Back to Seoul: Week Fucking One

screaming womanI’ll admit it. As my time in Cambodia came to an end, as I began to say my good-byes and sort my clothes, ready to be packed into my suitcase, I felt really sad. I contemplated changing my flight, or missing it altogether. I had spent the last seven weeks developing new relationships with students, staff and other volunteers at the organisation. They would be hard to maintain outside of that context. Also, the princess in me would miss living in a hotel, having a driver and a maid, being able to get a manicure or massage whenever I felt like it, eating out three times a day and being able to afford to go shopping for silk. The anthropologist and humanitarian in me misses meeting random doctors, lawyers, engineers, conservationists, economists, teachers and social workers from all over the world who have come to offer their talents and skills to help build the country. I miss the feeling of being part of something bigger than me – a mission for the greater good.

And so it is with dread and trepidation that I land in icy Seoul – still in the midst of one of the coldest winters in recent history. As I collect my suitcase from the carousel, I somehow also collect all my White Person First World Problems baggage.

I go home to my freezing shoebox ‘apartment’ and go to bed in PJs, a woolen sweater, socks, hat and puffer jacket. The next day, I need to make a trip to the supermarket. Outside it is frigid and grey. I feel like I am in Soviet Russia after the funeral of a much loved leader. Everyone is walking around dressed in black (or the odd grey or brown item), looking to the ground with a sour expression on their pale faces. The chill in the air is not from the cold.

At the supermarket, which is the poshest in the country (but not much more expensive than the ghetto ones) I have my first moment of culture shock, although I don’t know why it surprises me. I’ve witnessed this kind of thing before. An old man who looks dignified in his cap, pinstriped suit and walking cane starts yelling at a woman who is working in the bakery. I don’t know what happened, but it surely doesn’t justify the way he then grabs her by her collar, lifts her ups and tries to shake her. When he sees how scared she is, he lets go. But continues to yell, despite the stares. Of course, nobody intervenes. Then, the woman apologizes profusely and bows to him as he swaggers away. The old person always wins. Old men in Korea have all the power. Young women are nothing but human punching bags who can never fight back, or even if they do, can never win.

At the subway station: damn it, I don’t have enough change to buy a ticket. I am 20 cents short. That means I have to go all the way back up three floors to an ATM to get cash. I really don’t want to do that and am in a hurry. I try to sneak through the ticket gate – sometimes it works when the station is chaotic and crowded. However, the guard sees me. I walk over to him and explain the situation. He is nice about it and gives me the 20 cents I need to get a ticket. A much needed example of a typical Korean random act of kindness.

I had been looking forward to seeing a group of friends since I’d been back. I had expectations in my head about how happy they would be to see me. They are. For one minute. I get a thirty second sound bite to talk about my trip then they are over me. Then there is a misunderstanding and I feel bad. I am premenstrual which makes it ten times worse.

But why not continue on the downward spiral. I find out my best western friend here, my partner in crime, has gone and got herself a boyfriend. I half-jokingly call her a traitor and send her passive-aggressive text messages, hoping that she has a good time ‘hanging out with your new boyfriend.’

Come Thursday, I have to go back to work. I find out that I made a big fuck-up from the last semester with a student’s grade and will have to go begging to management for them to change it.  I will then need to show my penance and undergo public humiliation, putting my incompetence in writing so that the rehiring committee can then decide that I am a liability. They may or may not ask me to commit harikiri in front of them.

It is Thursday night. I get home from having a hair cut. My hairdresser knows that I am an introvert and hate small talk, so he lets me brood in silence. He decides to curl my hair and it looks fabulous. It costs $30 which I still think is so cheap compared to the daylight robbery that is getting a hair cut in NZ. I have a moment where I do not feel like a troll and am excited to go home to try a new Moroccan recipe I found on the Internet. As I chop the onions, I realize I haven’t had much to eat or drink all day but don’t feel hungry. I start getting frustrated when the pieces of onion start falling on the floor because there is no fucking room on my bench. Then the knife drops. Then in sheer frustration I just throw everything onto the floor.

Friday is a public holiday, thank God. I wake up in the morning and don’t feel right. After several dashes to the bathroom, it occurs to me that I have norovirus which has been doing the rounds in Seoul for over a month. I thought it was a bullet I had dodged, and the irony is not lost on me – I spend two months in Cambodia and have no stomach issues, but a few days back here and my intestines are in writhing pain. I had planned to catch up with my aforementioned friend, the traitor, but because I can’t bear to leave the house or hear about how much hot sex she is having in equal measures, I cancel.

The only thing that gives me comfort is downloading memoirs through Kindle about rich, white people in New York and California going through dark times and getting through them – suicide, addiction, infidelity, divorce, death, heart break, mental illness, eating disorders, cutting. Then I call my mother who wants only to talk about 50 Shades of Fucking Grey. I cannot have that conversation with her.

And then I am taken back to Cambodia. I remember the night I went to the German Arthouse Cinema to watch a documentary some of my students had made about an old woman who lived in the community I was working in. She died while I was there and this film honours her life and provides an important window to the past. I remember one scene in particular where she talks about the death of one of her children from disease as they were being forced to resettle by the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers wouldn’t let her bury her daughter properly because they had to keep moving the herds of people. They threatened to kill her if she didn’t follow the others. So she had to leave her three year old daughter half-buried, with her arms and legs still showing.

There is always a new perspective to take.



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.