still. When you break the surface, you can hear your own sighs of wonder echo off the walls of rock that rise up like a cathedral on either side.

Sometimes the ocean shows you everything, an open book of fish and coral reefs, and other times it covers everything in shadow, hiding the life it protects beneath you and your embarrassing life jacket.

When the sun begins to fall towards the edge of the sea, the water turns from teal to navy blue.

El Nido. Where the young Filipino men lay shirtless and barefoot at the helm of the boat, soaking sun into their dark skin as the boat takes them home. Where the older men sit in the shade with their shirts pulled up to their chests, stomachs relaxing toward the ground. Where the young FIlipino women sit behind counters and give smiles that reach their eyes when they greet you. Where the older women offer open cases of handmade jewelry and squint into the sun. Where children sing “Feliz Navidad” for a tip and climb and play on boats beached on the shore. Where dogs keep watch outside of businesses and lean into your hand when you pet their ears.

El Nido. A town whose people are like a big, extended family, and the tourists are tolerated and necessary house guests. “Nido” means “nest”, and you are blessed to be welcomed, as a traveler, to the place these Filipinos call home.