Marching Forward in Busan

Last weekend, the city of Busan, South Korea had it’s very first Pride march. Although the capital city of Seoul has been having LGBTQIA+ events since 2000, it’s been a little slow to spread beyond the dense urban hub of Korean counter culture. Korea did not get a second city to participate in this part of the civil rights movement until Daegu joined in 2009. And after another 8 years, Busan has become the third Korean city to host a Queer Pride event.

Of course, since Busan has been my home for the last 18 months, I had to go. I knew it was going to be much smaller than the events I attended in Seoul over the last 2 summers, but it was still exciting to imagine being part of a historical first. 


The Run Up

21458019_1738461163115256_947757470217525866_o.pngIn the weeks leading up to the event, Facebook groups circulated ads, support, rumors and questions as it became murky as to whether the festival’s organizers were in fact granted the required permits to host vendors, performers and the ever important march through the crowded streets of Haeundae. There was some fear that the vendors would be denied a permit and a rallying cry for them to show up anyway and risk arrest for the cause. (Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be necessary).

And as news of the event spread, the inevitable groups of Christian fundamentalists tried to demand the government to deny permission, and worked to organize a mass counter-protest movement. Police released a statement to the media advising that plenty of officers would be on site to make sure that no violence ensued.

I think it’s important to note that these Christians really are counter-protesters, because here in Korea, there are no gay rights, and so the queer community are actually doing the original protest against the current government and social policies that exclude and endanger them. The Christian groups just want to maintain the status quo (or even it roll back to make homosexuality illegal again.)

Solidarity on the Subway

It’s about a 45 minute subway ride from my house to the beach where the festival was to be held, and while I was killing time scrolling through Facebook, I happened to look up and notice a very genderfluid individual standing nearby with a “LGBTQIA Rights Are Human Rights” bag. I caught their eye and smiled, pointing to the bag and giving a big thumbs up before tapping my own rainbow pin. Their eyes lit up as they asked in thick Korean phonemes, “pride?” (pu-rai-du). I nodded, still smiling and we had a high five.

I can only imagine the courage it took to get on the subway sporting such a mix of gender role presentation. They were a little chubby (which is already almost a sin in Korea), wearing just black shorts and a hoodie with white trainers. They had short hair and glasses, but beautifully done makeup. Gender roles are enforced hardcore in Korea, so it must have been a little scary to leave the house and know that you still might be harassed on your way to the only event in town where you can be yourself.

Although we both went back to scrolling our phones after the high five, we did happen to look up at the same time once or twice more on the long ride and shared big grins every time we made eye contact. Although I saw many more flamboyantly dressed Koreans at the event, I am fairly sure they didn’t ride a subway in their Pride outfits.

The Vendors

Haeundae is the most famous beach in Busan and while the festival didn’t get to set up right on the beach, the main stage was just inland of the waterfront road. We arrived a little early with plans to get some brunch before checking the booths, but ended up walking through the tent area anyway. It was significantly smaller than Seoul’s event, and I’d venture to say that at least half of the booths were dedicated folks who came down from Seoul to support the Busan march, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

20170923_132553We passed booths promoting awareness, selling pride pins, flags, t-shirts, art and books. We bought a few small things, more to support the vendors than anything else. One booth was just for birth control awareness, which is a major issue in Korea since it is still very stigmatized and difficult for women to use it regularly without facing harsh judgement from friends, family and even medical professionals.

One booth was allowing people to make their own buttons and taking pictures of the results. The majority of the volunteers there were middle aged people who didn’t quite know all the colors and symbols, but every time they saw something new they would ask about it and try to learn. It was heartwarming to see the older generation not only involved in promoting LGBTQIA rights in Korea, but genuinely interested in learning all the jargon and labeling that can seem so foreign to allies, but is so vital to people struggling with identity.

The Protesters

20170923_131018.jpgWhile the booth selection was not as big as the Seoul event, the protesters weren’t as bad as their Seoul counterparts. There were far fewer of them, and they didn’t have any giant trailers with loudspeakers or competing musical performances. Most of them simply held their signs quietly. A few shouted slogans, but the only one shouted at me was “Jesus is love” which is not bad as protest slogans go… I mean, really it’s the same reason why enlightened Christians think marriage equality is right… love is love, man.

On the other hand, I’m slightly perverse from time to time, and so I chanted back to her “Buddha is love”… because I’ve had just about all the conversion talks I need for the next few lifetimes.

20170923_131053.jpgWhen the sign wavers got too close, the police gently moved them back. There was no force or violence, but the police would form a blockade and firmly move the problem folks back out of range. One man was so transported by his prayer, he knelt as close to the event as he could get, clutching his sign and praying feverishly, eyes screwed shut and knuckles white.

Many of the Christian counter-protesters hid their faces, although it’s unclear if this was some kind of copying of Antifa, or an actual desire to hide their identity for fear of … I’m really not sure what, or if they’re just that breed of middle aged Korean person that wears a face mask and sunglasses and big hat any time they go outside when it’s even a little sunny. Because that happens too.

The March

It hardly took us any time at all to finish exploring the booths, and we had a couple hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin, so we hopped over a block or two to have a rest in a friend’s apartment. We came back around parade start time, expecting it to be a little late, honestly, and we couldn’t find it anywhere!

20170923_163214.jpgFrantically trying to IM another friend in the parade to figure out which way to go, we walked up and down the street lined with protesters holding signs about sin and Jesus and homosexuals out out out. When the marchers finally arrived, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the police line! We stood among the protesters who waved their fists and signs and chanted their message of opposition. From this vantage point we saw the giant rainbow flag at the head of the procession and we cheered as loud as we could to drown the voices of those around us and support the marchers we had been unable to join in time.

20170923_163257.jpgAs the parade moved closer to us, the police moved the line of protesters further and further back to prevent clashes. We pointed somewhat frantically at our own rainbow pins and flags as we asked the officers if we could cross the line and join the group inside. Finally, realizing we were not a threat, they let us through and we joined the group of hundreds (possibly thousands) dancing and singing along to the K-Pop blaring from the backs of the trucks that had lead them on the brief march around the block.

20170923_163316I’m not sure what the actual parade route was, but I know it must have been short for it was scheduled to start at 4, and was more or less over by 4:30. By 4:45 everyone had dissipated and the plaza was being swiftly converted for whatever event had reserved the space for the evening hours. I also cannot report on the turn out at this time, as there has not been any English language media follow-up reporting on the numbers of attendees, counter-protesters, or police. If I get some information later, I’ll update it here.

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The Sights

TBH, I fell off the photojournalism ladder that day. There was no “press booth” and I felt a bit uncomfortable running around snapping pics without credentials. I try to use my own photos when I can, but I highly recommend viewing the photo album on the Busan Pride Facebook page, because they had a wonderful professional photographer and it’s a great collection of images. These are a few more of my photos below.

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The Issues

In countries where gay rights are protected by law, Pride is more a celebration, or a victory march. However, in places where the people are still fighting for equality under the law, it’s more a mix of celebration and protest. Pride events in Korea are festive, no doubt. It’s one of the few times when queer folk can come out in the light of day and BE. There is art, and music, and hugs and laughter, and singing and dancing with K-Pop and sparkly costumes. But alongside this joy, there are some very serious issues that can affect the life and livelihood of the people impacted by them.

The Busan Pride festival coincided with international Bisexual Awareness Day (September 23), and it did not go unnoticed. Although flags and emblems for most if not all gender/sexual identities made an appearance at least once somewhere at the event, the pink, purple, and blue of the bisexual flag was clearly the dominant color scheme (competing even with the rainbow itself for top billing).

I don’t really know how bi-phobia and bi-erasure stack up as issues in South Korea. I know in many places, bi people suffer exclusion from both hetero and queer communities because they won’t “pick a side” (I cannot roll my eyes hard enough). I actually had a bisexual male friend of mine tell me the other day he doesn’t know that many women who like women, and I was like… uh, we’re friends with all these same people, right? Yes you do! But bi women have become hesitant to talk about it for fear of being “not queer enough” or of being fetishized by dudes who want threesomes (gak).

Look, really, the point is, if someone tells you that they identify as bi, or ace, or pan, or agender, or non-binary… or any one of the list of other sexual/gender identities that seem to be perceived as fictional… just believe them. It’s not hurting you to let them be themselves but it sure as heck hurts them when friends and family tell them they are wrong or worse, lying.

The other hot issue for LGBTQIA rights in Korea this year is the military shenanigans. I talked about this a bit in my post about Seoul Pride, but it’s still going on. Recap: Military participation is mandatory for all men in Korea (maybe barring serious illness/disability). Being gay while in the military is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Some dingo’s kidney of a military leader decided to use Grindr and/or some other hookup apps to trap some young servicemen and they are now in jail. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Military Human Rights Centre for Korea are pissed off and calling this a human rights violation.

I found an article that says the Korean government may be looking into possibly maybe changing the policy in response to UN and international pressure, or they could just be preparing to double down on their anti-gay policy. To be clear, there is NO WAY for young gay men to avoid this. Service is not optional. However much I may disdain a ban on gays in a military (*cough*Trumpisanassholeforthetransban*cough*), at least in countries like the US, they can simply choose not to join. It’s still discriminatory, but not actually entrapping. Korean men do not have a choice on military service and we all know, sexuality is not a choice either.

I’m sure with Trump and Kim going at it like schoolyard bullies, most of the concerns of the world with respect to Korea are about nuclear annihilation, but if you could spare a moment to urge your representatives, to contact your favorite international human rights organization, to donate, to speak out, to put pressure on Moon and his government to protect gay Korean men from imprisonment merely for being who they are while serving their nation, that would be great.

Because when it comes to human rights, the slogan of this year’s Pride events in Korea got it spot on…20170923_181931


I know I got a little political there, but frankly, I’m just tired to my bones about having to read every day about how some human somewhere is being treated as less because of a trait they cannot choose, whether that is skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m weary to my soul that I keep seeing humans being physically attacked for this. And I am exhausted on a cellular level of seeing oppressors claiming victimhood as they smash the faces of those humans figuratively and literally. In some ways, I wish I was only talking about America, but it’s everywhere. It’s not going away if we ignore it or just “don’t get political”. And while I can’t go out on the streets and fight it every day, I am not that strong; I can act, do, and speak as much as my strength allows. I hope you will, too.

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Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from, although I didn’t write anything about them. Plus some letters about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Spring in the City 2008: After my return from winter break, I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

North American Summer

What with the total media explosion, I was more than a little apprehensive about my plan to return to American for nearly 3 weeks this summer. I think if it had merely been a trip for my own enjoyment, I would have gone to Iceland or Patagonia or nearly anywhere else in the world. However, there were some practical considerations that dragged me not quite kicking and screaming into Trump’s America in 2017. Mostly, my fears were unmet and I had a lovely time reconnecting with friends and family, but I didn’t feel completely at ease until I passed through Canadian customs and was an international traveler once more.


A Little Bit Political

Back when Obama was president and the country still looked mostly sane (at least from my newsfeed), I had this glorious plan to spend every other year overseas teaching English, and to return to Seattle in between times where I have a standing offer for employment from a lovely French lady, and some decent prospects of joining the thrilling world of project management (no, I don’t know if that’s sarcasm either).

In 2014 when I started this blog, I packed my stuff up for storage thinking it would be nice to have my clothes, dishes, bedding etc. for those years I was in the US and that it was worth the cost of a storage unit to not have to buy them new again every time I came back.

When I left for Korea in February of 2016, early in the primary election process, my friends asked me, “how long are you going to be gone this time?” and I replied, “depends on who wins the election”. Everyone thought I was joking.

To be fair, I can’t lay all this on one man. There is a seriously disturbing trend in the US that I’ve commented on a few times in the last year. I try not to wax political often because this isn’t a political blog, but some things affect me so much I can’t leave it out. I see the election of Trump as a symptom, not a cause, and I see America taking a turn for the I-don’t-want-to-be-near-that-when-it-explodes.

Maybe that’s selfish… well, not maybe, it is. I have a better job, better pay, better vacation, better vacation opportunities, better health care, and an over all better quality of life out here than I have ever had as adult in the US. I haven’t been un-poor long enough to be willing to go back to that life. Add on going to rallies, protest marches, calling congresspeople, and risking my job and freedom to do so? No thanks.

My hat is off to all those who are staying to fight, and even more to those who are returning from life abroad to get involved. You are brave, and I respect that. I wish you luck, and I will be cheering for you. I will also bake you cookies, or offer moral support whenever I can.

So Why Go Back At All?

That storage unit was costing me about $1,200 US annually and I can do much cooler things than store stuff for that much money. I tried to get some friends to go and get things they wanted for free out of it last year, but only one person did (and even then I had to remind her several times). I don’t know what it says about my Seattle people that they can’t make time to go get free stuff they want. Thus it became that I was forced to return to Seattle to empty the darn thing myself.

And then there’s the niblings. I neither have nor want children of my own (I never have and no, I’m not changing my mind, and yes we’ve already established I’m selfish). I don’t hate children. I teach children. I love hanging out with my friends’ children (assuming they don’t drool too much). My sister has two beautiful little ones that are and always will be a precious part of my life. They are as yet too young to join me abroad on their holidays, so I try to get by there about once a year (or two) so they can see my face and form some kind of mental image of their Auntie.

Anxiety

I was so terrified of going back.

I was terrified that the Arabic stamps in my passport would get me flagged at immigration. Even though I’m a citizen, it turns out our constitutional rights to privacy (like cops needing a warrant) don’t apply at the border.

I was terrified that some kind of medical issue would crop up while I was in the US and financially ruin me (travel insurance only covers so much). Or worse, that it would prevent me from returning to Korea. Being trapped in the US has become one of my worst irrational fears.

I was terrified that I would witness some horrific act of racism or xyz-phobia… because if I saw it and didn’t get involved, I would be somehow less for watching passively, but if I saw it and did get involved, I could end up arrested, in the hospital or even dead like that poor guy in Portland. And if it could happen in Portland, it could happen in Seattle.

I was terrified that my growth and self discovery would be disregarded by my friends. It’s not like they’ve been able to see me going through all of this except in sporadic Facebook posts.

I was terrified that toxic people I had cut from my life in the last 3 years would try once more to insert themselves into my attempt to enjoy the company of those I do still cherish, bringing drama and spite to what should be a nice time.

Various versions of these scenarios were the topic of restless nights and nailbiting free-time in the weeks before I went. Perhaps the only bonus to my horrible root canal misadventure was that I was in too much pain and anxiety about my tooth to worry as much about what would happen to me in America.

The Actual Experience

At the border: Customs at LAX was very smooth, all machine operated. I used one of the little kiosks to enter all my data and it printed a sort of receipt I gave to the customs officer who welcomed me with a nice smile.

Healthcare: I did get a little sick, I had a mysteriously swollen lymph node, but it never got hospital worthy and was gone in about 10 days. Mostly, I was just juggling the tooth pain and being totally sleep deprived from trying to do all the things.

Violence: I didn’t see any horrific behavior, although this is more than likely because I spent nearly all my time in someone’s house or being escorted through the nicest parts of town for our errands. I did see a dead body on the highway. It was a suicide. The man had jumped from an overpass and landed on a car below. When I drove past, the EMS had not arrived, but there were more than enough bystanders parked on the shoulder that I decided the best thing I could do was get out of the way. It was a bit strange how blase my American friends were about this story, like oh, yeah, dead body… next.

My Friends: I was able to make a schedule ahead of time so that the people I wanted to see most were already planning something with me, and there were a few “free for all” spots. No one I didn’t want to see showed up, and I got to see everyone important to me. This was a resounding success and resulted in one of the more epic sailing days I’ve ever had, a wild midsummer night’s fairy party in the woods, and my traditional group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody at karaoke (don’t judge me), as well as several days of pleasant company and catching up.

A benefit of selecting only those most important to me for hangouts was that they were all pretty much on board with my growth and happy for my self discovery. It’s a good sign since that’s how friends should be, but I spent too long around people who kept me down or resented my self improvement to take the good folks for granted now.

Bonus: I got the whole storage unit cleared out and managed to only have a half a trash bag to throw away. Everything else I didn’t keep was given to a person who would use it or donated to Value Village.

American Money

This trip was the most expensive I’ve taken by over 1000$, and I didn’t spend a single night in a hotel. Friends and family found me spare rooms the whole way. Yes, the trip was also longer than previous holidays, but I only rented a car for 9 of the days and was not having to pay for every meal of the day, or things like park entrances and tour fees. America is expensive.

Airfare: Getting to America is bad enough what with that giant ocean in the way, but I flew round trip to New Zealand (which is also an ocean away and on another hemisphere) for less than the cheapest round trip to the nearest coast of the USA. And if you want to go anywhere other than the coast, you’re stuck paying inflated airline prices that include no meals or luggage (which basically everywhere else in the world does include). I can fly from Korea to Norway for less than it costs to fly from Seattle to Memphis, and I’ll get fed and my bags will be included.

Hotels: I could not have afforded this trip if I had to rent accommodation in addition to a car. If you want a room in America in a part of town where you are unlikely to hear gunfire, you will pay 80-120$ a night minimum. (booking.com only lists 4 in Seattle for under 100$ and all of those are over 90$) Everywhere else I’ve gone, I can get a bed for between 10-30$ a night in a safe place.

Car Rental: I paid almost 200$ less because I am a legal resident of Korea than US residents would have paid to rent the same car. I tried searching for smaller rental companies, but I couldn’t find one that didn’t have an online reputation as a scam. This in and of itself is crazy, because in other countries I usually rent from small companies because they have better rates. In America, I had to go with one of the big names to avoid being ripped off. When I was reserving the car with Budget online, I discovered that the rate was significantly different depending on what country I listed as my legal residence (not citizenship), and I was instantly outraged about every other time I’ve rented a car while living in America.

Taxes Not Included: I was born and raised in that country and now that I’ve had a glimpse of the promised land of menu clarity I never want to go back. I got the worst case of sticker shock when I went out for dinner with two friends at Azteca. They had treated me the previous 2 meals we’d had during my trip, so I wanted to pick up the tab and thought I had a rough idea of the price… oh no. Because American menus (and coffee shop signs and grocery stores and everything else) don’t list the real price of things. Between tax and tip, it ended up being about 25$ more than I had thought and while I am so grateful I have a job where that’s not bank breaking, I can remember there was a time in my life it would have been.

Tips: I’m all for food service workers being paid well, but I have a hate on for tip culture in the US because it backfires and causes customers to feel entitled to mistreat workers for anything less than 5 star service/food even at Denny’s, and it allows employers in most states to pay them less than minimum wage while taxing them on a presumption of tip earnings. I’d rather just see the price of the food include the tax and whatever markup the restaurant needs to put in there to pay it’s employees well. Then I can decide if it’s in my budget without doing calculus and everyone goes home happy.

The Highlights

Somewhere, one of my bffs* is reading this and going, but wasn’t I a highlight? Yes. Literally everything I got on this trip (except that lymph node thing) was a highlight of my summer, but “I spent all day chatting with my dearest friends in Seattle and then we got Mexican food” does not make a good blog post, so these are the stories I think strangers will find most endearing.

*bff: literally, best friend forever. I employ this as a plural occupancy category.

Fairy Party: My friend throws the most elaborate parties. She’s going to pharmacy school, but really, I think she could make a mint as a custom party planner. My favorite one to talk about was the time she did a Neverland theme for her birthday. Each room in the house and the yard were set up like a different part of Neverland, and each guest was asked to come in costume. I built a tepee for the Indian area (Peter Pan was not great about First Nations representation, I know). There was a kiddie pool for the mermaid lagoon where wet t-shirt contests were held. Tinkerbell’s fairyland was a glowing tree, the basement was Captain Hook’s quarters… it just went on and on.

This year, she did a Midsummernight’s Dream, but instead of using the house, she used the backyard and the entire greenbelt behind the house. Because it’s public land, they can use it whenever without a permit, and she decorated the entire woods in fairy lights and magical bowers with clues and quests and geas hidden everywhere.

In many ways, I felt as though I had walked into a new world, not only because of the extreme decorations, but because of the 120 people who came that night, I only recognized about 10%. Although I’ve only been away 18 months, it seems that my friends have also been making changes in their lives and perhaps replacing the same toxic people I was worried about with new faces.

Sailing Day: I started off this particular Saturday by visiting the home of some excellent friends who accompanied me on the Thor’s Well Adventure years ago. They cooked corned beef hash and I taught them how to poach eggs. From there we headed over to Shilshole Marina, where another dear friend (who let me live in his attic when I was homeless) had finally fulfilled his dream of selling his house and moving on to a boat with his family. Plus my friend who I met in Dubai (even though we lived a couple blocks apart in Seattle!) and her husband and we had a perfect sailing crew.

The wind was mild, the sun was shining and the mountain was out. We puttered aimlessly around the Sound while enjoying a selection of Korean wines I’d brought back for the occasion and one bottle the captain of the day had brought back from Greece years ago I’d found in the storage unit the day before.

These are people I’ve been trying to get in the same room for years. I was convinced they’d enjoy each other’s company and while I’d gotten them to meet one or two at a time in the past (with good results), this was the first time I got them all together. It was absolutely wonderful to see what a good time they all had.

After we examined our crab hunting results and determining that we would not be having crustaceans for dinner, we migrated back to the abode of the morning where we had a simple grocery store meal and got down to some jazz improv.

Karaoke and Beyond: I stopped by some of my past haunts and reconnected with some old friends, but my favorite part of this trip to Seattle was seeing my friends reconnect with each other. People who had barely seen one another since I left came together at one or another of the events I planned and (re)discovered that they enjoyed each other’s company.

This was nowhere more obvious than my resurrection of the Tuesday Night Karaoke Tradition. For as long as I can remember, while I lived in Seattle, we did this. The group changed over the years. Some nights were packed, other times only 2-3 people would show up. One year, the place burned down and we had to find another bar until they rebuilt. It is an institution of my time in Seattle, and I do it if I’m there on a Tuesday.

It turned out that since I left, it had all but completely stopped, yet everyone who came out was happy to walk down memory lane with me, sing their old favorites and catch up on 18 months of missed time with all the other people there they hadn’t seen even though they live in the same city.

Niblings! How can that not be a highlight? Ok, you don’t get a million kiddo pics because my sister doesn’t want her kids faces on the internet, but I got this one of my niece in her Korean hanbok where you can’t see her face, so that’s safe.

The kids were 4 and 6 on this trip, but it’s been 18 months since I’ve seen them. My niece, the 6 year old, remembered my last visit fairly well, and was happy to see me again. My nephew (4) is basically willing to trust anyone his sister trusts, and was also happy to see me (so many kisses), but asked me at one point if this was the first time I visited their house. You can only imagine how much fun it was to try and explain to them that a loooooong time ago (2001-2003ish), it was my house, too.

I really love blowing their minds with weird facts like, yes your mom is my baby sister, yes your grandma is my mom, and yes it’s tomorrow in Korea.

I brought back a spoiling number of gifts including the beautiful hanbok (Korean thriftstore ftw!), spare change from every country I’ve visited since the last time I saw them, and magical Kinder Eggs, which are dangerous contraband in the US for some reason. At least I know one gift that will always be popular next time I go back?

Additionally, my niece made me a picture with invisible ink, which is basically a white piece of paper with some suspiciously greasy smudges on it and her and her brother’s names in one corner. It is a testament to how much little people can fill your heart that this came back in my suitcase to Korea and now adorns my apartment.

Being There for Milestones

One of my besties who I have dragged into the life of globe trotting glory finally got her chance to go to pastry school this year, and it just so happened that I made it to Vancouver in time to attend her graduation. It’s amazing to me how the friends who live abroad keep popping up in my life. My burlesque dancing magical Vixen Valentine is one I met in Seattle but I see once every year or so somewhere. And Jane (formerly JaneMeetsWorld and now PastryJane) has been with me in the US, in Europe, in Korea and this time in Canada.

It was just one more in a line of seeming coincidences that make our world small and cozy that I could join her and her family to celebrate such a milestone and to have a slice of her final exam cake! Moments like this one fill me with gratitude that I have friends as crazy as me, who will travel around the world, use apps to gossip late into the night with me, and while we may never know what city we’ll be in together next, we know we will meet again for sure.

Also, although my sister might kill me if I put her picture in here, I have to mention her. She only grudgingly let me take selfies with her, in and out of uniform, but it just so happened that we got to hang out on the very day of her 10 year mark as a police officer. I know that’s a hot button topic in America right now, but she is and always will be my baby sister, and I couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishments as a person, an officer, and a mother. I am grateful that I could spend that day with her.

Wrap Up

I spent three weeks in North America covering Seattle, Memphis, and Vancouver. I got to reduce my material possessions (and bills). I got to solidify my theory of meaningful friendship in Seattle. I got to make my sister smile, hug my mom, and play with my niblings. I got to see my sister reach her 10 year mark and get vested, and my best international girl graduate from her dream of pastry school. It was good.

If you’re reading my blog from America and you think, “man, how does she have the money to take all these extravagant trips?” I don’t. It doesn’t cost as much as you think, and it costs even less if you start from outside the US. What I also don’t have is the money to come back to the US very often. This was probably my last visit to the ol’ U.S. of A for a couple years minimum (assuming Civil War II doesn’t start by then). In the mean time, I’ll take 2-3 international vacations for the price of one US trip and I’ll consider myself well off.


Back in Korea, I’ve just finished off summer camp and am undergoing as much healthcare as I can tolerate before the school year starts again (yay! root canal, LASIK, biannual health checkup, I love living in a country with affordable health care!). Hopefully the oppressive summer heat and high humidity will ease up soon and I’ll be able to frolik outdoors. Failing that, I am planning a trip to the Philippines for October.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check out the Instagram for some day to day pictures around Korea and my life as a teacher between vacations.

Queer Up! Pride 2017

This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!


Late For a Very Important Date

20170715_134128I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass.

During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.

Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.

Examine Your Feelings

Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.

Demarcation

20170715_152825We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.

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Booths For Everyone!

Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.

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The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).

The Issues

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In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)

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This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.

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Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.

Literal Translation:

  • Education Hope (news.eduhope.net)
  • juvenile sex minority exclusion
  • “school sex education” finally discarded!
  • binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls

The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.

Come to Jesus

20170715_133630(1)The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.

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Whypipo

Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.

Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk

20170715_134723There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.

One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.

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More On Stage

20170715_141013Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.

Get Your March On

Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.

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We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.

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Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.

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Military Entrapment

It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.

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Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.

Wrap Up

With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.

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Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.  

“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)

I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.

Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.

This year’s slogan?

There is no later. We demand change now.

A Year Later, Still Relevant

A year ago, after attending the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (Pride), my elation was destroyed by the Pulse shooting and after some time to process the grief and anger, I wrote this. Now, with the political climate of the US and the world drifting more and more into divisive, unhealthy, and downright dangerous territory, I think it’s important to remember these things, so I’m reposting.


It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.

Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.

Connection

The problem of violence in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….

The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being.maslows_hierarchy_of_needs Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.

In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.

To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.

We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.

2017 Add on: I could not have dreamed when I wrote that sentence what was coming, I thought I was speaking in hyperbole about Nazis… 

The “Or” Problem

tumblr_m02txbbmhq1qa1zvjAmerica is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.

Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)

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Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.

twilight-tumblr_ktux7xw1621qatyd2o1_500-breathtakingdottumblrdotcomEven in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.

guncontrol1And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler.  I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.

I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.

I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).

ojigt5fWe need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so.  Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?

Freedom and security.

Dislike and respect.

Disagreement and compassion.

Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech

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When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.

63159187In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).

In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.

Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.

In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.

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When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”

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Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.

You’re an adult. You should know better.

2017 Add onFreedom of speech also doesn’t come with a guarantee of platform or audience. No one is obliged to invite someone to speak at an event, and no one is obliged to listen to them. People like Ann and Milo don’t have a right to an auditorium or TV air time and failing to give them a chance isn’t an infringement of their right to speak without persecution or prosecution by the government, which is what the amendment guarantees.

And, because it’s come up more than once over the last year

YES THERE ARE LIMITS TO THE FREE SPEECH GUARANTEE IN THE BILL OF RIGHTS.

The first amendment does not give everyone the right to say whatever they want without legal consequences. Things not protected include: incitement to violence, false statements of fact (slander, libel, perjury, etc), obscenity (with caveats), child pornography (thank goodness), “fighting words” and offensive speech, plagiarism, and a few others. So before you get all defensive of that alt-reich, neo-nazi’s right to free speech, check out if his words really qualify.

The Crab Bucket

When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.

Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

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Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.

Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.kb2zocq

Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.

Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.

Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.

Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.

Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.

I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around crab-bucket-web1America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.

Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!

And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.

Not every bullied LGBTQIA+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.

There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.

I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world,  but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.

2017 Add on: I’m heading back to the US this summer to dispose of my stateside material goods and visit my family again. After this, I don’t think I’ll be back for a while, certainly not until there’s adequate health care and I don’t have to worry about getting stabbed to death for standing up against Islamaphobia. My mom is retiring next year, so I’m hoping she’ll be able to come out and visit me and bring my niblings along so they get to see more of the world.

That said, I’ve met several Americans who are heading home. When I asked them why, they said they felt they needed to stand up and do something about the state of things. Even when we talked about the fact that they were unlikely to ever find as good a job as we have here, let alone as good a healthcare plan, they looked sad, but resolved. I admire these people immensely and I hope that they can make a difference.

Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.

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I can’t even begin to list all of the horrible things that have happened since I first wrote this post. Increases in white supremacist violence, more restrictive laws to increase the school to prison pipeline, the Trump administration, the Paris accord withdrawal, Syria, Russia… people are scared, some feel under threat by the government’s plans to dismantle health care and other social services, and others are under threat because of the color of their skin, the god they worship, or the person they love. Don’t give up. #Resistwithcompassion.

Food Fight

Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders. This post is not fun. It’s not about travel or adventure. It is relevant to these because by living in other cultures, and experiencing culture shock, we uncover things about our own culture and about ourselves that may have otherwise never come to light. This is about how food culture in Korea made me face a tiny portion of my own food wars and the treatment of food in American culture. I thought about making it private, but aside from the fact that I just don’t have that many readers, I think that there are others who have their own food fights who need to know they aren’t alone.


I don’t want to say I have an eating disorder, but I think that it’s reasonable to say I have a very good view of eating disorders from where I stand. As a child, my father made it clear to me that my grandmother (his mother) was morbidly obese, diabetic and wheelchair bound because she ate her feelings. I saw this trope in movies and TV shows, as well as in PSA style warnings in health class, so it sunk in pretty deep. So deep that when faced with feelings of sadness, grief, anger, shame, guilt, etc. my throat closes down making swallowing nigh impossible and my stomach rejects everything with a vicious roiling nausea. There are some negative emotions like insecurity, stress and anxiety which do not trigger this response, so I still stress eat from time to time, but far more common for me to fail to eat while emotional and then eat too much when I recover and realize how hungry I am.

When I lost a close friend to suicide, I was so sad for so long that I couldn’t eat anything other than plain crackers and chicken broth with white rice for about a month. Most of the time, this isn’t actually a problem, since I’ve gotten decent at being able to take some time out and bring the emotions back around and postpone the healthy meal until I finish crying myself clear. (oh, yeah, I also believe we have to experience our sadness rather than suppress it). I haven’t actually gagged or thrown up over food from emotion since I was a kid. Which is probably the source of this whole mess.

Korea has been a battle ground over this usually innocuous problem. In the US and a lot of other places, if a fat girl turns down food in public, no one really pushes. Heck, even skinny girls are nervous to be seen eating too much or the wrong thing. A lot fat shaming is placed on overweight people eating anything in public, like they’re supposed to just hide from the world and never visit restaurants. America is like one giant overbearing parent criticizing all your food choices while also being the worst frat boy bro and offering deep fried everything and sandwiches made of fried chicken “buns” with bacon in the middle. Do you want fries with that?

Korea is not the only country I’ve lived in or traveled to where eating is a social activity, but it is the only one I’ve lived in where I felt so pressured to eat more. I sit at lunch with my skinny Korean coworkers and watch them shovel mounds of food in record time. I cannot eat that fast. I think maybe when I was in high school we had to eat that fast because there was no time, but I’ve become a slow eater since then. It’s better for you. It gives you time to enjoy the food, and gives your body the time it needs for the messages to get from the stomach to the brain that you’re satisfied. Not only can I not eat as fast as these women, I can’t eat as much as they do.

Last summer, I found myself in the very awkward situation of sharing an office with a group of administrative staffers that I otherwise never see. They brought treats basically every day to share and would insist that I come away from my desk to the table to join them. Even if I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was right in the middle of working on something and didn’t want to break my train of thought. I felt like I had no choice. And that made me feel a stinging combination of anger and shame that caused my throat to close against the swallowing of the snack.

I know, it sounds silly, why have such a strong emotional response to someone offering you food? It’s not about the food. It’s about the agency. It’s about food as weapon of control. If I can’t politely decline, it’s not my choice anymore, and there is nothing that flips all my trigger switches like having my agency over my own body removed.

I made it through the awkward summer often by simply holding onto a single piece of something to make it look like I was eating more. When school started and I was once again back in the company of my regulars who were all on diets all the time. One ate a huge lunch because she planned to eat nothing else that day, while another did so because she’d skipped breakfast. I survived lunch awkwardness by simply taking less food on to my tray, but this year with the new cafeteria, the very kind lunch staff love giving me big portions. And this year there are new teachers around me who are not on diets and love bringing and sharing snacks morning and afternoon.

When the substitute had her last day with us, the music teacher ordered a whole bunch of “Mom’s Touch”, a fast food fried chicken and burgers kind of place I ate at once and only once because there was nothing else around where I was at the time I was hungover and starving. But she ordered this smorgasbord after lunch, and everyone just kept eating! Even though I’d just had lunch, even though I really don’t like Mom’s Touch, and even though fried fast food is so unhealthy, I felt solidly pressured to eat some of it.

A few weeks ago, one brought me an ice cream right after lunch. Usually when people bring me snacks, I can politely accept and just say, oh I’m still full from lunch but I’ll enjoy this later. But ice cream melts… so I ate that. And that just runs counter to everything I ever learned about food. Eating ice cream just to be polite and not because I wanted it? What!?

After a whole puberty of diets and exercise plans, calorie counting and measuring ( and an early 20s rebellion of eating all the worst things, and part of the 30s doing fad diets and more measuring), I finally came to terms with listening to my body. Eat when hungry, stop -not when full, but when no longer hungry. When craving food, think about why. Go in craving steps where you try the healthy option and wait 10-15 minutes: water, protein, fiber, fruits/veggies, lastly chocolate. This has done basically zero for my scale, but I think it makes me feel better, and it’s certainly not unhealthy.

This chronic battle with food and emotion is unlikely to ever stop entirely in my life, but I felt like it was more of a cold war in the last few years. And then today, at lunch, one of my coworkers explained that the school was doing a “food waste awareness” program and that everyone was supposed to clean their plates.

Food waste is terrible. People in wealthy countries throw away so much food, it’s insane. I am sure Korea’s waste is less than it is in America. I remember learning the weight-loss mantra “Better to waste than to waist.”, meaning better to throw it away than get fat. But of course, really it’s better to not buy it, not cook it, not put it on your plate.

The point is, I am all for food waste awareness. But here we all are in a setting with very little control over how much of what food is put on the tray (I suppose kids can ask for less of something, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen) and this “clean your plate” suggestion (not even a mandate, since of course I am an adult and they aren’t actually forcing me to finish, only asking me to set a good example for the kids) this suggestion reaches all the way back into my psyche and flips every last food autonomy switch I’ve got.

I’m sitting at the table in my dad’s kitchen in California. I don’t remember exactly when, but I’m not more than 10 years old. His wife has made some kind of Hawaiian stir fry for dinner, and I’ve been told I have to clear my plate to earn a slice of the delectable chocolate layer cake resting under glass atop the fridge. I try, I eat everything but the onions, which I hated back then. But it’s not good enough. No onions, no cake. I struggle to choke down the onions I hate so much, the cake taunting me from across the kitchen. My father is going to have his piece in front of me. I force onions in sweet and sour sauce into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow, trying to hold back tears. But my throat closes and my stomach rebels and the onions, peppers, beef, and pineapple comeback up and onto my plate.

Now there is no dinner in my stomach, and I am scolded and shamed for vomiting, for wasting, for making a mess. Dinner, cake and dignity all revoked.

This is far from the only time that food was used as a weapon or a reward, but it is the one that came back to me today when my co-teacher innocently asked me to set a good example to the students during this food waste awareness campaign. And suddenly, my stomach turns upside-down. Food is repellent and I can feel the beginnings of the clenching throat that will make swallowing impossible.

I was hungry when I sat down and we were having curry rice for lunch which I particularly enjoy.  And yet, after that I picked listlessly at my food, waiting for the others to finish first, which they always do, and to leave me alone at the table where I could nibble until nearly everyone was gone and I could dispose of the rest of my lunch as unobserved as possible. Now I am ashamed to waste food and to let the children see me do so.

I love food. I don’t understand how it is that we create in ourselves this kind of conflict, guilt and shame over food. Shame over eating, shame over not eating. I can’t help but think back to my brief time in France, a country that takes pride in food preparation and spends time to eat and enjoy it. Maybe I’m being wishful in believing that somewhere there is a culture that does not have the complex love-hate relationship with food that I grew up into. Until I find it, though, I just have to keep digging the shrapnel out of the scars of my past, hoping they’ll heal more completely each time.

Artists & Expats: It’s a Small World Afterall

What happens when you use a random image from the internet for your own work? Mostly, nothing. Sometimes, if it’s owned by a big, rich corporation, you’ll get a cease and desist order and then you just have to take it down. Some images are in the realm of creative commons, which means they are made to be used by whoever wants to. But tons and tons of content is added to the internet by people like you and me, who are not corporations or even sole-proprietorships, just people who like to create and share.


Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma in the Lanterns of Daegu?

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The friend I went to Daegu (from here on “D”) with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art.

To understand the next part, you’ll need a little background on the EPIK program. Every spring, a few hundred new teachers arrive, get oriented, and are released into the wilds of Korea. In order to help them adjust, EPIK assigns the new recruits in a mentor/mentee system to any of us who were not scared away after the first year. I had a mentor last year (who was 22 and at her first job out of university, but hey), and this year I am a mentor. It ensures that new folks have at least one experienced expat they can turn to for advice.

Less than a week after posting this picture, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I was exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them was revealed to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asked how I’d gotten introduced to her art and I explained the IM from a friend (“D”).

“D” is a second year EPIK teacher and therefore also a mentor. If you have any sense of narrative prediction, you’ll see where this is going… “D” is @shmaymee’s mentor! @shmaymee and I thought that “D” must have gotten the art that way, but when I asked, it was not so. “D” had simply found the art randomly on the internet and decided to share it with me, not knowing that the artist was her own mentee.

The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. A simple comment on one post enabled us to see the invisible threads of connection that united us all in this crazy little expat world.

It got me thinking, too. I do my best to use my own content on this blog. I write my own stories from my own experiences and thoughts. I share my own photographs unless I have no other way. I have tried to become more aware of permission and credit when I do use someone else’s content. Is this copywritten? Is it creative commons? Did I make it easy for my readers to find the original artist?

I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. If you see ads on my blog, it’s because I buy the cheapest web-hosting service I can and that comes with ads not of my choosing. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them). When my friends publish a book, I don’t ask to borrow it or (god forbid) to be given a free copy, I buy a copy. Bcard1When I wanted art for my calling cards (left), I paid the asking price to Seth of 4sacrowd because I like their work and because we pay people for work. Google image search makes it so easy to find a picture of anything, but unless there’s a watermark, we often have no idea of the legal status of the image or of reproducing it. I don’t know the perfect solution, but I hope we can all do our best to remember that artist, writers and content creators of all stripes are humans, creating things that fill our lives with joy and meaning and that whether they are asking for praise, credit, money, or all of the above, that they (we) deserve it.


Check out these artists @shmaymee and 4sacrowd, look around your own friends and family to see who is creating and deserves your support. Make art not war! … or something like that. 

2017: First Quarter

There’s been some radio silence on the blog since the New Year began. I thought setting 2016 free would herald the great and wonderful 2017, but like many of you, I am discovering the sad reality that the change in date does not magically change the world. I don’t want to be the writer who complains, but I would be lying if this blog was all sweetness and light. I saw an article online the other day that said that our overall unhappiness is greatly contributed to by watching only the most perfect parts of others’ lives online. The fact is, everyone has bad patches, but most social media mavens only show the sunshiny parts, leaving the rest of us thinking that there is something wrong with us if we can’t achieve that level of perfection and happiness. Well, I am going to dispel that illusion. It’s only the Ides of March, and yet I am fully ready for another, more actual, holiday. 


January

The first half of January was the bi-annual English Camp. Actually, these are pretty fun because for two weeks, I get a tiny class of kids who volunteered to be there, and I get to run the whole curriculum without the textbook or school goals. This winter, I did superhero camp. The kids got to choose superpowers (from a list), design their superhero icewing.jpgcostumes (paper dolls), and make their superhero names using a  handy 5 point chart I made up of titles, colors, powers, animals, and gender endings. I took pictures of them and added superpower effects, and made a video of them singing and introducing their superhero alter-egos (which I unfortunately cannot share with you because of my teacher confidentiality agreement). It was fun, it was all in English, and I only had to call the Korean teacher once when some boys decided to draw penises on their superhero paper dolls(*sigh). On the last day we made chocolate cake in paper cups in the microwave and had balloon races. Overall, it was a good start to the new year.

20170117_130638.jpgThe second half of January was my 2 week winter vacation. I decided to go to the Malay Peninsula and do a whirlwind tour of Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand (but only the peninsular parts). I’m working my way through writing, editing and adding photos to the whole 12 day adventure which will go out to the blog and FB page soon, so I won’t try to summarize it here. Suffice it to say that the vacation may have foreshadowed more ominous things, since it too started out with so much promise and enjoyment, yet ended in a total emotional breakdown of epic proportions.

February

…was boring. So boring. I got back from my holiday wounded and limping (yes, literally) just in time to come back for the most useless time in the Korean school calendar. The kids all took their end of year exams before the winter break began on Jan. 1. Although my co-teachers had saved some material from the book to stretch out over the remaining few classes, the students were entirely uninterested. As subject teachers we had maybe 7 days of these lessons, although I had even less because the 6th graders did High School Musical marathons for the last few days. The Graduation ceremony was on the 17th and then there was another week of “spring break”, during which I got to sit in my office doing very little. I couldn’t do anything to plan for the lessons starting in March because no one knew what anyone would be doing!

I enjoyed my first year in Korea and working in the public school system. There were a few hiccups to be sure, but overall, it was probably the best (maybe second best) teaching gig I’ve had. Plus, there’s so much going on in Korea, I felt like I missed out on at least half the events last year. So, I decided to renew my contract here rather than seeking out a new country to work in and explore. But February brought me back to shades of Saudi Arabia. No answers, everything changing all the time, and a sense of hopeless isolation that brought on existential dread. With no students to brighten my day, and no future to plan for, the days at the office became a long, cold, gray stream of Dostoyevskian blah.

I decided to take advantage of the lack of students to visit a dentist and see about the slight occasional pain in one molar. I don’t love dentists, but I know ignoring problems in your teeth never makes them go away on their own, so off I went. Only to be told I needed a root canal a20170211_175911.jpgnd an inlay in two different teeth, and that the root canal would take 4-5 visits to the dentist to complete. Thus began my endless dentist torment.

On top of that, Korea flat up failed me in providing it’s normal endless stream of festivals and activities. There was one lone festival to celebrate the first full moon of the new lunar year, which was marked by the building of a massive bonfire on the beach where people could toss their complaints and woes of 2016 to be burned as well as their wishes and hopes for the next year to rise up to the heavens. I’m not sure how the gods/ancestors tell the difference, but it was a big beautiful fire on the beach and that was fun.

I had my first experiment with “crazy color” hair dye in Korea in February (probably inspired by the endless boredom and need for color in my life). I managed to negotiate a conversation in a beauty supply shop to get myself some bleach and a shade of purple that was pretty if somewhat pastel. I should have known better, but hair dyeing is a source of rebirth and stress relief for me, so I charged ahead. The end result was.. subtle. The lightest parts were indeed a pale purple-ish, but nearly everything else turned brown. Not even a pretty brown, just ashy. This led to my first experiment ordering from the infamous G-Market, a sort of Amazon/Ebay website for Korea. Although I had seen many Koreans around downtown (and even a few students at the school) with colors in their hair as ombre or even whole hair dyes, it seems that the only thing available in most shops are the very pastel colors, including a shade of green called “khaki”, which I can imagine no westerner ever saying, yes, please, let’s dye my hair khaki.

February also brought home the reality that most of the people I know, including my besties, were leaving Korea. International life is full of the tides of expats moving in and out with the job market. I think many seasoned expats avoid making close friends among the first years because of this very thing. But since I was a first year lastScreenshot_20170212-150344.png year, that meant that most of my friend pool were other first years. I had thought they were going to stick around, but events conspired in such a way that meant I spent the end of February going to/throwing farewell events and helping my friend pack/get rid of stuff.

I spent the whole second half of February feeling somehow both bored and exhausted, telling myself over and over that things would get better in March when the students came back, when the festival season began again with cherry blossoms, and when the weather was finally nice enough for me to play Pokemon Go without wearing 3 layers of clothes and freezing my fingers solid.

March

As March drew near, I was finally given some slight insight into the shape of my new school year. I was to get a second school, splitting my time between two schools. Plus, it turns out no one in the whole city wants to teach at my main school, so in the complex bidding war that the Korean teachers engage in to switch schools every 3 years, someone who had the horrible misfortune of not getting any of their top 10 choices was to replace my wonderful and amazing first ever Korean co-teacher. Plus, she doesn’t speak much English and hasn’t taught English in a decade. Plus the new school isn’t just going to have me for a day or two, but one and a half days a week. Every Thursday I get to start at one school and move to another. Plus plus, that teacher has also never taught English before. Oh goody.

20170303_082606.jpgI had barely an opportunity to say hello to the new teacher at my main school and none at all to visit the second school. Despite the fact that classes would commence March 2, the new teachers avoided talking with me about lessons, or goals, or expectations. I began to get anxious, and reminded myself that newly arrived EPIK teachers wouldn’t meet their co-teachers until the new school year began, but I also had to wonder how many fresh off the boat foreign teachers would be paired with inexperienced Korean teachers. Was I getting extra newbies because of my experience or was it really random?

School finally started, but I found myself with a lot more nothing for a while while we waited for subject classes to start and while we waded through the first day of class orientation lessons to help the new students and teachers meet one another. Finally getting started I began to realize the daunting task ahead of me that involves balancing a crazy schedule and teaching 2 new teachers how to do the job. I mean, I guess I could just sit back and let them flail around until they work it out, but I can’t really let the students suffer like that, so this is me, doing my best to manage. It’s somehow harder than if I just had a class myself, because I have little to no influence over what happens in the classroom on the days I’m not with a given group of students (since I’m spread thin over 2 schools and 4 classes of 4 grades, I basically see each class 1 time a week, except for the 6th graders I see twice). I now understand why it is that so many Koreans can study English from the third grade and yet not be able to speak it.

20170312_081003Then at long last, a much anticipated event which I had spotted back in January finally arrived. A glorious yoga retreat at a spa resort in the mountains! What could be a better way to ease my stress and restore my resilience than such a wondrous weekend. The day before the retreat, I woke up with a cold… sore throat, stuffed sinuses, whole 9 yards. With little sleep and much mucus, I arose early Saturday and set off anyway, hoping that some meditation and spa therapy would at least help a little. And it might have, had not absolutely everything been a crazy misrepresentation, mistake, flake, or flat out disappointment. I haven’t even decided if I want to blog about this trip because it was so awful, I can’t find a way to spin it for the “life lesson” or “silver lining” even though that was the name of the organization that presented the event.

Amid the highlights were the totally not delivered as promised vegetarian Indian buffet (the vegetarians were served Korean food, and a tofu steak that had pork in it); the 4 hour/seven instructor yoga and meditation session that was missing one instructor and also completely failed to do things like adequately warm up the participants for challenging poses or to present alternate poses or instructions for beginners (many of whom had their first and possibly last exposure to yoga that weekend); and the 2 drunk male staff members (one shirtless) showing up in my hotel room at 2am waking me up and trying to touch me even after I asked them to go (still not sure why they were there in the first place).

20170308_172034Did I mention that during all this time, my tooth, the one that I’m getting this infernally long root canal done on, is in pain? The dentist has twice left me in pain for over a week with no medication, leaving me to struggle on through life with a dull throbbing ache in my left lower jaw and the total inability to chew anything on that side. Even now that the root canal is supposedly “over” (4 sessions later) and the process to install a crown can begin (minimum 3 sessions), my tooth hurts day and night and I have to wait to find out if it will be treated or not until my next appointment. But hey, my hair dye arrived, and it’s a smash hit.

20160403_121604_1.jpgAnd Holi Hai is coming, which is the Indian festival of colors where we all dance around and throw colored powder and paint on our white clothes while rocking out to Boli-rock or Indo-pop on the beach. I did it last year and it was awesome, so I was really excited to go again this year. And yet somehow, people are trying to ruin that too. Two factions of the local Indian expat community have started a turf war over the holiday and who gets to throw the party. They’re trashing each other on social media and trying to drag all of us as well as the local Korean government into their feud. I’m still planning to go, but I will have an escape plan in case they start physically fighting over the microphone or DJ station. I don’t know what they were trying to do, but all they’ve really succeeded in doing is demonstrating their total lack of Holi spirit. Festival of love, guys.

Next?

So there it is. My life is not lollipops and rainbows all the time, despite the fact that I am so amazingly lucky to be able to live abroad and travel to exotic destinations and meet new people and try new things. And I am amazingly lucky. And I do have gratitude for the opportunities in my life. I sometimes describe culture shock as living on a roller coaster, and by and large what I share with the world is the highs, but when you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s not because I’ve forgotten to write, it’s because I keep trying to live up to the maternal advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”


I release my sadness, woe and frustration. I do not want to carry it with me, so I give it a home here. I bid farewell to the winter within and without. I welcome the arrival of Spring and the rebirth of the year and it’s promise of new growth. I strive each day to find the beauty and wonder that keeps me going in the dark times. 

Happy Pi Day
Happy White Day (it’s about candy, not race)
Happy St. Patrick’s Day
Happy Holi Hai
Bless

 

어떻게: How

I have to admit, I’d rather be posting about my trip to the DMZ. I’ve got pages and pages of stories left from my summer and fall adventures, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to keep blithely moving on to happy travel posts without at least acknowledging what just happened. I’m not a political blogger, but those who read here know sometimes I share my thoughts on a major world event, and/or event that causes me deep emotional reactions. If you just want the happy travel stories, that’s ok. I like those better anyway. But, for what it’s worth, my .02 on the election.


I’m 16 hours ahead of the West Coast. The election was well underway when I woke up Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the Koreans were staring at the electoral map on my phone, just saying 어떻게 (ottoke) over and over. It means “how”. By the time I left work, it was over and I was in shock. My Canadian and I ate pb&j sandwiches and drank 2 bottles of wine while trying to talk about literally anything else.

I didn’t sleep well. Anxiety and stress combined with some lingering back pain. I woke up tired and numb. Random thoughts keep scrolling across my brain like one of those LED tickers in New York. Tears coming and going as I walk down the street to the bus station. No appetite at all. Even when I’m finally hungry, I can only eat a few bites before it all seems disgusting again. I cried, I yelled, my coworkers laughed because they thought it was a joke until I gave example after example and then they cried too. I spent the whole day fighting the urge to just lay down on the floor and stop moving. My body is in grief.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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I was (am?) one of those disenfranchised white people who is sad-mad about the loss of my future. I believed in the meritocracy and it failed me. I’ve changed careers 3 times because every time I invested in the training and the low level experience building, it was just in time to have the economy hiccup and destroy my future. In America, I couldn’t get adequate health care because it was too expensive. I put myself in insane debt for a career that I will never have now. I couldn’t afford to live on my own with a full time (30-50% higher than minimum wage) job. Even with a roommate, I couldn’t save up for a car, a house, a new TV or even dream of getting out from under the credit card debt without the aid of my family. I took a job I didn’t like with no prospect of advancement simply because I needed the health benefits more than I needed a job with a future. I drove the one new car I bought way back when the economy was still good until it died a sad death from lack of me being able to afford regular maintenance 16 years later. One of the reasons I never married or tried to have children because the very thought of even more financial burden terrified me to my core.

What makes me different from the rest of the disenfranchised white people who believe Trump can save them? I am honestly not sure. It could be my educational level. It could be my hippie mom. It could be my urban location. It could be … nothing.

You can make jokes and snide remarks about racism, but we all know that only a small portion of the Trump base are really off the hook haters. Most of them are the lost people, who like me, thought that if they worked hard, they could get that house with the fence and the kids and the dog and it would be ok. We are all processing what it means to realize that just isn’t true.

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My cousin – my mixed race, female cousin told me she would have voted for Trump if she’d voted. (Do not even get me started on that “if”) When I expressed my worry for her and her family members of color, she was surprised and said she had no clue how I got the idea he was racist. Even when I tried to explain, she dismissed it as having happened so long ago (the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and you know the recent election cycle) that it wasn’t relevant anymore. When I asked her to tell me some things she liked about Trump, all she could tell me were the same things I’ve read and seen over and over. Hillary is BAD, the establishment is BAD. Trump is not those bad things. Yeah, but what do you like about him. He’s not the establishment.

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She was just as politely patronizing to me as I’ve seen well meaning liberals be, too (and if I’m being brutally honest, as I’m sure I’ve been to people when I feel like they are being dumb but I still want to try and be nice). I was hoping my liberal media “bubble” was exaggerating that “voting-against” response. That if I just talked to a reasonable Trump supporter they could explain the good things to me, but nope. It looks like the people who don’t love Trump are so in hate with Hillary and “the establishment” that they don’t care who else gets hurt, including themselves.

I can’t tell you how much I want to be wrong. I want to be Chicken Little and not Cassandra. So. Much.

어떻게 (ottoke)

obama-protestAnd there’s the riots, which I am not happy to see. I don’t want violence to be an answer ever. Yeah, I know, the Trump supporters did it first, but now that they’ve won, they’d like it all to stop. People are like “oh you’re overreacting”, “oh you’re whiny cry babies” (nevermind that’s been pointed at us for caring about anything ever for decades, so it’s lost it’s oompf as an insult), but I voted in 2000 when this happened with Gore and I was not scared for my nation’s future (although, it turns out I should have been). I was mad when Kerry lost in 2004, too because that explitive promised to do recounts and bailed. And the Democrats didn’t take to the streets in protests and riots because voters who lost an election were capable of telling the difference between a guy we didn’t like the policies of, and a guy who we honestly believe will enable the ruination, incarceration, and deaths of humans we care for and respect.

It’s not about oh we lost, boo hoo. It’s not about, oh we didn’t get our way and now we’re throwing a tantrum (looking at you House Republicans). It’s about all these horrible stories on twitter of people being harassed, threatened, and assaulted in the name of the President-elect. It’s about high school students being groped and bullied and beaten while their classmates chant “white power”. It’s about spray-painting the President-elect’s name on cars and churches then setting them on fire, sometimes with people still inside.

They say they’ve never rioted when their candidate lost (a debatable claim at best), but I say we’ve never abused people in the name of our winning candidate. This isn’t like any other election.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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Oh, yeah, I’m not going back. It’s not as big a political stance as it sounds. I left when the country was improving. I left before marriage equality. I left, not because I was disgusted or afraid, but because I like to travel. I’ve stayed away for the very practical reason that I get paid better for work I find more rewarding in cultures that have superior access to quality health care and in communities of like-minded globe trotters. It’s better for me out here than it is at “home”. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going back before. What would I do? How would I pay rent? How would I afford health care? This is just a sort of nail in the decision. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m struggling to just get by when I can live somewhere that I thrive. I desperately want America to be that kind of a place again, but I’m not optimistic for the near future.

Not everyone can leave. Not everyone would actually have a better life outside America. Not everyone even wants to leave. That part’s just about my life choices.

어떻게 (ottoke)

Democratic National Convention: Day One

Bunch of folks are looking for the love. We know hate is bad, we know love conquers hate. I personally don’t like hating because of how it makes me feel. But I’ve also seen a lot of people in the at-risk minority groups get righteously upset at those “love uber alles” type messages. They worry, and I think justly so, that we who remain un-impacted or less impacted by virtue of our skin tone, our gender, our economic status, or our geographic region can take the moral high ground and love without suffering, thus forgetting the pain, fear, anger, loss and very real danger being experienced by people not us. But, I think it’s ok to love while still being hurt, angry, sad, mad, and scared.  I don’t think you have to choose.

I’m trying not to hate. I saw the Daily Show the other day, the it comes with the package speech Hassan Minhaj gave, and it so succinctly put into words why I’m upset with the not-actually-horribly-racist Trump supporters.

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Maybe right now, I feel the same way about them. I don’t actually hate you, non-racist, non-misogynist, non-xenophobic, Hillary-hating, establishment-destroying Trump supporters… I just don’t care about you? Doesn’t really feel good.

I’m trying to find all my compassion and use it, but I’m tired, wrung out, this year has seen so much tragedy in the US and I am afraid it is only going to get worse. And yeah, I’m mad at the people who voted for this. But I’m trying to be like… family mad. Mom mad. That kind of mad where you’re like, “I can’t believe you just took the family car for a joyride and crashed it into a telephone pole!” HUG “I’m so glad you’re ok, I love you.” because those go together. We can be mad at people we love and we can love people we’re mad at.

I’m not sure I have it in me to love the super bigots yet. I may not be that enlightened. But I know that’s not most of the people I’m mad at.

So they’ve shown it’s possible to not-hate someone, but at the same time not care if they live or die. I’m saying possible to be mad at people for doing dumb, dangerous, shortsighted, selfish things and still . That’s the struggle for me right now. That and trying to decide what to do with my book collection if I’m really never going back there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay down on the floor and stop moving.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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International Perspective 9/11

Yes, I’m working on the much more fun New Zealand stories, but they aren’t ready to publish, so here’s a little thought for the 15th “anniversary”.


Two years ago (2014) I was in Saudi Arabia for 9/11 but I had only arrived a few days before. I didn’t know enough to feel comfortable asking too many questions and I was assured that discussing it on any form of public social media would be grounds for reprisal. Were there people in Saudi who celebrated 9/11? Yes. But that just makes those people immature jerks who enjoy schadenfreude and every culture has some of those. Please don’t judge a whole country or religion by it’s worst representatives (Westboro Baptist, anyone?) Were there people in Saudi who grieved for the loss of life and for the perversion of their faith? Absolutely. I’m a little sad I didn’t get the chance to write about it at the time, because it was a surreal and thought provoking experience to be American in the country that spawned Osama-bin-Ladin during that time.

For most people outside the US, 9/11 is just another day. For most Muslims this year, 9/11 isn’t about terrorism, but the biggest holiday of their calendar, Eid al Adha, that only coincides with September 11th every so often because it is decided by a lunar event. While it’s important to remember our own history, it’s also good for us to be able to see through the eyes of those who are different from time to time.


I spent my September 11th this year with a family of Canadians at a UN Memorial for the Korean War here in Busan. It didn’t even occur to me that it was 9/11 because, living on the other side of the date line, my Facebook feed was still set to “normal” instead of “super patriotic reminder day”. It wasn’t until I woke up on Sept. 12 that I saw the flood of memes telling me to “never forget” that I realized the actual date.

Sometimes, I get a little frustrated with America for being so sensitive about 9/11, but then I have to remind myself, everyone’s trauma is valid. There is no scale of objective judgement for how a traumatic event affects someone. One of the worst things you can do to a victim is to diminish their pain by telling them how much worse someone else has it. So, it’s not helpful to tell America to get over 9/11 because other countries have more terror attacks or more deaths.

However, when I look at the Korean War Memorial here and realize that I am living in a country that was 90% flattened 60 years ago and is now one of the most technologically advanced democracies in the world, I am astonished. Korea did not forget what happened to them by any means, but nor do they treat their aggressors with spite and hatred. Even though the North decimated the south, leaving a landscape of ash and rubble, South Korea does not seek retribution and instead implemented things like the Sunshine Policy. Even after that policy ended due to continued rejection and aggression from the North, South Korea has refused to use force or invasion to punish the North or bring them back into the fold.

What is the point I’m getting at? Well, victims of trauma have a choice. Do we collapse in on ourselves with self-pity while lashing out at the world in anger, or do we learn to be strong and use that strength to practice compassion towards others who have suffered in a way we now uniquely understand?

After 9/11, America lashed out hardcore, starting a war in a country that had nothing to do with our trauma because we were so hurt and angry and scared. But it’s been 15 years. Kids in high school don’t know what it felt like to watch the towers collapse in flames, to stare at the devastation played over and over on every TV and try to reconcile the fact that it wasn’t a movie effect, to wonder if your loved ones in New York and DC were alive but not be able to get through because the phone lines and cell towers were so overloaded. In a few more years those kids will be adults, old enough to enlist or even be drafted into the military that is still fighting in the aftermath of that lashing out.

So by all means, never forget, but think carefully about what you want to do with that memory. When we look at countries, including Muslim ones, who are devastated by ISIS or other terrorist attacks, do we ignore their plight in order to nurture our own homegrown grievance, or can we say, “Yeah, I know how that feels, let’s help each other get through this.”?