Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Un-glorified Truth.

I've been in southeast Asia for four nights and  three days now. I feel like I should sit here and  glorify every aspect of things up until today for my readers, "Amazing, beautiful, tropical, adventurous." All those things are true of course, but, that's not how I'm currently feeling. I could write all of these  things but  then I wouldn't  be honest in my words and to me, writing is about what I feel and  experience on paper... the truth, not the glorified  version.

The truth is that I have been feeling a bit broken for the past two days. I spent two nights in Bangkok before heading to Cambodia on Monday morning. In Bangkok, it's obvious that there's no such thing as rich, however the things I saw there were not quite as painstaking as what I've seen my last two days in Cambodia. I knew I was coming to third world countries, but perhaps I didn't prepare myself emotionally for the things I would see.

In Cambodia children are without shoes. Their feet are dirty and they walk the streets trying to sell things to tourists to help their families. Whereas some people shrug this off as a scam or, "their parents send them over to guilt you into giving them money," I just cannot find it within me to continue walking and shake it off. Little 8-10 year old Khmer girls who speak next to no English but can perfectly say, "postcard, ten one dollar, lady," approach you around  every corner. Little boys are carrying around baskets of cheap souvenirs in Angkor Wat trying to sell them to the crowds of tourists passing  by. Families of four ride through town on one motor bike with no helmets, fathers driving while mothers hold  their infants close. There are stray dogs everywhere, some so unkempt that they barely have any hair left. Garbage lines a lot of the country roads. Contrary to what people say, Siem Reap is not just a big touristy area that boasts one  of the biggest attractions  in south east Asia. There is a lot of struggle at the heart of the city that people fail to mention, and part of me feels that my heart wasn't built strong enough to take it all.

This brings me to my next point. Although this is the poorest and most heartbreaking country I've ever experienced, they have one thing that changes it all: happiness. In a place were struggle is a part of every day life, I never would have imagined to see so many smiles. These people are happy. Children might be running through the streets shoeless but they are many times laughing and giggling as they do so. They play on dusted side streets with nothing more than sticks, dirt, and a small ball. Their simple smiles and beautiful bellows of joy are enough to both melt your heart and make you reevaluate your life. Khmer men and women try desperately to sell you fruit, massages, cold drinks and souvenirs at unbelievably cheap prices, a dollar here two dollars there. More often than not, tourists try to barter them down to a lower price. Many tourists keep walking without even acknowledging their presence, but rightfully so as the haggling can get a bit overwhelming. The thing is that we all look rich in this country, because in reality we are. But, even as we pass by these people ignoring them or saying no, they will STILL offer you their sincerest smile. That is something about this place that I will always carry with me.

And so, as I sit here, reflecting on this, and a moment away from tears, I feel as though my heart can't take anymore. I would be lying if I told you that I haven't actually considered cutting my trip short because I honestly feel broken hearted. Being here makes  me want to go home and hug my mom for the life she gave me. It makes  me want to cry as  I sit and  ponder the fairness in the fact that by the hand of  God, I was blessed to be born into a family and  place that would provide me with all that it has, while others are born into conditions that I couldn't fathom. Then, I have to remind myself that just because I feel sad for them doesn't  mean they need my pity. They have the two richest things in the world keeping  them together: love and  happiness. That is something we can all learn from in a world where we often take things for granted.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Leaving Korea Behind

My last day in Korea has come to pass. As I sit writing this, I'm currently suspended in air "on a big jet plane," (see: Phoenix/ Angus and Julia Stone) destination: Bangkok. In less time than imaginable I will be trekking around Thailand for five weeks on yet another personal adventure. This morning I awoke feeling a bit frazzled, definitely anxious, and  although I hate to admit it... just a tad fearful. It seems fairly plausible for a girl of my age who is about to embark on a journey of this stature alone. However now that I'm S.E.A. bound all I really feel is excitement... and also, I'm hungry.

My last two days in Korea were pretty full of ups and downs. When I say ups and downs, I mean, bordering bipolar disorder. In the past 48 hours I have cried, laughed like a hyena, stared blankly at an empty room while showing no emotion, bounced off the walls with an energy that would be  impressive even for a sugar crazed five year old,  crashed like a drunken zombie, had a broken heart, had an elated heart, and felt contentment, fear, excitement and everything in between. WHAT A ROLLER COASTER. I always did like rides.

Thursday seemed to be the day when the finality of everything seemed to really sink in, making it my hardest day. The day before I had said my goodbyes to my dear friend and coworker, Eunhee. That in itself was hard enough. Saying goodbye to my co teacher, Ga Jiyoung, on Thursday proved to be harder for me than I had expected. During an ice cream date and  just before parting ways, Jiyoung placed a generous amount of "pocket money," into my account to help me with the costs of my last two days and the beginning of my trip. Ga Jiyoung has been there for me since day one. We taught together everyday and  confided in one another. She was the person who helped me get my life situated in Korea. Whatever it was I needed, she has always been there to help. She calls herself my Korean mother. I couldn't keep from crying as  we parted ways, knowing that the next time we will meet is very unsure. I got into the elevator with tears in my eyes which turned into a full on sob once the doors were closed. I drug my feet back to my room, plopped onto my bed and just let the tears flow. I wanted to call home but I knew that due to the time difference I would wake someone so instead, I picked up the phone and dialed Aileen. Two missed calls and a returned call later, I answered the phone with a voice disguised by tears and heavy breathing, "I just can't do this, Aileen! There are too many goodbyes.. I just.. I don't know what to do!" Aileen is an angel and that's all you need to know about her. By the end of our phone call I had laughed and had begun feeling better. Two hours later, I met her and all the other girls for our last dinner together.

On Friday morning I awoke knowing that it would be my last day in Korea and my last night with my best friends. I laid in bed for about an hour before getting up to take care of the last of things. I packed up the rest of my clothing and  other items into two boxes, cleaned the apartment and washed all the bedding, and before I knew it, it was time to leave. I turned on my headphones, sat down on my desk, and had a moment to myself. As I sat there, I eyed my apartment carefully, retracing each memory in my mind. I shed a tear or two, grabbed my boxes and my backpack, said goodbye, closed the door, and  left it behind.

After I shipped the last of my boxes home, I was standing at a cross walk; backpack strapped into place, waiting for the green man to guide me across, when a small old lady approached me. She began looking at my face fiercely and thought, to myself, "oh, here we go." I smiled in acknowledgment and just then she grabbed  my arm and began to tell me how beautiful I was in Korean. Her smile was the essence of sincere kindness and she spoke with such excitement. She continued speaking to me in Korean and with the small amount that I know, I was able to distinguish what she was asking and responded accordingly. She told me I was beautiful, asked where I was from, asked if I had a boyfriend, and if I was leaving Korea. As the green man appeared, we moved forward, crossing that street for what would be my last time. I had thought I was alone again until I felt a pull on my sleeve. As I turned toward her she reached out to give me an orange. I shook my head, "Ohhh.. anniyo! Genchiniyo! (Ohh no... I'm okay!)" She continued to urge it towards me so naturally I graciously accepted. As we both stood waiting for the bus, she continued to look at me and smile before finally letting out a another, " Ohhh yaepudda! Sarang hae yo!" (Ohh beautiful! I love you!) I smiled and blushed some more, thanking her, just as  my bus approached. She looked at me and then to the bus pointing and I nodded as to confirm that, yes, I was  leaving. She waved me off with a warm smile, two flailing palms and a "bye-bye!" I got onto the bus with a silent grin, thinking to myself, "Korea, you've gone and done it again." I rode the bus to my next destination smiling all the way. Sometimes the universe speaks to us in special ways and some times the timing it just right.

My last day in Korea seemed to continue in this way. I found myself really appreciating everything around  me.  One last short trip to my school left me feeling pleased and appreciative. Across the street I waited for my train to take me away from Wolgye (it was late as always but on this day instead of becoming perturbed I felt myself grinning about it). As I waited, I stared across the way  at Yeon Ji Cho. The sun was falling on it so nicely,as if it was being silently glorified, in the way I have glorified it all year. All I could do was smile, and instead of being sad, I was happy that it will always hold a piece of me.

I spent my last night in the airport jimjilbang with Kimberly and Aileen and it was perfect. In the morning Kim Jiyoung and Semi also showed up to see me off. I felt like such a lucky girl to have four friends with me at the airport. The hugs and goodbyes were hard, as expected, and  tears were shed, as expected. Just before I passed through the gates to security I heard four beautiful girls yell together, "We love you Rachel!" At that moment I couldn't help but cry, both for the goodbyes and for the love I have found in these people in Korea. I looked back with tears in my eyes and waved. With that, I stepped through the gates and disappeared out of sight. And so began the next adventure in the story of my life.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hold back the tears (but pour the soju).

The element of surprise: something that people either love or hate. There's the whole argument that you don't want to be surprised with something you aren't ready for and then there's the argument that that's half the fun (you know, the spontaneity of it all). Korea teaches you something about surprise, and that is to be ready for it.  People just love to throw you into the pool without floaties in this country. Be ready for anything and always always accept whatever is thrown at you because there is no saying "no," in Korea. These surprises sometimes range from- "SURPRISE, we have a staff dinner no one told you about" to "SURPRISE, today you will tutor the principal in English for an hour" to "SURPRISE you are going to participate in a staff volleyball tournament today!" (Okay, okay, okay- oh and... THANKS for the heads up, I wouldn't have worn heels.)

When you are called upon to give an impromptu speech to a room full of Koreans, the element of surprise can be a bit nerve wracking. Just as I was beginning to get comfortable at last night's staff dinner, I heard my name leaving the head teacher's mouth as my co-workers urged me to move to the front of the room. There I stood in a line of about five other teachers. At first I thought, okay, I'll just have to give a bow when they call my name, but THEN the microphone started to be passed and I was second in line.  "Shit, what am I expected to say?" I scurried back to my co-teacher and whispered, "Jiyoung, what am I supposed to talk about?" She just nudged me and said,  "Whatever you want!" Really? Whatever I want? Well if that's the case... "Have you guys heard about the new wolverine movie coming out?" No, but seriously  I don't even know what kind of speech this is supposed to be and none of these people will even know what I'm saying!   Being that it was an end of the year dinner and many teachers would be moving on to new schools, I assumed it should be some sort of goodbye speech.  I listened as the teacher before me gave her own short speech and I smiled and nodded accordingly (truth be told... I had no idea what she was saying.) While I waited, anticipating what would come next, I tried to calm my nerves but before I knew it I had a microphone in my hand.  I started off by saying thank you to everyone (simple and easy to understand) and told them how very grateful I am to the staff and students at Yeon Ji for always being so kind and welcoming. They helped make my year here a wonderful experience. While speaking, I tried hard to hold back my tears. I quickly went from a nervous mess to an emotional basket case.  "Don't do it Rachel... DO NOT CRY." I succeeded in getting through it, and as expected, everyone smiled, nodded and clapped. Even if they didn't understand me word for word, I still believe that knew what I was trying to say.  Back to my seat I trotted and thought to myself, "harmless enough, task completed, eh, that wasn't so bad, and also... man I am NOT going to miss those kinds of surprises."

Once the speeches ended, the feast began and the soju started flowing.  This has always been a somewhat strange experience for me.  In America, if you are a teacher, the last thing you want is for your principal to discover you taking shots at a local bar. In Korea, you slam them back WITH your principal and it is disrespectful to decline. Culture shock 101: this is not a trick, you will not get fired, but you will move up on the social ladder at work.  Over time I have become accustom to this; I know that Korea is a big drinking culture, and it's actually quite enjoyable to let loose with your coworkers.

Korean dinning and drinking is something I'm really going to miss when I go back to America.  Surely I can find a place to grub on some Korean and without a doubt I will be drinking with my friends and family at home.  However, it's the WAY it's done in Korea that I really love and it's experiencing it with Korean people that I sincerely enjoy.  Going out to a traditional Korean dinner and being the only foreigner there is a pretty special experience.  Everyone wants to teach you something, whether it's how to hold a shot glass when accepting soju from your elders, or how to wrap your galbi with raddish peels.  There is a way to eat everything and there is a way to accept and pour drinks. As I sat at my table, surrounded by the people who have become my coworkers and friends over the past year, a sense of fondness and appreciation overwhelmed me. I brought myself to Korea but these people brought Korean culture to me. In that moment, I felt as though I was having an out of body experience. I saw everything going on around me, but the only thing I could hear were my thoughts. I looked around at everyone smiling and clanking their glasses while the green bottle got passed from person to person. Sadness crept into my lungs.  I thought back to my first staff dinner and remembered this exact moment being one of my first big cultural experiences only 12 short months ago. "I am so lucky," I thought to myself, and I meant it.  I have been truly blessed to have been able to be a part of this culture, and what a wonderfully rich culture it is. I am so proud to have spent one year here. As my thoughts enveloped me, I masked my sadness, held tight to my appreciation, brought myself back into the moment, and shared another shot with my friends at the table.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Yeon Ji Elementary School

Here is the video I made with a compilation of photos and videos of my students from our year together.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


My six favorite K-pop songs from my year in Korea.

#1. Ailee- Heaven

#2. B1A4- Baby, Goodnight
#3. B1A4- Beautiful Target
#4. Big Bang- Fantastic Baby
#5. Miss A.- I don't need a man
#6. PSY- Gangnam Style (because the list just isn't complete without it... after all, he DID bring Korea back home to my family and friends in the states!)


Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Farewell to Remember

Packing has commenced. Pictures have come down off the walls. Useless clutter has finally made it's way to the trash can. I quit buying groceries or anything else for my apartment that will need to be disposed of in two short weeks. I don't even teach anymore. Who in the public education system thought it was a good idea to have a two week semester of classes after winter break and before sixth graders graduate? He or she should sit and stab themselves in the forehead repeatedly with a sharp pencil, because that's what school feels like every day lately. This is absolutely absurd. Right now my kids are back and forth between having puppy death depression and ADHD. You literally cannot get them to do a thing being that they grade up in a few weeks and there is no text book or agenda for class.  They are either bouncing off the walls or staring (not at me, but past me) in la la land. Everything you request of them is followed by a grunt or slouch. Anything educational is almost completely out of the question. I have even recommended some activities that have gotten turned down by my co-teacher as it is "too educational" for the last two weeks of school. However, who am I to complain.. today I had a snowball fight during class time and had a blast with my kids outside. I'll take that any day.

As the my year comes to a close, I have been making it a point to see a lot of my best friends. Between dinners with Cam & Aileen, Kim, and James, my schedule seems to be getting pretty hefty.  Next week I will be doing a Hanok stay (an overnight at a traditional Korean house) with my coteachers, which I'm really looking forward to. It's hard to believe that I only have two weeks and WORSE, two weekends left here.

This past weekend we had a big party that we named, "The Last Hoorah." We planned a big event (facebook official of course) and invited everyone from our original orientation group.  On Saturday night, we all went out together in our best dress and with our best attitudes.  There are no words for how much fun we had.  It was awesome and we went out with a bang to say the least.  Our night was packed full with gin and tonics, agwa bombs, dancing like our lives depended on it (seriously.. we got down), heel clicking competitions with strangers from France (for money), playing with stuffed animals in 7/11, eating pizza at 6am all the while having sing-alongs to Lion King with 8 other random foreigners (and entertaining the Koreans running the place), doing headstands in the subway station, planking on the subway, and getting home and in bed by 10AM. I didn't plan to or want to stay out ALL night and ALL morning but let me say, it was WELL worth it. I haven't had that much fun out in a long time. I'm so glad that I decided to go. A wonderful farewell to Seoul, it was indeed.  Although it was supposed to be our last "hoorah" we all had such a good time that we want to do it again one more time before we leave and hopefully we can find the time.  I cannot believe that in such a short time all the best friends i made will be dispersed all over the world. 19 days and counting...

Aileen (holding Brownie), me, and Cam!
We look pretty good for 4am.

THESE TWO, forever in my heart even 
if we are worlds apart. PA, Canada, and LA UNITE!

This was completely called for.
It was 7AM... things happen. Sometimes
acting stupid in public has it's pay-off's.
We got a lot of laughs... and my head is bruised.

My beautiful Texan! Hard to believe we'll be so far apart soon!

Happiness shines through.

Cheers to Seoul, it's been a wonderful 12 months!