A Fine Balance

tightrope walkingI don’t know about you, but I have always found it hard to find balance in my life.

Where is the balance between doing and being? Or between work and life?

No-one has an ideal work/life balance, but sometimes I think my balance may weigh more to the side of life, which would be good, except that I will then berate myself for not being ambitious enough or not earning enough money. Which brings me to my next dilemma (if it is not too bratty to call it that) – what is the best way to live for today, emotionally and financially, while planning for the future? What does carpe diem mean to the average person who has to work forty hours a week and cook dinner and pay bills and deal with annoying relatives?

Some truths about time are that the days are long but the years are short, and if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. So, how much should we try to live in the present and how much effort do we give to planning for the future? What goals are worth pursuing and what is worth sacrificing? How do we bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be without going crazy? And how do we ensure that we feel a sense of contentment when our target is always moving, the bar always getting higher as we try to keep up with our peers, or just try to keep our head above water?

I recently read a very sweet coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha by an American man, Jaimal Yogis, who grew up in an unconventional way by doing everything in his power to ensure that he was always chasing his two passions, as you might’ve guessed from the title, surfing and Buddhism.

surfing_-_black_and_white-3055There were two things I took away from reading his work. First, he talks about how surfing is a good metaphor for life:

“The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills a minute portion of an adult lifespan.

The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.”

So, the key to having a full life it seems, is to enjoy the journey – yes, once you reach the top of Everest, it will be amazing, but it will be short-lived, and there will be another Everest to conquer. Better to also make the most of the climb up, even though it will inevitably suck now and then.

The other point he raises is near the end of his book when he is at graduate school studying to become a journalist. He is at Columbia University in New York, which has the best journalism program in the western world. But living like a student with no money, no free time, no surfing and no meditation coupled with copious amounts of stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and dealing with a strained long distance relationship leaves him depressed. He wonders about the value of what he is doing and questions his commitment and doubts that he can finish. Then, for his thesis, he goes out on a boat at night with commercial fishermen in the middle of winter to help them with their work so he can write about it.

It turns out to be one of the worst nights in his life as he is thrown all over the deck and spends most of his time vomiting and dry-heaving, drowning in waves of nausea. I guess it’s hard to describe unless you have actually experienced really bad sea sickness that leaves you feeling like you want to die. During this experience, he comes to an important realization that allows him to get through the rest of his seemingly grueling academic study:

“I realized I needed to stop complaining. I had it very, very easy.

If I come out of this alive, I said to myself, I will have perspective.”

This leads me to wonder where to find the balance between being grateful for what we have and wanting more; between feeling content and striving; between giving and taking in relationships, between wanting and needing…

These are matters for another day. For now, I need to get back to doing the laundry, cooking dinner and washing the dishes. In other words, paddling.


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.



North Korea Blues

I was hustling through town the other day, looking for a new screen cover for my iPad. I was all in a tizz because I have an iPad 2, and since the iPad 3 has been released, all of the accessories for the former have become obsolete and disappeared from the shelves. It was cold and raining and I was getting fed-up, but I was adamant that I would find what I was looking for. Eventually, I found a store that still had some. I bought one and the shop assistant kindly put it on for me. End of drama.

It’s funny how we can get so wound up and frustrated over small things like this – the daily annoyances that piss us off and put us in a bad mood, like not being able to find a parking space, having to wait 15 minutes for your friend to show up or finding that the washing machine has eaten one of your favorite socks.

Shin Dong-hyuk talks about his book, Escape from Camp 14

The way we lose perspective of some things has been on my mind lately after reading my friend Barry Welsh’s interview with North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk.

Born into a prison camp, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother (brought about by his own actions), was treated as a slave and tortured. He managed the almost-impossible act of escaping and defecting to the South where he currently lives and works as an activist.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of books written and published by defectors who, through having their accounts translated into English, bring their experience and message to an international audience. It is one way to raise awareness of the abhorrent plight of those on the wrong side of the border, but it is not enough.

Often, it is incomprehensible to me that just a two-hour drive away from where I live is a country in which 24 million people suffer under a totalitarian regime that denies their freedom and independence. Over 100,000 citizens languish in prison camps while others are denied basic necessities such as food and electricity.

The best and most heart-breaking book I have read on the lives of North Koreans is

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She closely follows a range of North Koreans over several years, both in North Korea and in the South after their defection. Each experiences a level of pain, humiliation, deprivation and loss that most of us will never encounter. Their emotional and mental resourcefulness, as well as their resilience and determination allows them to endure starvation, poverty, unemployment and stigmatization. It is a stark reminder that life is really fucking unfair.

In my own experience, I once volunteered to tutor a woman from North Korea through an NGO that supports defectors as they set up their lives in Seoul. We met once and I was struck by her small, lollipop-like frame – a result of childhood malnutrition. Despite the language barrier, she managed to communicate something of her story which involved making it to China, eventually to Shanghai where she taught herself Mandarin, worked for several years in “Import/Export” and finally to Seoul. I didn’t dare probe too much into her past as it is commonly known that females from the North have an easier time getting out as they have something to sell: themselves.

Unfortunately, she became ill with kidney disease and we never met again. Although, I sometimes think of her, especially when I’m having a bad day and remind myself to keep things in perspective and be grateful for what I do have. As Christmas nears, and I am surrounded by festive lights and hyper-consumerism, I wonder about those less fortunate and how we can help them?