Capoeira: An Expat’s Best friend

cdo chicoteInstructor Zumbi, the leader of the Capoeira group CDO Seoul recently wrote a really great blog post for the group’s website. As an expatriate in Seoul who has survived living in this often harsh and isolating rat race, I agree completely with everything he wrote. I have been an expatriate for a number of years and it is embarrassing to realize so late in the game that being involved in some kind of group activity and belonging to an organization, group, team or community is key to thriving in an environment where you don’t have any family, don’t speak the language, and are not part of the society in the way you were in your home country.

Being part of a group in a foreign country is also a kind of spiritual practice. Due to the transient nature of the expatriate scene, as well as the Capoeira scene (people are often inconsistent with training and because it’s not easy, quite a few give up), there is a constant ebb and flow of giving, receiving and letting go. Over the past few months, I made a lot of new friends in our group. We had students of all ages from different parts of the world training. I went away for two months and come back to find that there’s a new batch of students while some of the more experienced have left back to their home countries, are taking a break, have become pregnant, are moving on to new countries etc. As the saying goes, change is the only constant in life. At least there is a Capoeira family, both close and extended, old and new, to help buffer against the turbulence of life, especially in a foreign country.

This is the post in its entirety in Instructor Zumbi’s eloquent words:

Expats often arrive in Korea and feel isolated within weeks. They feel cut out of mainstream society and opportunities to grow and progress. It doesn’t matter whether the expats are English teachers or business consultants for Samsung with Wharton MBAs. All expats are immediately thrown into a battle against a shrinking social circle and opportunities for genuine bonding.

Having survived six years in Korea, I am acutely aware that I would never have been able to do it without the help of my Capoeira group. Here are five reasons why Capoeira helps expats integrate into Korea.


Capoeira is a community-oriented art. Each Capoeira group has a certain identity that its members embrace. Some Capoeira groups want to build a community of great fighters that regularly challenge each other and fight ferociously to sharpen reaction times or improve their ability to do combat with other martial artists. Other Capoeira groups focus on efficiency of movement. Yet others focus on preserving a cultural heritage that survived centuries of oppression. Irrespective of the focus of an individual Capoeira group, group members rally round each other to ensure that the organisation’s goals are met. That is why Capoeiristas identify with a group and think less about the differences within the group.


Capoeira was practiced by people that were denied the rights of regular citizens. Consequently, Capoeiristas go out of their way to be inclusive as they know how terrible it is to be excluded from society. Consequently, members are actively working on breaking down cultural and language barriers. For example, in our Capoeira group, expats are encouraged to learn Korean to help bond with the Korean members of the group and vice-versa. Taking the time to study another language and open your mind to another culture that is very foreign to yours is challenging. Yet, since all members of the group are burdened with over coming language and cultural issues, it immediately becomes something everyone forms strong bonds over.


Capoeira values diversity of thought and behaviour. Capoeira is a form of bodily expression where the individual becomes an artist, and the roda where he or she plays Capoeira becomes the canvas. Capoeiristas are addicted to expressions of beauty, skill, and especially creativity. They love nothing more than seeing something new unfold in the theatre of the roda. Consequently, Capoeira values the individual and what they bring to the community, irrespective of background.


Capoeiristas take time out of their busy schedules to bond with each other. They actively seek out any occasion to be with each other. This often gives Capoeira a cultish feel. However, once you try Capoeira you’ll begin to notice that members of the community simply like spending time with each other and joyfully organise events, tours, birthday parties, and other social occasions to be able to connect more deeply.


Capoeira gives feedback right away. The minute you step up to add value to the group, the minute you get recognition. Capoeira groups rapidly embrace people from all walks of life that want to improve the group in some aspect. There are many ways to contribute. You can help by planning events or opening your home for a potluck. Even training every class or putting all your energy / passion into making your movement perfect for rodas will never go unnoticed. Almost any action with the purpose of making the group a better Capoeira community is celebrated.

Let it Grow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo reflective lady blog would be complete without the obligatory 2014 round-up. So, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One year ago I found myself on Copacabana Beach in a white dress watching spectacular fireworks with vomit in my hair. Things got better and the rest of the Brazil trip turned out to be one of the most incredible and happiest experiences of my life.

Until…the last day when it turns out that some fucker has wiped out my bank account. It then takes another four months of phone calls, paperwork and threats to get 70% of the money back. On the upside, I survived it. Yes, it was tragic and a big financial setback, but life went on. I didn’t die.

I went from glorious summer to hideous winter. I took a short jaunt to visit my amazing friend Carolyn who was working in Manila at the time. It was warm and so good to be around a like-minded friend. I haven’t seen her since then and I miss her greatly. This is the downside of the transient, expatriate life.

I then got my busy on and extended myself professionally. In my free-time (which was few and far between) I tried to study Italian and train Capoeira. I learned about trade-offs – if you work more, you get more money. But you also have less free-time to pursue things that are important. And I’m the kind of person who needs downtime and eight hours sleep, otherwise I turn into a raging bitch.

Due to lack of sleep, I sometimes turned into a raging bitch. I then made preparations for my upcoming trip to Italy over the summer vacation. I researched opportunities for jobs, wrote countless resumes, paid a professional to write one for me, completed a 40 page application form to be a nanny, had a couple of Skype interviews. Faced multiple disappointments as it became clear I would need an EU passport, at which point I jumped down the bureaucratic rabbit hole where, it seems, I still am. Amongst all this was an awesome Capoeira event in which I met amazing souls from all over the world. I admired these people and was grateful for the energy they shared with me.

After months of anticipation, I finally arrived in Italy. A glorious summer awaited me. There was splashing around in the sea and giant lakes. Trips to ancient castles on the back of a Vespa. There was pizza and gelato and cheek kissing and vino. More days were lost to writing resumes and having fruitless Skype interviews. I had an Italian tutor who lived in in a big, old renovated farmhouse with her horses. I couldn’t, and still can’t speak the language and felt isolated and fell into a mild form of culture shock. I cried. A lot. An unfathomable tragedy struck a dear friend which brought home the unpredictability and randomness of life.

I returned to Seoul and deeply missed the person that I had gone there for in the first place. I had a hard time adjusting back to my life there. So when I found out I had some more vacation, I did what I thought would make me feel better. I jumped on a plane again and went to the most interesting cheap destination I could afford, which turned out to be Bangkok. For the first time in my life, the travel cure did not work. I spent some days there walking around miserably, anxiously, all the while berating myself for wasting money on something so frivolous. I learned an important lesson: sometimes we do things in an effort to make ourselves feel better, but the means to that end is not always a good idea and often, unsuccessful.

Within a few weeks, I felt better and resumed by busy life, albeit with an empty feeling inside. A few days of a Capoeira event made me temporarily distracted and happy but I needed more support and friendship than I was getting, so my coworker, (who is also in a similar transnational situation) and I started to take walks through a beautiful nearby park and talk on random weekdays. But weekends were long and lonely. This incredibly dark and cold Seoul winter threatened to kick my ass and unravel my mental health. So I started an Iyengar yoga class. Although it was a big commute to get there on Friday night, when all I usually feel like doing is passing out, it was worth it. I met a fantastic teacher and started to feel more relaxed and less anxious. My passion for yoga was reignited.

Then, I had some friends from New Zealand come and visit. It doesn’t happen very often, so it was really great to have them here, to take in their energy and optimism. To share wonderful experiences with them, even in the arctic temperatures. Finally, the last weeks of work and life were a blur of Excel spreadsheets and responding to emails. But somehow, I managed to pack my backpack and get myself on a plane to Italy. Again. And here I am. Writing this from an apartment overlooking the seaside in a poor Tuscan city as the blazing orange sun sets.

It has been a roller-coastery, a bulldozery kind of year. Forging forward without necessarily knowing where forward is leading to. Vulnerability and uncertainty have decided to permanently colonize my mind, body and soul. I’ll acknowledge their presence but won’t let them run the show. While there have been magical moments this year, moments I never thought I would have in this lifetime, like eating fresh lobster in Barcelona opposite a handsome Italian, about 70% of the year has been a hard, anxiety-fueled slog. But I’m grateful – I have grown as a person. I’ve come to see and respect the limitations of my life. To have faith and gratitude.

Fleeting Fall

10628109_10152318999236853_4100277807405930879_nThe short but incredibly beautiful fall season here in Korea is reaching its peak. All around there are pockets of trees showing off their dazzling hues of yellow, orange, red, brown and green. Each day, the pavements and roads show more evidence of the coming winter, but for brief moments, the fleeting beauty of scattered, multicolored, leaves hiding the drabness of city life is something to behold.

And as the leaves change, so does life, continuing its cycle – both predictable and unpredictable in equal measure. A week ago I was enjoying the autumn colors and playing the tourist, walking around the labyrinthine streets of Old Seoul where the traditional houses from hundreds of years ago share a hillside with renovated tea houses and dumpling restaurants. I visited the Aussie Reiki guy who lives in one of these ancient restored wooden houses with his Korean family. I needed an energy tune up and the added bonus of having a yarn with a fellow antipodean who was able to buoy me with his positivity.

And just a week ago, I was cheerily, mindlessly listening away to what was one of my favorite radio shows as I washed dishes, folded clothes etc. I had long admired the host, a certain Mr. Jian Ghomeshi, for his relaxed interview style, his excellent journalism, his immense accomplishments in the arts. And now Jian has been outed, disgraced, fired, his career and life completely in tatters after it was publicly revealed that he is, in fact, a violent and abusive man – a predator who physically violates women, who does not know what the word ‘consent’ means. I don’t know what’s more surprising, disturbing, or incredible – that he has kept this dark side of his life under wraps for so long or that someone can fall so far and so quickly, from a darling of the western media to pond scum. I hope he gets the help he needs and can rebuild his life on a foundation of honesty and integrity rather than deceit and violence. That he has gotten away with abusing women this long is testament to the stranglehold (for want of a better word) of the patriarchy.

1911794_10152319000161853_4643072715260880725_nAnd just a week or so ago, an old friend popped into my head. I wonder what Phil is doing these days, I thought to myself as I swept the dozens of strands of blond hair from my floor. Phil had been in a lot of my classes at university. We used to talk politics – both of us ‘lefty liberal’ as he would say. We were part of the anthropology gang, drinking coffee on breaks, frequenting bohemian bars with cheap beer and free live music. We had already lost one of our members to a car crash two years ago. The last time I met Phil was in my hometown a couple of years before that. We met for coffee (or in my case, tea). He opened up about his struggles with mental illness, the depression that followed him around like a storm cloud. And just a few days ago, I read via Facebook, that he was gone. Poof. As quickly as a leaf falls from a tree, an old friend is no longer with us. The cause of his death has not been revealed. I don’t want to speculate. It comes too closely on the heels of the untimely deaths of two more characters from my hometown who I had rubbed shoulders with on several occasions – musician Peter Gutteridge and artist Ben Webb.

Leaves fall from trees and turn to dust. The winter comes. Then spring arrives. Some of life has survived. Some of life is reborn. We must keep warm until the sun shines again and the buds re/appear.

May Be

Last night I lay on my bed like b71399_10151955801571853_8068245702226324502_neached whale for three hours before my bedtime, too tired to do anything productive but too wired to fully relax. So I just lay there, my body limp like a wet towel but my mind thinking, thinking about the rain hitting the window and how the crappy, schizo weather we’re having reminds me of the chilly, windy gothic city at the end of the world that I called home for two decades. I felt some pangs of longing, some disorientation. And holy crap, it’s now May – a significant month because it truly marks the end to the never-ending Korean winter. It’s a time of celebration as beautiful lit lanterns are hung all around temples and all through the city. It feels tranquil and reminds me that I live in Asia. It’s also the month of my birthday, which gets scarier every year. And then there is an annual Capoeira event- fun, but exhausting. And there is work to do. So much work to do. The finish line is in sight but there are many hurdles to jump over. There’s no time to trip or fall down. It’s a marathon not a sprint, but the race must still be run. Then there is a new language to get my tongue around and daunting application forms to fill out, invasive medical tests to undertake in an effort to weave together the threads of the net that (I hope) will catch me when I move on. There are unused meditation apps and gym memberships. There are  emails and phone calls and yelling and throwing things as I fight to get a large sum of money back. And against the backdrop of day-to-day life is the tragic sinking of a ferry resulting in the loss of hundreds of young, innocent lives. There is intense anger and trauma all around but life goes on. There is the meeting of old friends from abroad with their gossip, good news of milestones being met (houses bought, babies born), and the question of is it better to light a candle than bemoan the darkness? While the rain keeps falling, the flowers are still blooming, the transience of the stunning yet whimsical cherry blossoms have given way to the less subtle fuschia and ivory white flowers that bloom along pathways and around fountains. The mossy green forest behind my apartment and its little Buddhist temple is a respite from the world, a chance to reconnect with nature, a place to just be and a reminder to keep walking forward.

I (Used to) Live in Bongcheon-dong

1604505_597168490375252_1900377627_nRecently I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon in the company of kindred spirits – those who love literature, who love to lose themselves in a book or withdraw completely into the world inside their heads and bring it to life by putting pen to paper. At this particular event, I saw famed Korean writer Jo Kyung-ran being interviewed by equally famed Korean-American writer Krys Lee. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the work of either woman, but plan to once I get my paws on their books. Still, I was intrigued by the discussion they had, particularly about Jo’s latest novel called I Live in Bongcheon-dong. This is because I, in fact, used to live there too. That was years ago, and as she spoke, most of it filtered through a translator, dozens of memories bubbled up from the depths of my subconscious. You see, this area in southern Seoul is quite notorious, although I didn’t know it at the time. As I learnt over the mostly-horrific 12 months I lived there, it is considered a bit of a ghetto, and has been referred to as ‘a mountainside slum’ and a shantytown.

This would make sense, considering that it has a red light district full of tacky love motels (once when I was standing outside a cafe near the area, an old man asked me if I was Russian). I had the pleasure of spending my first night in the country in one of these mirrored ceilinged, neon-lit wonders. There were also all those sleepless nights because of domestic violence coming from nearby apartments – shrill screaming and items being smashed against walls. And the early hours activity of the very unfortunate elderly who pushed carts around collecting recyclables and taking them to the recycling center opposite my shoebox dwelling to be crushed by some kind of cacophonous machine at 7am on Saturday mornings. On the way to my job (another horror story) I would often have to dodge dead rats. Then there were the old-school butcheries with unidentifiable animal carcasses hanging in the windows, decorated by pink neon lights. I was amused by the local hairdresser who liked to die her hair in the brightest purples and oranges. There were some good things too – my hood was near the closest subway station to Korea’s most prestigious university which meant there wwas some smart, vibrant, youthful energy around. There were pockets of traditional food and medicine markets and very friendly shop staff who gave me free stuff because I was foreign. And it was close to a rather lovely mountain perfect for hiking and which transformed into a white winter wonderland when it snowed. There are worse ways to spend a year of your life than being depressed in a slum in a foreign country, but I’m so glad that is over now.

And back to the present: my friend who is the founder of the event I attended invited me to attend the post-event dinner with the writers, translators and other literary types. I got to bask in the presence of Brother Anthony, a very renowned translator and expert on all things Korean. I met people who used to study and work at the university I work at. It was an honor and a privilege. It also left me thinking about many things, perhaps the most profound of all was the image of Jo and the way she spoke about her life. Words like disconnect, jarring, juxtaposition, paradox come to mind. She is strikingly beautiful in her mid-40s, and was dressed chicly in black from head to toe. She was eloquent and articulate. And conversant in English and German. She had studied in the United States, and been invited to literary events in Berlin and around the world. Yet, she talked about her life growing up poor in Bongcheon-dong, where she still lives, in a little rooftop room made by her father, a lowly carpenter. She said that she used to hide her upbringing but now it informs and inspires her work. This is particularly interesting in the Korean context where status, wealth, background are so important. It is refreshing for someone so talented to be honest and outspoken about their humble origins, and indeed, having found a degree of fame, their current humble current reality.