And the rains they came. The monsoon season has started here. A day earlier than expected. Shows how much we silly humans know. It’s grey, humid and wet. The sounds are soothing. The repetition is somehow comforting. I’m sleeping better although I have less energy. Walking up the hill to my place from the subway station feels like my legs are made of concrete. Feeling wild, I ordered a latte with half a shot of espresso and the next day had a pounding headache. My joints ache. My life right now could be an advertisement for all of Pema Chodron’s books: When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, Taking the Leap, Comfortable With Uncertainty. You get the idea. It’s a time of transition, of uncertainty, of stepping outside of my comfort zone, of making choices and putting my agency behind them (as Ruth Chang would say). A group of friends I’ve leaned on these past few years has sadly disbanded. Although it wasn’t sudden, it’s still sad. What was sudden, though, was my friend’s loss of her twin fetuses at almost twelve weeks. I was able to offer her some comfort. These things happen. Nature is cruel. It’s not your fault. Still it rains. Then there was the death of my friend’s brother who was walking to meet his friends near the river where I had been just a few days before. It was a taxi, they said. It came out of nowhere and now he is no longer. Silly humans. Inside and outside are grey. But rain is good. It can cleanse and help things grow.
Several years ago I went on a little journey. I was visiting my uncle who lives in one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world near Queenstown, New Zealand. It was not far from the little village where I spent several happy summer holidays as a child. During one of those summers when I was about 12, my father decided to take me and my younger brother on a hike through the rivers and over the mountains to an old, abandoned settlement from the gold rush days. I remember the walk, under the hot central Otago sun, as being grueling but incredible. We were pushed beyond our physical limits to traverse the terrain, to wade through chest-deep freezing rivers and to walk for some eight hours almost vertically. I felt a great sense of accomplishment upon arriving at our destination, a few ramshackle buildings, piles of rocks really, hidden among the tall, dry grass.
I set out that bright and early morning in order to revisit this place. I was encouraged by the blue sky and calm breeze. I made my way by mountain bike to the entrance of the hike, stopping for an apricot and chicken pie on the way. I decided that I would do everything from memory so I didn’t do any prior research, I would just see where my intuition would take me. Things started off well enough but then I realized after about an hour, as the stony hills became progressively steeper and the sun started to beat down on my pasty skin, leaving a pink ting, that it was perhaps a bit ambitious to be walking all that way alone on such a hot day with minimal supplies. Still, I persevered and paddled through rivers and clambered over rocks. Marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. I eventually noticed that there was a kind of road, probably leading in the direction I was going. As if I had willed it, two minutes later a black SUV came roaring along and stopped next to me. A woman in her late 40’s or early 50’s appeared as her window in the passenger’s side slid down. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out her and her husband, visiting from Australia, were heading to the same place. They offered me a ride. I thought twice – I had wanted to walk and feel that same sense of accomplishment I had felt all those years ago, knowing that the destination is not as important as the journey. But, I knew that I wouldn’t make it if I tried to walk so I jumped into the backseat and off we went. Mr. Australia skillfully navigated the rocky, narrow road and after a few minutes found a couple panting up the hill, weighed down by giant backpacks. We stopped and picked them up too. The man was from NZ and his wife was from England. They were tan and fit, having been hiking around all of New Zealand for the past few months.
We drove for at least thirty minutes and ended up in an open field with the long, yellow, dry grass that I remembered. Together we sat near the abandoned, restored structures that were once houses, a bakery, a schoolhouse. Things seemed smaller than I remembered. The older Australian couple had recently sold their environmental sustainability consulting firm for a lot of money and had been travelling around the world. The younger couple had also sold their artisan cottage industries and their house and were planning on backpacking around the world and then settling in the Caribbean to restart their businesses again. Both couples spoke of their dislike of children. Of how they never wanted them and will never have them. “I tell my friends ‘I’ll look after your dog, but I won’t look after your kids!'” said the Australian woman. There was too much of the world to explore.
They exchanged heart-wrenching stories of those near and dear to them who had passed away too young. They shared the same philosophy that you can’t delay things like travel until retirement. They’ve known too many people who have died from heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses before they’ve had the opportunity to explore the world.
And there I was, listening, observing, wondering. I was at a cross-roads in my life. Wondering where I would live next, what I would do, if I wanted to have children. At that time, everything was so up in the air. I wasn’t sure. Three years later, things are still confusing and unsure, but now I think the child piece has been put soundly to sleep. As for traveling, I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot while young. Still, I think there’s a long way to go.
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.
The past month has flown by (almost literally, I have been on eight flights), yet at the same time, it feels like forever since I sat down at my desk to write. There have been ups and downs, good things and bad things, interesting things and mundane things that have happened in that time. Let’s go back a few weeks to when I was on Jeju Island.
I was trying to have a good time, enjoying my little group of ten sweet 10 year olds and their spontaneity, creativity and intelligence. Sometimes it was fun, most of the time it was exhausting. By night, there was time to relax and rejuvenate by using the incredible gym and pool facilities, or going for a walk in nature. And as always, thank God for the Kindle app which meant I could have any book I wanted at my fingertips. Alas, there was one piece of the whole experience that really irked me. Like really fucking pissed me off.
It is a fact of life of living in Korea, and I should be used to it by now, but maybe getting used to it is a kind of acceptance. And I am resisting the reality, coming up against it and trying to deny it. It is the large population of idiot white males who come here for the social life (read socially acceptable and sanctioned alcoholism) and the women (“the sea of pussy”) as one of them told me. I dislike them for many reasons, not least of which these unqualified, unprofessional imbeciles get paid more than me because they have a penis. I detest the chauvinistic, misogynistic, derogatory way they treat and talk about women. It’s appalling. And yet, nobody cares and there are no consequences. I guess it annoyed me more than usual because I was the minority (white female) trapped on both an island and a campus with them and therefore could not escape or avoid them.
At least it’s not as bad as the situation between foreign men and local women in Thailand. But still.
My time in Thailand will be for another post. For now, having been back in the country a few days, my focus is on forgetting those jerks as much as possible. And, mindful that when I returned from Cambodia months ago, I fell into a bottomless pit of depression (not for any good reason, maybe just a combination of transition, hormones, stress, unrealistic expectations, processing of experience, perspective etc), I am now slowly re-entering my life here. Although, because I wasn’t away for long, the transition will be much smoother. Still, I couldn’t face the world upon my return and so opted to spend three days lying in bed reading and catching up on random websites. In fact, I spent one entire day looking around this incredible site, Brain Pickings, which can best be described as book porn. Or, in the words of its creator, “Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.”
If I had more time, energy, willingness and technical know-how, my vision for this blog would be similar to Brain Pickings. A little sleuthing revealed that the founder of the site, the woman who creates most of the content from her apartment in Brooklyn, dedicates 100 hours a week to it, in addition to having another job. I’m like, ‘whaaat?!’ That’s crazy. I struggle to give two hours a week to my blog.
But anyway, you get the gist – it’s a really amazing creation. And it brought to my attention this gem from legendary Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl:
“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”