Entries from May 31st, 2012

31st of May

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A trip outside of Seoul is easy enough to arrange, but I meet a lot of people who don’t take the opportunity for all that it’s worth. And I get it. There is more than enough within the city limits to keep us stimulated – history, music, great food, shopping, art, fitness. By the time the weekend hits, it feels easier to seek something inside of the city than take the effort to plan a few days away. But without the occasional escape to someplace calmer, even the most well-oiled of urbanites are bound to feel like caged birds with working wings.

As I round the final stretch of my tenure in Korea, I’ve decided to reign in the somewhat scattered topics of this project to one main: travel within this gorgeous, bewildering, layered country. At least for the next couple of months. It is my genuine hope that this specific effort will do two things: encourage me to travel more and, in doing so, encourage me to write much more. I’ve got May’s trip under my belt, and I’m looking forward to putting something up about it soon.

Also, today is my grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 91! Can you imagine living 90 years? Blows my mind. She reminds me of the importance of roots, of a regular return to origin, even through constant motion. The photo above looks a lot like a koru, and a koru symbolizes just that.

Thanks, always, for reading. You make this whole scary process of writing so, so, so much better.

-j

let the ritual roll

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My roommate and co-worker, Kathryn, has become a really close friend of mine since we met last August. She is such a quintessential piece of my chapter in Korea, and the thought of her returning to Ontario in July makes my heart lurch. I try not to think about it very much as her departure date comes closer and closer.

We’ve sat at a lot of tables together around Seoul over the past eight months. There was spontaneous ramyeon in a dilapidated shack before we went paragliding. Fried chicken and stuffed peppers at a garage-like establishment in Gangnam. Grilled pork belly slathered in hot pepper paste and chased with shots of soju. Tap water at Naos Nova, a lounge with an implicit lipstick-and-heels dress code we’d heeded, but that we left after one look at the prices of dinner. A lousy Western-style buffet that seduced us with unlimited free wine. But my favorite place we’ve been is a place we still frequent, largely because it’s a three minute walk from our apartment. It’s the kind of place that’s consistently busy, consistently good, and probably, to hard-core locals, a lot like choosing an Olive Garden in Times Square over Frank in the East Village. For the first three or four months we’d been eating there, I didn’t know the name of the place. It’s a chain, but I don’t care. I like that the music is a random mix of k-pop, club, and Korean covers of work by the Fugees. I like that we’re almost always the only foreigners there. I like the minimal plates of side dishes: chili-spiced bean sprouts, vinegar-soaked lettuce, sliced white onion, and exactly four cloves of pickled garlic. I like the staff of mostly young guys, who’ve recently switched out their hooded San Diego sweatshirts to short-sleeved polos with Manchester United emblems on the front. Sometimes they give us a glass bottle of Pepsi on the house. They always switch out our grill plate before it gets too charred. Uncomplicated efforts like these are what keep us coming back.

And I like our routine. At the table, we’ve found a balance, an unspoken language, and after a day on the job where we’re on center stage, this seamless form of communication feels like a million dollars.

The only parts that vary are where we sit, who orders, and whether or not we’re having beer. We can both order confidently in Korean, and though it doesn’t require much, I’m proud of us. I set out our chopsticks and fill our metal cups with water. One plate of pork, two orders of rice, and a clay pot of bubbling duenjang jjigae, or soybean paste soup, come quickly to our table. Kathryn takes the tongs and handles the grill, masterfully maneuvering the meat around, seeking a perfect golden brown on all sides. I’m happy to leave this job to her. She’s damn good at it. Once one batch of pork is cooked right, she pushes it to the edge of the grill, and we dig in, dropping one piece at a time into a dish of sour sauce where we’ve also been soaking our raw onion. That first bite of pork with a slice of sour-sauced onion is a taste I’ve come to crave. Pure, unadulterated pleasure.

All of these make the place good, but mostly, it’s because of the way it has remained a constant throughout the development of our friendship. We’ve laughed, argued, and discussed across one another here, often with abandon, forgetting that our words might have been understood. We’ll both move on soon, finding new sources of nourishment, with our own versions of the same story to tell. Until then, let the ritual roll. Kathryn, I’ll see you in Canada.

Tomorrow, let’s talk about slinkies.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Recently I read an article from Glamour posted by my friend, someone who makes life more beautiful, whom I both deeply respect and often look to for perspective. It was titled “30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know by the Time She’s 30,” and she included a comment that read something to the effect of, “After reading this, I don’t feel so bad about turning 30.” Before I clicked the link, I thought, “Okay. I’m pretty content with where I am in my life, with what I’ve seen, felt, and heard and the experiences I’ve gathered. Read on.”

My heart sunk a bit lower as I read each item from 1 to 30. Out of fifteen “should haves,” I could count mine on one hand, and the “should knows” seemed more like “things I’m in the process of learning.”

As I left the apartment I share with three people, in a t-shirt and jeans with damp hair, and walked the two minute commute to my job as a kindergarten English teacher (I have a huge amount of respect for patient kindergarten teachers. Most days I am just not one of them), to say I was feeling low, confused even, would be a first-class understatement. I wanted to head to the nearest Family Mart for a beer. My mind went to a place of self-doubt, of toxic comparison and self-analysis, and I stayed in this place for the better part of the morning as I thought about what I haven’t lived up to at my 29th year, according to this list. I don’t have any of my own furniture, unless my laptop counts, but I’ll be just as proud to display my grandma’s old wooden piano as I would if I’d bought it myself. Sure, I look forward to the day I can decorate a space that’s mine, but because I choose to spend my money less heavily on tangibles, does this mean I’m less of a grown up? Five years ago, I could have answered an enthusiastic YES to #3, but today, though I’ve got more clothing than I need, I wouldn’t call any of it “perfect” for either of the two theatrical occasions Glamour mentioned. (Perfectly ironic, especially after spending four years working in fashion. And I like it that way). I’ve got a purse I’m not ashamed to be seen with, but it was a birthday gift. Does this make me less polished because I didn’t buy it myself? My resume is updated, and integrity is crucial to me. But I’m a writer, and thus innocent until gild is proven. I thought I had a career I wanted, but then I changed my mind. Since then, I’ve been a secretary, a tutor, a server, a wine demonstrator, and a teacher. Does this make my experience less valid because it doesn’t follow a prescribed pattern? How do I feel about having kids? That I’m not ready yet, though I like to think I’m better-equipped emotionally should the time come unexpectedly than I was in my early to mid-twenties.

My friend could answer yes to many, maybe most, of the items on the list. The article left her feeling good. She and I have so much in common, from our upbringings and family dynamics, to our thoughts about humanity and identity. Today was a reminder that aside from all of our commonality, we’ve also walked completely separate roads and chosen different methods of self-fulfillment. And I love her more for it. Three other close friends of mine couldn’t be more different from each other, but they are all homeowners and married to fantastic men. While I admit it is sometimes hard for me to identify with their choices, and I can only assume is also true for them with mine, I do identify with their needs to follow what makes them truly happy. They inspire me. Does anything else actually matter?

Nothing is more completely okay, or perhaps necessary to our survival as a dynamic and mindful species than to continue to do so. Apart from our basic needs, everything else about us is distinct, and so should be our personal guidelines.

Tomorrow, let’s talk about slinkies.