Reflections on 2012: Life, love, loss, luck, learning…

KoiReflecting on this year, I have come to think of it as a Japanese Koi pond – the infinite gallons of water representing all the crappy things that have happened while the few fish that elusively dance around are the good things – those rare flashes of beauty, connection, support, accomplishment, growth, hope and love that propel us forward.

It would be easy to focus on all that water – and while I didn’t endure major trauma (there was no murder, rape or death) – there have been many debilitating bumps in the road: the hideous study experience (including but not limited to the constant stress and pressure to perform and the overwhelming, relentless workload), the reverse culture shock, the loneliness and isolation, the devastating romance and subsequent heartbreak, the pernicious self-doubt, the hemorrhaging bank account and all the packing and moving and goodbyes. However, because (according to psychologist Rick Hanson) our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, I want to instead focus on all the positive things and honor those exquisite fish.

Oh, where to begin…I found an unusual place to live while I was in New Zealand – a Buddhist center that was nice, cheap and quiet. I crossed paths with some really interesting (read, eccentric) people from all corners of the globe and got to be a bit of a participant-observor-fly-on-wall-anthropologist. I witnessed people on their spiritual paths and saw the ways in which we create reality and meaning. The best things about that place: a bath, a backyard, and a beautiful garden.

I had a visit from an old friend from university who was in the country briefly from overseas. For a weekend, he entertained and distracted me with his positive energy, wit and charm, allowing me to briefly forget all about the hell of transgendered, knife-wielding, glue-sniffing teenagers that awaited me on Monday morning.

bayI was able to spend Christmas with all my family for the first time in many years and to stay at my deceased grandfather’s cottage by the ocean where I spent so much of my childhood – one of the most special places to me in the world. However, after two days of walking on the beach and listening to the waves crash against the shore, I got bored and broke into the empty neighbour’s house to use the Internet.

I had a typical Kiwi summer – walking around barefoot and eating fish’n’chips on the beach. My good friend from Korea came to stay with me for a week and I got to spend time with another close friend who I had sailed around the world with years before. In an act of serendipity, I bumped into our mutual friend who also sailed with us in the middle of the street and the three of us were able to reconnect.

MillbrookI went to visit my uncle twice at his tranquil house near Queenstown, amongst some of the most stunning scenery in the world and was able to spend quality time with him and his new family. As the most successful (as dictated by society’s ideals) member of my extended family, he imparted his wisdom to me and was instrumental in helping me halt the self-doubt, lack of confidence and fear of the future that had been plaguing me for months.

I found a new hobby that has evolved into a passion – Capoeira. Physically and mentally challenging, the weekly training sessions often ended with me in my bathtub sore but completely blissed out. Some of the outside-the-box people I met (and continue to meet) through this pursuit have become like family and it has opened up for me a whole new way of perceiving the world and experiencing myself.

There was a brief but intense romance that was gratifying (nothing can beat the feeling that the person you most covet in the world also covets you). Although still raw from the aftermath, I remain hopeful that one day I will wake up and think that it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

I finished my hellish program and was able to graduate on time. I learnt some new skills and felt a sense of accomplishment at completing this notoriously tough program. It was better to find out sooner than later that I had climbed up a ladder only to find that it was against the wrong wall. Letting go of sunk time, money, and energy costs is still something I’m coming to terms with.

My friend gave me her job in Auckland for six weeks while she went on holiday. While the work was hard, my living situation dire (it’s too soon to revisit) and the social situation downright lonely, it was a good experience for me to reinforce that I can be self-sufficient, handle transition and uncertainty. It also gave me some much-needed income and reinforced the fact that I don’t want to live in New Zealand.

I was able to take back my old position in Korea which gave me another option and an opportunity to regroup financially, emotionally, mentally, physically.

red heartOther great things that have happened this year: two of my good friends started dating and fell in love and are soon going to be traveling the world together! Another couple I know who have had a long, tumultuous, on-again, off-again, trans-continental relationship finally got married!!! One of my closest girlfriends found incredible inner strength to let go of everything that is familiar to her and is embarking on a two-year volunteer assignment on the other side of the world on an island in the middle of nowhere. So many of my friends found themselves pregnant or gave birth – their babies healthy and thriving.

So, picking through all the debris of this year, I have collected some nuggets of wisdom:

  • Friendships are really important, and it is especially important to reach out to people in times of stress and loneliness.
  • It sounds un-pc, but stereotypes exist for a reason. It is true that Argentines make really intense, unnerving eye contact and that Jamaicans like to wear bright colours. I found out that other, more nefarious stereotypes are also true but I won’t go into that here.
  • Sometimes, your friends give you really good advice and you should take it.
  • Sometimes, advice you read on the Internet is true and you should also take it.
  • People omit important information in order to control how you perceive them and deliberately deny you access to reality for their own gain. Yes, people really are that fucked up and self-interested.
  • Don’t underestimate the role of intuition and instincts – your gut is a good sensor and you should listen to it more.
  • Live in the present moment more so that opportunities don’t pass you by. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – carpe diem!
  • Actions speak louder than words. People can say all they want, but if they don’t step up, it’s a good indication of their cowardice, flakiness, and fickleness.
  • Giving too much importance of the ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ at the cost of following your own bliss can get you into a very dark place.
  • Call people on their bullshit – it might be uncomfortable and awkward but they have no qualms humiliating or deceiving you, so while the truth can hurt and be inconvenient, it’s better than letting someone pull the wool over your eyes and co-operating with their deceit.
  • It can be really easy to lose perspective and forget to be grateful for what we do have.

On a final note, I want to share some of my favorite quotes from this past year from people close to me that have been a great source of support, comfort and inspiration.

From one of my close girlfriends who was an awesome source of strength and encouragement from the other side of the world:

As long as you are alive and healthy, things will turn out all right. Believe me, it’s going to be okay. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to cry and feel like giving up. It’s completely normal. Taking time off to think whether this is the right thing for you may be a good idea. It’s not you, so don’t blame yourself. If you talk to others, you’ll find that they are experiencing similar problems, too. Don’t worry about next year or next month, just focus on how you feel right now and today. One step at a time.

From my favorite uncle:

Don’t be afraid to push your own boundaries and allow yourself to follow your dreams so you can pursue a lifestyle that will be fulfilling whilst rewarding for your efforts; nothing ventured, nothing gained and I can assure you when taking on new challenges you need the energy of youth coupled with experience, this is your 30’s ….. enjoy the challenge.

From writer Leigh Newman:

They, in fact, will waltz on to new adventures, made uncomfortable by your expectant gazes. But this is an agony you must experience, because while you can’t keep your heart from getting broken, you can stop breaking your own heart—over and over into little black bits—once you realize the difference between what you can control and what you can’t, and that it’s far, far more fun to lavish all that attention on your own self-worth.

From the most influential person in my life:

There’s nothing for it but to wear it and move on. Seems that at least it maybe gets a little easier at least as you get older – the tendency is to become a bit more resilient, or find, surprisingly, there are more people in the wings curious to step into the breach than you expected when you were young and heartbroken. At least, I hope that’s the case – doesn’t always feel that way.





Only the Resilient

rainThe holiday season can be hard on expats – away from close friends, family and the familiar rituals and atmosphere that are comforting and exciting. For me, this time of year is always a time of reflection. And this year, the lesson for me has been RESILIENCE.

While I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the past year (actually, mostly just downs), I have been thinking about some of my close friends and the really hard times they have faced, not just this year, but throughout their twenties. The reason I spent so much time thinking about this is that I found a sense of hope, comfort and admiration in their ability to overcome their struggles – what didn’t kill them, made them stronger, as the cliché goes.

They have experienced the deaths of loved ones (parents, partners, friends), mental breakdowns, physical disease, debilitating accidents, abuse, miscarriage, divorce, job loss, betrayal, and the list goes on….I am in awe of their ability to get up and carry on.

Of course, in my own life, I have not been exempt from suffering: setbacks, disappointment, death, defeat, heartbreak, illness, grief, rejection and so many other traumatic events, both large and small.

Through experiencing and witnessing such events, the role of resilience cannot be underestimated. In my quest to figure out how to better inoculate myself against all the terrible things that happen to us, I started paying attention to resilience research.

While I’m not as deluded or naïve to believe that I can stop bad things from happening, I know that there are tools and strategies we can use to better weather the storm and not drown.

One prominent researcher in this area is Martin Seligman. I’ve been a fan ever since my friend recommended I read his groundbreaking work in the area of learned optimism: people who don’t give up have a tendency of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. He has undertaken research in the area of post-traumatic growth – which is simply the idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Seligman talks about this research:

doorsExtremely bad events lead to personal and moral dilemmas. And they’re existential crises in which you have to make decisions. And therefore, we talk about it as a fork in the road. One of the most interesting things about depression, which is the big, big component of post traumatic stress disorder, it is an emotion that tells you to detach from goals you had. That they’re unreachable. And that creates a fork in the road. It makes you ask the question, what other things might I do? What doors might open for me?

And one of the important things about knowing about post traumatic growth and resilience is when those doors open for you, if you are paralyzed by the depression, by the anxiety…,you’re not going to walk through those doors. You’re not going to take advantage of them. But knowing that typically, people who suffer very bad events have new doors open for them and that it’s important to be prepared to walk through them.

I like the analogy he uses and he raises an important point about believing that those doors will open and enabling ourselves to walk through them. Resilience is key to this process, and luckily for us mere mortals, it is a muscle that we can build and develop through practice of a range of techniques and strategies.

When my resilience (which is, admittedly, not that strong) was tested in a big way about a year ago, the advice I received was to ‘take a day off, connect with your friends and family, and be kind to yourself.’ These were all helpful strategies in the short-term. But what about the long-term? How could I ensure I wouldn’t fall apart in the same way next time something bad inevitably happened?

I listened to an interview with innovator Andrew Zolli about how to bolster our resilience. He relays fascinating research about our beliefs: in a nutshell, if you believe the world is a meaningful place, that you have agency, that your actions have consequences and that successes and failures are also placed in your life to teach you something, then you have a greater chance of being resilient in the face of potentially traumatic events. Therefore, spiritual and religious worldviews have endured because they are positively adaptive by being advantageous to us in moments of crisis. I think this means that I should get rid of my nihilistic tendencies.

Also, he talked about habits of mind and referred to the slew of research that is being done on the monk population. Neuroscientists are studying neuroplasticity and how regular meditation can help us as a tool in stressful situations, allowing us to better regulate our emotions and encouraging the mind to focus on optimism and hope.

Psychologist Karen Reivich, author of The Resilience Factor, has also written on how to increase resilience. Strategies include:

Building awareness by listening to our internal radio station and what we say to ourselves in the heat of the moment – ask ourselves, what would be a more positive, optimistic way to look at this?

Ask: where do I have control? What can I do now to positively affect the situation?

mountainsPut things in perspective (don’t catastrophize by making Himalayas out of mountains).

Have some ‘go to’ coping strategies that draw on your strengths (e.g. the ability to ‘hunker down’ and get things done, using humour, playfulness etc.).

Probably the most important strategy is having the ability to ask for help and having a good social network of people that you can rely on.

Other pearls of wisdom that have been imparted to me are: learn from your mistakes – don’t allow history to repeat itself. Instead of being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, forgive yourself. Don’t blame yourself for everything that went wrong. Focus on what you learned from the experience and how you can keep from making the same mistake again.

So, if we can remain resilient in the face of setbacks and suffering, there are opportunities for growth, as long as we can get ourselves through those doors.

The. Best. News. Ever. (or Why I Love Chocolate)

I was so happy when I stumDarkChocolateHeartbled upon an interview with ethnobotanist (I don’t know what that is either) Chris Kilham who talks about the amazingness of chocolate in his new book Psyche Delicacies.

As a long-time, hardcore, incorrigible, chocolate addict, this is excellent news. I am only half-joking when I say I want to die by drowning in pool of melted chocolate. I hung onto his every word as he espoused the heath virtues of my drug of choice.

If what he says is true, then chocolate is good for our hearts – it lowers cholesterol and reduces platelet aggregation (say what?). The greatest concentration of beneficial substances in chocolate is pure cocoa, so we should eat chocolate that is dark and bitter.

I also learned from Chris that it is a soft drug and is psycho-active. It is loaded with compounds that affect brain chemistry and mood. For example, women eat more chocolate just before or during menstruation because at this time serotonin levels go down but chocolate helps to build them back up, resulting in an enhanced mood. Hmmm I always wondered why I craved chocolate during this time.

Of course, chocolate is also a love potion. It contains phenylamine which we naturally produce during orgasm or when we are in love, so eating chocolate mimics the brain chemistry of being in love. I guess the creators of Valentine’s Day already knew this.

Bottom line: don’t feel bad after your next chocolate binge. It is healthier and less addictive than crack. And a lot cheaper too. Bring on Easter!



“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.





Babies and Bourgeois Decadence

Image by cheriejoyful

The baby issue (i.e. if I’ll ever have one) has been on my mind a lot lately – ever since I found out that my most fabulous and glamorous friend from my high school/university days is expecting. Most of my other female peers from this time are married and have already spawned one (or two). Another one bites the dust…

I brought this up when chatting with two childless friends (both single, one female, aged 29 and one male, aged 36) over traditional Korean tea recently. We bandied around the reasons for why we don’t have children – a kind of ‘if it happens, it happens’ consensus emerged from us. I admitted that although I was ambivalent, I had just purchased a memoir about one single woman’s journey to have a baby through using assisted reproductive technology (it hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ll keep you posted on what it says).

My male friend from that talk then sent me a link to an article from The Atlantic about the reasons for the declining birth rate in the United States. It is such a complex and multi-faceted issue that my head was spinning after reading it. It considers an array of thorny issues in much more depth and more eloquently than I’m doing here. Although, I thought I would attempt to relate it to my own experience as outlined below.

In essence, it is a rebuttal to the social conservative position which argues that the declining birthrate is due to a kind of decadence – those of us of child-rearing age and capability are embracing the here and now by indulging in comfort, pleasure and hedonism at the cost of contributing to and investing in the future.

Then, in comes right-leaning-but-not-conservative journalist Conor Friedersdorf and rips apart this argument by putting forward the notion that these days, women can invest in the future in a myriad of ways as they have so many more opportunities. Back in the day, motherhood was almost the only option. Also, social conservatives misunderstand American culture, he argues, quoting traditionalist Eve Tushnet who says that:

Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure. We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents…I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear-primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness-but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

I feel that Tushnet has a good grasp on the reality of the situation – on the outdated rules we’re supposed to follow. Most rational people want to ‘do it right’, whatever that means these days: find a suitable life partner, have some financial stability and feel mentally prepared to take on the huge commitment and responsibility that is raising a child. This is particularly difficult in an economically tumultuous society that keeps moving the goal posts and encouraging the pursuit of more and better (education, jobs, money, status, partners).

In my own experience in talking to other women about their decision to have or not have children, I don’t think the financial piece can be underestimated.

Women in the west have more opportunities and freedom now than in any other time in history. However, that comes with a cost. It basically means that women are burdened with the double shift – work a full-time job AND take care of the child-rearing and household duties. Some want to work and have a career, others HAVE to work in order to survive in the harsh economic climate.

Even relatively privileged, well-off women have a hard time with this: one high-flying friend who has a five year old daughter from a previous marriage and is now living with a new (wealthy-but-less-wealthy-than-her-ex) partner, and who values economic independence, still has to work to support herself and her daughter. She thinks that staying home to raise children these days is a real luxury, so imagine what it’s like for the less fortunate (i.e. most people).

Another couple I know who want children are getting their ducks in a row as much as they can first, trying to ‘do it right’ – he’s starting a business, she’s going back to school to head in a more fulfilling and lucrative direction. These pursuits would be impossible to pursue with the time, energy and financial resources it takes to raise a child. So, they want to a have a child, but now is not the right time. They rationalize that they will be better parents and be able to provide a better upbringing to their child in the future than they could be now.

Similarly, another couple I know want to have children, and although both work full-time, they cannot afford to have them. They are waiting until they have a solid financial base which will take time.

Here, in South Korea, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, women have less choice and are forced into more of an either/or situation – most are expected to stay at home and raise their children or else they follow a career trajectory and remain childless. Slowly, the society is changing and offering more alternatives as more women juggle a career and children. For example, my doctor, who is a woman, has three children. She is probably the exception though – she can afford day care. The main cited reason for the low birthrate is economic. University admission (pretty much a prerequisite for any job above being a cleaner) relies heavily on private tutoring, which is expensive, but essential if you want to give your child any chance in this hyper-competitive society. That deters many couples from having more than one child.

At the end of the day, our planet is home to 7 billion people. This begs the question, what is decadent about not adding to that? Maybe less is more.