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.

Goodbyes Are Injuries

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

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

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

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

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

Churches without All the Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I learned to love churches without all the noise.

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

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

Social Media Slave: Broadcasting My Adventures in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE PROS

Online Scrapbooking

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

Updating My Loved Ones, Who Are Invested in Me

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

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

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

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THE CONS

Wifi Is Key

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

Eating Up Time

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

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

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

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

How I Know

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!

Tea with Refugees in Belgium

Today’s guest post is by Kate Connelly.

My junior year of college, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I had so many amazing experiences, from attending a film festival at the European Parliament to seeing the largest collection of dinosaur bones in Europe. I traveled to the Netherlands to see The Hague and to Germany to meet one of my dad’s childhood friends. However, of everything I got to see and do, there is one experience that stands out.

I studied abroad through the ISA program and the directors, Matilda and Paula, or as we called them Ma and Pa, would sometimes set up activities for us around the city. One day they sent out an email inviting us to meet them at St. Catherine’s Cathedral for a service opportunity working with refugees. We arrived at St. Catherine’s and were greeted outside the doors by Ma holding a basket filled with oranges and cups of tea. She handed out the goods and told us to go pass them around and chat with those inside. She explained that the refugees were mostly from Afghanistan. The majority of them were young men who were waiting to see if they would be granted asylum. They did not have papers, so they could not work; they were completely dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter.

St. Catherine’s is no longer an active church but another one of the beautiful cathedrals of Europe that are preserved for tourists. However, no tourists would be visiting St. Catherine’s. The pews had been removed and had been replaced by rows of tents. We awkwardly began to walk around, passing out tea. Those that knew English greeted us warmly. Eventually a group of the refugees invited us into their tent. We were out of tea, but they insisted that we drink some that they had. They also offered us sugar-covered dates. As I took a date out of the box, I noticed that it was covered in Arabic writing and I wondered if they had brought these dates all the way from their home country.

One of the volunteers asked them their story. They told us about living in fear as a war that did not concern them was raged all around them. They told us about the journey from their homeland to Brussels, about watching their friends die as they tried to flee. They told us about the hope they had for a better life and the disappointment they faced at being seen as a burden. They explained how the authorities had taken their papers and how they wished they could work. Surprisingly, though, they were not bitter. When we were finished, we went outside to play soccer. Even though I missed almost every kick, they continued to pass me the ball. They clearly knew how to work as a team. After all, they only had each other.

That was the only day I saw the St. Catherine’s Refugees. I asked Pa what happened to them, but she never wrote me back. I think and pray for them often and thank God for the opportunity to meet them. They touched my life more then I possibly could have touched theirs. They taught me that no matter how difficult life circumstances may be, it is possible to hold onto hope. They taught me that even when everything seems to be against you, if you hold on to relationships, you can make it through. They taught me that even though the news portrays the Middle East in such a dark light, many people there are just like I am. They want to live a prosperous life and are not entangled with their governments.

I also learned to see the world in a more positive light. The St. Catherine’s refugees and the volunteers that work with them are not reported about in the news. They are not talked about in government circles (mind you this was before the Syrian refugee crisis). All over the world people are reaching out to each other. You don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium. Sometimes all it takes is offering someone a cup of tea and a smile.

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.

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.

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.