Uncharted territory

bwsailingAs we move through life, two things are said to be certain: taxes and death. Of course, everyone must die and any rational person will realize, at the very least, they will lose someone they love and/or are related to. We know that our grandparents and parents will one day pass away, we just don’t know when. Those of us who are particularly unlucky may lose a sibling, a partner, a friend, or the worst kind of loss, a child.

I have been lucky so far – having never actually attended a funeral due to being overseas despite having lost three of my four grandparents, a good friend and three other friends from my university days who passed away (from murder, two car crashes and one mystery). These stung less because I wasn’t in touch with them and hadn’t been for years.

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my mother recently relayed the news that a childhood and family friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given two months to live. This came just weeks after an old colleague and flatmate died tragically on the roads at Easter. At first I was in denial, thinking my mother had her facts wrong and that with treatment, his outcome would be better – if he couldn’t be cured, surely the doctors could extend his life by at least a year or more? But no.

I haven’t seen this friend for many years and barely even thought about him. But now my childhood memories come flooding back – we shared baths, games, holidays, Christmases together. He has just entered his 30’s, is married, and has a young son. I glimpsed his Facebook timeline to see that he had posted a photo of himself and his son sharing some moments on a lake, with a caption about how precious life is. I cried twice over that photo.

I thought about his kind mother who just recently lost her husband after unsuccessful heart surgery. His sister, who was once my closest friend in the world moved back from overseas to be with him in his last months. Their lives will forever be turned upside down.

I told a good friend about the situation and how it had made me feel very sad. She then asked a profound question: “What would you do if you had two months to live?” While this horrific situation is not about me, I did start thinking and realized that I would want to visit all the places I had never been. To spend time with loved ones. To definitely not be in my current situation. But at the same time, I have to be grateful that I am alive and healthy and am lucky to be in my current situation.

Having absorbed the information and come to terms with my friend’s fate, the next challenge is to consider how to reach out. What do you say to someone who you haven’t had any contact with for two decades and who only has weeks to live? I don’t have the luxury of time to sit around thinking about it too much. But in the meantime, I think we could all agree upon this message: fuck cancer.

Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).

Familiar Faces, Worn Out Places

On a day-to-day basis, my life in Seoul is really quite boring. I work. I go grocery shopping. I go to capoeira class. I spend time commuting on subways and buses. I do lunch with friends or co-workers occasionally. Sometimes I go salsa dancing for a little bit but usually go home early because I’m old. I spend too much time reading and thinking and trying to figure the world out from the safe confines of my tiny little apartment.

But sometimes fun and interesting things happen, which I guess is one of the advantages of living in a huge city far from home. Like this past weekend. I was able to meet up with some old friends I hadn’t seen for five years. They are living in Tokyo and somehow the stars aligned so that we were all in Seoul. We had all traveled together on Peace Boat, which is a unique and interesting bonding experience to share with other people, and although we don’t stay in touch much, we’ll always have that special connection.

Meri and Yuko

Meri and Yuko

My friends Meri and Yuko had been in Korea for a couple of weeks working at a peace summer program as they are still heavily involved in that world. We met for lunch one day which turned into four hours of sitting in the same restaurant catching up on all the people we know in common. It was so interesting to hear about everyone’s trajectories and how they had becoming more of themselves – like everything changes, but nothing changes. It’s true: ‘the future has an ancient heart.’

We then met up with a friend of theirs, a Korean documentary film maker who took us out to dinner in the backstreets of central Seoul frequented by locals who come for the cheap, traditional food and alcohol served in ramshackle dwellings that were haphazardly put together in the 70’s.

I thought I knew the city well, considering I had done a lot of work for the city’s tourism department and even had some work published by Lonely Planet. But the film maker, who luckily spoke English, took us down one street in the Jongno area surrounded by love motels and informed us of how it had become a popular area for gay men. And indeed, there were gay men everywhere, sitting outside drinking and eating, having a merry time. I was surprised because Korea is an extremely conservative and in many ways, backwards country, perhaps like the United States in the 1950’s, with a large stigma and taboo attached to homosexuality. I knew there was a bit of a scene in the foreigners’ ghetto with clubs, bathhouses and transvestites, and also in one of the popular university areas for women. It was cool to see that these men were not hiding but were out having a good time, and everyone was just letting them be.

We also stopped by a protest that was happening in the central city. My very politically aware NGO friends wanted to see how it had been organized as they are often organizing such events in Tokyo. It’s funny – things in Korea are so often badly organised, but they seem to have the protesting down. Of course, being the only blond white girl there, I stood out and soon enough, a lit candle had been thrust into my hand and a newspaper reporter with his camera and notebook was all up in my grill asking what I thought about the issue (the current president had been given leaked intelligence). I was deliberately vague. Freedom of speech is not what it is in the west and being seen at a protest, even though I was just there looking, is apparently a violation of my visa.

The next night, my friends went drinking in the artsy, student area of the city. We tried to co-ordiante so that we could meet up with our other friend from Tokyo, Sam, who was DJing at a club in the foreigners’ ghetto. Alas, our telecommunication devices let us down and I ended up going to see him alone. I hardly ever go out to bars and clubs. The music is always too loud and crap, they’re smokey, and let’s face it, full of young people. When I traveled with Sam years before, he used to tease me about being homebody wallflower, so I made a point of going out. I intended to only stay for a little bit to catch up with him, maybe dance a little then be home in bed before I turned into a pumpkin.

b1stranglingThe club was huge and glamorous and full of scantily-clad Korean girls. Sam and his friend, who was the headline act, had a little red velvet VIP booth where I joined them. I hardly ever drink, but they also had a $400 bottle of vodka. So I drank. When I was in my early 20’s, about 7,000 years ago, my part-time job when I was a student was working in a bar/club. I did it for several years. So a bunch of memories came flooding back. It was like getting on a bike again after many years of driving a car. Ahhh, I remember how this works! Still, I couldn’t fake being cool and right away, I let Sam’s friend, the famous hipster DJ, know that even though he’d been flown in from another country and was, judging by the hundreds of people lining up outside, very well known, I had absolutely no idea who he was. He laughed and then we talked for a while about his crazy life – he doesn’t actually live anywhere for more than four days at a time, usually in Tokyo or New York and his whole life is being flown around the world to play in clubs. Actually, it sounds like hell to me but he was enjoying livin’ la vida loca. Maybe a bit too much.

I spoke with Sam for a while too, even though it was impossibly loud. We were never close, but we are both from New Zealand and share other things in common so there was enough to have a friendship. I was always a little bit in awe of him. Not because he’s tall, good looking, and very stylish (all the girls that know him refer to him as ‘Hot Sam’), but because he exudes kind of natural confidence and self-assuredness. He’s a natural leader and everything he does, he does with passion, enthusiasm and a positive attitude. It’s funny where people’s lives take them. He had done the same government teaching program I had done in Japan (in the same area although our paths never crossed), then Peace Boat. Afterwards, he went back to NZ and worked at Amnesty International. Then he went back on Peace Boat. Then became a staff member and for several years traveled the world promoting human rights. When he turned 30, he said he needed to make some money and was offered a job at a major fashion business as an international representative. So now he travels the world doing fashion stuff. It seems like such a switch. Indeed a nice life he has created – with a beautiful and doting girlfriend in Tokyo, a ‘real’ job and a passion for music that both take him around the world. He works long hours and has his music stuff happening on the weekend. I asked him when he gets time to sleep. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he replied.

And so my night unfolds. Some drinking, some dancing, some talking and then at 3am I start to feel like I just really want to go home and sleep. Some very drunk, brazen and ‘up for anything’ Korean girls have invaded our booth and although both men are standoffish and not the kind of guys to take advantage of what is on offer, these girls desperately want to get their groupie on. I see this so often here and it really irks me. It is time to go home. Of course, the taxi driver gouges me by doubling the fare because he knows I have no other way of getting home. While I am gladĀ  that in the spirit of carpe diem, I made the effort to go out, but every time I do, I’m reminded of why I don’t like to. Still, I was happy to see some familiar faces and reconnect with people from a past life.

 

Girls Gone Wild (in Asia)

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Me with my then-pregnant friend Kati in Taipei 2011

One of my dear friends whom I grew up with – we lived in the same suburb, went to the same middle and high school and visited each other in different cities during university – just had her first baby. In Hong Kong. While I am excited for my friend and her new journey as a mother, I think it is weird that a significant proportion of my female peers that I was friends with in my hometown now live their lives in Asia. Me included.

The friend I just mentioned is an actress, director, agent and teacher. In New Zealand she was also these things, but on a much smaller scale. If you haven’t been to Hong Kong, you can’t imagine the vast amounts of wealth and opportunities available to talented, educated westerners.

My best friend from childhood who lived around the corner from me also lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two young kids. She teaches at an international school while he coaches the national rugby team.

Then there is my incredibly smart and hardworking friend who is a diplomat and does high-powered trade negotiations for the NZ government. I visited her in Taipei almost two years ago where she was posted with her family (her husband, one daughter and a son on the way, as shown in the photo above). Now she is headed to Beijing for four years. Yes, her apartment/palace in Taipei was rather incredible, her living room twice the size of my entire place.

While I’m tempted to wonder why, unlike my other Asian-dwelling lady friends, I am without husband, child, six figure salary, maid and nanny, the more interesting question is – how come we all ended up in Asia? I suppose it’s not just one thing, but more a combination of push and pull factors – economic opportunity, career development, an exciting expatriate lifestyle, the chance for travel and adventure. And really, when you’re young and adventurous, how much fun can you have in a country of 4 million people and 30 million sheep (unless you’re really into sheep)?

More obviously, we are products of a particular time and place. The economic rise of Asia and its increasing importance on the world stage means that more and more New Zealanders will head this way.

I was once just a blob of clay that has been sculpted by where I was born, who my parents are, where I went to school, what I studied in university and who my peers were/are. Along the way I had some formative experiences, defining relationships and developed a worldview, a personal philosophy, and grew some values. When I was conceived (in a bathroom, when my mother was 17 while she was supposed to be babysitting her little brother, so the story goes), I was stamped with a particular race (white), class (working) and gender (female). I grew up in the ’80s obsessed with New Kids on the Block and Kylie Minogue.

And yet, it is kind of incredible that while I grew up listening to my father’s stories about having to walk to school in the snow, having to get up at 5am to do the milk-run when he was still just a boy, and getting only an orange for Christmas, that I can live on the other side of the world, travel by plane, own a computer and have opportunities for education, work and lifestyle in fields and places that probably didn’t even exist back in those days.

Maybe it’s even weirder for my grandmother and great aunt who sometimes email me through their ‘machines’ to how interesting my life is. In truth, it’s not, but not in a million years could they fathom being able to be a single, educated woman roaming the world. When they were my age, they were married with children, being dutiful housewives, and having little economic or social freedom. In fact, they couldn’t even have a bank account. It blows their minds that I have several in different countries (albeit with very little money in them).

So yes, it is in a sense weird that I am living far away from home in an exotic Asian country that is technically still at war as a single woman but I think it is becoming more common and normal, in part due to the increased freedom and independence that women in the west enjoy as well as increasing globalization. While fingers crossed it’s not forever, for now it’s OK to be a girl gone ‘wild.’

 

 

 

For Everything There is a Season

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Exploring Easter Island/Rapa Nui with Kumar

Easter. A time of hope and of despair. In NZ, it is when the leaves die and fall from the trees. In Korea, the cherry blossoms emerge from their buds. Regardless of wherever I am in the world, it is always a hard time of year for me. Especially when I am alone, like now.

It is at this time of year that I am haunted by bad memories from 10, even 20 years ago. And now, more recently, of things that could’ve been that weren’t. Of relationships that ended too soon. Of lessons learned the hard way. Of the worst case scenario rearing its ugly head. Of lives lost too early. While these few days of the year symbolize a period of grieving for me, I always try to look for the lessons and hope that the sun will rise tomorrow.

 

It was around this time of year five, six, or seven years ago – I’m not sure how many exactly, I stopped counting, that a dear friend passed away. It was my first experience with this kind of grief and was a major turning point in my life. Almost like a loss of innocence. Seeing for the first time the face of death. A plunge into despair that lasted for a year, although it has never entirely gone away.

It was under bizarre circumstances that I found myself traveling around the world on a ship with this friend, an American with an Indian name, Kumar. Along with 12 others from all over the world, we were young and idealistic and thought we could change the world. He was a musician obsessed with his djembe which was never far from his large hands. He would jam with it whenever he had half a chance. At one point, as we sailed through the cobalt blue oceans we were joined by a Kenyan band – a group of impossibly strong and beautiful men with their drums, their seductive African dance and their lightning bolt energy. Together, we sailed to Kenya and spent two days and one night at their home – a wooden lodge in the middle of a nowhere. We played music and danced all night surrounded only by drum beats, wild elephants and billions of shooting stars.

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Kumar at his happiest, playing his drum – Tahiti

And so, as fate would have it, Kumar, who had an insatiable lust for life, the kind of person who goes skiing and surfing on the same day, decided two months later to follow his dream of living in Kenya and playing in the band. He went and was able to briefly live it. And then one day, while he was practicing yoga in his room, he was shot right in the heart. The leader of the band, Peter, was also murdered by the same band of thieves.

Kumar was young – 31, and the news of his death devastated communities throughout the world. His energy, passion and intelligence had affected positive change in many of the world’s poorest communities. He brought out the best in everyone and supported them in following their own bliss.

And so, as I find myself thinking about him, and everything that has happened since that fateful day, I try to embody the qualities of this man that I admire so much. He symbolizes courage, strength and optimism. Basking in his memory gives me a sense of hope and meaning – although he once said to me, over the phone, that everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe this. I do, however, believe in finding meaning in my own life by honoring his memory, what he accomplished and exemplified while he was here.

Writer Megan O’rourke who so eloquently wrote about her mother’s death from cancer said that, “Grief isn’t rational; it isn’t linear; it is experienced in waves…Grief comes in waves, welling up and dominating one’s emotional life, then subsiding, only to recur.” Kumar would no doubt like me to continue with the wave metaphor, to say that I was surfing the tsunami of grief that has come over me, knowing that it will soon subside into a calm ocean.

Drinking from the cup of life - Kava in Fiji

Drinking from the cup of life – Kava in Fiji

Until the waves settle again, I can take some solace from Ecclesiastes: For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.