Expat life: When “Home” Is a Holiday

Settling into school life and hoping for the summer to end as quickly as possible. I’m enjoying the new group of students and happy to see some of my best kids from the spring back in my class for part 2. I’m also working up the steam to start my next major research project which will hopefully be the key to the next big chapter of my story. Until then, I’ll continue on with the story of my July in America. As promised, this one’s all marshmallow.


Originally I was going to try and squeeze all my US stories into a single post, but I thought people might get “wall of text” fatigue. It’s true that the “worst things” post was a bit longer, but this one has better pictures ;P

The Best

Despite the months of stressful bureaucracy and anxiety inducing news stories, once I actually arrived in Seattle I had a pleasantly surprisingly nice time. I managed to avoid all the Nazi rallies, mass shootings, bad weather, or other catastrophes. I stayed with my friends who I traveled in Europe with last summer, and who were kind enough to also lend me a spare car. In an all too brief 16 days, I was able to reconnect with some of the best people in my life. Words cannot express how grateful I am.

In regards to headline news problems, I think in large part, I was just lucky (with a small dose of white privilege). It turns out that I just happened to miss the Nazi rallies and mass shootings which happened either right before I arrived or right after I left… it’s like having good weather or something, which I also had because thankfully the west coast was not on fire this year… tho it appears the southern hemisphere is instead?

My last visit to Seattle was only 9 days. I was sick from root canal and kikuchi, and working on emptying my storage unit in a way that would make Marie Kondo proud. I was not in a good space physically or mentally. Despite these hurdles, 2017 helped me to realize I didn’t need to be afraid of returning to Seattle, that the people who hurt me there couldn’t reach me anymore.

This trip (2019), I only had two real “errands” and so was able to take more time to really devote to spending with friends. Sometimes I forget just how important that really is. I live my life at the end of a very long line that ties me to Seattle and gives me stability. I was starting to feel my anchor line fray and now it’s repaired with all the love. I wasn’t lost or breaking, but perhaps dragging a bit. Now I feel stronger and more buoyant, ready to face another year or two of expat challenges out here at the end of my kite string.

Moments and Memories

I got to be in the US for July 4th for the first time in 5 years. I had a beautiful brunch cooked by friends, visited a local backyard party in the afternoon, got to see some friends. The fireworks show I went to was put on by some friends way up in the Snoqualmie mountains and was highly enjoyable. Plus, I got to geek out with people about my ideas and research in a new and exciting way. 

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I got a lovely camping trip near Mt. Baker with some gourmet s’mores and just enough rain to remind me where I was but not enough to ruin the night. My friend brought her boys along and they spent the evening picking huckleberries and later we taught them how to be “dragons” using their breath to keep the fire going strong. ❤ PNW 

I got to visit my friend’s new farm, see all her beautiful and delicious plants, snuggle with the baby bunnies and chase the baby chickens around with a camera. It never occurred to me to use peacocks as guard animals, but it turns out they’re way better than dogs at watching the skies for raptors like eagles or hawks, which in the PNW are a bigger threat than coyotes or wolves.20190708_175710

I got to sit in a living room in my PJs and trade silly YouTube videos and teaching anecdotes. That may sound mundane but when you’ve spent several years socializing exclusively in bars and cafes it’s a huge relief to just chill with ppl with whom you have mutual caring.

I got to eat all the foods I miss: Mexican, Ethiopian, Seattle-style Pho, large American style chunks of beef. At the mexican restaurant we told the waiter I hadn’t had any good mexican food for years because there were NO MEXICANS where I lived… he was so deeply perplexed, unable to imagine a place Mexicans had not yet migrated to until I explained it was Korea. I also got homemade goodies.20190703_094405.jpg

I got to have a whole weekend of the best sunny sailing days and bbq nights in my memory. A couple years back, some very good friends of mine (really amazing people, too) finally fulfilled their dream of selling their house and moving on to a boat. I didn’t realize it, but apparently it had been over a year since they took their home out for a sail before my visit, and as he says it, unless  you go sailing, it’s really just a very small and inconvenient house.

The weather was amazing, calm and sunny (ok, maybe not as windy as we’d like for a sail, but excellent for relaxing). We puttered around the Puget Sound and watched the other boats and abundant wildlife like harbor seals, porpoises and even a couple humpback whales. In the evening back at the dock, we grilled up steaks and burgers with fresh summer corn and talked and laughed well into the darkening hours. I had two days with two different groups because so many people wanted to come along we couldn’t fit them all one one sail. I got to meet some kids, and I got to introduce some of my favorite ppl to each other for the first time. The whole weekend felt like one amazing gift.20190713_143906.jpg

Finally, I got to karaoke it up with my fav singers and watch friends on the outs make up. Way long ago, we had a standing Tuesday night Karaoke event which has since fallen by the wayside except when I come to town. My flight left Seattle on Wednesday afternoon, so that last Tuesday I was in town, we brought back the tradition. Not everyone could come, so we had an earlier event the week before which was much smaller, but allowed 2 ppl I love to talk for the first time since a messy online fight and to make up!66668387_10219151571557527_1426599298904096768_n (1)

At a karaoke night we sing our fav songs from back in the day, and do silly duets, and generally have a great time. Even when it’s not as dramatic as a friendship restored, I love watching ppl who haven’t seen each other in months or years come together again and catch up because they’re both coming to see me. Most of all, I love that our last song is a group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the “choir” song in general, but some time in the last 5 years it has become the “farewell Kaine song” and it feels like nothing so much as an arcane Bacchanalian ritual as ALL my friends in the bar get up on a tiny stage and circle around me to sing this 6 minute absurdist mini-operatic aria to/with me. It’s actually a palpable feeling of love and support I find stunning. 

I know that none of the people I visited with live that way all the time any more than I do. I felt a little like the Doctor whirling into town for a wild adventure, and at the same time I felt like I was living in one of those quintessential “last summer before everyone goes to college” Hollywood movies where the days are an endless succession of ever more wonderful and heartwarming experiences. We’ve all returned to our daily grind lives, but for two beautiful weeks it was really a golden summer.20190714_203512_2

In Dixie Land

From Seattle, I went on to Memphis to visit with family. To be honest that was much less a “one last summer” movie and much more a “home for the holidays” movie but in July instead of December. That might sound cute, but take a minute to actually think about those movies… Ironically, I had actually suggested we do a Christmas in July event because I miss the heck out of my traditional American holiday foods, but in the truest spirit of “home for the holiday” movie tropes, it was planned for and never executed.

Comedic family drama aside, I did have plenty of good experiences:

My sister and I FINALLY got the tattoo I designed for us when her daughter was born (in 2011). We wanted to get it at the same time rather than doing it in separate cities, and it’s taken all this time for us to be in the same place with the time, the money, and the health (apparently you can’t get a tattoo while nursing) to finally get it done! And with all that, her tattoo artist is also her daughter’s uncle (there’s some by-marriage of her father’s sibling in there somewhere, I’m honestly not quite sure how he’s her uncle and I’m her aunt, but we are not related at all).

I gave the niblings all their accumulated gifts and my niece was very gracious about all of them, but my nephew who is a bit younger and still lacking in social graces was unimpressed by all but the car shaped pencil case. I mean, he always said thank you, but there was a clear difference in his level of enthusiasm once we got to the car shaped gift.

I got to dye my niece’s hair! Super exciting bonding experience there, as you know I love the crazy color in my hair. She wanted purple, and because she’s still a bit young, her mom and I decided on an ombre so that we wouldn’t be putting any of the chemicals near her face. She was a real trouper about sitting still (although playing the new She-Ra on my tablet probably helped), and all the showers she had to have, but in the end she was very happy with it. I later heard her teaching her brother how to be Bo to her She-Ra… wait till they find out who She-Ra’s real brother is…

20190721_145646.jpgI also had a chance to catch up with the girl that saved me from my own misguided desire to be “preppy” in high-school. She could not have been more grunge/alternative if she’d walked out of a Nirvana album. We were thrust together as locker partners by happenstance and eventually I got some JNKOs and flannel and we became great friends. We lost touch after the birth of her first kid, but found each other on Facebook last year and she took the opportunity to drive me all over backwoods Mississippi where I got to enjoy the woods, wash up in a ground pump (icy cold fresh water!), eat at a diner that was stuck in 1956 (prices too, I think) and learn all about what she’s been up to in the decades we were out of touch.

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*Internet life disclaimer: yeah, this post is dedicated to all the nice and good experiences, but that doesn’t mean it’s always sunshine and roses. Never compare your real life to someone’s online life… even your own.


Over the next few months I am going to be working on posting all about my trip to both Irelands. Given that I’m going to also be working on teaching and researching, I’m not sure how much time I’ll really have for writing. To keep you entertained, however, I plan to be releasing a series of Chinese folk tales I translated several years ago. I once intended to make them into bilingual children’s book with short language lessons, but it’s been close to a decade and I don’t think it’s happening, so you might as well enjoy the fruit of my efforts in the form of traditional Chinese stories in easy to read English.

North American Summer

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


A Little Bit Political

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Why Go Back At All?

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

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

Anxiety

I was so terrified of going back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Actual Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being There for Milestones

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

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

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

Wrap Up

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

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


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

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