Korean Thanksgiving

chuseokThe best thing about this time of year in Korea, apart from the way that the summer eases into autumn and the temperature is perfect, is the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, known as Chuseok. This year it is especially good because it has given the country a five day weekend. Woooooo!!!!

Traditionally, Chuseok was when Koreans, most of whom were farmers, gave thanks to their ancestors for the year’s harvest and also a time for family and friends to feast together – to eat, drink and be merry under the full moon. While it is still an important occasion to honor and give thanks to the deceased, it has become a time when overworked Koreans can relax, go back to their hometowns in the countryside, or increasingly, go abroad for vacation.

For me, I usually like to stay in Seoul because it feels much quieter and less crowded. I had planned to catch up on a bunch of work that I figured would be much easier to get done at home than in an office of twenty constantly nattering co-workers. But, in my haste to leave work quickly the day before the holiday started, I left my giant bag of work-related things on my desk and by the time I realised it, the building was all locked up and would remain so for the next few days. Which means that I have some free time to do other things but that next week will be the week from hell.

But alas, then is then and now is now. I spent one magical day hiking with my friend who was leaving the country the next day, and then, after all that hiking, forced myself to go out at night and say goodbye to another friend who was also leaving the country the next day, back to Japan. She had been here studying and doing an internship. When I met her, she was with some friends from her language course – an empty-nester from Hong Kong married to an Italian who divides her time between Hong Kong, Tuscany and traveling in other countries the rest of the time, and a blond bombshell who is studying at Oxford. Our conversation focused mostly on Korea and our positive experiences of how kind and considerate Koreans can be. We all took turns telling stories. Stories about being invited out for whiskey by taxi drivers, of having our lost purses returned with everything still in them, about restaurants giving discounts and free food for no reason other than that we are foreign, about people going out of their way to help us carry our groceries and suitcases and when it’s raining, sharing their umbrellas. Despite only being in the country for a short time, these people had numerous stories to tell, and at the end of relaying these anecdotes, the woman from Hong Kong who leads a rather enviable life asked rhetorically, “Where else in the world can you experience such kindness?”

I’m trying to keep these stories and experiences close to my heart in order to remember the positive things about this country. It’s easy to lose sight of the good things when there are numerous bad things swarming around – things that are often out of one’s control and that won’t change.

So, for now, I hope to enjoy the weekend and do some more hiking on one of the mountains close to the city, clearing my head before all the people and cars come flooding back and I have to face work again on Monday.

Dear Sugar…

chi-printers-row-live-cheryl-strayed-08012012-20120703When an advice columnist starts off a response to a letter writer with, “My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small…”, you pay attention. You wonder who the hell would revel that in such a public forum (the advice column appears on The Rumpus). Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sugar, also known as Cheryl Strayed, the woman who wrote the best-selling memoir Wild about her solo trek through an arduous, never-ending trail in the United States.

I read some of her memoir (47% of it, according to Kindle) and while I thought it was interesting and well-written, I wasn’t compelled to finish it. Jump forward to a few months later when I find out that she also has a collection of her advice columns called Tiny Beautiful Things, which I bought. And I’m so glad I did. Her responses to a spectrum of readers’ problems are brutally honest, unconventional, insightful and hopeful. As I read through her replies to all manner of issues from teenage heartbreak to the death of a child, I was riveted by what she would say next, and in fact, made a game out of it, trying to guess what advice she would give to each person. I read the collection twice, and the second time, highlighted parts that I thought were particularly poignant (see below). I was fascinated by her because she is so real. Because she has been there. Because she has overcome abuse, addiction, poverty, betrayal, divorce, the death of loved ones and persisted in her dream of becoming a writer. She understands what it is to truly live – to die before you die. She’s liberal and smart and unpretentious and dishes out the tough love. Oh, and she is witty and hella sassy. And did I mention smart? Whip-smart, in fact.

Here’s a sampling of some of her advice that I thought was the most profound:

On a problem about love: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”

On a woman’s unfulfilled dreams to be married and have kids: “This is not ‘how your story ends.’ It’s simply where it takes a turn you didn’t expect.”

On a man who wants to find love but is extremely physically unattractive: “Inhabit the beauty that lives in your beastly body and strive to see the beauty in all the other beasts. Walk without a stick into the darkest woods. Believe that the fairytale is true.”

On a collection of letters by women wanting to leave an unfulfilling life/marriage/relationship/career: “Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone…Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough…Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve button has been eternally pinned.”

On unrequited love: “There are so many things to be tortured about, sweet pea. So many torturous things in this life. Don’t let a man who doesn’t love you be one of them.”

On carrying the weight of student loan debt: “Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.”

On catastrophizing and fear of death: “There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth…I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand, my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.”

On jealousy of others’ good fortune: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the why not me? voice and replace it with one that says don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel terrible because someone has gotten something you want, you force yourself to remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own.”

On an intense and tumultuous relationship: “I know your connection feels powerful, rare and incendiary. I know it seems like this woman is your own personal intimacy messiah. But you’re wrong. True intimacy isn’t a psychodrama. It isn’t the ‘highest highs and the lowest lows.’ It isn’t John Donne whispered into your crotch followed by months of not-exactly-agreed upon celibacy. It’s a tiny bit of those things on occasion with a whole lot of everything else in between. It’s communion and mellow compatibility. It’s friendship and mutual respect. It’s not having to say we must have an ‘absolute restriction on each other’ for thirty days…You don’t have intimacy with this woman. You have intensity and scarcity. You have emotional turmoil and an overwrought sense of what the two of you together means.”

On grief after losing a child: “The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there…You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.”

On marriage and infidelity: “Most people don’t cheat because they’re cheaters. They cheat because they’re people. They are driven by hunger or for the experience of someone being hungry once more for them. They find themselves in friendships that take an unintended turn or they seek them out because they’re horny or drunk or damaged from all the stuff they didn’t get when they were kids. There is love. There is lust. There is opportunity. There is alcohol. And youth. There is loneliness and boredom and sorrow and weakness and self-destruction and idiocy and arrogance and romance and ego and nostalgia and power and need. There is the compelling temptation of intimacies with someone other than the person with whom one is most intimate.”

On whether or not becoming a mistress/hooker is a good idea: “It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tell us on a visceral level what to do. You know what’s right for you and what’s wrong for you. And that knowing has nothing to do with money or feminism or monogamy or whatever other things you say to yourself when the silent exclamation points are going off in your head. Is it okay to be a participant in deceit and infidelity? Is it okay to exchange sex for cash? These are worthy questions. They matter. But the answers to them don’t tell us how to rightfully live our lives. The body does.”

In a letter to her younger self: “You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and loose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

“Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naive pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupid saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.”



A Capoeira Affair

IMG_2009….was what our festival held over the weekend was called. Why? Because two students from our group also got married during the event and it was a great honor to both attend their wedding and also to receive my first cord as a capoeira student!

One year ago, I walked into the academy and didn’t know anyone but was excited to participate in CDO Seoul’s Batizado event and workshops. For that event, there were a range of high profile masters from all over the world. Students came from Russia, Japan, Australia. It was big and exciting. One of the first people I met from the group and connected with was Maravilha, a very cute and sweet Korean girl with a demanding job which meant she couldn’t train regularly. However, just as I became part of the group one year ago, she started dating another student, a very funny guy who also looks like a turtle, hence his nickname, Tartaruga. Cut to this past weekend, and the annual event was much smaller, but in true Korean hurry-hurry style, this lovely couple who started dating only one year ago are married! Our teacher Zumbi, along with two guests from the United States, Contra Mestre Xango and Professor Berinjela, performed some music and acrobatics at the event. Despite being all tired and sweaty in our dresses (most of the group are girls and we had had some workshops in the morning and then went straight to the wedding), it was a beautiful event to take part in.

Come Sunday evening after our ‘baptism’, we ended our event by drinking margaritas at a nearby Mexican restaurant, a bit of a ritual. Although I was so physically and mentally tired, it was a time for reflection and gratitude. I was basking in a sense of accomplishment as it was the first time in a long time that I had actually achieved one of my goals. Capoeira is so physically demanding and time consuming and is perhaps not the best thing for a self-critical person like me to engage in as there are so many opportunities for self-flagellation. However, there are many gifts too – a window into a new culture, a new way of being in the world, the opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world, a sense of camaraderie, building mental and physical resilience, and the positive effects of sheer doggedness. As Professor Berinjela told us, “Your body is capable of doing so much more than the mind will let it.” I think this is true, and capoeira is definitely a way to push beyond our physical and mental boundaries, both perceived and real.

IMG_2511We had guests from Hong Kong and Japan, an Italian neurosurgeon and a range of foreign and Korean Seoulites attend. Perhaps the thing I like most about capoeira is that dozens of people from all walks of life, from different social classes and cultures, can come together and be united by their passion of this art form. Without this sense of family and these friendships in my life, I definitely could not live in Korea anymore.

As poet Maya Angelou once said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Obrigada capoeira for teaching me how to encounter defeats and how to overcome them.