Rewind, Unwind

The past month haupintheairs 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!”

Amen.

Hiking: because it’s worth it

The destination...almost halfway there. Gulp.

The destination…almost halfway there. Gulp.

Along with drinking soju, the traditional Korean alcohol that tastes like nail polish remover, hiking is a national past time. Given historical, social and geographical factors, it’s not surprising that it is still so popular (and also one of the most popular activities enjoyed by expats).

My Korean friend once told me that back in the day hiking was the core of Korean social life. It was how sweethearts ran away to be with each other, how men networked, and families and colleagues bonded. There was a period in Korea’s history, not too long ago, when the country was very poor, devastated by war. People shopped at traditional markets for necessities only and most people didn’t have any money to spend on frivolous entertainment. Luckily there were, and still are, so many beautiful and accessible hiking trails scattered both along Seoul’s mountainous terrain and further afield, deep in the countryside to provide some respite from the daily grind.

I like to exercise and I like nature, so it would stand to reason that I would indulge in a bit of hiking here and there. I have explored some of the trails around the city and been endlessly fascinated and curious by the quaint temples, ancient rock formations and other remnants of the country’s rich history which dates back thousands of years.

However, it wasn’t until this past weekend that I went on my first big hike (think 6 hours) out of the city. My friend, a lovely Canadian woman with more energy and stamina than an entire Olympic sports team introduced me to the event through meetup.com, which, who knew, has all kinds of cool events happening around the country for like-minded English speakers. I decided to challenge myself to do it, and I’m glad I did.

We woke up early in the morning, met the bus and drove at a snail’s pace, stuck in traffic for a few hours. Finally, once at our destination, Chiaksan National Park in the east of the country, the bus abandoned us. I looked up and felt a sense of doom – the peak that we would be climbing to was so high and so, so far away.

DSC_4462I trudged and stumbled up thousands of steps, over rocks and along uneven pathways. I was sweating and cursing, my calves burning. My thoughts were an endless, repetitive loop of, ‘People who try to climb Mt. Everest are fucking insane.’ But eventually, I fell into the zone where I was present and felt a sense of peace and calm at being surrounded only by the sound of fluttering birds’ wings and the sound of my own footsteps.

The view

The view

There was a huge sense of relief at making it to the peak and when we’d taken in the view of layers of mountain ridges, taken a few pictures of ourselves standing on precariously situated rocks and devoured some Snicker’s bars, it was time for the descent. The relief, however, was short-lived when it became apparent that going down was almost as arduous as going up. Soon enough, my legs were like jelly. But I soldiered on. My fatigue and dehydration were appeased a little bit by the pink flowers that dotted the trails, the random, agitated squirrels that dared to cross my path and the dense green trees that towered over us. Slowly, the sun began to set as we made it back to our base. In the last thirty minutes, we were encouraged along by the gushing of the pristine, peppermint coloured river that snaked around the trail.

The sense of accomplishment was great. Even better was how happy I felt the next day, no doubt a result of all the endorphins. I will definitely join this hiking group again, albeit for a shorter, less difficult climb.

Beauty trumps exhaustion on the homestretch

Beauty trumps exhaustion on the homestretch

Being immersed in nature is hugely beneficial physically, emotionally and psychologically. It’s easy to forget that when you live in a metropolis and are participating in a quasi-rat race. Also, as an expat, it’s easy to get trapped in my own little introverted bubble and forget about all the adventures to be had and interesting people to cross paths with.

Hiking is one tradition I hope Koreans continue to cherish. It’s cheap, it’s challenging, it’s beneficial and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than drinking that hideous soju.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls Gone Wild (in Asia)

DSC_0375

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.’

 

 

 

Don’t Believe the Hype

Created by friend and fellow expat,  Mike Stewart

Created by friend and fellow expat, Mike Stewart

There’s a chance these could be famous last words, but I don’t think so. As tensions between North Korea and South Korea escalate, the western media seems to be having a field day, creating a sense of fear and panic when none is legitimately warranted by blowing (pun intended) everything out of proportion.

While it’s true that I am somewhat jaded and inured to the conflict, having lived in this environment for several years and, at times, freaking out only for it to end in nothing, I still feel like it is more or less business as usual in the South Korean capital. My parents have called, slight panic in their voices, and even my great aunt cranked up her ‘machine’ to send me an email – quite a feat I’m sure. One or two of my co-workers, particularly the American ones, are allowing their panicked friends and family back home to spook them. Another co-worker, who has a Korean wife, said that it was the first time in their years together that she had expressed fear over the situation. There was some macabre talk in the office the other day about what the best way to die would be if something were to happen (it was generally agreed upon that it would be better to be quickly turned to ashes than to lose a leg and live). But, for the most part, everybody is going about their daily lives. Given the discrepancy between the reality of life here and the portrayal in the media, it is interesting to consider the impact, influence and power news outlets like CNN have in shaping our reality.

This is what my American friend who used to work for the American military here (and still lives here) had to say:

Just to let you know the real reason. As an ex-military hand it’s all financial. There is no real threat. Never will be. The news creates a panic and a rustle which works in the favor of the military complex of the USA (which has been coming under some expenditure scrutiny as of late). With a “nuclear threat”, a blank cheque and free license is given to the US military. Meaning more money for the military and its military contractors. They also tend to mark up their costs (sometimes as high as 200%) during the times of “military danger and incursions.”

The 2nd thing is that the military knows it needs more arms here in the Asian peninsula. Not because of North Korea but cuz of the threat of China (and their Russian ally). The USA would be over-run in 48 hrs by the Chinese military. EASY. So when they hype-up the BS of NK they can come send over more arms, men’n’muscle to beef up security in the region and fortify their presence.

3rd, Korea has been wanting to decommission the USFK (at least minimize its presence in Korea. That in itself is contrary to the USA’s long-term hegemony ideals. So what’s the best way to ensure you stay put. Get the media to egg on the noise of war and chaos in the region. It causes the S.K. nation to lose its investments and its economic stability and currency value. Send many USA troops in to the region and investors feel safe to invest again when the noise “suddenly” settles, and they return in force to invest and get stocks which had been sold for cheap during the crisis, boosting the economy. In the end the USFK dont go anywhere. the S.K. govt get ample investors. the region is secured for hegemony purposes. NK get concession. and we all live happily ever after.

BASICALLY, AIN’T SHIT GONNA FUCKING HAPPEN!!!

STOP BEING A BUNCHA PAWNS AND MAN UP.

P.S. IF THE BOMBS DO DROP, YOU’D BE DEAD LONG BEFORE YOU REALIZED IT.

P.P.S the most dangerous thing to the USA is a united Korea, cuz that may mean a bond formed with China, the region’s largest powerhouse and, by proxy, China’s ally, Russia. A new power block the USA cannot collectively defeat. Beware the red herrings ad see past the smoke and mirrors.

I’m not politically savvy enough to know if I agree with all of his points, but I get the gist of it. In the meantime, I will be careful with what media I expose my eyes and ears to, know the whereabouts of my passport and credit card and keep calm and carry on.

Mulling over Meritocracy

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

The notion of meritocracy has been on my mind a lot lately. While even I’m not idealistic and naive enough to believe that the world is a fair place, it still irks me that it is sooooo unfair. Forgive me, for what follows could probably be categorized as ‘stating the obvious.’ Fight the urge at the end of each paragraph to mutter under your breath ‘no shit’, or ‘d’uh’. I promise that in just a few minutes, you will think differently about how the world works.

The society I currently live in is one in which having a penis is like having the golden ticket (the glass ceiling is a topic for another day – suffice it to say that it’s almost like I live in a weird Asian episode of Mad Men). Being from the right stock and having friends in high places opens doors and knocks down walls in the Land of Morning Calm. Relationships and who-you-know trump pretty much anything else. Hell, I’ve benefited from it. It’s just the way the world works. Or is it?

During the 2012 Presidential Election in the States, I spoke with my white American friend. Well, ‘spoke with’ is a bit of a euphemism as we got into a heated debate (also a euphemism). OK, we yelled and screamed at each other as if we were both deaf. Long story short – I was pro-Obama, he was anti. According to him, Obama is bankrupting the country because he lets too many people be on welfare and black people want to be on welfare so they don’t have to work (and all the people on welfare are obviously black and taking it by choice). They are too lazy to work. Illegal immigrants are placing too much of a burden on the tax payer because they don’t contribute (even though they are being exploited by working illegally and end up doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do).

While I admit I don’t understand the intricacies of how government, politics and the economy work in the U.S., what irked me the most is that my friend couldn’t see all the unearned privileges and advantages he had – growing up in a middle class two-parent family as an only child with a stern, achievement-oriented father in the Navy. As a semi-professional soccer player, he thinks that he got to where he is by sheer hard work and determination, which in a sense is true. But who was taking him to soccer practice? Who was watching his games and paying for his uniform and new boots? His comeback was that he had taken advantage of all the opportunities that had come his way – true, but he also had all the resources and support at his disposal – human, financial and otherwise so that he could take advantage of them.

More recently, my friend, also American, but African-American gave me what I called an ‘Angry Black Man Rant.’ He grew up in the gritty inner city of Washington D.C. This time, however, we were on the same page, both being the first in our families to go to university etc…We agreed that growing up in a culture of achievement and success was one key way for people to make something of themselves. Neither of us really had that, at least not academically, yet we both succeeded, in large part because there were adults in our lives outside of our immediate family, such as teachers or friends’ parents, who believed in us. We also agreed that for people to beat the odds, they needed a mindset in which there was the expectation of achievement and success. Still, neither of use are ever going to become the next Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Of course, I recognize that advantage exists on a spectrum and I am much more privileged than a woman living in a village in India. I have had many opportunities in my life that I didn’t ‘earn’ – for example, when I was a student I went to Sydney to find work in a bar for the summer vacation. I worked in a bar in my hometown too, but I wasn’t that experienced. The manager of the bar in my hometown – qualified and very much more experienced than me – also went to Sydney at the same time to work. Who got a job in a bar the day after arriving? Me. The pretty blond, blue-eyed, nubile 22 year old. Who didn’t get a job that summer? The bar manager.

Anyway, I read years ago Malcolm Gladwell’s treatise on meritocracy (Outliers: The Story of Success) and how western societies are much less meritocratic than we think. In light of recent events and conversations (yelling matches), I decided to re-read it.

Gladwell tells stories of Outliers – extremely successful people – and exposes how it isn’t just hard work and talent that got them to where they are. There are myriad factors influencing one’s success that the term ‘self-made’ doesn’t really apply as he uncovers all the opportunities and ‘right-time-right-place’ factors that propelled them.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book that exemplify his central argument:

“We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

“The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

So, on that note, I’ll give Carrie from Sex and the City the last word: “Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we’ve been dealt, and accessorize what we’ve got.”