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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

Korean Animal Cafes

One of my favorite things about Korea is the immense variety of cafes, each competing to offer unique experiences for customers. Until I lived in Daegu, I didn’t know petting zoos could also be places to sit and drink coffee. To me, coffee shops were either Starbucks or a local cafe where you were supposed to sit back and knit sweaters or write poetry. Although there are some pet cafes in the United States, featuring cats or dogs, they are rare and novel, so exploring animal-themed cafes in Daegu has been both entertaining and therapeutic (for the times when you just need a dog to cuddle).

Below are four animal cafes I have experienced so far in Korea. Please forgive the picture quality; I’m not a photographer and I don’t think I’ll ever be one.

The Cat Cafe

I’m not what you would call a “cat” person, but I was curious about visiting this cafe, especially as it’s the first animal one I had been to. There was a large number of cats roaming the cafe, napping on people’s coats, or hiding in those carpet towers cats enjoy. If you buy fish treats for the cats, they’ll come up to you and try to claw your face off for a taste. Otherwise, they were kind of indifferent to customers. Sometimes they wouldn’t mind if you petted them–just not on their right shoulder, the center of their chin, their whiskers, their belly, or any region remotely near their tail.

In all seriousness, though, this cafe was fun to visit. It was pretty clean and the cats were well-groomed and, sometimes, well-dressed. Of all the cats I petted, only a few of them were plotting against me.

IMG_3576

The cat that shares my heterochromatic eyes.

IMG_3615

Devious, or just wants love?

IMG_3652

These silly cats think they’re people.

IMG_3658

Management posts pictures to show which cats belong to the cafe. Their names are in Korean, along with what I assume are brief memoirs of their lives.

Pet Cafe

I had been warned by my cat-loving co-worker that the dog cafes were nasty because dogs pee and poo on everything, and cats don’t. This, unfortunately, was confirmed for me in the Pet Cafe, which had dogs on one level and cats on another. However, this cafe was mainly just disappointing because we seemed to have gone at a time where there were few dogs, most of which were tiny and aggressive–the two qualities that I dislike in cats.

IMG_5383

IMG_5366IMG_5350

IMG_5331

Pre-peeing on the couch photo

12541048_10153917051744136_1041994608652644510_n

These dogs mean business when you have treats. How rude. *Necessary Full(er) House reference, so that I am topical in this blog post.*

Racoona Matata

Racoona Matata is probably the most unique animal cafe in Daegu. When I was growing up, racoons were the rodents that tore the lids off my family’s garbage cans and feasted on our trash. My dad would try to come up with methods of keeping them away, like fastening bungie cords around the trash can lids, but they always found their way in and made huge messes.

The racoons in the cafe, you can tell, are just as smart and conniving, but it was fun to get up close to them and pet their heads in the cage they were contained in, or watch them on the ceiling ramp where they would crawl out and try to reach for our food. They were cute, but also a little creepy with their grabby hands and the way they stood on two feet.

IMG_5715

IMG_5703

This ramp spanned three-quarters of the room and allowed the racoons to peer down at us suspiciously.

IMG_5751

Inside the room where they’re contained

IMG_5787

IMG_5808

One of the few dogs that also roamed the floor, separate from the racoons. So cute.

Cat Dog Cafe

My favorite animal cafe is the Cat Dog Cafe. This one has a lot of dogs who are all really sweet and cuddly, and there are more than just the tiny, yappy dogs. In this cafe, there is one floor for the cats and an upper floor for dogs. Before we went up to the dog floor, we put on skirts that the cafe provided, which encourages dogs to curl up on your lap because they are familiar with the sight and material of the skirts and have been, in a way, trained to trust them. The skirts also help keep off the dog hair and drool from your clothes.

I stayed here for a couple of hours with my friends, petting the dogs as they fell asleep in our laps. The dogs were so relaxed that one of my friends started to lose feeling in his legs because a huge dog was curled up on him like a puppy. He dragged himself backwards all the way across the cafe to fetch his coffee and the dog didn’t even stir.

IMG_5988

Big dogs.

IMG_5904

Little dogs.

IMG_5913

Dogs with underbites.

IMG_5958

Dogs that look part wolf and are sooooo fluffy.

IMG_5981

Warning: Dogs might use you as a fire hydrant. “Oh My God!!”

IMG_5993

Can I get a dog refill, please?

IMG_5995

The dog who escaped the cafe and was carried back inside.

So, as far as I know, these are all the animal cafes in Daegu. But with such a quickly-changing city, maybe there will be a cafe with monkeys soon.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

Jjimjilbang: A Weird Dream I Had?

mig2

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.