Hello New Life!

Has it really been that long since I have written? It’s amazing how quickly time can pass. Since then my life has changed in a variety of ways…
…I finished my teaching contract in Korea, visited the fam in the US, spent a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand obtaining my CELTA certificate to increase my hire-ability, moved to Taichung, Taiwan, moved in with my boyfriend, started learning traditional Mandarin, got a new job, and started working out.
…It’s been crazy hectic and I’ve had my emotional ups and downs along the way, but all in all I’m quite happy and still loving expat life. Over time I’ll post about each of these new changes as the reflections occur to me, but for now:
GREETINGS FROM TAICHUNG, TAIWAN! ^^

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The Northern Winds of Change…

Deutsch: Macchu Picchu, ein UNESCO-Weltkulture...

Image via Wikipedia

There are many times when I feel like Juliet Binoche’s character in Chocolat.  The pull of the winds tells me when it is time to move on.  One day I am amusing myself with thoughts of staying in the current city/state/country for a few years, and the next day I’m itching for a change and ready to take flight instantly.  It is so easy to get into a routine and forget that there is better out there for you.  So I am thankful for these demanding winds that remind me of all the places I have yet to see.

At times my desire to travel and see the sights is so strong that it is akin to the longing that can be felt for a distant love.  Today, for example, I was teaching a lesson on vacations (standard chapter in many ESL books) and looking at the pictures of Easter Island, Taj Mahal, Macchu Picchu, Grand Canyon, etc., I actually felt an ache in my body.  I felt sadness because there are so many places I have yet to see and my current job does not offer enough vacation time to accommodate them all.

However, I am hopeful, optimistic and quite determined to make my traveling desires become a reality.  I just need to find the right combination of income vs. travel opportunity in my next job to make it happen.  That is my priority.  I have always said that I do not care to climb the corporate ladder nor be rich.  It’s not about money for me.  It’s not about status either.  If I become a well-known magazine writer, awesome.  If I become a little-known waitress or barista, equally as awesome.  It’s about happiness.  I only want enough money to travel comfortably without worrying about the budget.  I spent too long daydreaming; now it’s time to MAKE IT HAPPEN.

On that note, I have posted my list of places I want to see (which grows every time I glance at it).  I posted this a few months ago elsewhere, but thought it was a good list to put on here as well so we can all share our traveling dreams together.

I ask you, where do YOU want to go and how are YOU going to make it happen?

Here are the Countries/Cities/Sights I want to visit, by region:

SOUTH/CENTRAL AMERICA/CARIBBEAN:

  1. Argentina – tango classes, the southernmost tip of the continent
  2. Brazil – rainforest
  3. Bolivia – suggestions?
  4. Chile – las montanas, el hielo
  5. Colombia – Santa Marta, Cali, Andres Cepeda concert/restaurant and perhaps volunteer with one of the Pies Descalzos schools for awhile
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Cuba – a country without American influence for 50 years!, the music
  8. Dominican Republic – beaches
  9. Guatemala
  10. Mexico – saw Cancun, want to see the ruins and the less touristy beaches
  11. Panama
  12. Peru – obviously Macchu Picchu amongst other things
  13. Puerto Rico – el Yunque
  14. Venezuela – Angel Falls

AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST

  1. Egypt
  2. Israel – Dead Sea
  3. Jordan
  4. Madagascar – biodiversity
  5. Morocco
  6. Turkey – saw Izmir, want to see Istanbul
  7. UAE – Dubai – architecture and salsa

EUROPE

  1. Austria
  2. Croatia – AGAIN!
  3. Czech Republic – Prague
  4. France – southern France
  5. Greece – Santorini
  6. Iceland – beautiful geology
  7. Ireland – castles
  8. Italy – AGAIN!  Florence, Tuscany, Roma, Milano
  9. Monaco – to see what the big deal is
  10. Poland
  11. Portugal
  12. Russia – St Petersburg, Moscow, Siberia and maybe Trans-Siberian railroad trip
  13. Spain – AGAIN!  Miss it immensely and have yet to see Barcelona or Malaga, and visit my Aunt/Uncle
  14. Scotland – highlands and castles
  15. England/Wales – AGAIN!  more castles and visit family

ASIA

  1. China – pandas, great wall, architecture
  2. India – Goa
  3. Indonesia – Bali
  4. Japan – salsa, style and food
  5. Macau
  6. Malaysia
  7. Philippines – swimming with whale sharks!
  8. Singapore – the zoo, the cleanliness
  9. Sri Lanka – resort vaca
  10. Taiwan – waterfalls and hot springs
  11. Thailand – elephants
  12. Vietnam – culture

ANTARCTICA – For the penguins of course, and to see a continent of ice

OCEANIA (AUSTRALIA FOR THE AMERICAN FOLK)

  1. Australia – salsa, animals
  2. Fiji
  3. New Zealand

NORTH AMERICA

  1. Alaska – animals, cruise
  2. Quebec – for the French influence
  3. US – 4 corners – more red rock, Grand Canyon
  4. US – SF – hills, bridges and liberal culture

P.S.  Got my renewed passport today (which btw is processed sooo much faster when outside the US) and they are actually much nicer and more interesting than those from the last decade.  I’m determined to need more pages added to my passport before this one expires!

Reflections and Resolutions

2011 was a damn good year.  It was my year of FINALLYs.

I finally went on a cruise.

I finally saw more European countries.

I finally got an iPhone AND a Kindle Fire.

I finally started taking Korean classes.

I finally got my root canal fixed! (blog on that to come later)

And many other smaller finallys along the way.

But that is not to say that I am finished.  Not even close.  I actually feel like I am just getting started.  There are still many things that I want to accomplish and figure out over the next 12 months to continue to improve my already good life and to continue building my ball o happiness.

As for last year’s resolutions, I’d say to some extent I accomplished about 25-50% of them.  The biggest success was in the form of travel.  I wanted to visit two new countries in 2011 and I visited 4 (technically 7 if you count airport layovers too).

Here are my aspirations for this year (in no particular order):

1.  Continue my intensive Korean lessons.  This means I should be able to get to level 5 (out of 6) by the end of my employment contract in July.  Also, I want to take the TOPIK test and see how high of a level I can achieve.

2.  Learn more Italian.  I am currently considering doing a 3 month intensive language stint in Italy after my contract ends so that I can achieve a high level of that language as well.  Plus of course the added benefit of not working for 3 months (haven’t been able to do that for 10 years!!) and seeing more of I.T.A.L.Y.  So if anyone has any recommendations on language schools there that have scholarships or work for tuition type deals, please let me know.

3.  Travel even more.  With trips expected to Taiwan and either Philippines or Thailand before the end of spring, this resolution is already in the works.  But I still want more.  I’d like to explore more of Asia while I am here including but not limited to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Jeju Island (Korea).

4.  Live a more minimalistic lifestyle.  Being an expat, and one who likes to live in small spaces, I’m learning to retrain my shopping habits and buy less STUFF.  I’ve talked about this in other posts as well and I want to continue to make this idea my way of life.  (See short, but inspirational TED video below on living in small spaces.  It’s one of my all time favs and I have watched it several times to remind me*).  I prefer to spend my time and money traveling, not cooped up in my apartment, so why do I need so much stuff there?  So this means getting rid of bad purchases, parting with my books and giving up on clothes that I barely wear.

5.  Learn how to balance my moods.  I tend to fluctuate from extreme happiness to extreme sadness and irritability.  This could be attributed to hormones, the emotional swings of a creative mind, a nutritional imbalance or something more serious such as a bipolar or anxiety disorder.  I’m not sure.  So, I need to figure out what it is and control it so that I can live a more balanced life (and stop driving my friends crazy).

6.  Figure out what I want to do with my life.  This will be a hard one to accomplish simply because I figure out what I want to do with my life all the time…and then I change my mind a week later.  (I can see my family and friends laughing and nodding in agreement)  I am known for getting super excited and obsessed about an idea, then changing my mind to something COMPLETELY different.  In the past week alone, I seriously contemplated moving to 4 different countries.

As for careers I am still considering the idea of being a writer, although perhaps magazine writing would be better suited for my attention span than novel writing.  I really enjoying teaching my younger students (1st-2nd grade), so continuing teaching English is an option (just with another company since mine is getting worse by the day).  I am also now researching the possibility of being a flight attendant, not only for the travel benefits, but because I’d like a job where being multilingual (see resolutions 1 & 2 above plus of course Spanish and English) makes me more marketable.  It would be a good fit for me since I don’t mind working holidays and don’t have a significant other, children, pets or a mortgage to go home to so there would be less stress on the scheduling front.  If anyone has any info on that career path let me know.  Also, if you have any other suggestions on what I should do with my life, I gladly welcome any out of the box thinkers.  🙂

I love the prospect of a new year and starting over.  It’s life refreshed.  What’s on your plate for 2012?

* TED video – Graham Hill (only 5 minutes long and worth it!) 

The Greenness of the Grass

I live a life that many envy.

No one depends on me. I have no mortgage, and within the next few months no credit card debt. There is nothing and no one truly holding me back from my dreams nor my spontaneous traveling desires. I live in an exotic country. I date who I want, when I want. I am free to eat peanut butter from the jar for breakfast should the mood strike. I enjoy the freedom of making my own decisions such as which social events to attend and how to spend my money…without compromise. My apartment is quiet or loud, messy or clean – based entirely on MY whims.

I am in my 30s. I am single. I am free. I am enjoying life. I am finding my own happiness.

But…

there do come some days, just a mere few, when I feel like the many characters in American movies. The ones who are insanely busy, living in a fabulous apartment in the city, smiling about how great life is…until they stop being busy. Then the sense of loneliness overwhelms them and they wonder if those on the other side may have it right after all. Maybe the human desire for love and stability is stronger than the desire to be free after all. Just maybe.

The holidays of course bring this feeling about with a much greater force. Not to mention these characters are portrayed in seemingly 75% of all holiday movies. The end scene showing them running, not walking, to the other side of the fence wherein lies the pretty wife, 2 kids, white fence and 2 car garage.

Now mind you, I only have very few of these days. The rest of the time, this Gemini is thoroughly enjoying her freedom from cages of any kind. So I do not want to put out the idea that I am longing to settle down anytime soon. I have too much traveling yet to do to make up for my 20s lost in cubicle-land and it may prove difficult to find a potential husband willing and able to go along for the rides. Not to mention that the men I meet lately have a rather skewed view of what constitutes a committed relationship, so I have little faith in finding one worth risking my happiness for – but that is definitely a blog for a different day.

What I would like to point out though is that despite the lovely greenness of the grass on my side of the fence, there are days when the grass begins to lose its bold green and wilts just a touch, due to not having a rock to shade it from the elements.

And on those days feel free look away and appreciate the loveliness of the grass on your side and smile at whatever life you may have hand-picked for yourself.

Culture Shock in All Its Glory

Many people I meet have never learned about the 4 generally accepted phases of culture shock (even current expats).  I think it is important to know about them for those who are expats and those who wish to be someday.  Wikipedia gives you a decent description here, although they use wayyyyy too much of the word ‘one.’  There are also a number of books on the subject and I am a fan of the Culture Shock series for various countries to help you know before you go.

Click to see on Amazon

Here is my very own version of what it feels like (I wish I could draw, I’d totally make a comic strip out of this):

Phase #1:  Yay!!  I can’t believe I’m living in another country!  My friends and family will be so jealous!  Everything is so new and exciting!  I lost my luggage, I live in a hovel* and I don’t get paid for 6 weeks, but I don’t care because this is soooo GREAT!  I can’t wait to try all the new and wondrous food!  Did I mention this is sooo great?

Phase #2:  This place f*ing sucks.  I miss…I dunno…lots of stuff, like Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and real Mexican food and having a clothes dryer.  I can’t stand how they (fill in the blank) and every little thing is so irritating I just want to scream.  I can’t believe this is only the 4th month.  How am I going to manage this for another 8?  I should just leave.

Phase #3:  I’m so glad I didn’t leave!  Life is good here now.  I have a good circle of friends.  I can get on a bus without being afraid of leaving my comfort zone or having people speak to me.  I may not know the language fully, but I’ve certainly picked up on some fun expressions like ‘jinja’ (진짜) and ‘ayyssshhhh’ and love them.  I know who 2NE1 and Big Bang are and eat more Korean food than Western food when I go out.   I prefer chopsticks over forks and knives and have been complimented on how well I use them.  I am starting to forget what is ‘normal’ in my own culture and what is not.

I have yet to experience Phase #4 in any country, but here’s what I think it’d be like

Phase #4:  I am the master of the expats.  Ask me anything about this place, I dare you.  I’m comfortable with the language and could be your tour guide if you needed one.  I may integrate some cultures from the old country, but in many aspects I am Korean-ized.  I prefer Beast over Bieber and I stare at newbies on the subway because I think they look funny.  I don’t use any of my old clothes or products from home.  In fact, my entire outfit came from Dongdaemun (동대문).

*thankfully the luggage and hovel part didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard horror stories*

I added this comic below as a scene changer and because I’m a big fan.  If you live in Korea you will get a kick out of his work, I’ve seen them a dozen times and I still crack up!  If you click the pic it will bring you to his website where you can the rest and buy the book.  Good times.

Courtesy of ROKetship Comic by Luke Martin (click on the pic for more comics and to buy the book version!

I currently am in Phase 3 I believe.  Phase 2 was horrendous, even though I was fully aware it was happening, I couldn’t prevent it from affecting my moods.  I bow down to the friends who went through that phase with me and still stuck around.  You know who you are.  😉  But that is the beauty of expat friends – we stick together because we are all going through the same phases, although sometimes at different speeds.

Here is a good depiction of the process of culture shock.  I like the part about CHOICE because there are many foreigners in Korea that aren’t happy and those who are happy, like me, always say Korea is what you make of it and I think this chart shows that:

Culture Shock choice

I truly believe that knowing about these phases will get you through them faster and smoother.  Being self-aware goes a long way.  Happy travels!

Getting Around in Korea

Platform of Garak Market Station, Seoul Metro ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the first things you have to learn upon arrival to Korea is how to give and get directions to a place.  You would think this would be the easy part as in “i’ll just ask for directions and all will be right with the world again.”  Think again.

I haven’t had to deal with this much lately since I have now learned how to get around quite well in Korea, but now that I am moving and working in a new area of the city – previously unexplored by me, myself and I – I am having to learn how to get around all over again.

What makes it difficult here is that it is a pedestrian lifestyle (which I absolutely love!!), but we are used to getting directions by car.  In the US, we base directions off of major roads and landmarks.  Here, everything is based off of subway stop locations and most directions start with a subway stop exit, even if you don’t take the subway.  As for landmarks, we do give them, but it’s harder to do because there are soooooo (hold on I need a few more o’s)…ooooo many of the same franchises every 100 feet (I’ll talk about feet in a moment) that it’s confusing.

Let me give you some short examples of potential direction conversations.

1)  A: It’s at Watsons – B: Which Watsons? – A: The newer one that sells Cheese Balls.

2)  A: To get to the bar, go out exit 2 walk for 1-2 minutes, then make a right at the Starbucks, the one next to the McDonalds, then go up to the next alley and go left where you see the giant picture of beer, then go into the building that has a Holly’s Coffee on the outside and go up to the 3rd floor.  Go left out of the elevator and around the corner.

I kid you not, it can be that complicated and even more so at times.  It’s actually comical to me and makes things fun.  One time we couldn’t find our friend because he was at one bar named Dublins and we were at another.  They were only 2 blocks from each other.  This is the land where every third store is a cell phone store or a coffee shop.  You can even have two coffee shops right next to each other.  There is usually a Dunkin Donuts within a stone’s throw of another one.  It’s predictably funny.

In my year here I have learned how to give and get directions in a different way.  No one here uses addresses.  I don’t even know my address.  You just have to know what building or complex you live in.  But all of this goes to show how dependent Korea is on their public transportation…and with reason.  The subway and buses here are amazing.  They are clean, efficient, safe and user friendly.

For those who may be reading who are coming to Korea or new to Korea, check out the main interactive websites:

Seoul Metro

Seoul Bus (Hi Seoul site, does not work on MAC – since Mac’s aren’t as popular here yet)

TOPIS (Metro and Bus interactive site)

But wait, there’s more!

Check out this video of how they have now even added digital shopping to the subway stops.  Freakin cool!!!  I have yet to see one of these because I think they are still in trial mode, but it’s amazing what they do with technology.

Bad Goodbyes

Did you ever notice the pattern that usually surrounds goodbyes when you are the one leaving?  The days building up to leaving are usually hectic due to packing or organizing for whatever reason you are leaving such as a new job, new house, new country or just a long trip.  So the goodbyes always sneak up on you because you haven’t actually stopped to think about how the change will affect you and your relationships to those you are leaving behind.

Today was my last day at the campus I teach at as I am transferring to a new campus closer to the city center and it definitely snuck up on me.  I’ve been so busy with packing my apartment and finishing up my classes (and a last minute change of schedule which is oh so common in Korean business practices) that all the sudden it was my last day, my last hour with the students and co-workers that I had spent the last year with.  I never had time to reflect on how much I’ll miss them.  Some of my co-workers I was close to and I know I will see them again, but the students I’m sure I will not see and I had no idea how attached I had become to some of them.  But in the moments of goodbye, I chickened out.  I always do.  I run from goodbyes.

My fear of the unstoppable emotions that happen with goodbyes goes way back.  I remember when I was about 8 years old, I was living in Florida and we had a lot of loved ones come to visit us.  Somehow I developed the habit that every time I went to the airport to drop another set of relatives and friends off, I had to take my orange sipper, which looks like this:

For some reason, when I had one of these with me and I sucked on it, much like a pacifier I suppose (I never realized how much like a pacifier it was until now!…wow, that’s sad), it would prevent me from crying.  Suppress the urge, suppress the emotions.  23 years later, I still wish I could bring them along for all my goodbyes.

I think the fear of goodbyes comes from the fear of not being able to stop crying.  I mean it’s not as hard when you know you’ll see the person again, but when you know you won’t and that chapter of your life with them is now over…I just can’t handle it.  So I brush it off, smile, laugh, make awkward statements and run like hell.  😀

Please try to control your urge to be proud of me, I know it’s hard.

Not to mention once you start to cry the person you are crying over wants you to stop crying before they leave, which only makes it worse.  It’s like the children getting dropped off at kindergarten.  They keep crying until the mother is finally out of sight, then once she’s gone, they can put it aside and focus on something else.  My ex-boyfriend did that to me once when he was going back to his country.  He wouldn’t leave until I stopped crying and I wouldn’t stop crying until he left.  It was a looonnnggg night.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get over this fear of really letting myself be emotional in goodbyes.  I move often and I will tell you it doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you do it.

On that note, saying goodbye to one of my favorite endearing students today reminded me of a Carlos Vives song that was one of my first favorite songs of his called Carito.  For those who don’t know it, it’s basically about a man reflecting on the bond he had with his English teacher and how sad he was when she left.  I loved this song long before I became an English teacher, but I always wanted to have students who missed me that much.  It’s a cute song.

May all your goodbyes be good ones…

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