My contract was due to end Tuesday, August 30th, at 6 pm, and I was expected to move out of my apartment by Wednesday morning at 9 am. Awesome. In order to make my little abode livable for its next inhabitant, I spent the entire weekend previous to The Big Move-Out cleaning and packing, and the following two days were full of Goodbye Dinners and eye-wiping.

The plan was to transport all my luggage to Anyang for storing during our 10-week trip via subway, which in theory should not have been a big deal, as there are elevators at most subway stops. OF COURSE the elevator was broken at exactly my transfer stop. I’ll spare you the sweaty, nitty gritty details of how I managed to eventually arrive at my desired location with two large suitcases and Billy (my Billabong travel backpack), suffice it to say that Koreans are incredibly nice to me. I assumed that they were similarly friendly to all foreigners, but a lengthy discussion on the subject over dinner last night has led to my conclusion that the kindness that I am shown regularly (ajummas pulling me into their subway seats as they exit the train, random strangers assisting me in carrying my heavy luggage up and down multiple flights of stairs, people asking me if I need help if I appear to be even slightly lost, taxi drivers making extra efforts to help me) is not quite normal for everyone else. Hm. Not quite sure why, but I definitely appreciated all the extra generosity and helpfulness I could get on my hellish Wednesday.

I assumed that once I arrived in Anyang, I could leisurely finish running all my necessary errands and spend the next few days relaxing until our flight left on Saturday evening. Ha ha ha. After sitting down and writing up an actual list of what we had left To Do, G and I realized we might never rest again. Thus began a stressful three days of errand running and complete exhaustion, as a lack of sleep from the previous week began to catch up to us. Finally finally finally, after a full night of makkeoli and jeon, noraebang and good friends (it is currently Saturday morning), I can say that we are ready to go, with only one small task remaining before we embark on our journey. I will not be taking my trusty computer along, so I expect that updates will be few and far-between, if even existent.

As Bilbo Baggins so aptly put it: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday. A very long holiday.” Goodbye, Korea. You have been everything I hoped for, and so very much more. Thank you for everything you have taught me, I will never forget you, but now it is time to move on. So here I go eyes open wide, ready for my next great adventure, one involving new cultures, mesmerizing sights, different experiences, and fantastic food. See you in 10 weeks!

fans painted by the old fan man in insadong.

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High time for an update… an update that I, in my usual fashion, don’t have time for. Incredibly, 12 months have flown by and I have a mere 6 days of teaching left before my contract is up. Then: 10 weeks of pure shenaniganism in Southeast Asia before re-entering The Real World back home in Long Beach. Until then, I have trip-packing, apartment-cleaning, box-sending, new-teacher-training, and loose-end-wrapping to do.

I leave you with a photo summary of my last month: an unforgettable templestay at Myogaksa, hiking scenery from Gwanaksan and Dobongsan, and my mom’s lovely visit.

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I realize now how much I have changed, in little ways, over the past year. I can’t say that I’ve made some massive transformation, but I have slowly grown more comfortable with surroundings, a culture, and a job that were once foreign to me. Many of the things that were once intimidating or frustrating I have come to accept and enjoy for how authentically Korean they are. Two examples:

Claustrophobia. I used to feel overcrowded on a daily basis; just riding my bike to and from work forces me to get (what was once) uncomfortably close to vegetation-picking ajummas, middle-aged women taking their morning constitutional, mothers with their babies in tow, harried businessmen trying to catch the next subway into Seoul. I used to be apprehensive about ringing my bell and speedily cutting around the throngs, but these days, I have no problem doing so. In fact, I view it as a game, with everyone forming a human maze just for me to test my biking skills (Alton and I, we make a great team). I used to groan whenever a completely full subway car pulled up at my station; a full subway car in Korea is unlike any I have ever seen before, people are practically standing on top of each other, crammed like sardines in a can. Yesterday, at the Sadang transfer on my way to Anyang, I merely pulled out my book and continued reading. Myeong-dong no longer intimidates me anymore. I have learned that rather than fight against the crowds, it makes more sense to let them pull me along until I reach my desired destination (usually H&M or Forever 21). Think raft in a river.

Unfriendly Koreans. I have had some incredibly unpleasant experiences on the subway. I have been stared at, shouted at, pushed, and insulted. It was after several closely-clustered incidences and more stares than I could count in my lifetime, that I concluded, Koreans are a generally unfriendly people, at least with regards to outsiders. Not only is this a massive blanket statement, but I now realize that I was completely wrong in my characterization. I don’t know why, but people always seem more eager to remember the negative than the positive; in my case, I have had so many more positive experiences than negative, that the bad times have melted away. From the friendly man who lets his fuzzy brown dog come play with me, to the smiles and head-nods I get on the way to work, to the effort that strangers make to say “hello” or “good morning” when I meet them in the street, I can now see the generous, caring nature of the Koreans. I see it when G and I go to the River Hof for makgeolli and jun and are waited on like kings by the two lovely ladies who own the establishment, when a kind man getting off at the next stop on a full bus saves his seat for me, when I go hiking and am greeted with big smiles, and when I buy fruit from my fruit-man, who always throws in a few extra apricots as “service”. It’s the little things that happen on a daily basis that have slowly brought me to the realization that I do feel welcome here. Sometimes this welcome may closely resemble that of a monkey in a zoo, thanks to all the gawking and whispering, but having a different appearance from the highly collective society here has its price.

It has been steadily raining here for 18 of the past 22 days. Apparently, this is some new Korean record; I feel overjoyed to be able to take part in such a momentous occasion. Hopefully monsoon season ends soon. I don’t know how much longer I can take waking up to gloomy mornings. The following are pictures taken during a short lull in the nearly-continuous rain, on my walk home from work.

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So, hi. It’s been awhile. Once again, I can only plead “busy” in my defense. My time here is winding down, and I’m starting to feel the pressure. It’s interesting what a range of emotions I experience on a daily basis, knowing that I have less than 2 months remaining. On the one hand, it makes me miss home more (Trader Joe’s bread? Goldenspoon frozen yogurt? Shopping at Target? The ocean: bonfires / surfing / swimming / not being the color of a fresh marshmallow? My family? My dog? Outdoor space for private relaxation? Bookstores full of texts I can understand? Hot yoga?). On the other hand, I have become acutely aware of how much I will miss once I have left Korea (My Pooh Bear babies? Korean food? The freedom afforded to me by my little apartment? Hiking up a mountain that is only a ten-minute walk from my home? A fun-filled night of makgeolli and jeon for $8? The ever-changing riverwalk?).

After being back home for some time, I start to get antsy. This led me to choose to attend Notre Dame, to studying in Innsbruck after finally settling in in the foreign country of Indiana, and to teaching English in South Korea. And yet, after some time has elapsed in each new place, I feel a calling from home. It’s like my life is a strange seesaw dance, as I try to balance two constantly-competing forces. And so, after an incredibly fulfilling year, I am ready to come home once more. After taking an amazing 10-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, of course, during which time I plan on getting dirtier and grungier than I have ever been in my entire life.

Without giving too many details, the fairly solid plan is: Seoul (Korea)→ Manila (Philippines) → Palawan Island (Philippines) → BALI (Indonesia) → Singapore → Melaka (Malaysia) → Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) → Penang (Malaysia) → Bangkok (Thailand) → Chiang Mai (Thailand) → Pai (Thailand) → Luang Prabang (Laos) → Vientiane (Laos) → Pakse (Laos) → Pnom Penh (Cambodia) → Koh Rong (Cambodia) → Siem Reap (Cambodia) → Phuket (Thailand) → Seoul (Korea) → Los Angeles (California). To say I’m excited would be an understatement.

Yes, my workplace may bother me on a regular basis. Yes, my health here is horrible (latest development: I have a tumor in my foot. Sorry if that grosses you out, it grosses me out, too). And yes, it is monsoon season, so I generally make the sun’s acquaintance only once a week (never on a weekend, naturally). But I am finally happy with my life here, with my little bubble and the knowledge that it will soon burst. So for the next fifty-four days, I will ride out the wave of this time of my life, enjoying every minute of it while knowing that there is always another wave coming to take me somewhere new.

Gyeongbokgung Palace. Seoul.

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When it comes to keeping this blog updated, no matter how hard I try, I still find myself falling short of my own expectations. In a perfect world, I would have the energy and corresponding bursts of creativity every few days, which would then translate to fabulous pictures and revelationary insights.

But my everyday life here has reached such a level of normalcy that nothing strikes me as particularly interesting or worthy of a blog post. Gone are the days when I would get lost: now I know exactly which bus numbers to take to get from my apartment to Homeplus, downtown, and to school. I no longer stress out about where to eat: I can read Hangeul, so I can take a seat in pretty much any restaurant I want to and order something. Complaining about my workload at SLP is thoroughly uninteresting, as it even bores me (the complainer). Suffice it to say: I continue to come home exhausted by the demands of administration and the needs of my children and my kids are adorable and will be accompanying me home on my airplane as I will be adopting my 10 Pooh Bears (I wish). I find myself feeling significantly less claustrophobic in situations that would have given me palpitations before: just last week, I handled cruising around Myeong-dong in search of summer-clothes without a breakdown! Jostling on the subway and the eternal race for a seat on the bus has become ordinary, as has the sprinkling of Korean words in G’s and my English conversations: “Chuggelai?” (“Do you want to die?”) “Kamsahamnida” (Thank you) “Aniyo” (No). I have heard from friends who returned home after their 12 month teaching stint that the reverse culture shock is even more daunting than the initial one. I never could believe it until now.

It is hard to believe that G and I have a mere 3 months = 12 weeks = 87 days in Korea remaining. While our weekends used to consist of visiting a new location within Seoul on both Saturday and Sunday, we no longer have the energy and stamina to push through anymore. I remember the days when I felt guilty about “not taking advantage” of all that Seoul has to offer; these days, I have no problem with spending at least one of my precious two days in either Anyang or Uijeongbu, relaxing and soaking in the sunshine; I can count on one hand the places that I have not yet seen in Seoul and still desire to, so the pressure to keep moving has decreased significantly. Last weekend, G and I spent Saturday lounging on a mat underneath the Rainbow Bridge in Uijeongbu (it was so hot, we absolutely could not sit in direct sunlight) having a picnic, napping, and watching other Korean families who had the same idea as we did. And despite the fact that I accomplished absolutely nothing, in its own way, it was absolutely perfect.

As our days slowly wind down here, G and I have begun to earnestly plan our 8-week long trip in Southeast Asia. My school wants to know on what date they can book my ticket home, which means that I have to have a pretty good idea of how long we will be traveling for. So far, we have a pretty good itinerary, one that incorporates the Philippines, Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, although we will only be able to hit a few major sights in each in order to leave us time to relax. The researching and planning process of trips has always inspired and excited me; I was always the trip planner (finding the cheapest flights and best accommodation) within my own family. When we initially began discussing our trip, I felt sure that 8 weeks was enough time to thoroughly explore Southeast Asia; as usual, my grasp of geography has let me down, as I now realize how immense and expansive the entire region is. I could spend my entire 8 weeks in Laos (one of the countries that I used to be least interested in) and still not see everything! Regardless, we are trying to keep from being overwhelmed by the pressure of seeing as much as possible by keeping in mind that this is supposed to be a VACATION.

I still have no idea what I will be doing after my time here has come to a close: so far, the plan is to live at home for about 8 months while working in order to save some money. Whether I will move to Chicago afterwards to attend Northwestern for grad school, move to Chicago to work, or stay in Southern California remains to be seen. For now, I am taking life one day at a time. I can’t take the unknown all too seriously when I have BALI in my immediate future ☺.

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Life has been hectic lately. Not only have I been hit by another strong bout of sickness, but I have also had an open class with one of my elementary classes to look forward to. Fortunately, I think my body is starting to heal itself, and my open class is in the past, as of a few hours ago. The weather has been gorgeous lately, making it very difficult for me to stay inside and update my blog rather than making the most of this newfound warmth.

Therefore, I have pictures from G’s and my (brief) trip to Sokcho (on the east coast of Korea), Buddha’s Birthday celebration in Seoul, and hiking this past Sunday. I dislike posts that have no unifying thread, but at the risk of appearing to have vomited randomness, here are several windows into my life over the past two weeks.

G and I planned on spending three of our four days off during the first weekend of May in Sokcho. We departed Seoul on Wednesday night after work on a three-hour-long bus ride, hoping to relax on the beach and go hiking in famed Seuraksan National Park. The weather forecast appeared promising before we left, however, once we arrived, it played a cruel joke on us: nearly freezing temperatures and rain were to be expected. We decided to take in the sights on Thursday, exploring Sokcho’s impressive live fish market and Abai Village, an offshoot of the city where many North Korean descendants make their homes. After trying the regional specialty, a squid sundae (essentially a seafood mixture stuffed into a squid and cut into thin, sushi-like pieces), we decided to catch a late bus home. Cutting our trip short turned out to have been the best idea we had all weekend; not only was the weather wonderful, but there were also many events taking place in honor of Buddha’s Birthday.

That Sunday was Buddha’s Birthday Festival in downtown Seoul, which is a massive festival sponsored by the city. Countless tents are set up, providing the opportunity to learn more about Buddhism and make traditional Korean / Buddhist crafts. I found it difficult to pick and choose which activities to take part in, so we ended up staying at the festival for about 6 hours (whoops): I ended up with a hand-folded lotus flower, Buddhist prayer beads, a large lotus lantern (which G and I labored over arduously for an hour, handcrafting each petal out of delicate paper), and a print of Buddhist text. Afterwards, Garret and I wandered along the Cheonggyecheon (a manmade river that flows through downtown Seoul), where various installations were being displayed.

This past Sunday, I got the itch to conquer Mt. Dobongsan, a famous mountain relatively close to my apartment. In the past, G and I have hiked to Mangwolsa Temple, which is part of the grand Dobongsan circuit, but we have never dared to embark on the full hike. After packing a lunch of anchovy and tuna kimbab and two water bottles (this turned out to be the mistake of the day), we began our grand adventure, which took us past Mangwolsa Temple, to the ridgeline, which we followed to Dobonsan’s peak. Unfortunately, everyone in Uijeongbu also had the same idea we did, so we had to wait in line patiently for the opportunity to rappel up the side of a mountain. Once we finally made it to the top, there were too many people there for us to really enjoy the fruits of our labor, so we headed back down, having made the realization that the journey had been a reward in itself. It is ironic that even at the tip of a secluded mountain, in Korea, it is nearly impossible to escape the masses. Five and a half hours after we began hiking, we reached my apartment… and collapsed. Three days later, I am still sore.

And so, my life in Korea goes on. Tomorrow is our monthly field trip; this time we are going strawberry picking and will make rice cake at a farm. I am fairly sure that I am more excited about this then my students are. Get ready for some adorable pictures of my ten babies!

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A much-needed 4-day weekend was spent recharging my batteries in the most basic ways possible: catching up on sleep, doing laundry, spending time in the sunshine, and experiencing stunning beauty. It seemed like the whole world was celebrating how amazing life is. I hope to post pictures of the Lotus Parades and Festival soon, but until then:

I hope to incorporate the serenity, openheartedness, generosity, and appreciation I saw in the actions of the many Buddhists I met into my daily life. I suppose I should start immediately, given that I am ALREADY exhausted after an insanely stressful Monday back. Deep yoga breaths, 1-2-3-4-5-6…

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