안녕히계세요 Korea: The Insanity of Online Teaching

Another big reason I decided it was time to leave Korea has been my career. Before COVID broke the scene, I had already decided it was time to move on. At the time, my goal was to get into a PhD program and study the use of Global English (or English as Lingua Franca) in the classroom. I took many materials with me on holiday in January 2020, expecting 2020 to be my final year at my Korean university before moving on. What is it they say? Man plans, the gods laugh?

I like and respect my former employer, the University, and my co-workers. For the 2 years I was there before COVID, it was the first job I’d held in a long time that I had that I liked going to in the morning. I liked the freedom and support that I had there. I liked it when struggling students had breakthroughs because I helped them. I liked the challenges of updating the materials to reflect the students changing needs. I liked the way the teachers collaborated and shared materials. Sure, there were imperfections, but I had some pretty serious job satisfaction, and even though I never intended to stay quite as long as I did, my intention to leave after 2020 (a decision I made before COVID) had more to do with my own goals than anything at the school.

During COVID was a different animal. Although I know that my coworkers and the university administrative staff were doing everything they could in a difficult and unprecedented situation, it was miserable. The beginning felt like rising to a challenge, but over time, it just became an endless slog. Online teaching broke my soul, and after 5 semesters of waiting to hear “we’re going back to the classroom”, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

What Is Virtual Learning?

Virtual learning existed before COVID, but most people didn’t have much experience with it until they were suddenly trying to log into their own or their children’s classrooms in 2020. Good virtual learning programs are out there. It’s possible, though I remain skeptical, that some of them might even be for language learning. We did not use any of those at my university. As I understand it, most of the schools in the world that had no previous online course offerings before COVID floundered in a big way and did not look at previous models of successful online education as a guide. For the non-educators in the audience, here’s quick and basic overview of the main types of online learning:

1) MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses: These are basically self study. You watch the videos, read the articles, take the computer graded quizzes, participate in a “discussion forum” with other students, and if you pay for it, you get a certificate of completion at the end. This is really great for people who want to just learn about stuff on their own. It has zero guidance from a teacher, however, so if you get lost or have questions, you are limited to your peers on the discussion board. I’ve used these for career development and for personal growth, and been pretty satisfied. I would NOT recommend them for regular 4 year university students, and would shun them completely for k-12.

2) Asynchronous Learning: you and the teacher are not in sync for most of the work. Teachers prepare lessons, videos, ppts, worksheets, etc. It’s very similar to the MOOC in that you work your way through the material at your own pace (with completion goals to meet the school schedule). It’s different in that your teacher is available to you. Some asynchronous classes have scheduled video meetings with the teacher either 1-1 or in groups of various sizes, some will just be via email unless a student specifically requests a video meeting. In an ideal world, teachers also provide some feedback to the students on their assignments and evaluations, which is not an option in MOOCs.

3) Synchronous Learning: The teacher and all the students go into the same online platform together and have class together. This is my least favorite form. If you’ve ever been in a Zoom meeting with more than about 5 people, you will understand why. There are some cases where this is a great way to deliver a presentation or lecture – when there is only 1 (maybe 2) speakers at a time, and everyone else is just listening, with the occasional question in the chat box or a structured Q & A at the end. It supposedly supports “breakout rooms” for discussion or interaction in small groups, but I did not find those effective. (NOTE: some people like breakout rooms, but it’s highly dependent on the course and level. It works best when a dedicated leader is in each small group, and when the participants speak up. It works less well with language barriers when everyone in your host country is too shy to speak – eg, my situation, or if the internet is to be believed, any classroom of students between the ages of 11-30).

4) Hybrid Styles: there is no one hybrid style, it just means a mix and match. Maybe your class would be 3 times a week, so now it’s a hybrid asynchronous with 1 time a week synchronous and the rest is on your own time. Maybe you have small groups at different locations, so you live cast from one classroom into a second. When offline became an option again, my school offered a hybrid that required teachers to set up the synchronous format in a classroom on campus and simultaneously teach the students in the room, and the students online. Thankfully, someone talked the English department out of that option.

About Education in Korea

A tangled web of bureaucracy means that the Korean government doesn’t seem to have any way to prove students completed the required work for a class other than literally making sure their butts are in the seats for those hours. This goes back to some scandal of last decade where students were getting A’s even though they didn’t attend … or do the work, because of nepotism or bribery or something sinister. As an American, I hated mandatory attendance courses in college, and they were rare because mostly it wasn’t possible to pass a class you never attended. Also most American professors have no qualms about failing students who didn’t earn the grade, and hey, if you want to waste your money taking a class you could pass without going, that’s on you.

The Korean approach is quite different, largely based on the Confucian cultural standard of “it looks good on paper”. (Confucian descended cultures, those heavily influenced by China at some point, like Korea, Japan and some SE Asian countries). It is required to have certain courses or types of courses on a transcript, and better to have the higher grade for an easier class. It is insanely common for students to blow off schoolwork and then do a ritual apology and beg for a grade increase at the end and get it. In an attempt at fairness, the government resorted to attendance minimums so that at very least the students must physically put in the hours. As far as my experience goes, this just resulted in a lot of students who thought they couldn’t fail if they met the attendance requirement and were often shocked to discover actual work was also required.

The school year in Korea starts on March 1. K-12 schools have a winter break for lunar new year, but they come back in late February and seamlessly move one grade up in March. Universities tend to go on winter break (or winter class schedules for make up classes) sometime at the end of December and not come back until March. I myself only came back into Korea at the tail end of February, a plan I’d made when everything was normal. We delayed the start of the semester 2 weeks, hoping that the plague would pass (oh sweet summer child). When it became apparent that COVID wasn’t going away fast enough, my uni started online classes for “just for a couple of weeks” and hasn’t stopped since. The online classes were ported over from regular class lesson plans in a big hurry in March 2020, because it was “temporary” and “an emergency”. Imagining that it would end shortly, the school didn’t see any need to update the online methods for long term use, so I’ve been trapped in virtual class hell for 2.5 years.

Why I Got Stuck With the Worst Way

Before COVID the English classes met only once a week for 100 minutes (which is already not a great way to teach a foreign language). Even when students do have more speaking time in an offline classroom, they are often speaking with peers, and I can only listen to one pair at a time. They don’t get much of my undivided attention this way. After researching online learning styles, I decided I wanted an asynchronous style where the lesson slides and lecture would be made as a video, and the slides, book pages, examples, etc. would be available to students for download. Watch the lecture, read the download, do the homework – and then once a week meet in pairs with the teacher for 15 minutes of dedicated speaking practice. However, due to the aforementioned bureaucracy and scandal, the university would not approve of such a plan, Long story short too late, asynchronous classes were off the table.

Korea decided the only way to really make sure students were doing the work and not … I don’t know cheating or whatever, was with live synchronous online classes. Ok. We want all the students together at once, so how then do we deliver quality educational content? Do we choose a platform built for educators? Do we take advantage of any of the existing software already in use for online learning? Oh, no! We get a business platform, designed for corporate needs. It’s called WebEx, and I’m sure it’s fine for what it is, it’s a lot like Zoom. This poor decision making was by no means limited to my University or even to Korea.

A lot of classrooms at the university level are just big lecture halls where the only person who talks is the teacher. I’m also not a fan of lecture hall classes unless they are supplemented with small discussion groups. However, Korea loves passive learning even more than America, so the school probably thought it was fine for like 95% of their stuff. As it turns out, medicine, archaeology, music, art, and a few other hands on topics don’t actually do that well in a pure lecture format. Also, languages. Teaching a foreign language is unlike many other types of teaching, and requires a huge amount of student talk time. You can’t learn a language through passive listening no matter what those “learn Spanish while you sleep” CDs say. In addition, being able to see each other is crucial. Facial expressions and hand gestures make up so much of communication.

The school administration surely imagined a virtual meeting room where every student sat attentively with their cameras on, hanging on the teachers every word, and jumping in to participate in speaking activities quickly, all while the teacher wrangled the slides, the virtual whiteboard, their own camera and mic, looking at the students camera thumbnails to check if they are paying attention and comprehending, and playing tech support for every single glitch. Of course, none of that happens. Students log in from their phones in the back of taxi cabs, play video games while waiting to hear if their name is called, or just sleep. Teachers can’t possibly manage the number of plates spinning, and often have to take 2-3times longer for every single activity than planned for. Not a lot of actual education was happening.

My Online Classes: A Timeline of Deterioration

Spring 2020: A small team of English teachers (including myself) met on campus daily and tested out the software and different methods of implementing student talk time. We came up with a string and paperclips barely functional version in time to start after the two week delay. After classes started, it was impossible to teach from my computer in a shared office with other teachers talking all around me, so I taught from home, a folding tv tray across my legs in my bed because my apartment was too small to have an “office”. I was so wrapped up in COVID that it wasn’t a priority to make changes to the massively ineffective and frustrating to all education delivery system. I told myself that in the long run, it didn’t actually matter if the kids (young adults) learned any English. They were stressed out af, and not English majors. I did my best just to get us all logged in every day, and to make the required classes as painless as possible for me and my students while still meeting the university minimum requirements.

Fall 2020: I felt like I was no longer struggling just to conduct a class, but I had to adapt the fall semester courses to online. I found a day of the week where I could come into the office to do necessary work without cross talk during my class time. As teachers, we’d picked up some few helpful tricks in the first semester, but we were still struggling.

Partner conversations (a key part of language learning) could not be done in the main meeting room. We had to have mini meets, not unlike the suggestion I made for asynchronous learning, but no, I’m not bitter. These mini meets had to happen while the teacher and students remained logged into the live WebEx class which was recorded to be sure of meeting minimum educational standards. I tried multiple platforms for that, all of which had issues. At one point, I was using 2 computers and my phone just to conduct a class in which some students only had a phone, or were on a free public Wi-Fi system that choked their data and kept the voice and video functions lagging.

I felt as though I could not be a good teacher in this environment, I couldn’t catch the falling behind or accommodate the struggling. I had a disabled student enroll who had a special helper assigned by the government (a normally nice accommodation). The student was stuck in another city and the helper couldn’t log into the virtual class live from where they were, so he was entirely unable to function in the class. When I tried to speak with co-workers (both foreign and Korean) about any of these issues, no one seemed to be able or willing to work on solutions. As with many places in the world, the pandemic served to highlight pre-existing systemic issues that leave the vulnerable behind.

Spring 2021: It was supposed to be the last. The plan was in place to get public schools back in the classroom and we would surely be in lockstep. I buckled down and did my best. I was able to replace my lowest level class with the advanced course, thinking that teaching higher levels online would be better for my sanity. Mostly, that was true. The new crop of incoming students had experience with online learning and weren’t as scared and confused as those in 2020. I also moved into a nicer apartment with more sunshine and a dedicated work space. I was so sure that I’d be able to travel, and we’d be able to go back into the classroom in 2021 because the vaccine was out! Neither of those would come to pass. It was my last “good” semester.

The Teacher Becomes the Student: Over the summer, I signed up for a Korean language class online, hoping to improve my Korean, but also to experience the virtual language classroom as a student to get some perspective and ideas. It didn’t do much for my Korean skills, but it definitely helped me to understand my student’s struggles. I found the synchronous virtual classroom to be wildly difficult to learn in, and was myself often muting the sound, turning off my camera, or playing video games when the class got too boring (and I’m somewhere between Hermione Granger and Amy Santiago on a teacher’s pet scale).

The big thing I learned from the teacher was to really let go of “normal” classroom management, and be ok when we just don’t get through the material. It still makes my eye twitch when I think about that, because it is unfair to the students to be in an environment where the goal is “just get through it” instead of “learn something new”. If I had been taking that class to prepare for the TOPIK (test of proficiency in Korean) to qualify for a visa, I would have been very disappointed in the class. It’s hardly surprising that students all over the country began to experience virtual learning burnout.

Fall 2021: It all broke. The student enrollment plummeted. Students who spent their last year of high school online and were missing out on the cultural joy of first year university were disillusioned and either dropped out or took only the minimum requirements. Not just at my university, but all over the country. Classes that have less than a certain number of registered students (at that time 5) are usually dropped from the roster. I lost 5 of my 6 courses because 0-3 students were registered for each. The school tried their best to make up my required classroom hours by offering me the “language lounge”, a sort of tutoring/practice lab, but they were not able to offer enough to make up the difference, and I was told I would have to teach an extra two courses to the following semester to make up for it. I did try to get them to just deduct the money from my paycheck since I was financially ok, what with zero international travel for over a year, but they declined.

Other departments were increasing offline options. Majors which required hands on labs or used specialized equipment or travelled to locations as part of the curriculum could not fulfill their educational requirements online. It’s hard to dissect a cadaver or dig up an archaeological site from a Zoom meeting. There were also a few test that required specialized proctoring in designated locations that students were required to come to campus for. It was a struggle for the students to be in the disorganized pseudo-hybrid learning environment. They weren’t living on campus full time nor attending offline classes regularly yet, but neither could they do everything online. It required many of them to travel by bus or train to Gyeongju just one day a week or less while they lived full time in their hometown (often still with their parents and younger siblings, a big crush for a young adult who had been expecting the independence of dormitory life).

The Liberal Arts classes were not considered essential enough to receive offline dispensation, so we continued to slog by with our WebEx meetings. I only had one real class, once a week, and the rest of the time, I had what I referred to with great distain as “the Schrodinger’s classes” because I didn’t know if or how many students would come until I opened the virtual meeting room. I then had to explain Schrodinger’s cat to way too many people. I hated these so called “classes” with a burning fiery passion. Try making an hour of activities for an unknown number of students in a vague skill range when you have no idea what their actual teacher is working on this week. See how much effort you are willing to put in when over and over 0-2 people show up and don’t even have their book. Or a microphone to speak with. You may also have noticed, I didn’t post anything on the blog from the summer of 21 until the spring of 22. Dark times.

Spring 2022: While I was waiting for the semester to start (and to learn my schedule’s fate) I had a lot of anxiety about a repeat of fall 21. There had been a failure to launch “Living with Corona19” and the activity restriction level was at 4 (the highest /most restrictive) for most of the winter break. There was no way we’d be back in classrooms when we couldn’t even eat at a restaurant after 9pm! I was deeply worried about my salary and my future employment options, too. I had already been told that I couldn’t make up my missed hours over the winter course selection, and rumors abounded that the graduation rate in 2021 was lower, that the national exam (Suneung) scores were lower, and that overall expected enrollment of new students was … lower.

NOTE: Returning students have classes in Jan/Feb, 3rd year high school students – aka the graduating class – take their Suneung in mid-November and although they go back to classrooms, they are not expected to do much work since the test results will determine their university eligibility. As a result, by early December, the scores and numbers of graduating students is already known even though the school year does not end until February of the following calendar year.

Some schools were shutting down, or cutting programs. The public schools were all fully back online (with exceptions for outbreaks), but the university deemed it was too difficult to contain a spread at a school where students came from all over the country, and would engage in socially risky behavior (like partying without a mask). The existing round of contracts were not set to end until February of ’23, but if my hours were continuously docked I might not be able to afford to wait that long. My school sent out emails urging anyone who wanted to resign before the semester start to come and talk to the office.

I had zero control or input over my schedule either. It changed more than once before March 1, and continued to change for the first several weeks of the semester! The university’s federal allotment was reduced, and budget cuts ensued. The minimum number of students to keep a course was raised (from 5 to 10), and the maximum number of lounge hours was lowered. Because some majors had gone fully offline by this time, the school decided to offer a small number of face to face English courses, but I was not given any chance to volunteer for those.

In the end I was assigned 8 regular courses (my 6 contracted+ my 2 make ups) and kept only 3 due to low enrollment. I had an additional 4 online lounge hours, and 2 “in person” lounge hours each week, the later consisted of me sitting in an empty classroom for the whole time, because it was “my duty”. I know that this was a result of my admin going to bat for me and pushing to add more lounge hours so that I could get paid, and I really appreciate the way she had my back, but the whole situation was absurd. I had come full circle back to desk warming. I was not only an English Robot*, but I was a virtual English Robot. It was time to go. I turned in my 90 day notice near the end of the spring semester, my last day of classes was June 21, and my last official day of employment is August 31.

*English Robot is the term I use to describe any “teacher” whose job is primarily to stand in front of the class and be a Happy Foreigner ™, giving out set phrases in that coveted native accent. I think that it can be good for the kids to be exposed, but it’s soul sucking to the human being who has trained to be a teacher to be trapped in the role of living doll. Most of these jobs also entail mandatory hours of just existing at the school, to be seen and so they can tell the parents about how the foreign teacher is available to their precious children all day. In EPIK, they call it “desk warming”.

What’s Next?

I’m saving the details for a surprise revelation post (though some of you already know). I did find a good opportunity that will start in October, and it’s different from anything I’ve done before. The university I’ll be working with doesn’t have an English Department (yet), so there’s no strong expectations that I have to follow a preset curriculum or meet certain bureaucratic minimums. There will be plenty of other challenges (no shortage of other types of bureaucracy), and my work will not be limited to within the university. Also, the country I’m going to doesn’t have as much online access as Korea, and hasn’t been enacting much in the way of COVID restrictions or accommodations. There are some virtual conferences and workshops among teachers and teacher trainers, but no widespread virtual classrooms for regular students. Finally, the nature of the project itself has a greater chance of being more “meaningful impact” and less “English Robot”, providing me with a level of job satisfaction I haven’t felt in many years. I’m not saying it’s going to be a cake walk, but it will definitely be entirely different from everything I’ve done in Korea, and that is something I am looking forward to immensely.

안녕히계세요 Korea: The COVID Experience in Retrospect

I’m leaving Korea! The decision to leave has been a long time coming and involves multiple factors. One of the biggest stresses on my life (on everyone’s lives) over the last 2.5 years has been COVID. My experiences with COVID in Korea are quite different from what my friends and family in other countries experienced, and have played a large roll in my decision to move on.

Flying Internationally at the Start of a Global Pandemic

COVID dropped in late 2019, with the first case arriving in Korea on January 20, 2020 while the school was on break and I was on holiday in Spain. It didn’t seem to be impacting my US friends yet, but I knew that my return flight From Spain to Paris through Shanghai to Korea would be impacted for sure. It was no surprise that the flight was cancelled, but I found information online that it had also been rescheduled as a direct flight from Paris to Seoul. When I checked into the flight in Spain, they seemed to think everything was fine! And when I arrived at the counter for my connecting flight in Paris, I was told I didn’t have a valid ticket to board. I was given the runaround for 9 hours as the three companies involved all blamed each other (the company that owned the plane, the company that owned the flight, and the company that I bought my ticket from).

I would say avoid buying from 3rd parties for this reason, but in reality, that often costs much more and even if I had, there were two different companies involved in the flight itself (the owner and operator being different). I was told to wait, to collect my luggage, to go talk to this or that office or desk, to call this business number, to wait more, to just buy another ticket and eat the loss (like it was my fault), and finally after just being a crying mess in front of the Air France desk for the 3rd time, they found a flight to put me on the next day. No one offered to pay for my hotel in recompense for my lost ticket, but they did help me to find a place nearby with a free shuttle. It beats out “Stuck in Bangkok without a Vietnamese visa on Tet Weekend” as my worst airport experience.

So Much We Didn’t Know

In late February, what I like to call “the Daegu Panic” started. Patient 31 (yes the mere 31st person to test positive in Korea) began a super spreader event because they couldn’t stand the idea of not going to apocalyptic megachurch/cult (Shincheonji) and freaked everyone including the KCDC right out, in no small part by lying about their membership and meetings. The government took very strict measures to contain the spread including mask mandates closing/restricting borders, implementing curfews, regular temperature checks, restrictions and bans on gatherings over a certain size, and school closures as well.

When I arrived back in Korea, I self isolated for 14 days (quarantine policies were only in effect for travelers from China back then, and thank gods because the early quarantine hotels were HORRIBLE). The start of the school year was delayed as we all waited to find out what would happen. I remember some of the other Americans in my office saying it would all blow over in a few weeks and scoffing when I said I thought the problem would last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. Denial was really strong in the early days, and the Korean government issued advisories and policies as if they also expected the entire thing to be gone within two weeks. Every two weeks, a new policy or policy extension would come out, and it felt very disingenuous. At the same time we had a government response that was praised globally as one of the best, we also had this sense of denial pervading everything. Not the denial that existed in the US, no one here really thought it was a hoax or a “mere cold”, but denial about the amount of time and impact it would have on all our lives.

B.V. – Before Vaccine

In early 2020, Korea was having a massive (by early standards) outbreak while the USA was still thinking of COVID as something that only happened to other countries. Looking back at the numbers of the original scary outbreak, they seem so small. 900 new cases a day was a national emergency. Now, we’re happy if it’s less than 90,000. The Korean government acted very quickly, and so we never had the ice trucks of bodies in hospital parking lots. We did have an early mask mandate, swift implementation of limits on gathering and public events, really effective contact tracing due to the way phones are linked to national ID numbers, and everyone who got COVID was 100% covered unless they had broken a ban. By the end of 2020, despite only having 6.5x the population, the US had more than 400x the positive cases and more than 500x the deaths as South Korea*. I felt very very safe. Even safer than many of my other teacher friends who had been forced back into a classroom before the vaccines were out because my university continued to use online classes exclusively for the entire first year and only implemented face to face classes for a small minority of necessary training courses after that.

The population of the US is roughly 6.5x that of South Korea (51m/328m). A recent spike to 300 new cases a day and being brings the 10 month total to 30,000 cases (not deaths, just cases). The US has a larger population, but 300 x 6.5 is just under 2,000. Can you imagine your life in America if there were only 2,000 new cases a day instead of (checks notes) 120,000? 30,000 total cases x 6.5 is just under 200,000, but the US has a total case count of over 12 million. The total death count as of today is 501 x 6.5 that’s 3,257. Meanwhile more than 250,000 have died in America.
A country with 6.5x the population has 400x the new daily cases, 400x the total cases, and 500x the deaths.

Me – November 20, 2020

Every single major event was cancelled. All travel abroad was cancelled. I’m struggling to remember exactly when the curfews went into effect, but since I don’t live in a big city, I didn’t personally encounter them in 2020. It was lonely and boring, but I often felt like I had no right to complain because there were no piles of bodies, no one I loved was on a ventilator, I wasn’t in any danger of loosing my job, my home, my health insurance. And, for the most part, Korea was already a mask wearing, cheap delivery food having country before this hit, so the infrastructure of contactless shopping was solid.

Vaccine Rollout

Then in 2021 the news of the vaccine rollout was everywhere. My friends in Seattle were proudly posting selfies and adopting “I was vaccinated” frames on their profile pics. My family in the south were avoiding it like it was worse than the virus. (EDIT: I tried to give some credit to some family members for doing the right thing, but it turns out they don’t want it, and seem to have doubled down on the Kool-Aid since I last looked). Everyone in America I knew who wanted them had both doses, pharmacists and doctors were looking for volunteers to get the shot so they didn’t have throw away soon-to-expire vaccines, and I was still waiting for my first. Where was the vaccine, Korea? What happened to all the marvelous organization displayed in the crisis response last spring? Get me my jab!

It wasn’t until the SUMMER that we were even allowed to sign up for a vaccine appointment. I got a window of time assigned to me to log into the website and sign up for my vaccine location and time. The demand was so high that the website would not be able to stay up without throttling the access. I understand the desire to prioritize high risk people, but I just never got a satisfactory answer as to why Korea took so very long to roll out the vaccine program. Someone suggested they delayed intentionally in the hopes that a domestic brand would be finished soon, but were forced to give up on that idea. I got my first shot in August, my second was pushed back an extra 2 weeks due to supply issues, and happened 6 weeks later at the end of September. My third this past January was much easier to get as fewer people were scrambling for a spot and supplies were more available by then. I did have to wait again for my assigned window, but it was an overall smoother experience.

The vaccine experience: A huge community center building was converted for the sole purpose of administering and tracking vaccines. Outside, people waited in orderly chairs to make appointments, I assume they could not use the online signup. I showed my appointment confirmation text and went in. There was a long intimidating medical consent form in Korean only. A nurse helped me to understand the consent and allergy questions, then directed me to a seat. After a few minutes three of us were escorted to the next building, asked to take a number and have a seat while we waited to have our forms and ID verified. Then I was sent to another area with another block of chairs and another number dispenser to wait to consult a doctor.

There were 6 private booths, and even though not all of them were in use, it moved pretty quickly. The doctor explained the risks and effects in decent English and told me that they’ll watch me for 30 minutes because of my history of asthma (most people are observed for 15). He advised me to take Tylenol when I got home, and very gravely urged me to get to an ER if I had any chest pain, arrhythmia, or sudden rashes. He put a red 30 minute sticker on my hand and sent me to the next number dispensing area. Here I didn’t wait at all but went directly into a booth where the nurse verified my name and what arm I want the shot in. We chose with left because it was closer to her. It was a short sharp jab and she said something I didn’t understand in a reassuring tone.

There was one last counter to hand over the paper I got at the beginning, now covered in notes from the people I’ve seen. I was given an informative pamphlet on side effects and a paper to bring to my second dose appointment. While sitting in the observation room, in socially distanced chairs waiting to be sure I don’t have some kind of hideous reaction to Pfizer, I got my confirmation text (verifying my first dose is complete and second is scheduled) before I even left the building.

The process of the second shot was similar to the first but much better organized and more accessible to foreigners. They had forms in multiple languages and plenty of staff to assist. I went through the whole process in about 30 minutes from arrival to certificate, and they were even able to print my certificate in English in the vain hope that I would get to travel again! Plus, I got this cute button. The third shot, the booster, was held at the local hospital instead of the community center (which I gather had been converted to a testing center by that time). The organization and support vanished and the hospital seemed completely unprepared to deal with foreigners, but that’s what Google Translate is for.

The Restriction Rollercoaster

There was a tiered restriction policy based on the number of new cases per day in a certain area. (if the website is no longer working, you can see a pdf below). It was a little bit of an organizational nightmare, but it was fairly easy to check online and know the particular restrictions in any given city. The number of people in a café or restaurant was lowered and some places were limited to take out only. Private gatherings and the number of people allowed to sit together outdoors or at one table restricted to as low as 2.

Every place had temperature checks, and when you went in, you had to either use an app to register or sign in manually. Even shops without food were limited. I saw a line outside Louis Vuitton of people waiting for another shopper to leave so they could enter. Bus stops had sanitizing sprayers on an automatic timer, and buses had bottles of sanitize duct taped at the entrance and exit. From spring through fall, people could be satisfied with outdoor activities, and the case count dropped to under 100/ day for much of that time. The cold weather drove people indoors and to close windows. By December the daily case count was over 1,000.

In 2021, America tried desperately to “return to normal” with predictable disastrous results. Korea, made mistakes too. Many businesses were hemorrhaging money as a result of the restrictions and were demanding a return to normal. In the second half of 2021, the government lifted too many restrictions too soon and the cases “skyrocketed” (again, in a very relative way think 100s–>1,000s), resulting in an even more severe clampdown than before. I didn’t write about a lot of this stuff while it was happening so I don’t have the best timeline, but I know I went out during the summer with reasonable safety precautions (level 2), and by my birthday in December, any business with food or drink had to close at 9pm (level 4). We joked for months that COVID wakes up at 9pm. I think it was a result of the “Living with COVID19” plan that started November 1st that year and failed like a week later.

Vaccine passes were on every phone, swipe your QR code to enter. Businesses were limited in capacity and often forced to closed early. We went to each other’s houses and probably acted dumber than we would have if we’d just been allowed to stay out until after midnight. It was like we all turned into teenagers sneaking out after curfew. I never understood the logic behind it. I tried to keep to a small group and be safe, but most of Korea just… did what they wanted. It’s an open container country, so you’d see swaths of people just sitting on the curb drinking after they got kicked out of the bars. Police only hassled foreigners about it.

Internal travel was largely unaffected, but external travel was prohibitive. I couldn’t travel abroad at all for any non-emergency reason before the vaccine rollout. Even then, 14 day quarantines, multiple rounds of PCR tests that would not be covered by the insurance since it was for fun. Airfare was 2-3 times more than pre-COVID prices. I spent months checking and rechecking and investigating in the hopes of travelling somewhere that winter since I was finally fully vaxxed. No such luck. Daily cases crept up faster and faster towards the end of the year and the 9pm business closures were not stopping it.

The Phobias aka The Bigotry:

Blaming foreigners isn’t unique to the US, either. Although the level of anti-foreigner violence never reached the peak here that it did in my home country, it was a challenging time, nonetheless, when locals were often scared of us or refusing us entry or service. It’s sadly normal for a culture, any culture, to blame the outsiders for whatever ills befall. While America was busy with Asian Hate, there was a generous helping of xenophobia and homophobia that accompanied the virus in to Korea.

These are not new problems. Enough Koreans were bigoted before COVID that we all felt it. Taxis that don’t stop because you’re skin is the wrong color. Restaurants that suddenly don’t have room to seat you. Shopkeepers who are sure they don’t have your size (even though you can see it hanging in the display). I’ve written about the homophobia in my Seoul Pride posts, but during COVID, there was a small outbreak traced to a gay bar in Itaewon. It was so much smaller than the super spreader events linked to the megachurches, but it was all the homophobes needed to blame the gays for everything.

The majority of my local crowd are also foreign, though I’m pretty sure I’m the only American. I do have a few Korean friends, but they are the kind of people who like foreigners. There are a couple other English teachers from Canada and South Africa, and then a whole bunch of other nationalities represented from all over the Middle East and Asia. I get to hear their experiences too, and even though I deal with discrimination here, it’s nowhere near what the POC foreigners have. Even in Korea, white privilege is real.

The number of incidences of “no foreigners” signs on businesses increased dramatically. There are very poor anti-discrimination laws in Korea. It’s technically not illegal to discriminate against anyone for anything, and so it was pretty impossible to get any action taken. (there are ongoing efforts to pass some anti-discrimination laws, but the Korean version of the alt-right has so far been successful at blocking them) Additionally, we had experiences of being forced to leave public spaces, like beaches or parks, because Koreans called the police on us… basically for being foreign, because we were following social distancing and masking rules. I went on a group tour over the summer to Namhae beach. The tour company had to jump through so many hoops to ensure the permits, and we were all so happy to be out enjoying the sun.

We were carefully separated into small regulation size groups at generous distances and only removed our masks to eat or swim (seawater in a mask is no fun). The locals called the police, and although we were doing absolutely nothing illegal, we were asked to leave. I stayed because my friends had gone on a banana boat and left their things on the beach with me, and I didn’t feel right just taking off without them knowing what was going on. 90% of the group on the beach left. Another friend went on a trip to Jeju and her group was denied access to just about every tourist attraction even though the tour company had procured the permits ahead of time. The employee at the gates simply refused to accept it and turned them away.

The rules were designed to protect us all against large scale risky behavior, but unfairly targeted foreigners. Local/natives could flout restrictions and face nothing worse than a small fine, a few faced the possibility of jail time for knowingly spreading the infection (breaking quarantine while actively sick). A foreigner caught breaking a COVID rule could be deported. 5 people at your dinner party instead of 4 could get you deported. In March 2021 the provincial government in Gyeongi-do ordered all foreigners to be tested. Only foreigners. Other regions swiftly followed suit.

One of the worst was Halloween 2021 when the government announced a literal witch hunt, targeting any place likely to hold Halloween celebrations, which is more often celebrated by foreigners and not a commonly observed holiday by Korean natives, and threatening to deport any foreigner caught at such a party. Also, at one point the mayor of my city actually publicly advised citizens not to go to foreign owned businesses or associate with foreigners. (I don’t have a link as this was something my Korean speaking friends showed me and translated). It was rough. I felt conflicted as well, because however much discrimination we faced, we were physically safe compared with our counterparts in other countries.

The New Normal

In 2022, the government finally realized that containment was a thing of the past, and started to focus on keeping the death count low. With most of the population fully vaxxed, they started to open more things up and that trend remained. Daily cases quickly climbed from a few thousand in January to a high of over 600,000 in March. I myself caught COVID in this time. I had my booster, and I felt safe. A lot of us did, and we were so exhausted of the curfews and the isolation. I went to several smaller (under 50ppl) events and was fine. Then all of us caught it at one birthday party. It was the first real party we’d had since the curfews were lifted, and we were all so excited.

The chart starts Feb 20, 2020 and goes through April 2022. You can see a current version here.

I was sick, it sucked. For me it was definitely worse than “the flu” but not as bad as the bird flu I got when I first arrived in Korea at the EPIK orientation. I wanted to just assume I was contagious and self quarantine for 2 weeks, but my school was trying to get me to come in for a face to face tutoring hour. I got a home test from the 7-11 and when that came back positive, I went to the testing center. PCR tests are free if you have a positive home test. I had the oh so horrible experience of the nasal swab, and got my results by text the next day. I worried about the taxi driver who had to take me, even though we were both masked, but I didn’t have any other options. My “flu like” symptoms lasted a couple weeks, and my fatigue and brain fog lasted much longer. Several of my friends who caught the same strain said they experienced similar.

The spike lasted maybe a month, and although the daily new case count is still measured in the 10,000s rather than the 1,000s, it’s getting better, and most people have mild cases and easy recoveries. The last restrictions were lifted including the outdoor mask mandate and the travel quarantines. Outdoor festivals are back this summer, and no one has to scan a QR code at the door of every café. We still mask up indoors when not eating, on transit, and even outdoors if it’s quite crowded. I went into Busan yesterday, and noticed that there are no longer temperature checks at the department stores and sign-ins at the food court. My dentist didn’t spray me down with full body disinfectant at the door like they did last time. Everything looks the same as it did before COVID except now there’s more masks. It looks like Korea will be ok.

As frustrating as many of these things were, I am grateful to have been in a place where almost everyone worked hard to keep each other safe, with a government that offered full medical coverage for vaccines, tests, and treatments regardless of citizen status. The experience was psychologically grueling, but I had a great luxury of safety in my health and my job. Just my luck to make it through all the hard parts and go when the sun comes out. Though as much as I treasure my time here, I don’t think even a fully functional Korea can fill the hole that COVID has left in my soul. I need more. It’s time to go.

안녕히계세요 Korea: It’s Time to Go

In one month, I’m leaving Korea, finally, and probably for good? It’s nice here, there’s a high quality of life and a low cost of living. The summer is brutal, but the aircon works, and the country is beautiful… plus it’s central to a lot of cool travel destinations. It’s a good place to be an American so, who knows, maybe I’ll come back some day. However, I’ve resigned from my position at the university, and I’m packing up, donating, selling, or throwing away my entire life until I’m back down to two suitcases and a carry on. The countdown begins.

What Have I Been Doing All This Time?

Since my arrival in 2016, I’ve written about 50 posts about my life in Korea, if you are bored or have a special interest in the worklife, you can see them all under the South Korea menu on the homepage, or you can scroll through some highlights here.

The Death of the Traveler

I stopped writing about Korea in 2020. I stopped writing about travel in 2020. I very nearly stopped writing.

Looking back through this blog, I can see that I did some updating about 2020 in these three posts: Life a Little Upsidedown, The World Is Temporarily Closed, and Who can even, right now? The last one was October 5th, 2020. I talked about covid life, stress, online teaching, whatever hobbies I was doing at the moment because I couldn’t bake sourdough, but I wasn’t able to celebrate my travel experiences. I was so sad that I couldn’t travel, even writing about it was unbearable. That seems really “first world white people” problems I know, but everyone has something they do that defines who they are, how they see themselves in the world and get out of bed on difficult days. I know my travel is a privilege, and yet it had become a core part of my sense of self worth. When covid took that away, I lost a large part of my self. I wish I could say that I found something else to give my life meaning, but the truth is, I’m only able to write again now because I’m about to start a new adventure, and it gives me strength, purpose, and hope.

The Rest of 2020

October 2020 was surprisingly good. I finally visited the famous pink muhly grass here in Gyeongju, a great chance for flower closeup photos. There’s a stellar observatory here in Gyeongju called Cheomseongdae, and it’s a famous tourism spot. The park it resides in is regularly replanted with seasonal flowers and filled with picnickers and kite fliers. I have no idea how the structure functioned as an astronomical observatory, but it’s a pretty park. The pink muhly is a type of grass that is, well, pink. There were workers around to make sure everyone wore masks when not posing for photos, and the paths were clearly marked out. People in Korea were as usual very considerate of others taking photos in the area. It was a beautiful day.

I took a trip with a good friend up to Seoul to celebrate Halloween at Everland where the whole park was decorated for the holiday. The daily case count was under 100 at the time, so we felt safe and had a good time. I even incorporated a spooky mask into my makeup for a full on monster face. There was a parade, and a zoo with a penguin feeding show, new baby pandas (only viewable via cctv video), fennec foxes and many more. We mostly looked at decorations, and then we stood in line for like 2 hours to ride the T-Express rollercoaster which was actually entirely worth it. The park offered mask compatible face makeup, so after a while we weren’t the only two in Halloween masks, and after dark the décor swapped from cute to creepy. Some of the photos made it to my Insta, but I never got around to writing about it.

My D&D group had a potluck thanksgiving and a New Years dinner too, we sat in my friend’s apartment eating homecooked comfort food and trying to keep the dog from getting anything that would make him sick. It may not have been a grand adventure felt really nice to spend my holidays in a way that was more reminiscent of my formative experiences. Also, trying to get ingredients for my traditional American holiday recipes was definitely a grand adventure.

2021

In 2021 my blog posts turned entirely into therapy book reviews because I felt like that was the biggest thing happening to me, but it was far from the only thing. I had some moles removed, and failed to write about the Korean dermatology clinic experience. I moved, which was such a huge relief, and failed to write Renting in a Foreign Language Part 2. I had another year of cherry blossoms that seemed so small compared to my grand adventures in Jinhae that I didn’t write about that either. I played an inexcusable amount of Animal Crossing. So much Animal Crossing, I actually created a second Instagram account just for my ACNH pics. (@gallivantrix_crossing)

I went to the beach and we got the police called on us for existing while foreign. I made new friends. I got an oven and started baking. I had my first Pumpkin Spice Latte since 2015. I went back to Nami Island & Seoraksan. There were so many adorable bunnies! I joined a Korean class. I ordered new Ben Nye makeup for Halloween and I’m really proud of that makeup (it’s on my Insta) and attended a party at my friend’s bar.

I went to TWO thanksgivings, a potluck held by my Egyptian friends who own an American themed bar where I was the only American. I made so many deviled eggs, and was scared no one would like them, no one had ever had them before, but they were a huge hit and all gone by the end of the night. The other dinner was on the Jinhae naval base where my coworker and D&D player had moved with her navy husband after they tied the knot. I made tiny pies because I could only find frozen tart crusts here, no 9″ rounds. Mini-America was quite an experience. It was so surreal to be entirely surrounded by Americans, in a little replica of suburban America with American food, and American …everything. Someone deep fried the turkey, and all had whisky and cigars on the back porch after. The next day they took me to the commissary and got as much unique American food as I could carry back on the bus.

I got new Christmas decorations, I had a real birthday party (even though the curfew was 9pm) where my friends got me cake and sang to me. I hugged an Arabic Santa at Christmas and fed my foreign friends homemade Christmas cookies. New Years Eve we tried to countdown at 8pm (midnight in New Zealand) because we had to close at 9. I shipped frozen homemade cheesecake to my friends on the base because they couldn’t join us during the lockdown.

2022 to Present

In 2022, I went to a wedding to celebrate the love of two of my friends. I visited a dog café, I went on a snow trip to Nami Island, Garden of the Morning Calm, and Yongpyeong ski resort in Pyeongchang (home of the 2017 winter Olympics). I caught COVID at a birthday party. I bade farewell to a dear friend who returned to the US.

I had a stunningly gorgeous final cherry blossom season in Korea that more than made up for the last 2 lousy years. I didn’t make any plans at all, I just went outside one Saturday and the weather was perfect. I decided to to the only part of Gyeonju I hadn’t seen the cherry blossoms from, back near the Cheomseongdae observatory. The taxi couldn’t get even remotely close, but it worked out for the best, because the walk from where he dropped me off was a deeply tree lined road, and may have been a better destination than the park.

I went to a butterfly festival on my own (I had been travelling with the tour group during COVID because they could handle the restrictions and rules for me). This was my first time to go on my own to a new part of Korea in years, and it made me think about the very first time I did that with the Taean Tulip Festival and how lost we got. I did not get lost this time. I have mastered the Korean public transit system. The butterfly park was beautiful and the spring weather was sunny but not too hot. My favorite part though, was the giant greenhouse filled to the brim with fluttering wings.

I started the agonizing process of looking for a new career or failing that a new adventure: a way to not only leave Korea, but go towards something that would fulfill me. I turned down offers that seemed too soul sucking, which was scary but liberating. I made a back up plan to go live in France on a student visa at a reasonably priced intensive language program while teaching private English classes on the side because I’ve always wanted to live in France for a year and just eat French food, and drink French wine, and go to museums, and maybe take an art class. Giving myself permission to just do that was very freeing. In the end, I got an amazing career opportunity that is also a new adventure, and I am beyond excited to share it with you soon.

Just last month, I went to Pride in Seoul, the Korea Queer Culture Festival, one more time as the COVID bans on large gatherings were lifted allowing 10s of 1000s of queers and allies to gather in support of love and equality. I went to this event in 2016 & 17, but missed out on 18 & 19 because I was travelling. It was cancelled in 20 & 21 like every other large event, but there was a concern that the homophobes who work to block the event every year would finally succeed in killing it, using COVID as an excuse. Love wins.

We all wore masks even outside (this was after the outdoor mask mandate was lifted) because we didn’t want any spike to be linked to us. We were warned to keep the clothing modest because the new government officials were looking to use public indecency as a way to ban future events. I met Hurricane Kimchi, and I donated to my two favorite queer in Korea causes, DdingDong, a youth crisis center, and the movement to protect queer and trans soldiers in the Korean military (the only place it’s illegal in Korea to be gay, but all young AMABs must serve). The monsoons came down just as we started the parade march, but it didn’t stop us, it only sent the haters running for shelter, and we danced in the rain as drag queens on floats tried to keep their wigs dry. I was tired, and sore, and oh so happy to have been able to go one last time.

I have done a lot during the pandemic, but I didn’t write about any of it because I couldn’t process it as worthy of the blog. It was either repetitive (been there, done that) or it was all so small compared to what I wanted to be writing about, so personal, banal and mundane. I looked at my photos on the cloud at the time and thought, did I do anything at all? And now I know that was some HARD CORE DEPRESSION talking. Seriously, look at this thing I wrote:

I’ve had no good days. There have been ok days, bad days, and HORRIBLE days. Horrible days involve involuntary non-stop crying, panic/anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and total isolation. Bad days, I can get through the bare minimum of “eat/hydrate/teach” and then have to sink into dissociative distractions like video games, binge watching Netflix, or reading pop-YA fiction to keep it from becoming a horrible day. Ok days I might actually experience fleeting moments of “that’s nice” before the ennui sets back in. And from what I understand, this is pretty much the new normal for almost everybody I know.

Who Can Even, Right Now? – Gallivantrix

I was deep down in a black oubliette, so far gone I couldn’t even imagine seeing the light again. I was dying, and now I know I’m not because I look at those photos today and I think, “what beautiful memories we made through hard times”.

Now, I’m in the process of untangling my life from Korea, getting all the paperwork filed, the apartment emptied (it is amazing how much stuff a person accumulates in 6 years), the banking, the utilities, the phone, the job… It’s the very first time as an adult that I’ve left a place after having lived for so long and not expected to return. It’s the first time I will be fully without a “home base”. I know my friends and family in the states will not let me fall on my face or be homeless, but it is a strange feeling knowing that I’ll walk out the door for the last time. I have had a safe and comfortable life here, and I am grateful to Korea for many things, but my adventure has turned into my comfort zone, and that may be the biggest reason it’s time to go.

Memorial Day Weekend: Korea Edition

Yes I’ve been radio silent almost a year. Maybe I’ll write about why someday, but the important thing is, I’m ok and I’m slowly starting some new adventures. Thanks for being here always!

In Korea, Memorial Day (현충일) is June 6th, a week later than my American friends and family celebrate the memory of our soldiers with lavish summer backyard barbeques, overt displays of patriotism, and caring about disabled vets for a few days out of the year. I’ve never really noticed any block party style celebrations of Memorial Day in Korea, as it seems to be a more solemn day, but of course, everyone loves a three day weekend, so I expect there will be lots of people going out and enjoying the beautiful weather we are having. There are also official memorial ceremonies at military graveyards and Korean War Memorial sites. But why after 6+ years of living in Korea am I just now choosing to write a Memorial Day post?

(UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Gallivantrix 2016)

Connected to my last several posts and my year long absence from the blog, I have recently been digging into my own family history. I’ve always known that my paternal grandfather was an ace pilot, and that his general age range put him as “probably served in Korea?” but I never had any facts. My grandfather died when my father was only 10, and as a result, my father has shared fairly limited information about him with me. Since Korean Memorial Day is all about those who fought and died for the Republic of Korea, that means that the vast majority of the focus is on the Korean War (1950-53), so I’m going to tell you about my grandfather, Captain Kenneth D. Chandler.

My grandfather was actually born in Canada, which came as a surprise to me, in 1923. Then his family lived in Arizona and southern California, answering some questions about my father’s family diaspora. Even though they moved around with the military, and I know they were stationed in Hawaii in 1948, because my dad was born there, it seems my grandfather never stopped loving the American southwest. My grandmother lived in Arizona until she died and my dad took me on trips all over the southwest on our family vacations.

I knew that his family was Mormon (LDS) and that he had left the church because when I was driving across America with my father to move to Seattle, we stopped in Salt Lake and found his name in the big Mormon Book of Families (not actually what they call the book). I remember feeling that it was very strange, since he had chosen to leave, and yet the church insisted on praying him into heaven after his death. I suppose that’s kinder than praying his soul into hell, but still kind of creepy. On more than one occasion, the LDS Chandlers have sent me mail. They still track out family tree, but since I have no kids, and I’m my father’s only child, there’s really nothing left here for them to track.

On October 25, 1942, my grandparents were married. Kenneth was 19, and Rose was 16. I can only assume they rushed an early wedding so that Kenneth could could go to war and Rose would not be left with nothing if he died because my grandfather’s military career also began in 1942. I haven’t yet found details of his military record for WWII, but I do know that he was a fighter pilot and flew in Europe. When he returned alive, he and Rose had three children (1946 uncle B, 1948 dad, 1950 aunt M) two of whom I have never met. I’m told that he was a fairly distant father, which is a bit sad, but hardly surprising given that something in his childhood caused him to cut ties with the church and by implication the rest of his family, and that fact that he likely already suffered some form of PTSD by the time his first child was born, and definitely by the time he returned to his family after the Korean War. (I did say I was doing this research for generational trauma healing purposes, right?)

I had already known he was an ace pilot in the Air Force, because my father’s own air force career (not a pilot) was inspired by his father’s. The Air Force family way of life was a pretty big deal in both my homes growing up, as my step-father was also Air Force. I went to air shows, and military parades, and there’s really nothing quite like the 4th of July on a military base. I also had the benefit of travelling widely as a child, and getting early exposure to different cultures and value systems. Although I decided the military was not for me, I think it had a strong impact on who I am as a person, both in my globetrotting tendencies and in many of my morals and ethics. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but I was instilled with the ideals as a kid, and that sort of thing stays with you.

I had further suspected that my grandfather fought in the Korean war, but had no details. The internet, however, provides a near endless resource of information and human connection. Koreanwar.org is a website that connects survivors, veterans, and civilian aides from the war. When I searched for my grandfather’s name, I found a message from 2006, practically next door to where I was living that year. Yun-Kuk (Ted) Kim wrote:

City and State: Edmunds WA
Service or Relationship: friend of a veteran
Comments: Captain Kenneth D. Chandler shot down a MIG-15 in North Korea in December 1951 over Cho-do area. His aircraft, however, was disabled by a MIG’s debree [sic] ingested into his F-86’s engine, knocking it out. He bailed out over the off-shore island of Cho-do. I was stationed there with a US Air Force combat intelligence unit as an interpreter. I happened to be on the beach that day, supervising unloading of a US Navy landing craft. When I saw a Sabre pilot bail out over the Cho-do Bay, I and another Korean airman rowed out into the bay in a row-boat and waited for him. When Capt. Chandler (probably) fell into the water, we grabbed him and pulled him into the boat. We rowed him to a waiting US Navey [sic] helicopter and delivered him to safety and home. I am looking for Capt. Chandler if he is the one I rescued and if he is still alive. (He should be between 85 to 90 years old now.) Appreciate any help. Ted Kim, Edmonds, WA.

Entry 57095 May 10, 2006
https://www.koreanwar.org

Fam, I was shook, and strangely involuntary tears came to my eyes as I read the words of this man who had pulled my grandfather from the sea. It’s not quite as time travellery as that my father would not be born without him, since my father was 3 years old when this happened. Nonetheless, to see that there was a Korean man who touched my family so closely had lived so near to me (I was in Seattle at the time, and regularly drove in and out of Edmonds which is a part of the greater metropolitan area), and that here I am now in Korea looking at his words. I wish I could visit Cho-do bay, but sadly it’s north of the 38. Also, sadly, there’s no email for Ted (김윤국), and I can’t extend to him my multigenerational thanks. Luckily(?) someone replied to Ted later that year to let him know about Captain Chandler’s death.

Thanks to the extra research of a friend after reading this post the first time, I now know that he flew alongside Colonel Dayton Ragland, the only African American to shoot down a MiG-15 in the Korean War. On November 18, just a few weeks before he was pulled from the sea, my grandfather and then Lieutenant Ragland strafed an airfield destroying at least 4 MiGs and damaging 4 more. Although at the time, the destroyed MiGs were all credited to Captain Chandler, I suspect that’s not entirely accurate. Ten days later Ragland shot down the MiG that earned him his only credited shot, and was himself shot down and taken prisoner. Ragland’s story is infinitely amazing, if you want to read more, check out this twitter thread by @hankenstein.

A handful of years ago, when I was visiting my father, he showed me a shadow box he had made of his and my grandfather’s side by side military careers and told me the story of when my grandfather won the Bendix Trophy race.

The Air and Space Museum in D.C. claims that they have the original trophy on display, but my dad says that’s not true, because during the year that it was in his house (1957), my age 9 dad-to-be broke it. One side of the propeller was broken off, and my grandmother had it brazed back together leaving a small bump.

When my then-adult dad had a chance to visit the museum, there was no trace of the damage and repair, so he reasoned it can’t really be the original. A few more tidbits about the race I learned later in my own research: He broke the race’s speed record that day, the previous record was 666 mph, and he flew 679 mph. He was also a wingman to Chuck Yeager in the movie “Jet Pilot” where he flew the plane of the plane of the Russian character Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). I don’t know if the two men were friends, but they certainly were colleagues and comrades in arms.

Captain Chandler and 1st Lieutenant Frank Latora, both of the 343d Fighter Group, were killed when their Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer crashed 12 miles (19 kilometers) north east of Parker, Colorado, while on a ground-controlled approach to Lowry Air Force Base on the night of Friday, 28 March 1958. Captain Chandler’s remains are buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

Bryan R. Swopes, 2018 http://www.thisdayinaviation.com

My grandmother held on to the Bendix trophy for the next 2 years. She refused to surrender it until there was another winner. There was no official race in 58, 59, or 60, and so no winner was named. I suppose it was a piece of her husband that she didn’t want to relinquish after his death, and she was so determined about it that the race authorities threatened both to remove Captain Chandler from the official record and to put my grandmother in jail before she finally gave up the trophy. Even though she turned it over, the trophy never lived with another family, as it was retired before the next official race in 1961.

My grandfather died tragically at the age of only 33. My dad says he never really got to know his father, who tended to show more interest in the eldest son. Perhaps if he had lived a little longer he would have shepherded his middle child into adulthood, or perhaps he would merely have contributed a different legacy to our family’s generational trauma, but regardless there is no denying that Captain Chandler would certainly have been proud of Colonel Chandler, and I hope of Professor Chandler as well.

This Memorial Day, I remember Captain Kenneth D. Chandler: WWII & Korean War veteran, ace pilot, Bendix Race winner & record setter, and my grandfather. May your memory be a blessing.

Captain Kenneth D. Chandler, with the Bendix Trophy. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

A Pandemic Check-In

My title slate says “Teacher, Seeker, Traveler and Adventurer At Large”, but for the last 14 months or so, I feel like I’m only about half of that, maybe Teacher and Seeker at Small”? I haven’t written since October. I managed the entire horrible, cold, wet, lonely winter and have emerged on the other side slightly… better? Still in Korea, still teaching online, still not really able to look at travel without becoming some combination of depressed and enraged, but other things happened.

Also, WordPress changed literally everything about how to use their website and tools so I had to relearn the fine art of writing a blog, and this has delayed my posting by at least 2 months (the time I realized it was all new to now when I finally had the spoons to figure out how to make it dance to my tune). If the formatting is weird, blame the developers for “fixing” “features” that were in no way broken before. *sigh

General Updates:

The intermittent fasting is still going. Down 7 kg now, so I’m feeling pretty good about that. I let it go a few times during the holidays because we actually had a small but lovely (American) Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years dinners with my D&D group, which has since unfortunately dissolved like most “responsible adult” gaming groups. No hard feelings, just terrible schedules.

I got to celebrate a lot of holidays in 2020 that I don’t usually get to over here in Korea. American holidays are a bit thin on the ground and expats are usually engaged in travel any time we can. 2020 saw us all stuck in Korea, but also mostly safe with a population that followed mask and distancing recommendations and a very low daily case count. I made it out to view the pink grass (very Instagram thing), but I also got to go to an amusement park for Halloween and dress up, and enjoy the decorations with a friend.

My December birthday plans were totally ruined by a spike in cases and increased restrictions here, but my ACNH islanders threw me a nice party anyway, and when it was safe to go out again, I celebrated with a ridiculous steak at Outback. Giant slabs of beef are an American way of life I may never be able to fully surrender. The spring saw us low enough again for me to feel safe doing some cherry blossom viewing even though the festivals were still cancelled.

I *moved*. I got a much much nicer apartment a little closer to the university (not that we go there). It’s in a new building, it has 2 whole rooms (I was living in a Korean “one room” before), a balcony, and view which includes the mountains and the sky (not just other buildings!). It caused an almost immediate improvement in my mental health after I got settled in. I’m sleeping better, I have a desk to work from instead of my laptop in bed, I have a kitchen counter so I can more easily prepare and cook food (also, not that I do that often, but I *can*).

I also invested in an Oculus which is my new work-out buddy (Synth Riders). I won’t say that I exercise as much as I want to, but it’s much more than it has been for several years, and it’s fun. It doesn’t feel like work or drudge, so that’s a plus. I replaced my soil bound, root rotted plants with a couple of sky plants. My theory being that if there’s no dirt/no roots they can’t die of overwatering or root rot. So far, they are still green. I think that’s a good indicator that they are doing ok.

I’ve noticed a whole different set of issues teaching online this semester. Now that everyone is “used to it”, we’re all also “burnt out on it”. Students have cultivated an attitude that an online class can be done at the same time as another task, so they log in from trains, buses, work, the doctor’s office… I don’t even know. I wish beyond wishing that our university would allow us to use an asynchronous learning style, but the administration has cultivated an attitude that online class is not in any way different from a classroom, and does not need any accommodation or change. In addition, many students are suffering from increased social anxiety, resulting in less participation, less engagement, and less effort. Knowing their lack of effort is a result of anxiety or executive dysfunction doesn’t really help. I can feel sorry for them instead of being mad at them, but they’ll still get that bad grade. I myself am 100% burnt out on teaching this way, which is really bad because I’m unlikely to see the inside of a classroom for another 8-12 months.

Vaccine

I’m so happy these exist, and that my loved ones are getting theirs. I don’t care what gang you’re for as long as you’re pro-vax. Get that Fauci-Ouchi! I’m also insanely jelly that I am not able to play, uh, join… Much like Pokémon Go, I have to watch all my US friends enjoy it before I can even get a whiff.

For reasons that are still unclear, Korea is “going slow” in vaccine distribution. Are they afraid of side effects? Are they worried they can’t manage the distribution? Are they unable to physically get the vaccines they say they have bought? I really don’t know, but they are aiming for herd immunity by NOVEMBER. Healthy adults will not be in line for a vaccine until August/September, so I’ll be trapped here for the summer. Again. And we’ll be online in the fall semester. Again.

Books & Healing

Last time I was on here, I mentioned some books I was reading and how I was working on my mental health & past trauma. Reading my “memories” on Facebook, and using my healing toolboxes, I’ve come to realize just how much these books and my work have had an effect on me.

A series of truly unfortunate events from 2018-2019 crashed me pretty hard into some of the worst panic attacks of my life, and an unexpected but highly necessary parentectomy. The advent of Covid-19 in 2020 and it’s isolating effects have given me a lot of time to read and think. Along the way I have come to understand that it was not only the traumas of assault and abuse I experienced as an adult that were hanging around my neck, but also those of my childhood. I’ve learned a lot about trauma: causes and responses, PTSD/CPTSD, conflict, abuse, toxic behavior, misplaced blame, blame vs responsibility, shame vs understanding, and hopefully … healing. I am by no means finished, but this has been the journey of my last year, and as this is the place I share my travels, I thought I’d write this one too.

I’d like to share a list of the books that have helped me so far, along with a short description of the main ideas each one brought to me, so the next few posts will all come with trigger warnings, but I hope you’ll share them with me. I want to tell you about the books and what they helped me understand about myself in the hope that it can help you, or give you tools to help yourself or a loved one.

Coming Soon: A Trip Inside – self examination, trauma & healing. I can’t travel the earth, but I took a journey nonetheless. I hope you’ll join me, and that you are doing your best to be kind to yourself and others during this second year of pandemic life.

Who can even, right now?

I am finally free of the oppressive summer humidity that is South Korea as the cooler (and shorter) fall days are sweeping in. It’s definitely having an impact on my mood and body, but is it enough to counteract the pandemic-dystopia blues…. meh… probably not.

2020, eh? What a wild ride. No matter what corner of the earth you are in, you have not escaped, and in many ways, Americans in particular are experiencing a heretofore unknown to us level of total failure at all things. I will not barrage you with tales of woe from what once was the bright shining beacon of freedom, hope, democracy, and economic prosperity (you can read the news if you don’t know but want to), suffice it to say that most of us who have the dubious honor of bearing citizenship of that country are going totally bonkers in a way that previously was only known outside it’s borders and it’s civics textbooks.

As an American living and working abroad, I’m in an even weirder position, since 90% of the people I love most in the world are stuck in the nightmare of soaring Covid infection, crumbling democracy, rampant police brutality, massive climate damage, spiking unemployment, and some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories* of the last 1000 years. While I have the pleasure of living and working in South Korea which is handling the pandemic very well, balancing our freedoms with our safety, while keeping the economy from collapsing into a black hole. I even get to work from home. Sure, I hate online teaching with the fire of a thousand suns, but I’m safe from germ-infested students.

*note: those links are just top google search results to make it easy on you, but feel free to search for more if you are somehow oblivious to the horrorshow that is this American life in 2020.

I am personally safe, healthy, and financially stable while all those I love stuck stateside are in freefall. I have lost one friend (yeah, metaphor for he died, not that we parted ways) this year, and another is struggling with what may be permanent disability due to a Covid infection in the spring. Friends are loosing jobs, healthcare, homes, and those who are stable are terrified it will all go away if they do get sick, but they can’t avoid crowds and maskless idiots all the time.

What have I been doing?

Since I last wrote about my pandemic teacher life in Korea, I am still doing intermittent fasting (it sucks less, but I’ve only lost like 3 kilos), all my plants died, my D&D game is still going, but my players jumped into the Abyss for no reason, I managed only one single outing during the hot weather (it was NOT a fancy hotel, but it did result in adorable birbs), and I managed a few Ireland posts before all my steam diffused into the broader steamy air of the oppressively hot Korean summer and my world shrank to one highly airconditioned bed and a Netflix hookup.

I’ve also been reading books about trauma recovery and Vladimir Putin, which may seem like an odd combination until you look at the politics of it all. I thought really strongly about doing a book review of any one of the books by Massha Gessen that I’ve read, but I just don’t know if I have the soul within me to recap her already devastating recounting of the transition of Russia from USSR to almost democracy to Putin autocracy. Read them, though, or do the audiobook thing.

And if you’re interested in the work I’ve been doing on trauma, you can check out these books:

I’ve had no good days. There have been ok days, bad days, and HORRIBLE days. Horrible days involve involuntary non-stop crying, panic/anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and total isolation. Bad days, I can get through the bare minimum of “eat/hydrate/teach” and then have to sink into dissociative distractions like video games, binge watching Netflix, or reading pop-YA fiction to keep it from becoming a horrible day. Ok days I might actually experience fleeting moments of “that’s nice” before the ennui sets back in. And from what I understand, this is pretty much the new normal for almost everybody I know.

I’ve been writing long Facebook treatises on loneliness, social isolation, the dangers of unverified memes and bandwagon political movements. They go into the void and are never heard from again. There is only a wall of depression, fear, fatigue and “other responsibilities” separating us all from our loved ones near and far. I have never felt so alone in the 6+ years I’ve lived abroad as I do this year, and everyone else posting into the void says they feel lonelier than ever, too, trapped behind social distancing and quarantine measures.

Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Kaine.

The point I’m making here (badly) is that I logged into my own website for the first time in almost two months today and realized that I felt like a complete SLUG for not having written more during this unprecedented period of free time. After all, I can’t GO anywhere or DO anything. I’m basically primed to be my artistic best, right?

Wrong.

I hope by now this is not the first article you have read about why we can’t (and shouldn’t) be holding ourselves to the same standards of productivity we do when we are stable and healthy, but we can’t. I bought a huge box of art and craft supplies over the summer and it’s still sitting there, only having been opened long enough to check the contents matched the order. I DID get my e-reader after several months of trying (why Korea, why) and I have been reading a LOT, not only the above books, but a tidal wave of bubble gum fantasy and sci-fi to aid in my voracious search for dissociation aids. After all, if I don’t have to think about the terrible things, they can’t hurt me, right? right??? (again, no). I have written exactly nothing, created … well, does designing my Animal Crossing island count as an artistic endeavor? And now I found myself with a little extra time after doing my teacher job, and not feeling totally exhausted/overwhelmed, and open my blog to realize the gaping hole in my narrative ability.

Will I write more? Eventually, yes. I am writing today, though not a story of globe trotting. The writing may change to reflect the world I’m living in now, because it’s hard to get excited about travel when it feels like my favorite most wonderful toy that just got yanked away by some mustache twirling cartoon villain. Perhaps avoiding thinking of my past adventures keeps me from being sad about my current and future adventures that have been cancelled. Perhaps another day, thinking about my past adventures will be a happy memory again. I expect it will go back and forth a few dozen times before the pandemic is under control enough for my hobby to resume.

Maybe the next time I log in, I’ll be willing to write another post about Ireland or Spain. Who knows. Until then, thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!

It’s ok to not be ok.

The World is Temporarily Closed

Hi!

Welcome to July. We’re officially halfway through 2020 and wow it has been a trip! Like, the kind where your shoe gets stuck in a crack in the pavement and you end up taking a face-plant on the sidewalk… into a pile of dog poo.

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I know that I have readers from every corner of the planet and it never ceases to amaze me. I don’t think there are too many corners of the planet who are feeling unaffected by Covid-19. The last time I wrote, I was still trying to wrap my head around the crazy new world and the terrible drama of online classes. Most people still thought it would “be over soon” and “go back to normal” and I have to say I got a lot of stink-eye for saying it might last up to 2 years.

Now, every country that isn’t America has pretty much buckled in for the long haul. We’ve done a pretty good job of getting it under control, but we all know that any return to “normal” (defined here as pre-covid life) will see an instant uptick in cases. We know masks are required and we have fashionable ones. We know that bars and nightclubs are hotbeds of infection and we either close them, limit them, track everyone who goes or all three. Everyone (again, except the US) is talking about how to live life amid the restrictions of social distancing, and while it won’t be easy, it’s doable.

If you are not in America you are very lucky, but may also be unaware of just how insane it is there. The growing case numbers, the filling ICUs, the absurd hospital bills, the stunning array of symptoms and worst of all – the huge number of inconsiderate idiots who still think it’s a) just like the flu, b) a hoax, c) only going to kill people they don’t like, so that’s ok.

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On top of the horrific handling of Covid19, there’s also still an unacceptable level of state sponsored violence. As an American expat, I’m in the unenviable position of being personally safe (thank you South Korea) while worrying about almost every person that I love and watching my entire country change into a tire fire like that moment in an optical illusion when it changes from a duck to a horse, but instead it’s changing from a first world democracy into a failed totalitarian state. It’s stressful.

I have had a LOT of emotions this year so far. On a personal level, I decided to start my reading list for dealing with trauma (PTSD/CPTSD) which is a necessary step in my healing process, but it is painful af. My future went from having a reasonable plan for my financial stability and mental well-being to being … ok, I have to admit, I’m still financially stable as long as this University keeps us foreign teachers, but there’s a pile of stuff that makes long term teaching options almost impossible without being able to pursue my PhD or, you know, move countries. I am still worried that I may end up back in a country where healthcare = bankruptcy without any real retirement plan but that’s like 20 years in the future and who knows what the world will look like then, really?

Eventually, I figured out how to cobble together lesson plans that would work in my university’s limited online platform and cried to myself every time I read an article about innovative online teaching from universities that gave the professors more freedom in how to operate. I do actually understand why the Korean universities are being restrictive. There’s some politics and some history of corruption and no one wants Covid-19 to turn into the moment universities return to that corruption, so we all have to dot our i’s and cross our t’s or… however that works in Hangul (우리의 점을 찍고 우리의 점을 넘어?)

The spring was fraught with pits of despair and peaks of anxiety. I wanted to photograph beautiful spring flowers and maybe go to the beach or write in this blog, but no. My brain was on fire and all my executive function was absorbed in the herculean tasks of teaching my classes, brushing my teeth, washing my hair, doing laundry, and feeding myself something other than ice cream and red bean buns. Thankfully, Animal Crossing doesn’t require any executive brain functionality.

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What Did I Actually Do?

Once I got a grip on the online class format, and the basics of catching critters for Blathers, I did experience some restlessness. Lucky for me, Korea calmed way down by April and it was basically safe to go out (as long as you wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, and avoid crowds).

I went to a dog cafe in Busan, hoping that some fluffy puppers would cheer me up, but the ajuma “running” the dog room wouldn’t leave anyone alone and kept winding the dogs up to bark and do tricks and pose for photos. The doggos were pretty, but the acoustics were not good for borking and we had to leave well before our time was up.

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I also made it out to the Belated Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival at Samgwangsa, which I do enjoy. It was definitely the least crowded I’ve ever seen it, even though we were there on a Saturday night. Everyone was masked and trying to stay distant. In addition, it seemed the lanterns had been raised up quite a bit to be well out of reach and provide more air circulation in the covered areas.

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My uni also decorated for the holiday even though we couldn’t have any festivals. Westerners who were sad about Easter being “cancelled” because of Covid have a slight idea what Asia felt like loosing both the Lunar New Year celebrations and Buddha’s Birthday to it.

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In the absence of the ubiquitous spring festivals celebrating cherry blossoms, lanterns, and the general end of cold weather, I was able to participate in a couple virtual movements.K-pop fans brought a lot of attention to the BLM movement and Koreans got curious. There was a small but vibrant movement to join in the global protests and I was able to give my students some Korean language info as well as participate in the Instagram rally.

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For the first time ever, Seoul Pride was cancelled not because of angry, violent churchy types but because all large public gatherings were called off. There was a big scare surrounding Covid19 spreading in Seoul in particular at some gay clubs. There are no anti-discrimination laws here (yet) so contact tracing Covid19 leading to public outing (loss of family and job probably forever) was a huge issue. Although the government is looking at anti-discrimination legislation for the first time in 14 years now, they are still terrified of the loud minority of hate-mongers who are just convinced ANY laws against ANY kind of discrimination will lead to Korea turning 100% gay. The “good” news is that at least they made very solid efforts to protect people from being outed when coming in for Covid testing and provided a Bush-era AIDS testing policy of not asking where they thought they might be exposed. Anyway, the LGBTQIA organizers made a virtual Pride parade where everyone could create an avatar and “march” online. Cute.

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I shared my partial art project in my last check in, and sometime this spring I finished it. I’m very pleased with how that came out. It is made entirely of paper and glue. Tiny, tiny bits of paper glued in layers to create “scales” and patterns. There’s not a lot of wrapping paper here, which is what I’d really like to use for this style, so I use origami paper instead which severely limits the size, color, and pattern available. I would love to start a third piece in this style, but I’m having some creators block. Suggestions welcome.

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I also got the chance to make a cheap DIY pinhole viewer for the solar eclipse. Lucky for me, the afternoon sun comes right into my window so I didn’t even have to go outside for that one. Yes, I just poked pinholes in a sheet of paper in the shape of a heart.

What About The Summer?

For a while, I held out some false hope that I might be able to do some travel this summer, maybe go to Alaska (it’s America, they can’t actually ban me) to see some glaciers and forests. Maybe get my sister to bring the kids up (family reunion!). It seemed like it might just be doable. In May, people were sort of kind of like, let’s try to be sane. But that pipe dream fell apart as we realized that Alaska was requiring 2 week quarantines even for visitors from other states.

I still tried to tell myself it might be worth it to go there or someplace like New Zealand even if I had to stay in my hotel for the first two weeks because at least I’d get to do something and not be trapped in the sweltering humid heat of Korean summer, but alas. First my uni sent out letters advising faculty not to leave Korea except for emergency reasons. Then, the Immigration office sent out letters saying that multiple re-entry was cancelled, and anyone wanting to leave and re-enter Korea would have to apply for special permission AND get a health check from a designated health center within 48 hours of returning, and if it wasn’t good enough, might be denied re-entry upon arrival.

So, here I am. I’ll be spending my summer in Korea. All of it. No travel for the traveler.

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I’m still weaving in and out of a sort of ennui based depression, but it is much better than it was in March/April/May which was punctuated by random bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, catastrophizing anxiety, and ice cream for dinner.

I’ve started an intermittent fasting plan (16:8) in an attempt to NOT stress eat anymore. I think everyone practicing social distancing is struggling with diet and exercise in conjunction with a huge lifestyle change (not going out) and a huge dose of STRESS HORMONES. I myself gained about 4 kilos since my check up last December and would like to get rid of that before it gets any worse.

I am trying to grow plants, which I never do because I often leave my apartment for weeks at a time. I named the first two plants too soon. My mint plant had a near death experience after coming home with me, but pulled through and was rugged but making it. My balsam plant was grown from seed and was being a primadonna about sun/heat/water ratios for a while. I named them Brutus and Pixie: the rugged war scarred elder and the young naive cutie pie. It seemed right at the time. I think I may have killed Brutus for good. He caught something that turned all his leaves black. I washed and treated the roots, disinfected the pot and replanted with new dirt, but it’s not looking good. Pixie is flourishing and the little pink cup sprouted a single tiny lavender seed which is giving a very commendable if miniature effort.

I’m running a D&D campaign, which is astonishing. I was an avid gamer (tabletop and LARP, not console/PC) for 20-25 years of my life, but I haven’t played anything since 2014, and I haven’t played D&D since maybe high school and I have NEVER played with the new 5e rules so I’m really hoping I don’t accidentally kill the whole party with the first boss fight. It is good to have some real human socialization, though. Since our little town is pretty much Covid-free, we are meeting in person to have game sessions. Wild.

I might check myself into a fancy hotel on the beach for a couple days, just to feel like I’m on vacation. I hear the water parks are almost empty, too. I can’t do much in Korea due to the unbelievable heat which tries to melt my skin, cook my brain, and turn my joints into overfull sausages all at once. The beaches here are usually packed solid every summer (I have never even wanted to go) and now require reservations to enter the beach (no one is really sure how that’s going to go since there aren’t fences or gates…) in an attempt to keep the social distancing alive. I still don’t want to sit on the beach, but I think I could get behind a rooftop pool with an ocean view.

I’m going to attempt to resume writing. I still have a LOT of material from my travels in 2019 since I’ve done literally nothing with my Jordan/Egypt trips, or my Spain trip, and am less than halfway through the Ireland trip stories. Plus, I still have like 2 volumes of Chinese Fairy Tales that got dropped when my life turned upside-down.

I can’t guarantee a schedule or that I won’t sometimes interject with more of my own personal 2020 life struggles, but I’m hoping that maybe some new travel stories will help me to remember there are still great things out there and help you feel a little less cabin fever while you work on that self-isolation and social distancing.

Thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!

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Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Starting a New Year, 2019

Hello! I have been completely lax on my real time updates since all my EU posts were scheduled in advance giving me a blog break to have my holidays and get back to school without any writing stress. So, here I am, back in Korea. Back in ‘lil ol’ Gyeongju, where the food choices are limited and the air quality is stunningly bad. Can you tell I’m excited?


March is the beginning of my year in Korea. Although the calendar flips January 1st, and the Lunar New Year is often in February, the school year starts on March 1. I started my life in Korea in late February 2016, and inevitably I feel like the first week of the school year is the real Week 1 of my year. So while everyone else does their retrospectives and new year plans in Dec/Jan, for me it’s Feb/Mar. Welcome to Week 1, 2019.

Retrospective:

March 2018: I moved from Busan to Gyeongju, rented an apartment in Korean, and started my shiny new job.

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April 2018: Sadly short cherry blossom season followed by a metric ton of other flowers. I got into Macro photography for the first time, and went a little crazy with the flower photos.

May 2018: I went to Japan to visit my friend in Nagoya over the long weekend. I got to visit sacred forests, beautiful gardens, historical sites, plus local shopping and a ton of fun local foods.

June 2018: This was a little slow as the weather was getting hot. I visited a museum here in Gyeongju as well as a couple local archaeological sites, and I cut a couple feet off my hair! Big change.

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July-August 2018: the EU summer trip which I cannot possibly link to all of the posts for. France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, & Russia!

September 2018: I was pretty glum last fall. The heat of my EU vacation drained me physically, and one of the classes I was teaching that semester drained me emotionally. All my Korea friends that hadn’t left in February, left that summer. I felt alone and stressed out pretty much all the time. Yeah, bummer.

I realize, looking back, that I may have been horribly sad last fall because I didn’t DO anything besides work. I try to track my fun activities through photos and there is actually nothing in the entire month of September and only a handful of smaller activities in October, November and December. Dear future self, don’t do that again!

October 2018: I got into art. I started going to watercolor classes, and made it to a real art store in town to explore more with acrylics and mixed media. I did a bunch of planning for the winter vacation as well.

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November 2018: This was a wild trip to the local bird zoo. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but I went with an out of town guest and had a blast with the birds. I also finished my first major piece of art in like 4+ years, so that felt good.

December 2018: Wrapping up the semester, learning how to file grades in Korean, and generally feeling the wintertime blues. I did make it out to one beautiful light show with friends in Daegu, but sadly caught a terrible cold for my birthday & Christmas.

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Jan-Feb 2019: winter vacation! posts will be added as I’m able to get them all written and edited. Taiwan, Jordan, Egypt, & Malaysia!

Going Forward:

The good news is, I feel a lot better coming out of this holiday. The weather was mostly nice where I was, and even though Malaysia was hot af, I wasn’t trying to do a lot outside everyday. Plus, I got to spend 3 weeks with a good friend! The weather in Gyeongju is (so far) much nicer than it was this time last year, and I feel like I know what I’m doing at my job. I know it will still be a challenge to maintain my positivity here (Gyeongju is just too small for me) but at least I’m starting out in a good place.

I will be trying to get to better cherry blossom events than last year, but it is extremely weather dependent. Last year the long cold winter and massive rains gave us a whopping 3 days of beautiful trees. This year the early spring weather is much nicer, so I’m holding out a little hope.

Aside from the local cherry blossom festivals, I’m limiting my Korean outings this spring because I’m finally going to get my mom to do some international travel with me this summer! I need to save up a bit, though, since she’s even less into cheap-and-uncomfortable travel options than I am.

Meanwhile, I’m starting my second year at Korean University Professor life. I get to teach the same classes as this time last year, which is actually quite a treat since I have a lot of material prepared and a strong idea of how to do everything. It takes much less brain space to do, and ultimately should result in a better class experience overall since I can avoid the first-timer mistakes and add in all the things I learned to improve lessons.

This frees up some of my down time to work on my summer plan with my mom, and to finally get into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to do my PhD. Just as with the job hunt for EPIK and the University job, I’m sure I’ll be writing about this PhD process in a hopefully funny and informative stress rant blog.

am a hopeless academic who would be happy to spend my life in continuous study, but in this case the PhD is not merely for the glorious satisfaction of my own inner Hermione Granger, but a good step in my career. The next tier of high quality and stable university jobs do require this level of education. There’s a lot to love about my current job, but looking forward it would be nice to have a place with English Majors (students who are invested in English instead of merely required to do it) and to know I have some kind of job security past the age of 50 (tenure or something similar). Plus… I’ll be able to refer to myself as “the Doctor” with total accuracy.

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Despite the additional project, I am going to try to keep up with the blog because it’s a fun hobby / therapy activity. I’m coming up on 5 years this May, so no reason to stop now!

What you have to look forward to?

In March, April and May, I will be posting more stories from the EU summer trip. Believe it or not, I’m still not done telling all those wonderful adventures.

I will be Instagramming the local spring flowers as often as I can. Those will show up on the ‘gram, and also be mirrored on Facebook and Twitter so you can see them on your favorite platform.

Finally, I will be working to prepare the stories from this winter, which should start to come out some time in May or June.


Thanks for reading along. This blog has shifted and evolved in style and topic over the years as it fits into my life and I grow and change around it. It’s nice to imagine that there are people I have never met who nonetheless feel a connection because of this magical series of tubes we call the internet. ❤

Winter Vacation 2019

Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start my new year off with a lovely holiday adventure. Thanks once more to my fancy Korean University Job™, I get a nice long break from the students lasting from about Christmas until March 1st. While I did have some fiddly bits of professorial paperwork that keep me at my desk for part of that time, there’s no unending deskwarming like I was subjected to at that EPIK job.  I’ve scrimped and saved on rent, food and local expat parties in order to treat myself to another 6 weeks on the road!


Jan 10- 19: Taiwan – I won’t get to see the Chinese New Year here, but I’m hoping to see some beautiful temples, museums, mountains, street food, and above all, the winter migration home of the Purple Crow Butterflies!!!! (pictured below) I’ll be in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I’m brushing up on my Mandarin in DuoLingo!

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Jan 20-28: Jordan – I’m meeting up with a friend who teaches in Japan to tour my old Middle East stomping grounds again. Last time I went, I didn’t get to see everything in Petra, and almost nothing else at all. This time, we’re spending a full three days in Petra to see everything, plus a day and night at a Dead Sea resort to take in the mud, and a couple days of wandering around Amman (below) to see the ruins and the markets.

Jan 29 – Feb 11: Egypt – In a complete turn around from my normal travel patterns, my friend and I booked a 13 day almost all-inclusive tour (a few meals are not covered). I actually found one that is in line with my desired budget and it will be a relief not to have to think about transport or scheduling while I’m there. I’m brushing up on my Arabic, too, but Egyptian Arabic is nothing like what I learned, so having a guide around will come in handy. We’re supposed to get to see Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm el-Sheik. We’ll even be taking a 5-star Nile River cruise for a few of those days. Considering how limited my time was last time I was in Egypt, I’m really excited!!!

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Feb 12-22: Malaysia – specifically, Penang. I’ve booked an Airbnb in one place for the whole time. I was only there one day last time I passed through but it seemed like the kind of town I’d enjoy for longer. I’m staying in Georgetown where I can wander around to see the street art, shopping streets, and amazing food, but I may rent a scooter and head off on a mini road trip around the small island. Plus, my host says that the Lunar New year celebrations last 2 weeks or more, so even though the official day is Feb 5, there should still be lots of decorations and events while I’m there.

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While I won’t be on the blog during my vacation time, I’ve written a lot more posts about last summer and set them up to auto-publish during January, February and March by which time I hope to have some new stories from the winter adventure for you. If you want to get a real-time experience of my travels, you’ll need to hop over to the Instagram or the Facebook page where I will do my best to post something cool every day. Thanks for following ❤