A Year in Seoul - video by Maddy

Monday, February 22, 2010


My things peek out at me from boxes. Timid and nervous, they await their fate. It depresses me slightly how few things I own, especially considering I'll be getting rid of half the boxes barely taking up space in my tiny apartment.

My apartment, at first of symbol of my new found freedom, has become my confinement. I am a modern Rapunzel, 15 stories up, looking out at a landscape of endless glass and steel. Softly, I hum memories of the world outside, quietly building inertia. How I wish I could let down my hair...

I'm on edge now. My things are staring at me vacantly. They seem unfamiliar, as if they had appeared overnight. Who bought this blender? Who mopped this floor and washed these pots and pans for the past year? I feel disconnected from these things and eager to hand them over to someone else.

I own one week in Korea and a couple of boxes of junk.

So this is what I've made of my life, I think... But, then, something inside me swells up indignantly. Yes! That's right! This is what I've made of my life. I can pack it up in two suitcases and move it where I please. I can give much of it away without pain. I am not weighted down, I am not drowning in stuff.

I own two suitcases and a future filled with adventure.

The surge of passion quickly recedes to calmness tinged with confusion. I'm fairly certain that I'm living for something, but I still can't be sure what it is. I've often wondered over the past few years if it was possible to live life differently, and then whether or not it was entirely selfish. Now, sitting her among my boxes, I know the answers are "of course" and "irrelevant." Still, there must be some method to my madness. We humans continually seek patterns out of chaos, stability in the most volatile of existences.

So, here I sit, seeking meaning in the clutter of my boxed possessions, imagining that it matters one bit whether I have two suitcases or twenty. No, I suppose it doesn't matter at all.

Perched on the edge of uncertainty yet again, I can't help but feel a little frightened. I think back to that flight, over one year ago, from New York to Hong Kong. That flight where I verged on hysteria, clutching letters from home and spilling orange juice on innocent bystanders. This time the fear is different. This time I know it's so much more than okay to feel afraid. It's absolutely vital.

I don't know much about the future. I won't even venture to guess. All I know is that I want to watch the concrete crumble until it is fine sand. I want to trade city lights for constellations and I want to climb down from my enclosure on the fifteenth floor and feel the ground beneath me again.

And so, I'll turn out the lights and close the door one last time. I'll get on that plane and I'll live my life out of two suitcases. Who knows? Maybe I'll even whittle it down to one.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Seoul of My Story: An Imaginary Day

The early morning air in Seoul is soft and heavy with mist. As I stretch out in the cool damp grass, the world is painted in lavender. My fingers idly pluck at blades as the sky tints pink, warming despite the chill in the air. The amorous Han River mirrors the abundant sky, enthralled by the kaleidoscopic moods of the air.

I too am captivated by the scene. The prodigious high rises of Seoul reach towards the now vivid orange sky, marching outward to infinity. They are giants; monuments to human ingenuity and progress; antagonists to the gentle mountains rolling across the horizon. They speak to me across generations, their multi-linguistic signs heralding a new era in the life of the city. They whisper secrets about the future, now while it is quiet, while most of the city silently sleeps.

Gentle clouds roll in as the sky becomes tranquil blue. I am no longer alone in my grassy haven. People filter in from all over the city, eager to share the sunshine and delicate breeze. They unfurl blankets and set out picnics. Motorboats skim across the surface of the river and bicycles buzz through winding footpaths. Children chase each other through the trees as bemused parents look on. The city has awoken and once again it thrives.

Closing my eyes I imagine the Han River before the arrival of people and construction of skyscrapers. I picture it flowing silently from the mountains, gradually gaining momentum until it rushes ecstatically into the Yellow Sea after a journey of over 500 kilometers. I see trade ships proudly roaming it waters, bringing prosperity and growth. I see wars being fought for its control and the waters running red. I imagine, much later, the same waters rippling beneath the oars of the 1988 Olympic rowers, testaments to the peace which long ago stilled the gentle river.

Restless, I wander into the city where gleaming office towers interweave with traditional palaces and temples. It's only a short subway ride from the Han River to Insa-dong, Seoul's famous artists' neighborhood. A small knot of streets in Seoul's Jongno-gu district, Insa-dong has specialized in the antiques market for centuries. It's fusion of the traditional and the modern make it a perfect microcosm of Seoul itself. Historical architecture abounds, most notably Jogyesa, a Korean Buddhist temple and Unhyeongung, a former royal residence.

Any wanderer could easily pass the hours perusing the many antique shops and galleries lining Insa-dong's alleyways. Here, contemporary art mingles with ancient pottery and vintage jewelry. Books with well worn covers wait to tell their stories while hand made paper begs for new stories to be written. There is something here for every eye, and I browse slowly, finding treasures among the multitude.

Weary shoppers can stop for a cup of tea in one of the many traditional tea houses or modern cafes in the area. I order a warm cup of daechu-cha, or jujube tea. Its aroma and deep red color are equally as pleasing as its sweet flavor. The tea is served in a beautiful earthenware cup with slivers of jujube and pine nuts floating along its surface. Some say the jujube helps alleviate stress, and curled up in my chair, I can certainly feel its magic. Fully relaxed, I drift back into the street and head home, arms laden with bags.

By now the sun is sinking low in the sky, peeking between the industrial giants before disappearing beneath the mountains. I sit down at an outdoor restaurant with a friend and order steaming pots of soon dubu jjigae, a favorite of mine. The spicy soup brimming with tofu and vegetables is served in a stone bowl which keeps it bubbling hot long after it arrives at the table. My skin flushes as I eat spoonfuls of the spicy liquid, warming me as the air cools and the night rolls in over the city.

We finish our meal and seek out the highest bar we can find for a glass of wine and a view. The mountains in the distance are a study in texture and hue. They multiply and saturate until the deepest blues melt into the soft night air. We sit silently a long while and a feeling of gratitude swells inside of me for all of seen and done and learned over the past year. Meanwhile the light of day softens into the glow of night.

The neon lights of the city beckon us, drawing us back into its center. The intersections are draped in webs of pedestrians, all eager to partake in Seoul's legendary nightlife. Vendors line the busy streets and a mosaic of street food smells fill the air. There are thousands of bars and cafes in the city, but no matter which one we choose, we always manage to find a familiar face or discover a new friend. Tonight should be no different. Surely some adventure awaits us in the ever vigilant city of Seoul. Another chapter in an infinite volume, a story as of yet, untold.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Change is Good

The constant commotion in my head has kept me from blogging for the past few weeks. Every time I sit down to write, the words have been swallowed up in a wall of static noise Ideas fly around my brain like psychotic butterflies, never stilling for a moment of rest and always eluding the net.

This flurry of thought is not, thankfully, a nervous breakdown. It's just that in the last weeks everything has changed.

For the past few months something has been off. Maybe I didn't even realize it at the time, but a disturbance had rippled through my life sending me, unmoored, into the unknown. And there, vulnerable and directionless, the restless wind which settles into my bones from time to time began to wrap itself around me once more. This is where the trouble began.

Coming back from the Philippines (a trip I've been desperate to write about and will soon) I noticed something was not right. As I sat on the airplane that would return me to my life in Korea I felt an emptiness in my chest and a dull sense of anxiety - an emotion I am not very familiar with.

For the first time, I didn't want to go back to Korea. I no longer sensed impending excitement and opportunity, only the slow rhythmic beat of routine. It was putting me to sleep, this gentle lullaby, and I realized I'd settled in deeply and was prepared to dream away my early twenties in Korea. I realized immediately this is something I don't want.

Don't get me wrong... the past year has been amazing. I would not change a single moment and still consider choosing to teach in Korea one of the most important decisions of my life. I just feel it's time to give somewhere else a try. I know instinctively that there is more out there for me to discover.

As a rule, I always go with my deepest instincts. At times, this is infuriating for people because I fluctuate wildly for a few weeks before impulsively choosing an often counter intuitive path. This method, however, has never steered me wrong. It may be ill suited for many people, but for the way I choose to live my life, I can't see any other way.

So, I started to research teaching in other areas of Asia. I threw myself into research and job applications with unceasing intensity. Then, when the noise in my head had grown the loudest, Maddy had an idea that shut it off, as abruptly as the power button on a television.

"What if you came with me to San Diego for the summer?"

There had been a million possibilities in my brain, and if you take out the obvious draw of being with Maddy all summer, San Diego was no where on my list, but something about it made sense deep down.

We carried the idea further... work a few months, live as cheaply as possible, have a short break from Asia, then find new teaching contracts at the end of August elsewhere in Asia. It felt right. More importantly, it felt exciting.

I could go on and on about my decision process, but there really is no need. When it comes down to it, after all things were considered, it just felt like what I wanted. And if there is one rule I live by, it's always to live the life that will make you the most happy, and let everything else sort itself out.

So, my new plan... here goes... I will finish teaching in Korea on February 26th. On the 27th my friend Willie and I will fly to Bangkok and meet Maddy. The three of us will travel Laos and Cambodia and return to Seoul on March 9th in time to take advantage of the free ticket home my contract offers me. Then I will fly to Boston and spend a few weeks with my family. At the beginning of April I will meet Maddy in San Diego and sort out our summer.

Living and blogging in Korea has been amazing. I still have plenty to say about it and hope to blog much more in the next few weeks. All things come to an end eventually, and for now, I'm getting ready to say goodbye to Korea.