Connectedness

A few years ago, my ex asked me who I’m closest with: friends from home, friends from school, or friends from abroad.  I never answered him, but I’ve since thought of that question on occasion, and I have come to the conclusion that I’m not more or less close to each of the groups; the levels of friendship and connection are just so different.  These people are part of significant phases of my life, and perhaps each group knows me in a different way than the others.

My friends from home have known me since I was ten years old, and they have, no doubt, seen me grow the most.  These people have watched me change, and vice versa.  There’s something about growing up constantly surrounded by the same friends, seeing slow evolutions in each other, and sharing experiences that shape us both as individuals and as a system.  All of this transforming brought us to a level of friendship that can only be achieved with time.  And all of this time has brought us ups and downs that only continue to bring us closer.  They are my cornerstone, the building blocks of who I am, the very core of where my growth began, and one of the main ingredients to my happiness.  My friends from home are the ones I am glad to always have.  No matter how far down the road, I know I will have them to come home to.

It was hard to imagine who my college friends would be and what role they would play in my life until I found them.  Turns out, they’re some of the best friends to have around.  College friends get to know you in incredible ways–at house parties and bars, hungover in dorms, during all-nighters at the library, and every other second in between.  These are friends who live with you–sometimes literally–and get to see who you are while you’re in the process of finding yourself and potentially, who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.  They are there to watch you overcome the most difficult challenges you will ever face, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be right next to you every step of the way, making the same exact horrible decisions.  I have formed unbreakable bonds with my college friends, and with them I’ve learned how little time can affect friendship.  They are my support networks and secret-outlets, my squad, and the bottom line is that they get to know me better than most people ever do.

Sigh.  Sevilla friends.  These are people with whom I have created an entirely new bubble of friendship.  They are there, living in the stories that I will be telling for the rest of my life.  These friendships formed exceptionally fast, and I think that might be the reason for our extremely high comfort levels with each other.  Suddenly I found myself in a foreign country with just a suitcase and this group of people to hold on to.  And I did.  We all did.  Fortunately I don’t think we will ever let go.  What we’ve been through were some of the best moments of our lives, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We’ve seen the world, pushed through borders and boundaries, and fell in love with the same city together. Through all of this, and in less than half a year, what we did was more than travel. We left parts of ourselves with each other, in all corners of the world, and if that doesn’t bond you for life then I’m not sure what does.

Since this question was posed to me, I entered a new phase in my life which has brought yet another incredible group of people into my life: my Seoul friends. The last three years in South Korea have been life life life, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all my experiences here. I’ve grown part of different communities–teachers, foreigners, local yogis and runners–who have welcomed me and helped me to see the life I’ve built in this country. I hold close the group of friends I made within the first few days of arriving, and I think that through meeting them I became solid in who I already was. We all got to know each other exactly as we were and as we still are, and I have nothing but gratitude for the fact that we loved each other through flaws and mistakes.

Most recently I’ve been thinking about the running and yoga families I’ve come to know and love here in Seoul the last two years. When I first walked into Zen Yoga studio, and first went to an open run for Crewghost, I never thought it would become a completely engrained and habitual attendance. Now I go to my yoga studio 5-8 times and to a crew run at least once or twice, both per week. Spending as much time sharing a mutual passion with a group of people for hours at a time brings you together without even trying–certainly regardless of language. These two communities have brought me joy and support, and a family to back me in the goals that no one else can understand.

As I come to realize that I have just five short months left before a new adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I’ve spent my years with. And as I get ready to leave this group of friends to visit the others, all I can feel is gratitude. To have so much love from around the world. To know that I can turn to so many to receive all kinds of needs. To understand that I can be a different version of myself and still be loved for it. To find that I am open and lucky enough to be able to connect with so many souls. And to recognize that with time, I am changing for the better. How do I know all this? Because each time I come back to all of the people I love, no matter how long it’s been or how far I’ve gone, I never doubt that the love and connection and friendship remain.

You’ve got my love to lean on darling, all the days

Before I left for South Korea three years ago, my older sister told me that she’s a little bit sad that I’ll miss some important “growing up” moments in my niece’s (her daughter’s) life in this next year that I’ll be in South Korea. Well, I’ve been here for three years and it really pains me that I’ve missed out on my nieces’ and nephew’s youths. What if they have their first kiss? What if they get bullied and don’t know who to turn to? What if they get in a fight with their parents and want to talk to me about it? All these what-ifs went through my mind, so I started writing letters to my eldest niece. I put them in a box, and I hope that when the time comes, she’ll pass it on to my other nieces and nephew, and that it will be helpful to them while I’m gone.

This was one of the letters:

To my little one,

There is so much that I want to teach you and tell you and learn from you. I hate to be absent for any part of your beautiful life, but while I’m away, I hope you remember some of what I’ve already tried to teach you.

Be patient and kind, to everyone, always. Including yourself.

Do not believe in luck. Believe in gratitude. Feel it all the time.

Treat every human being as exactly that: a human being. Show respect to everyone, even your enemies, and do not tolerate being disrespected.

Your feelings are YOURS and there is never a need to explain why you feel them.

When you learn something, don’t forget it. Intelligence is extremely attractive and invaluable.

Never, ever, ever, ever assume. Never assume that someone ignored you, or that someone is mad at you, or that something was your fault. Because anything can happen at any time, and we are not always aware of everything at once. Don’t disregard coincidence.

In confrontations and arguments, express only how you feel. Do not tell people what they did, but tell them how they made you feel.

Living well is the best revenge. Don’t believe in revenge.

Work hard. (Be lazy, but only sometimes.)

I once sat next to an old German man on a train and he asked me what my dream is. I told him that I want to travel, and he told me about how he moved to the U.S. from Germany as a young boy with nothing. He went to school, became a doctor, and now he teaches at a university in New York. He offered me this advice: “Keep a positive attitude. Don’t compromise your dreams and something will come and open up your universe. You younger generations need more confidence. Just know that us older generations believe in you. Let the universe come to you—invite it.”

Too much of anything can turn into a bad thing. The keys to happiness at its finest are balance and moderation.

Tell your parents goodnight before you go to bed. Tell the people you care about that you care about them. People need to be reminded of that.

Not everything lasts forever, and that’s okay. Look back and remember the goodness of all things, and be grateful for having it.

Ask yourself questions all the time. It is important to be able to answer to yourself, and be true to yourself.

The earth is a precious place, and you are just a visitor. Treat it well. Save as much life, energy, waste, and water as you can. Nothing is unlimited.

An excerpt from one of my favorite articles: “We have these brief lives, and our only real choice is how we will fill them. Your attention is precious. Don’t squander it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t let companies and products steal it from you. Don’t let advertisers trick you into lusting after things you don’t need. Don’t let the media convince you to covet the lives of celebrities. Own your attention — it’s all you really have.”

Stories are gifts that we give to each other. They can be happy, or sad, or scary. They are real, and they are meaningful. Remember as many of them as you can, especially the magical ones. Hold onto them and don’t forget that they can be very, very real.

“You are responsible for the energy you put into this world.”

Travel opens your eyes and your mind to both realities and dreams. Always keep going.

Try not to raise your voice, and try to always smile. Try new things often.

Know that the world we live in is a big one. There are millions of different souls and perspectives out there. You should never feel alone.

Power comes in many forms. Music, stories, writing, expression, art, thought, knowledge. Power is from within. Use yours—you have so many!

Self-discipline and patience are very necessary strengths. Learn them as early as you can.

Avoid any and all feelings of jealousy. Never wish to be anyone else.

Never burn bridges because you never know when you might need to cross them again.

And most importantly, never doubt that you are loved.

Love always,

Auntie

Let’s Go

When I told people that I wanted to move to South Korea and teach English, I got the sense that they thought it was a joke, or maybe my own version of an escape from “the real world,” or that I would be in danger. I don’t know if any of those opinions could ever be fully right or wrong, but I do know this: my experiences in the last few years have showed me more of “the real world” than any three years in an office could. It showed me through relationships and friendships, new practices and challenges, and a distance from what I’ve always known.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that people don’t learn from working in an office for three years. And I don’t think that traveling or moving to South Korea will make you smarter or better, because it might not. But it did all of that and so much more for me. Believe it or not, I once got into an argument with a friend about my passion for travel, and I am grateful for that argument every day because it opened my eyes to just how different two minds can be, and that that’s perfectly okay.

After almost three years of living in a totally different culture than what I’ve known for my entire life, I can say with confidence that my mind has never been more open and my heart more full. I find myself loving what I do each day, in all aspects of my day…or at least trying to. I’m realizing that it’s not until you look back at who you used to be that it seems possible to change so much; that you don’t know how much one place can change you until you get there. And I’m discovering that people really are each their own.

I don’t think people who travel are better than people who don’t. And I don’t think that just because you’ve visited 50 countries, you’re smart, or cultured, or rich, or happy. I also don’t think that because you’re rich you’re spoiled, or that people with college degrees are smarter than people without them. I could never assume anything about a person because they travel, or because they don’t.

There is only one thing to know: it is of utmost importance that we support each other in our decisions. That is what makes people feel good. And that is what will bring us together no matter where in the world we are.

What It Was Like

I stepped off the plane and walked through the airport with my family. It was 2001, the summer before 9/11. We had a layover in Alaska before flying to New York City, our final destination. Through the tall windows lining the airport waiting area, we witnessed snowfall for the first time in our lives.

Needless to say, my brother and I–age 10 and 11 at the time–were overjoyed. Winter wonderlands were not exactly part of our childhood experience growing up in the Philippines. We took pictures with a big polar bear display, and pranced around with no cares. As the snow came down, we watched in awe with our noses pressed to the glass until the next flight called us for boarding.

Later that night, we landed in New York. We had several suitcases, filled with as much of our life as we could fit. And that was it. When the plane grounded, it was home.

I remember driving through Times Square as soon as the car started moving. I sat looking not exactly out of the car window, but up. At tall skyscrapers in a city full of life and light in the middle of the summer. It was my first impression of America: an endless bright sky even at night. I couldn’t believe that I was here.

Before I knew it, we were driving on quieter streets, much darker than 42nd and Broadway. Suburban houses. White picket fences and people walking their dogs on sidewalks. Exactly like I saw in movies and books.

We pulled up in the driveway of a quaint little home.

My home.

My new home.

In America.

This was the home my mom prepared for us in the months before the move. She flew the day-long flight back and forth getting all sorts of things ready. Paperwork, visas, green cards. Our house, our school, our neighborhood. It was all waiting for us. And everything fell into place, a dream and reality at once.

My mom walked us through the front door and gave us a tour. A living room, a kitchen. A piano. Bathrooms. A basement. A backyard with a deck and a pool, and a swing set for my brother and me. I had never dreamt of living in a house in America before. But there it was. A dream I didn’t know I had, come true.

I had a room.

My room.

My own room that had a bed for only me.

My brothers and sister had their own rooms, and my parents theirs. My mom decorated it with toys and posters, and a clock with Tweety Bird on it. I had everything; my whole family in one house, and a bedroom that I could call “mine.”

In the following months and years, the American dream kept unfolding, and I know exactly who I have to thank for that.

I had a neighbor on one side who asked me to come over and play in her backyard in the summers, and a neighbor on the other who went out of his way to plow our driveway when it snowed in the winters. I had a friend in school who taught me how to use a computer when I told her I didn’t know how. I had teachers who treated me and encouraged me the same way they did all the other kids. I had invitations to birthdays and block parties from classmates and neighbors. I had friends to ride bikes with, a team to play sports with, camp friends to spend summers with, a brand new culture to participate in, and a safe home to return to at the end of each day.

Looking back, I feel so lucky. I just had so much–all of which I can now say I took for granted. I grew up to call America “home.” And in some ways, it felt more like home than where I came from because of the strangers who, over time, became the people I shared this “home” with. They showed me love and kindness and respect as I grew up and found myself in a country that wasn’t mine until they showed me that it was. Actually, they showed me that it was ours.

Today I woke up and cried because I feel so lucky, and I also cried because there are children right now who aren’t. While reading the news this morning, I was brought back to the first time I arrived in New York, and how I felt no fear. I was a child, and I didn’t have a single worry–and that’s exactly how it should have been. I didn’t know I was an immigrant. I didn’t even know what that meant. Surely I didn’t have a full grasp of how much bravery and doubt it took to pick up and move lives the way we did.

What it would be like if we had arrived in New York today? Would I be terrified? Would I just want to go back where I came from because this seemed so much harder and scarier? How would I feel? What would people think of me? How would they treat me?

It pains me that there are children and families facing these questions as I write this. In ten or twenty years we’ll be reading what it was like for them as they landed in America to find that people didn’t greet them with open arms. We’ll read about those who came to our country in these last few years, and those words will be much different than mine. They’ll be about how much it hurt to be looked at differently, or what it was like watching their parents deal with disrespect. And they’ll write about how they didn’t understand why.

I feel a ridiculous sadness in recognizing my luck and circumstance sixteen years ago, and how it would have been different today. It makes me guilty thinking of how the families like mine might be treated in the current state of our country and politics, and the hardships they’ll face that I never did.

But through all of my tears and sadness this morning, there was one thought that gave me hope and assurance that immigrant kids like myself will discover goodness in their new lives in this country: There will be people who will make this place feel like home. 

There will be people who understand. There will be kind strangers who open their homes to share their food and time, and there will be children who will play with them and treat them well. There will be people who go out of their way to help. There will be teachers and leaders in the community who will show them that they are part of something important. There will be parents who will teach them to be brave. There will be others like them to remind them that they are not alone. And there will be all of us, those who came before them, who will continue to fight to give them the new beginning they came here for.

Finding Balance in Intricacy

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

And so we are told this, again and again. As children, we hear it when we make mistakes we are too young to fix–like spilling milk or breaking a toy. In school, we hear it when we get an unexpected score on the test we thought we were ready for. At work, we hear it on the first day when we are lost and completely unsure of our responsibilities. And in life, we hear it from our friends and our parents and those who love us, in the moments we feel like we just don’t have it together.

Everyone makes mistakes. It is a simple fact. That’s the easy part.

What comes after mistakes are made is where the complications start. Black and white collide and simple facts are only simple from a certain point of view. While people make mistakes, the consequences can’t always be fixed. The milk can’t be cleaned, the toy can’t be fixed. The next test won’t up the average. And it’s not the first day of work. Not everything comes with second chances.

I’ve found that after making a mistake, there are two choices. Learn a lesson, or don’t.

Recently I made a mistake that opened my eyes to the importance of making mistakes: learning forgiveness. It is a complicated concept. Whether you are in the position to give or receive it, forgiveness requires practice. It requires patience. And it requires pain.

Through this mistake I discovered what it feels like to be denied forgiveness, and to lose someone as a result. I also learned that the power of forgiveness is in the hands of the forgiver. Understanding both sides of forgiveness is necessary in understanding that neither side is easy to be on.

Finding a safe balance comes in time, and we each find that balance at our own times and at our own pace. I found balance when I forgave myself. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. I lost someone as a result, but each day brings me closer to accepting that. Life is too unpredictable to deny forgiveness. Too short to regret. And all too wonderful to wallow.

 

Things That No One Told Me About Teaching English in South Korea

Learning a language is a matter of persistence and motivation.

English is an extremely difficult language to both teach and learn. By teaching it, I’ve learned just how many exceptions to rules, irregular verb changes, and difficult words to spell and pronounce there are. Korean students are required to learn this language, and not all of them want to. Unless a student has a reason or inspiration to learn English, my class is not much of a class for them at all.

Korean is also a difficult language to learn. I’ve never had serious difficulties with the language barrier here, but I have learned that when you take language away, you are forced to interact, form bonds, and learn through the most basic form of communication—body language. Once I could read, write, and use basic verbs in Korean, my study of the language was put on hold until I realized that I’d never reach my goal of fluency unless I persist in practice.

Making Korean friends is harder than you’d think. 

Most Koreans are shy in personality, and shy to speak English. If they’re not either of those things, then you got lucky and should keep this friend for life. I have very few Korean friends, and I value the insights to their culture I get from our friendship.

Koreans can be very judgmental.

Physical beauty standards in Korea are very high, and many won’t be afraid to call you names that would be considered offensive in the U.S. Although Koreans often tell me that my “face is beautiful,” they don’t leave out that my “arms have hair,” my “skin is too tan,” or that my “feet are big.” They also think that I “eat too much ice cream,” but…isn’t there no such thing as too much ice cream?

Your mindset will evolve.

This is one of the most beautiful lessons I have learned since moving to Korea. From little things like my sense of fashion and my perception of beauty, to more significant ones like my taste in music and beliefs about people and the world, I have changed notably within my first few weeks of living here. I don’t judge people based on looks or fashion in the way that I used to, and I can now understand how or why people act the way they do. I have come to understand the phrase “To each his own” in a new light. Living in a society that was so different from the one I grew up in gave me insights to people’s choices, personalities, lifestyles, and principles that I never had before. The longer I live here, the more I find that the farther away I get from what I know, the more beautiful the world becomes.

Every single day will keep you guessing.

There is a thing we foreigners here call the “Korean surprise.” This is where totally unexpected things happen, in and out of school. From cancelled classes and surprise classes, to being forced to sing karaoke songs for the principal and teachers at my school, to strangers stopping you on the streets to speak English, the “Korean surprise” is very real. Each new day in Korea has something in store with the element of surprise.

Laziness is a terrible trap.

It’s easy to set goals, make to-do lists, and plans to explore and discover Korea, but it’s also easy to fall into the weekday rhythm of going to work, coming home to nap, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, and going straight to bed. I had ambitious goals of learning Korean, teaching myself to code, reading books, running, practicing yoga, and writing blogs left and right with all of my free time here. Soon, there were days and weeks that were exhausting and it required real motivation and a conscious effort to reach these goals. With the right balance of work and play, I can proudly say that my to-do list is slowly getting done, but it took some time to get here.

These kids are crazy.

“Korean students are very respectful,” they said. “Korean students love learning,” they said. “Korean students are very quiet,” they said. Yeah, well, they lied.

You will own a selfie stick, and your selfie count will skyrocket.

On our first weekend trip after moving to Korea, my friends and I kept asking people to take pictures of us in front of the sights we were visiting. At first, this felt very natural. I mean, how else do people take group photos while traveling? Throughout the day, as we kept asking people, we felt weirder and weirder each time. No one else was doing that—they all had selfie sticks. Within a matter of days, we each purchased our own, and before we knew it, that “Selfies” folder on our iPhone albums had more pictures in it than we ever wanted.

The black hole of music also known as K-pop will suck you in.

I remember watching my very first K-pop video during orientation nine months ago. It was BigBang’s “Fantastic Baby.” I looked around the room and wondered why so many people loved this. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t listen to music sang in a language I couldn’t understand, and that it was strange that the guys wore makeup and outrageous outfits, and that they weren’t even attractive. A few weeks later, there I was, singing, dancing, and screaming my favorite member’s name in Seoul’s Olympic Arena, one in a sea of thousands of BigBang diehard fans. I have listened to only a handful of English songs ever since.

The Korean education system that is so highly praised outside of this country is, in reality, quite flawed.

It’s hard to keep this short and simple, because there are so many aspects to Korean education that would be difficult to understand unless you witnessed it yourself. Around the world, Korea is known for breeding the brightest students, but what’s often missing and ignored is that these students are put under extreme pressure to succeed in school. For people aged 15-24 in South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death. This is not to say that school and education is to blame for this statistic, but I do believe in the correlation between them.

Korean students, beginning in middle school, go to school for the majority of their days, sometimes not going home until 8-9 p.m., and even later for high school students. In my classes, kids are sleeping with their heads on their desks left and right, and sometimes they tell me lunch is their only real meal of the day because of their hectic schedules.

I once did a two-week lesson about high school in America, and after my first class I regretted it immediately. Seeing the shock and longing in my students’ faces when I asked them for their opinions about the differences between our educations systems broke my heart. Korean kids grow up very fast. By high school, their maturity level is that of American upperclassmen. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s my opinion that they should have more opportunities to have more fun, more free time, and more chances to feel young. Instead, they spend 12+ hours in classrooms turning pages and not feeling good enough or smart enough to pass their next test, or get into the school they want. With these things in mind, I’ve made it a goal in my English classes to give them a unique way of study—a little less bookwork and a little more fun and human interaction when possible.

It is not easy.

Before coming to Korea, I read countless pieces of advice from current and former teachers here. Many times, they would talk about the motivation that Korean students have to learn English, and how this would naturally make teaching classes feel more like an easy and fun experience than an actual job. I was lucky enough to be placed in a great all-boys middle school where the teachers are extremely strict, resulting in the forming of very respectful young men. However, students are students, and they are the same around the world—some smart, some sleepy, and some disrespectful. Every class has its own set of geniuses, its own attitude, and ultimately, its own troublemaker. Some classes are quiet and nonresponsive, while others are madhouses. Picture kids standing on desks and water bottles flying across the room. That was once my reality.

The blogs and testimonials I read also talked about how much easier it would be thanks to the help of the Korean co-teacher. Surprise! I have 7 co teachers and none of them stand in front of the class with me to “co-teach” with me at all. Two of them sometimes step in to help, and the keyword there is sometimes. Imagine how difficult it is to teach English when your students don’t speak English and you don’t speak Korean, all while there is a Korean teacher in the room who absolutely can but just does not stand up to help at all. It is, as they say here in Korea, no jam (no fun).

The bright side of this is that, by the end of each class and each day, there will always be certain students that I reached, classes that were successful, and moments in which I looked around and smiled because I do love this job. Despite the challenges, I feel like I have a unique power to teach these kids about worlds they don’t know, and I have strong hopes that my lessons inspires them to explore those worlds.