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.

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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.

Mount Fuji and Tokyo, Japan

This is one of my favorite videos that I’ve made so far this year. I proudly watch it often if I have a few minutes to spare – Japan is pretty easy to miss once you visit! I remember having a lot of trouble choosing which clips to take out of the video so that it would all fit within the time of the song. Every clip was significant and memorable to our trip, so the ones that made this final cut are truly the cream of the crop.

Chasing Magic and Building Bridges

Let me start by sharing something that I wrote to myself a few months ago in my iPhone notes. I had a rough day of teaching and on that Friday night, I was so happy and relieved to arrive in Seoul and see my friends. Around midnight and after our first few shots of soju, I was overcome with an urge to write these words to myself:

Hey Christine.

Lately, a lot of people have been telling you that you are “living the life!” but you know that’s not true, right? Today, you had an okay day. So this is a reminder: you’re not living the life. You’re just…living life.

Maybe people think that living abroad is easy, but you know more than anyone that it’s not. Moving to South Korea to teach English isn’t your average college grad’s move, and while it is an incredible experience, it doesn’t make your life “the” life. In fact, nothing makes any life “the” life, because every life is different. Don’t forget that. Just remember to put your money towards experiences. You are a twenty-something, with dreams of one day having a job you love and a family you love even more. But for now, you deserve to see what and who the world has to offer before you settle.

You were not given the life. You were given a life. And you have the power to choose what to do with it. Your time, your energy, your money, your love, and your feet can go where you choose. No matter where you go, you’ll find that you’ll have some so-so moments.

It’s not always easy to be surrounded by what you don’t know, but I urge you to continue to make a life outside of what you do know. By the end of it all, let’s see if you lived more of “the” life than you dreamed, or dreamed more of “the” life than you lived.

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At the end of a bad class, I read that note to self, and I’m reminded of what’s good. For four months and counting, I wake up with a smile on my face. And every day, I say to myself, “Christine…You are in South Korea.” Then I smile, turn my alarm off, get out of bed, and have a great day.

I don’t know how to describe what life is like here; I just know that not one day has gone by where I woke up or went to sleep feeling anything but happy. And sometimes drunk. But the bottom line is that I know I’m happy.

A few days before New Years’ Eve last year, when I was sitting in a New York City diner at 4 am, I found out that I was accepted into the EPIK (English Program In Korea) Program, and that in a few weeks I would be on a plane to South Korea, where I would spend the next year. It has been four months since I first stepped foot in this country, and every day since has been eye-opening and mind-stretching.

I came here for a reason. I was (and still am) chasing a certain feeling that inspires me each time I feel it. When I was ten years old, I moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, and I don’t remember a thing about the flight or any part of the trip, except for one moment. We landed in JFK airport late at night and on the drive to our new home in New Jersey, I discovered a little place called New York City. All I remember about my first moments in America is looking out of the car window and up to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The city of dreams, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. It was a fantasy land that I thought could only ever be just that–a fantasy. But there I was, at ten years old, lost and speechless in the magic of New York.

Years later I would discover the magic of so many places. Washington D.C., London, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Madrid, and Sevilla. The beaches of the Bahamas, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Niagara Falls, the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Switzerland, and even the three largest cathedrals in the world. In each and every one of those places, I got the same feeling that I did when I found myself in New York for the first time. It’s the feeling that I get every time I step foot on foreign ground, and every time I see something that I have only ever seen on pages and posters and screens before. This knowledge that it was worth every cent and sacrifice it took to get there, just to see it with my own eyes; that no high definition flat screen view of this would ever come close to the real thing. A simple feeling that tells me: I’m here, in the world. I’m in it, and I’m breathing it and walking it and touching it, and that this is no fantasy. And it’s not something I can easily describe, and surely I can’t say that this feeling is the same for everyone. Maybe you get this feeling from an entirely different living experience. But I know with certainty that some of my best moments happened in places that I might never be again.

It is a great blessing to me that my life’s memories and stories are set all over the world. I have seen more of the world in a decade than most will see in their life, and I am only constantly wanting more. The world does a great job of making me feel small, in the best way. It humbles me, and it makes me honest somehow. The more of the world I see, the more I can understand what it needs to grow better. Whether it’s honesty and truth, or understanding and strength, or kindness, or opposition, rebellion–I hope that I can hear the message loud and clear, and I hope that I can spread that message to the next place I go and to the next person I meet. This is the feeling that I chase; a sense that somehow I’m helping to bridge gaps between places and people.

This year, I came to South Korea because I wanted to expand my boundaries and challenge myself–in work, in language, in culture, and in any other way that I felt the world could test me–and believe me, I’m being challenged every day. I also came here because I wanted to prove to people (including my own friends and family) who were skeptical about this move, that ignorance is only ignorance until someone shows you the other side. I’m happy to be the person who proves that, and I hope that I can be that person for many of those whose minds could stand to be a little more challenged and a little more opened. I also hope that I can continue to meet people who will do that for me.

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I have never been the type to want what’s easy and I certainly don’t want what’s comfortable. That’s why I’m here. My passions for international education and travel and people and language and learning has led me down this path of opening minds and building bridges, and I am confident that this field is already doing just that, even with the so-so moments in between.

Living abroad is hard. I know this because I leave my house every day and it reminds me.

Teaching English is hard. I know this because I have days that remind me.

Learning English is also hard. And I know this because I have students that constantly remind me.

But these daily reminders don’t stop me from spending five days a week in Korean classrooms teaching English to kids who might not like it, because I know that one day they might make a difference, whether big or small, in their families or for their countries, or in our world. I am constantly hoping that learning English and interacting with foreigners will open their minds, or inspire them to chase their own magic and to build their own bridges. And with over 1,000 students, I might have a pretty good shot.

I’ve only just started planting seeds. Stay tuned.

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Words of Wander Wisdom

I wrote the following words on a bus in Costa Rica three months ago. At the time, I was addressing aspiring travelers and readers of our #WanderOurWorld series. Looking back, I think I was writing it for myself.

As I settle into this new life in South Korea, I am taking my own advice to heart. I hope you do too.

Advice For The Road

Fill yourself with gratitude. Let it in and let it out. And only put out into this world what you would want to let in. Look around. Look everywhere, and look often. Look in dark places—sometimes that’s where you find the light you need. Remember what surrounds you. Keep it as long as you can. Listen to the stories from those who you encounter, and share yours in return.

Feel the sunshine, the cold, the warmth, and feel the pain and life and beauty around you. Feel yourself change. Feel your heart grow. Expect to be lost at times. Stay humble. Keep in touch. Write. Write. Write. Write all the time. Later on, thank yourself for taking the time to write. Watch the sun rise and set as many times as you can. Pretend you’ll be in this moment forever.

Never compare your travels to those of someone else. Know that your path is yours only. Challenge yourself. Walk the paths you stumble upon. Smile at strangers, laugh at yourself, and take comfort in companionship. Take comfort in independence. Take comfort in being uncomfortable. Believe that you will one day meet again those you’ve already met. Do not burn bridges just because you have crossed them.

Take what you have learned and teach it to others. Embrace your sense of belonging each time it comes alive. Feel home when you’re not. Feel distance when you’re close. Feel fear and excitement and hunger for life in every single moment. Learn. Be a sponge. Try everything. Remember that things are only things, and that is all they will ever be. Open your eyes to the meaning of variety. Believe that reality and dreams can be one and the same.

Ask yourself why you travel.

Remind yourself why you travel.

Spread your courage and share your bravery.

Learn from yourself.

Don’t rush.

Accept the grandiosity of the world, and explore as much of it as your feet will allow.

Go in any and all directions.

Go beyond.

Go away.

Go back.

Go anywhere.

Go everywhere.

Keep going.

And going.

And going.