Jul 31, 2013

Hey, look! I've been published!

Hey everybody!

I wrote an article for Yahoo and they published it. You should go read it (for your own benefit, obviously, not because I get paid per view...).

Jul 30, 2013

K-Fail: The Bicycle Incident-- Part 1

It's been a while since I had a genuine K-Fail. However, this one is pretty fail-esque. This story is from my weekend on Jeju Island, about 3 weeks ago.

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, much to our dismay, since Seoul had been rainy for two weeks straight. Still, the forecast promised a rainy afternoon in Jeju.

My fellow weekend warrior, N, and I decided to take advantage of the sunshine and rent bikes from our hostel to see the area with. We were feeling ambitious. and decided we wanted to eschew public transit in favor of something healthier and more green. When we broached the hostel manager with our request, he seemed taken aback. He asked us if we were sure we wanted to rent bikes today. We assumed his reluctance was due to the Korean tendency to avoid the sun (pale skin being valued as beautiful). We scoffed off his surprise and responded with emphatic affirmatives.

In retrospect, this should have been an ominous warning.

We loaded up and hopped on, riding through the streets in the glorious sunshine. At 10am it was already about 80 degrees with about 70% humidity, but we didn't feel it as we cruised along towards our first destination-- a waterfall that appeared practically next door on the map.

We reached it with few problems, other than noticing that our map was not entirely honest about streets or distances. We parked our bikes, walked to the falls, and spent several pleasant minutes taking Lewis-and-Clark style pictures.


The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and we noticed it was getting quite warm. There was no sign of the promised cloud cover or rain, and we only had a small tube of sunblock between us.

Still, we decided to soldier on. Our next destination was a segment of the famous Olle trail. It's a walking trail that winds its way around the circumference of the island. My "trusty" guidebook said that it was also good for biking. The next entrance point was close by, so we set off to find it.

However, we soon realized that our map left out some key information about the roads-- specifically elevation. Yes, the trail entrance was close by, but to reach it, we had to climb a steep, hairpin-riddled road from our point at the bottom of the waterfall to a high ridge overlooking the sea. We resigned ourselves to the climb, knowing we would be rewarded with a glorious, smooth trail ride along that ridge.

It took us about 20 minutes to reach the top. Some points were so steep we had to get off our bikes and walk. As soon as we stopped riding, the heat and humidity would make itself known. We were quickly drenched from head to toe and could feel the backs of our necks starting to redden from the sun.

 We could sense that the trail was close, yet it was nowhere to be seen. We wandered amilessly on our bikes through small dirt roads for another solid 20 minutes before caving and asking for help from a cafe employee. He pointed us down the road and said we were close.

Around the next bend, we finally came upon the trailhead. Eureka! Our problems were over! We knew now that we could enjoy a pleasant, shady ride with a stunning view of the cliffs and sea.

Or so we thought.

We noticed that the trailhead started with a staircase. Odd, since the guidebook clearly stated that this was a good place for biking. We concluded that the bike entrance was somewhere nearby. But we didn't see anything, so we decided to just cart our bikes down the stairs. We were eager to get on the trail and out of increasingly brutal sun.

For a while, all seemed well. We stopped at a scenic overlook to take pictures not far from the trailhead. Even though we were now in the shade (and by the sea), we had no escape from the soupy humidity. We had to compose our pictures to hide our repulsive sweatiness with strategically placed shade.

As it would turn out, this was our one moment of reprieve. My "trusty" guidebook turned out to be quite misleading. The segment of the Olle trail we were on was not, as it were, made for bikes at all. We were constantly either walking our bikes up hills too steep and rocky to ride, or carrying them down the stairs on the other side. Not only did this mean we weren't getting the cooling benefits of riding our bikes, we were actually getting hotter and sweatier through the effort. After what seemed like forever (but was really probably only an hour or so), we came to a cafe whose driveway lead to the nearest road. Exhausted and frustrated, N and I decided to treat ourselves to smoothies while we cooled down and figured out our next move.

Jul 18, 2013


It's been a while since I wrote a nice long text wall here. I'm sure you've all missed it (hah).

I have just under 6 weeks left in Korea. Tomorrow marks eleven months since I set foot here. It's difficult to pinpoint how I've changed since that day, so I won't get into that now.

I can tell my time here is coming to an end because I'm getting restless. It's like a bubble sitting under my sternum. I've never been very good at enjoying the moment and not thinking about what comes next, and I'm guilty of it once again. I'm trying to focus on my remaining time here, but mentally I'm already getting ready for my next adventure.

On a related note, the plans that constitute "my next adventure" have gone through a rather dramatic change in the past month, and I should probably fill you lot in, in case you don't know already. I still want to go to graduate school and pursue a career in science journalism, but I've decided not to move back to Boston for the interim. Instead, I'm going to try my hand at a new city--THE city. New York City. I used to be intimidated by NYC (remember, I grew up in a Montana town with 1 high school). However, after living in Seoul for a year, I've realized that no city is too big or too unmanageable. Plus, NYC is smaller than Seoul (8.2 million compared to 10 million), and everything is in English!

 I'm currently in the process of looking for employment and/or a place to live. I'm planning to do a lot of freelance writing, but I'm also going to need a day job (so if you know anyone... wink wink). That's one reason why I haven't been writing much here lately. I've been doing a lot of writing, but it's all cover letters (blegh) or article submissions. Or emails to people I've woefully neglected in the last few months.

So that's that.

Also, it's been really, really hot here. Like... stupid hot. I basically go home and lay flat on my back on my bed with my aircon turned up to 11. It's too hot to write.

Anyway, this post is getting rambly. Suffice to say I'm a bit preoccupied with the next chapter in my life and it's precluding me from being able to focus fully on my life here.

On the bright side, I'm off to play in the mud this weekend, so that should definitely help me... ahem... focus.

Jul 17, 2013

Jeju Island--the Hawaii of Korea

So last weekend, I went to Jeju island. It's known as the Hawaii of Korea and is a very popular vacation spot for Koreans and Chinese tourists.

It was gorgeous... except for the part where it was 80 degrees with full humidity. My friend and I rented bikes to ride around. I'm pretty sure I lost about 5 pounds just on Saturday (no complaints here, though.)

I would write more, but frankly, I'm really really tired. Plus, the pictures pretty much sum it up. Also, the last picture in this set is the only semi-appropriate picture I took at loveland, the infamous erotic sculpture garden. You'll just have to leave the rest up to your imagination. Or Google it.

Jul 16, 2013

Heart-Warming Video of the Day

As much as I gripe about the daily grind of teaching, it's still one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had.

Katie (승아) is one of the brightest students I have. Recently, she's been coming in for about half an hour every day after school to talk to me. We started watching (school appropriate) music videos for English songs, and she decided she wanted to learn this one. I hope the finished product warms your heart as much as it warmed mine.

Side note: You can see from the state of my hair that Seoul is just a humid bowl of soup these days. On the bright side, my skin is super soft.

Jul 11, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 2

This is part 2 of my account of life in a Buddhist temple. To read part 1, please go here.

One thing about Buddhist monastic life is that it's not for the lazy. Following an early bedtime, we were awoken at the ungodly hour of 4:30am, for the pre-dawn bell ringing ceremony. I'm not sure if we had to get up so early because it's high summer and the sun rises early, or if that's just the norm. I'd like to think the monks get to sleep in a bit in the wintertime, but for some reason, I doubt it.

 Even though I'm not a morning person (understatment of the century for those who know me), I found the early start to be strangely pleasant. I think it was because I wasn't expected to speak or interact with anybody else.

Pre-dawn at the temple is almost otherworldly. There are no sounds save the soft shuffle of rubber slippers on stone as the monks and nuns sweep the temple and make morning offerings.

We were lead up to the bell tower, legs increasingly complaining from yesterday's prostrations. There, we stood patiently for our chance to ring the giant metal bell.  I would imagine local residents don't love hearing it every morning at zero dark thirty.

After that, it was time for morning meditation. The previous day's 15-minute session was just a warm up. This was the real deal. We had to sit absolutely still for half an hour under the watchful eye of the Zen Master. Intimidating? Absolutely. However, maybe it was the early morning, or maybe it was the temple atmosphere starting to affect my brain, but I found it much easier to sink into a semi-conscious state that morning. I didn't count, as I had the previous session. It sort of felt like my brain was floating in warm, dark water. I don't remember much of what I thought about, but when the Zen Master clapped the bamboo sticks to signal the end of meditation, I had the sensation of surfacing from a deep pool.

To awaken our stiff, sleepy limbs (which were increasingly sore from the aforementioned prostrations), we were then led in a brisk walking session around the temple courtyard.

As the sun came up, we got a better view of the neighborhood surrounding our temple. It's truly an oasis in the middle of chaotic city life.

After that was breakfast, then we headed back to the main hall to have a traditional Buddhist tea ceremony. Our leader detailed health properties of green tea, and said that with their rigourous daily routines, even monks and nuns need caffeine! I took this to mean that I shouldn't let anybody shame me for my crippling coffee addiction. Even Buddhist monks think caffeine is ok.

The tea was delicious, refreshing, and a much-needed source of energy. While we were drinking our tea, our leader offered to analyze our characters. She is a student of Buddhist philosophy, and says she can tell a lot about a person just by observing them and knowing their name.

This was a laugh. As she went around the circle, telling us things about ourselves with varying degrees of accuracy, it was entertaining to watch people get uncomfortable. Some of the things she said were eerily accurate. Each of us were a different sort of object in nature. For example, she said I am a big tree. I (apparently) cast a large shadow, and people seek shelter in my shade. One of my friends was a torch who sheds light and guides the people around her, and my other friend was a river who accepts everything that comes to her, good and bad, and is good at navigating a variety of situations.

Here's a picture of our wise leader:

On that fun and enlightening note, we wrapped up our little program. Even though I'd only been in the temple for 24 hours, it felt strange to put on my regular clothes, turn on my cell phone, and go back out into the world. I found the serenity of temple life to be a much-needed break from the hectic, often stressful life of a teacher. If they offered a week-long program, I would gladly sign up.

So to anybody in Korea thinking about doing a temple stay, I absolutely suggest you do. It's a wonderfully refreshing way to take a time out from the 'balli balli' of Korean life, so you can learn to be slow.

Jul 6, 2013

Notes from a Korean Staff Trip

I just returned from an overnight staff retreat with the rest of the teachers at my school. It was probably one of the most classically Korean 24 hours of my life. Also, just to clear up any ambiguity in the tone of this post, I had a blast. My colleagues are hilarious and fun to hang out with, despite the fact that we communicate mostly through pantomime and broken Konglish. 

Have been on the bus for 2.5 hours. Vice Principal has been talking into a mic up front for 2.49 hours. Coworker and I have taken one nap each and secretly watched half an episode of New Girl with K-subs on her phone.

VP just handed out presents to the staff. They were all variations of this: 

Arrived at our hotel. Sharing the 3-bedroom suite with 11 women. Let the bathroom wars commence.

Eating dinner. It's raw fish. Have already taken multiple shots with my colleages of what can only be described as Korean berry manischewitz. Principal is making the rounds with the bottle. 

Still eating. More importantly, still drinking. 

Joined the other young female teachers for some air and and a quick selca session.  

Heading to noraebang with my principal and fellow staff members, because Korea.

Just completed a killer rendition of Hard Day's Night...solo, of course, as I was the only English speaker in the room. Principal was impressed. 

Still singing.

Back at the hotel. Watching colleagues throw each other into the pool. 

Soaking wet. Was thrown into pool. Used the opportunity to shout a lot of bad words in English because nobody could understand me. 


Wondering why in God's name is everyone else in the room awake when breakfast isn't until 8.

Breakfast. Beginning to understand why everyone woke up so early. Wishing I'd been awake longer before I had to face this guy.  Principal just cracked open a bottle of soju.

Back on the bus. I believe we're going hiking. Or to a river. Either way, VP has reclaimed her spot at the front with the mic. 

Apparently we're going hiking. 

Back from hiking. Consisted of walking to a river and playing in it for a while before turning around. Alarmed my coworkers by walking in the sunlight instead of avoiding it. Told them I want my hair to get lighter. They said I have magic hair. 

Lunch time. Maekgeolli is flowing.

Visited some sort of museum to a writer. It's in a very pretty spot. 

Eating again. Pajeon and makgeolli. Am in utter awe of my colleague's drinking abilities.

On the bus back to Seoul. Coworkers have discovered that the bus is equipped for noraebang, which they are now participating in with great enthusiasm. 


Jul 2, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 1

Life in Seoul is hectic. The unofficial motto of modern Korean society is "balli, balli", or "hurry, hurry." Everything is just fast.

 The need to be fast is always something I've struggled with. I always have to be the first one. I like to joke that I'm not competitive, I just always win.

So when I signed up to do a temple stay at a local Buddhist temple, I was interested to see how I would react to such forced "slowness."

I arrived at the temple midafternoon on Saturday. There were seven people in the temple stay program that weekend, two of them being my friends "P" and "R." We were shown to our room and given our temple uniforms, then told to wait for the rest of the program participants to arrive. We were told we could either wait in our room or enjoy the small library across the hall. Obviously, I made a beeline for the library.

I could already feel the serene atmosphere of the temple affecting me. I love nothing more than curling up with a book and vanishing from the world, so I happily found a comfy patch of floor and delved into a Peet family favorite.

After about half an hour, we were summoned to the main hall where our program would take place. In true Korean fashion, we were given cushions to sit on. Our program leader was this tiny woman who was the embodiment of a happy boddhisatva.  Her kind, smiling face and relaxed demeanor immediately put me at ease.

 She gave us a quick overview of Buddhist philosophy. She said, "Buddhism believes that we have 3 "poison minds": Greedy Mind, Angry Mind, and Foolish Mind. We can sink into Greedy Mind from five things: greed for money, greed for love, greed for food, greed for sleep, and greed for power. All of our angry or foolish feelings stem from our greedy feelings, and all of our greedy feelings come from wanting one of those five things. The three poison minds keep us from accessing our Buddha Mind, which is calm and serene." She said, "Buddhists believe we have poison thoughts 108 times a day, and to make up for it, we must do 108 prostrations."

A prostration is also known as a full bow. You start in a standing position with your hands pressed together in front of you, sink to your kneeds, put your hands and head on the ground, turn your hands palm-up to the ceiling, put them back on the ground, and stand back up. 

Our leader explained that we would do 108 prostrations, and to keep track we would string Buddhist prayer beads as we did it. One prostration=one bead. But, she said, "Prostrations can be hard for beginners. Many foreigners opt to add 2 or 3 beads for one prostration, and that's ok."


As we started the prostrations, we were told to focus on clearing our minds of poison thoughts. As you might imagine, this is easier said than done. My biggest challenge when I try to clear my mind is turning off the narration in my head. Whenever I'm doing something remotely story-worthy, I have a voice in my head instantly taking what's happening and putting it into past tense for future storytelling.
 I tried a few different things to achieve a clear mind. Like every good cradle Catholic with a string of beads in front of her, my first reaction was to start cranking out some Hail Marys. It's like the Catholic version of a mantra.  That worked for a little while, but I couldn't get the cadence of the prayer to match the cadence of my prostrations. Instead, I tried to focus all my mind power on what I was doing. Stand, kneel, head, hands, take a bead, string it, stand up. Repeat. I kept glancing around me to see the progress others had made on their bead strings. Some were ahead of me, some were not. I decided that I wouldn't try to win. I would just finish at my own pace and not worry about who was first. I ended up finishing last, but I didn't care. I had done every single of the 108 prostrations, and felt good. I was making progress.

We were all a bit wiped after the prostrations.

After the prostrations came 15 minutes of meditation. We had to sit perfectly still with our legs crossed, back straight, eyes half closed, hands forming a circle in our lap. No movement allowed. This was a different kind of challenge. Stillness is surprisingly difficult for me to achieve, considering how lazy I am. I kept thinking about my legs, which were slowly falling asleep. I decided to start counting my breaths. I could hear the ticking of our instructors little clock, so I focused on breathing in for 2 ticks, then out for 2 ticks. I ended up counting to 300. It wasn't exactly achieving nirvana, but, again, I was making progress.

We were pretty wiped after the meditation.

 Evening bell ringing followed that. We each got to ring the giant bell one time with the resident nun. Standing next to that gargantuan thing when it was reverberating felt like what I imagine standing next to an alien spaceship would feel like.

After bell ringing, it was dinner time! The temple food was amazing, and completely meat-free. As a former vegetarian, it was wonderfully refreshing to eat such a delicious vegetable-based meal. 

After dinner,we got a little tour of the temple, followed by bedtime. We had about an hour and a half of downtime before bed, which we used to unwind and read our books. We had to have an early lights-out to prepare for our 4:30am wakeup call!


 This post is getting long, so I'll talk about the next day in part 2. In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures of the temple in the evening.