Moved by Moving

Leaving home gets harder and harder every time I do it. And I’m always asked, “Why do you like living abroad?” and “How do you do it?”

After years of thinking about it, I finally found some potential answers, thoughts repeated in my mind if nothing else.

I have developed a deep, deep passion for the world. I’ve had it for years, and I’m guessing I always will. It keeps me going and partly blinds me from the pain that I inevitably feel when I leave. This world just has so much to offer. There are so many people and lessons and activities and views to meet and learn and do and see. The fact that all of this is available and waiting is pretty insane to me and I can’t miss out. Long ago I told myself I would see as much of the world as I could and this goal is never-ending and doesn’t get easier the older I grow, but until that promise no longer serves me, I must go and go and go.

I look around and think to myself that the reason life is so wonderful is because we get to choose. Sure, there are some givens, but at the end of the day I hope we can all recognize that we have the power to change what surrounds, consumes, inspires, angers, and pushes us, simply by making different choices. Sometimes I look at the places I spend most of my time, at the things I own and use, and at the people I share my days with. When I see each of these truly, I am able to trace back to the moment I let them in, and more importantly, the moment I let them stay. Through this consistent practice I’ve come to the understanding that I am allowing what and who surrounds me. When I leave home, I recognize fully that it is my choice, and that there is no one else to thank or blame for what I see when I open my eyes.

I love home. I love coming home and I love being home. I love the place I get to call home, and the people from home that I get to keep in my life regardless of whether I’m physically there or not. I treasure this place so deeply because I only get to have it sometimes. At this point, many places feel like home, and I can’t afford to take that for granted either. But home has always been people for me. It just so happens that a large percentage of the people I love are in the same place, and for that fact alone, I love home.

I crave stories. How else would we learn and grow from each other if we didn’t share them with each other? Most anything we say or exchange in conversation, on social media, through music and film, while people-watching, and when we lie awake at night thinking about our day, is a story. They are being shared in different ways, selectively, and again we can choose and craft them how we want to. Anything that happens to us is one story, and the way we choose to see it once it’s done or tell it when it’s over, are other stories. Every place I go gives me another story to tell, and many to listen to. At any time I can draw from this archive, and I can learn.

I like being uncomfortable. I like placing and finding myself outside of the zone I would describe as “comfortable”. I like the rush of new environments and unfamiliar ground. I like how it feels to know that time is all it takes to adjust to most change and most difficulties. And I know from experience, that when we are uncomfortable, we are growing. It’s easy to stay, but I prefer a little bit of pushing my boundaries if it means expanding my growth as a human through the days I have been given. I don’t like leaving because it’s uncomfortable, I like leaving because of where it gets me. So, here I am again, getting through the uncomfortable changes to find what is waiting for me. And something always is.

Every time I leave home, I cry at the airport while waiting at the gate for boarding. It’s never because I want to stay, but because leaving doesn’t feel as good as arriving. The last few months I spent at home have been everything I’ve dreamt of and more. I am so grateful for all the time I got to share with so many people, all of whom I consider myself lucky to know and connect with. I’m thankful for all the food that I got to eat, and that I am always missing when away. I know that home isn’t everyone’s favorite place, so I know my luck for all that it is, to have been brought to a place that fills me with good love and good memories, each and every time.

 

 

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What It Means To Be A Human

Written December 2014

What it means to be human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a blessing it is to be a human on this earth. The odds of being any other creature are pretty high. But you are reading this, meaning you are lucky enough to be a person (and probably an awesome one). I’m not sure anyone really knows what it means to be human, but these are my ideas.

Being human means understanding the beauty rooted deep in all places of this earth. It means being aware that you are just a visitor, and that you should respect the rest of whom and what you share this space with.

Being human means being intelligent enough to adapt to what’s around you. This ability is in you. Use it.

Being human means finding connections with other humans.

Being human means appreciating every type of environment. From soil to sand to dirt to gravel and all the way to hardwood and tile floors. Whether we are under a tree or a roof, we can’t ever forget where we started and how we got to where we are.

Being human means respecting each other and those we share the earth with. In Costa Rica, the love and respect that people have for nature is contagious. They recognize that we share this land, not just with other people, but with trees and sloths and snakes and spiders, and all in between. Being human should mean being humble, and not crowning ourselves entitled.

Being human means having the capacity to try new things, paired with the ability to decide whether we like it or not.

Being human means consuming so much knowledge at a rate where we should always want more.

Being human means taking advantage of our ability to travel the world and do all of the above. As people, we have this power to inspire and move and change and share and love and teach and create. With so much power, it’s easy to waste. Don’t.

Being human means knowing that every beginning has an end. But if there is sincerity in between, I hope I never regret it. At one point, every thing we had and every one we had meant something to each other, and in this life, that’s all we really seem to be looking for.

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

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.

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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